It takes time, determination, and a certain frame of mind to give a town a distinctive personality. Vermont has had plenty of the first two; as for the third, most folks would agree that among the state’s 251 towns and cities, there must be, well, 251 different frames of mind.
Personality especially abounds in Vermont towns of a certain size — say, roughly between 1,000 and 3,000 people. They’re big enough to have local institutions and traditions and usually a compact little downtown, and they’re small enough that they haven’t attracted any sprawl. Throw in a snug inn or two and a good restaurant, and you’ve got a true Vermont treasure town. Here are four of our favorites.
Montgomery is a town with overlapping personalities. (In fact, it’s really two towns in one. Montgomery Center, where most of the businesses are, is 2 and a half miles southeast of the village known simply as Montgomery.) One of the faces it wears is that of a ski resort gateway, with Jay Peak’s slopes and summer attractions — including a brand-new 18-hole golf course — a 15-minute drive up Route 242.
It’s also Montgomery the covered bridge town, proud of having more of the Vermont icons within its municipal limits than any other town in the state (OK, so you have to count one just over the line in Enosburg, but it was built by the same Montgomery family that put up all the others). For a guide to the bridges, which are constructed with the ingenious crisscross “town lattice” frame, just stop at the town clerk’s office on Main Street in Montgomery Center. Up the street, Trout River Traders stocks an attractive line of Vermont products as well as antiques and local art. Take your seat at its soda fountain for some homemade soup or a big sandwich made on fresh bread from Klinger’s in South Burlington.
As befits a town that knows how to tire you out — in addition to Jay Peak, with its Long Trail access to the summit, the Hazen’s Notch Association maintains 15 miles of hiking trails — Montgomery also knows how to make you comfortable for the night. Montgomery Center boasts the Victorian-style Inn on Trout River, and in Montgomery Village, The Black Lantern Inn offers cozy accommodations in an 1803 stagecoach stop. Both inns feature fine dining.
New England’s third-oldest incorporated city (after Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut) is also one of its smallest, occupying a scant square-mile-plus of territory at the falls of Otter Creek. But Vergennes packs a citylike assortment of shops, eateries, and civic institutions into its bustling “downtown,” just a few blocks long. There’s a domed brick library that would do credit to a community several times as large, and the handsomely restored Vergennes Opera House hosts a full schedule of musical and theatrical performances.
Main Street looks like the kind of place where you’d see Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey walking to work at his savings and loan. But although George would be familiar with institutions such as band concerts on the town green, he’d be amazed that small-town America now has such a food fixation: There are panini on homemade ciabatta bread and delicious Belgian beers at 3 Squares Café; at the Black Sheep, there’s French bistro fare indoors or at sidewalk tables; and for a splurge, there’s Christophe’s on the Green, where côte de boeuf bourguignonne or braised rabbit might grace the menu.
Not all of Vergennes’ attractions are right downtown. At the northeast end, near Route 7, Kennedy Brothers Factory Marketplace occupies a brick maze of buildings that was once a creamery and casein plant and later a woodworking factory. The site now houses almost 40 vendors offering antiques, handmade jewelry, pewterware, pottery, Adirondack cedar furniture, cheese and ice cream, and lots more. Upstairs, there’s a gallery featuring the work of local artist Warren Kimble. Closer to the center of town is the homey and reasonable Emerson Guest House, run by Vergennes Opera House artistic director Bill Carmichael Walsh and his wife, Sue.
On the southwestern outskirts is the Strong House Inn. Along with its manicured grounds and full bar, the inn’s crowning glory is its Adirondack Room (in the Rabbit Ridge annex), with one of those big, twiggy beds — the signature style of the mountains across Lake Champlain — that make you feel like you’re sleeping in a forest. And a couple of miles farther out, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum does a wonderful job of recounting the big lake’s outsized role in American history.
Like the south of Spain, Vermont’s Windham County has its “white villages.” Newfane, Townshend, and Jamaica spool out along Route 30 north and west of Brattleboro, and Newfane is the loveliest of them all.
You’d never guess Newfane is only 11 miles from Brattleboro, which is what passes for bustle in Windham County. The village seems like some Yankee never-neverland, adrift in the Arcadian era when Greek Revival architecture made the homes and public buildings of upcountry New England look like temples in the wilderness. The effect comes across most spectacularly in three structures facing the town green: the 1839 First Congregational Church; the Windham County Court House, built in 1825 and given the full, Doric-columned classical treatment a little more than a quarter-century later; and the Four Columns Inn, built in 1832, behind whose eponymous pillars Bruce and Debbie Pfander run one of Vermont’s most luxurious hostelries.
Newfane’s particular cachet lies with its plethora of antiques shops. The mix includes Jack Winner Antiques, specializing in American, English, and Welsh furniture and equestrian art and accessories; Schommer Antiques & Art, where the emphasis is on late-19th-century furniture and china; and Olde and New England Books, with gems of fiction and nonfiction (travel, gardening, and architecture are strong suits) from both sides of the Atlantic. For shoppers drawn to present-day artisanship, the place to go is The Newfane Country Store, where Marilyn Distelberg’s adjacent shop displays a gorgeous selection of handmade country quilts.
If it’s Thursday, that means it’s Live Jazz Night at Rick’s Tavern, so you can do a 21st- (or at least 20th-) century reality check.
One of Vermont’s prettiest college towns doesn’t even have a college. Norwich borrows its panache from Dartmouth, across the Connecticut River in Hanover, New Hampshire, and counts among its residents more than a few of the Ivy League school’s professors and administrators. That fellow in the old khakis working his way from the mud boots to the hardware to the Napa Zinfandels in Dan & Whit’s wonderful old store? Classics department, no doubt. But Norwich isn’t just a bedroom town. It has a Vermont character all its own, expressed in its expansive town green fronted by lovely Georgian brick homes and a white-steepled church, and in the state’s largest outdoor farmers’ market, held on Saturday mornings from May through October.
You can get a good education in Norwich without crossing the river. King Arthur Flour, which runs what must be the most amply stocked baking-supply shop in New England, offers a wide range of courses in this tastiest of the liberal arts. Even if you don’t have time to enroll (some courses take only a few hours), this is a great place to stock up on staples as well as exotic items such as Heidelberg Rye Sour, nonstick popover pans, and Belgian waffle makers. Expand your knowledge even further — and less calorically — at the Montshire Museum of Science, a bright, modern facility crammed with kid-friendly interactive exhibits including a pedal-powered elevator. There’s also an outdoor science park and trails throughout the 110-acre grounds.
Norwich’s signature vine isn’t ivy, but hops, growing out behind The Norwich Inn, the 1797 stagecoach stop that’s a hospitality landmark in the upper Connecticut River Valley. The inn’s line of Jasper Murdock ales makes splendid use of the homegrown (and imported) hops and is a fine foil to the inn’s pub fare. Up front, a formal dining room is the place to enjoy macadamia- and pecan-encrusted pork loin.
Don’t leave Norwich without a stop at Alléchante bakery and café, where you can stock up on picnic essentials ranging from spring rolls to smoked salmon to Devonshire double cream. The breads and pastries are all baked right here, and chances are good you’ll go no more than five miles before dipping into your provisions.