Seeing Vermont on a self-guided bike trip
BRANDON — We filled up our water bottles and jumped on our bikes, riding past historic gabled houses and inns on the wide boulevards of Brandon. Soon we passed our first cornfield, with 8-foot-high stalks ready to be harvested. To our right were carpeted slopes leading to the ridges of the Green Mountains. One of the best parts about biking in Addison County is that you’re smack dab in a breadbasket of fertile farmland, surrounded on either side by the backbone of the Green or Adirondack mountains.
My friend Jeff Katz and I were at the start of a weekend inn-to-inn bike trip. Biking outfitters have pounced on Vermont. And why not? The state’s terrain is ideally suited to the sport. Lightly traveled backcountry roads are rarely used outside of a handful of dairy farmers who live and work here. Around every bend is another meadow greener than the last, another mountain standing tall in the distance, another quintessential New England village where a white steeple pierces the clouds overhead. This scenery is meant to be seen at a slow pace.
We chose to go with Country Inns Along the Trail, whose owner, Seth Hopkins, is a Middlebury College graduate and owner of the Churchill House Inn in Brandon. Hopkins has linked 13 inns in this eastern part of the state, about an hour south of Burlington, and designed biking itineraries to ride from one to the next. Each inn serves dinner and breakfast, so all you have to worry about is finding a good spot for lunch along the route.
“The Storm Cafe in Middlebury has great sandwiches and salads,” Hopkins told us the night before as we went over our two-day itinerary. We were sitting in the living room of the Lilac Inn in Brandon, a circa 1909 country manor with overflowing gardens, a popular locale for weddings in the summer and fall months. We spent the night there and were well fed and ready to go after a hearty breakfast.
We pedaled by vegetable stands selling cucumbers, tomatoes, and corn, breathing in the sweet smell of freshly mowed grass. Soon we were biking along the shores of Lake Dunmore, the dark blue waters backed by the jagged peaks of Branbury State Park.
“Ahh, Vermont’s finest souvenir,” Jeff said, taking in that first big whiff of manure. As we headed uphill past the village of Salisbury, we viewed the spine of jagged peaks that form the Adirondack range. On the outskirts of Middlebury we stopped at a lemonade stand.
“That will be 25 cents each,” said the waist-high entrepreneur, barely able to reach the jug of lemonade to pour us a glass. We sucked it down in one gulp, complimenting the 5-year-old on his beverage-making skills.
“Thank you,” he smiled, before saying “another glass will cost you a quarter. Each.”
Once in town, we took Hopkins’s suggestion and dined outdoors overlooking a waterfall and river at the Storm Cafe. Then it was back on the bikes to take a slight detour and ride through the Pulp Mill Bridge, the only double-lane covered bridge still standing in the state, originally built in the early 1800s. We rode by the stately stone facades of the buildings on the Middlebury College campus and then it was back to the country roads, biking past farmers atop their tractors. We rolled past dairy farm after dairy farm, all of them seeming to be perched atop short hills that had my legs wilting by the end of the day. Vermont is certainly not flat.
By midafternoon, we arrived at the Shoreham Inn in Shoreham, proud of our day’s accomplishment — until I spoke with the innkeepers. Molly and Dominic Francis told me they had had a biker at the inn the week before who had spent the entire summer biking across the country. Established as a country inn in 1790, the Shoreham is a favorite spot of bikers. Plop down in one of the Adirondack chairs with a glass of locally made Switchback Ale on tap and you immediately understand the attraction after a day of biking.
Used to having bikers as guests, the inn has a separate shed to leave bikes overnight and pumps ready to fill tires in the morning. They also know how to replenish weary bikers after a long day of riding. Dominic Francis showed off his culinary skills that evening with a salad of ripe tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and avocado, and entrees of stuffed trout and lamb stew. He finished with banoffi pie, caramelized bananas atop a ginger cookie, with whipped cream. No wonder we slept well.
The next morning, Francis cooked us a soufflé-style omelet to get us energized. Less than 15 minutes into our ride down to the shores of Lake Champlain, Jeff told me to stop and quickly found his camera. Up ahead were two farmers leading a long line of cows across the road. We patiently waited, joined by other bikes and cars forced to slow down as the mooing cows ambled along.
A 6-minute ferry ride that traversed the narrowest section of Lake Champlain led to Fort Ticonderoga in New York State. It was here that Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys stormed the British barricades in 1775 and took cannons and other heavy artillery that were necessary to defend Boston in the Revolutionary War.
After that bit of history we took the ferry back across to Vermont and made our way to the small village of Orwell, best known for its one-room bank that graced the pages of The New York Times after it weathered the banking crisis in 2008. It not only survived, but is thriving, according to the son of the current owner, Adam Young, whom we met outside his house, which is still attached to the bank.
“I hope you’re stopping at Buxton’s,” Young said, pointing to the general store up the road. “They keep their cheddar at room temperature, under glass.”
We took his advice and bought a chunk of this cheese, so moist and sharp that we just started to laugh at how tasty it was. This is why you stop and slow down in Vermont, I thought, to meet the locals and find gems like the cheddar on the counter of a country store.
For that you’ll need two wheels instead of four.