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Keys to the Kingdom: Exploring Vermont’s gorgeous northeast corner

Lake Willoughby in Westmore, Vt.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

Our companion, a Bostonian to the core, was impressed. So. Many. Cows! We kept pulling the car over so he could shoot pictures of red barns and white silos, green hillsides and blue skies — and dozens of black-and-white Holsteins. Our advice: Plan to take it slow if you’re road tripping along Vermont’s 51-mile Northeast Kingdom Byway. Bordering Canada, and wedged between the Green Mountains and the Connecticut River, Vermont’s eastern corner is the most rural section of the state. Comprising the counties of Caledonia, Essex, and Orleans, with a total population of about 66,000, it projects a vibe that is more “small town” than artisan-hipster. It’s a colorful quilt of small hamlets, plus a larger town, St. Johnsbury, the region’s commercial center, and exactly one city, Newport. Home to ski resorts Jay Peak, Burke Mountain, and Lyndon Outing Club, the Northeast Kingdom has the dubious distinction of being the coldest place in the state, with an official lowest recorded temperature of minus-50 degrees. Gotta be some hardy stock up here.

Seriously, though: a kingdom? The nickname is often credited to Vermont Governor George Aiken, who used it in a speech in 1949. Whatever its genesis, the glowing descriptor is apt: This is one glorious place. The Northeast Kingdom is dotted with 200-plus lakes and ponds, and home to eight state parks. Outdoor recreation rules, from fishing to fat-tire biking. And if this really were a kingdom, the royal family would surely reside on Lake Willoughby, Vermont’s answer to Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne. Nearly 5 miles long, this fjord-like lake is one of the most dazzling spots in New England. Here’s a curated look at what you’ll encounter if you enter the kingdom.


Key place to stay: Inn at Mountain View Farm

Admittedly, they had us at ”pygmy goats.” This 440-acre farm estate sits atop Darling Hill in East Burke; the goats are part of an on-site animal sanctuary that includes rescue horses as part of the menagerie. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the inn holds 14 guest rooms and suites and offers access to more than 100 miles of biking trails, twice-weekly yoga sessions, and complimentary hot breakfast (featuring vegetables grown on the farm) and afternoon tea. S’mores at the firepit are a nice touch; they also offer a biergarten with Vermont craft brews on weekends. From $180 (includes access to Kingdom Trails); 802-826-9924; www.innmtnview.com


Key place to play: Kingdom Trails

We always say, there’s nothing like a bike ride to make you feel like a 10-year-old again! And you’ll feel like a lucky kid indeed if you’re out on this 100-mile network of single- and doubletrack mountain bike trails; the Kingdom Trails are rated among the top mountain biking networks in the world. (Not into bicycling? All sections of the trails are great for walking and running.) Accessible via daily, monthly, or annual membership, the trails are suitable for all ages and abilities, according to the Kingdom Trail Association. Take a look at their website and get familiar with the culture (“Ride with Gratitude” is a theme) before you ride. Trails traverse private land, so a code of conduct and rules apply (for example, no e-bikes.) One-day membership: $20; ages 8-15, $12; www.kingdomtrails.org

Key places to camp: White Caps Campground and Emerald Lake State Park


Love to camp in your newly-purchased RV? White Caps Campground (RVs from $47 per night; cabins, $75 per night; www.whitecapscampground.com) occupies prime real estate at the southern end of Lake Willoughby in Westmore. No need to BYOB (boat); they offer boat rentals along with a small camp store. They offer tent camping too, but the RV sites (some overlooking the lake) and rustic cabins are the way to go here.

For a more peaceful, camping-in-the-woodlands experience, we like Emerald Lake State Park (www.vtstateparks.com) in East Dorset. Campsites are set on a wooded hillside with walking trails that lead to a 20-acre, green-hued lake. There’s a small swimming area, boat rentals, fishing, and wonderful hiking at nearby Dorset Mountain. Another one to consider: Brighton State Park in Brighton, a beautiful, quiet campground known for great fishing, situated near Island Pond and Spectacle Pond. Camping fees at Vermont state parks are around $30 per night; two-night minimum stays may apply. (Tip: Book early if you want a summer weekend spot.)

Key places to admire the view: Lake Memphremagog and Lake Willoughby

Much of nearly 32-mile-long Lake Memphremagog is located in Magog, Quebec. But the Vermont end of this freshwater lake, in the city of Newport, is a dandy place to celebrate the state’s short but oh-so-sweet summer season. Plan a visit to Prouty Beach, a lakeside picnic, or lunch at one of the restaurants on the shoreline, and watch the boats glide past.

As for Lake Willoughby? “Beyond gorgeous,” as our companion put it. Rent a kayak at White Caps Campground and paddle into the fjord, or hike one of 12 miles of trails within Willoughby State Forest. The peaks of Mounts Pisgah and Hor, rising alongside the lake, are a big draw. A favorite route is Mount Pisgah Trail, 4.1 miles in and out, a moderately challenging trek due to a 1,653-foot elevation gain. Those views of the lake are worth the effort.


Key places to eat: The Parker Pie Company, Salt Bistro, Burke Publick House

You’ll feel like you’ve stumbled upon a real find at the Parker Pie Company (from $14; www.parkerpie.com), a pizza shop in the back of Lake Parker Country Store in West Glover. The combination of great pizza and local beer is unbeatable. You won’t go wrong with the Green Mountain Special pizza, topped with baby spinach, red onion, bacon, apple, fresh garlic, and cheddar cheese, with a drizzle of local maple syrup. Feel like going a tad fancier than pizza and a beer? Salt Bistro (www.facebook.com/VermontCateringCompany/) in St. Johnsbury is known for high-quality, locally-sourced food with an Italian tilt; live music (and maple cream martinis) adds to a fun evening out. We’re always happy to find a good gastropub on our travels; happily, the NEK delivers with Burke Publick House (entrees from $16; www.burkepub.com). The starter side of the menu is irresistible — there’s poutine ($11; hey, Canada is close by) and “man candy,” smoked and fried pork belly with chili sauce and slaw, topped with pickled onions ($11.) Who can say no to that?


The Museum of Everyday Life. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Key stops for a rainy day: Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, Museum of Everyday Life

Bug art! Butterflies! You could easily spend a couple of hours exploring this natural history museum, set in a circa 1889 Victorian building in St. Johnsbury. Home to animal specimens and artifacts galore, the site is also home to the Lyman Spitzer Jr. Planetarium, Vermont’s only public planetarium. Cool features here include an outdoor butterfly house (June-Sept.) and a weather observation station. As for the bug art, the Fairbanks Museum is home to the entire collection of “Bug Art” mosaics created by John Hampson, made of thousands of beetles, moths, and butterflies. Adults, $12; www.fairbanksmuseum.org

Alarm clocks at the Museum of Everyday Life. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

It won’t take long to cover it all, but the Museum of Everyday Life (donations accepted; www.museumofeverydaylife.org) in Glover is worth a look if you’re passing through. Described by its founders as a “detailed, theatrical expression of gratitude and love for the miniscule and unglamorous experience of daily life in all its forms,” the self-service museum (turn off the lights when you leave) celebrates the mundane. The current featured exhibit is devoted to lists in all forms; past shows have explored the mysteries of locks and keys, safety pins, pencils, and “The Toothbrush: From Twig to Bristle.” Because . . . why not?

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com