HOLIDAY SHOPPING, UGH. I want it to be strolling around downtown amid twinkling lights and spontaneous caroling, but the reality is usually way more depressing. More than once, I’ve found myself at CVS on Christmas Eve, desperately weighing the gift-worthiness of various overpriced miscellany. That’s because even when I try to do it right (albeit last-minute)— hitting the mall for some hard-core holiday shopping, Christmas list in hand — it’s just a dismal experience. Between the overrun stores, the retail clerks who seem like they burned out on Black Friday, and the parking-lot cocktail of car exhaust and road rage, I leave feeling more like Scrooge than Santa.
But there’s one type of holiday shopping I do enjoy: when I randomly find a thoughtful gift for someone while traveling. That’s why this year I tried to inject some tranquility into my Christmas shopping experience by taking my list on the road to Manchester, Vermont. With the requisite white church steeple and seasonal aroma of smoky firewood in the air, this little mountain town has all the charm and outdoorsy appeal of a weekend escape. Even the sidewalks, made of marble mined from Vermont quarries, remind you that you’re a long way from Route 128. And you can follow them to a surprising bonus: dozens of outlet stores and artisan shops to help you tackle your holiday gift list. (Warning to my friends and family: This article may contain spoilers.)
A day of serious shopping deserves strong coffee and a good breakfast, so I kicked things off at the Spiral Press Cafe (802-362-9944; spiralpresscafevt.com) in the heart of Manchester Center. Tiny up front but surprisingly long in the back, it’s a marvelous mullet of a coffee shop. I turned up the stairs and found an enormous, inviting dining room with warm wood floors and tables, mountain-view windows, and free Wi-Fi to accompany my organic Mocha Joe’s coffee (roasted in Brattleboro) and “ultimate” breakfast panini.
The cafe is attached to the rambling Northshire Bookstore (802-362-2200; northshire.com), housed in a former inn. I love a bookstore I can get lost in, and Northshire’s nooks and crannies didn’t disappoint. As I indulged my literary wanderings, I picked up a Jane Austen coffee mug for my wife — the first gift of the day. Upstairs, their enormous kids’ floor was perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in terms of layout, play areas, and overall selection, including toys from Playmobil, Lego, Calico Critters, and more. A giant wall of paperback picture books helped me bulk up my daughter’s holiday haul.
Next, I headed down Depot Street to the heart of the Manchester Designer Outlets (802-362-3736; manchesterdesigneroutlets.com). Scattered in clusters around Manchester Center, the 40-plus factory stores and outlet outposts range from retailers like Coach, Polo Ralph Lauren, Vineyard Vines, and J.Crew to Eileen Fisher, Michael Kors, Kate Spade, Brooks Brothers, and Le Creuset, among many others.
my first stop was the Loft Outlet (802-366-1910; loft.com), where the cheerful staff helped me pick out a fashionable knit poncho for my mom. Yes, I know, there’s now a Loft Outlet right in Somerville, but this tidy little two-story shop looked inviting, and I knew my mom would be able to return the gift easily if necessary. Plus, when I popped out of the store, I was greeted not by the clamor of I-93 but by the quiet, crisp air and peaks of the Taconic Range. Normally after 15 minutes of mom-shopping I’m ready to call it a day, but the scenic setting helped rejuvenate me — as did my stop at The Works (802-362-5082; worksbakerycafe.com), a coffee-and-bagel shop down the street.
I struck out at the Eddie Bauer Outlet (802-362-0785; eddiebauer.com), but I wasn’t worried — Manchester is bursting with rugged-lifestyle retailers. My dad loves fishing, so I figured I’d gawk at the giant flagship Orvis (802-362-3750; orvis.com), the fly-fishing and outdoor outfitter founded in Manchester by Charles Orvis in 1856. With friendly salespeople and a worn leather couch next to a roaring fire, I was pretty sure these Orvis folks “got me” . . . until I saw the three-figure price tags on the flannel shirts, which sent me darting out the door like a startled squirrel.
Across the pond at the Orvis Outlet (802-366-9134; orvis.com) — no, really, there’s a stocked pond between the stores, where they hold fly-fishing classes — there was no fireplace, but the flannels were only $79. That’s a big discount off full price, to be sure, but still prohibitively expensive on this writer’s wages.
The shopping isn’t just about big brands, however — several boutique shops sell gourmet foods, unique gifts, or locally made items. My favorite was Manchester Woodcraft (802-362-5770; manchesterwoodcraft.com), which is worth ducking into for the smell alone. As soon as you open the door, the sweet, sharp scent of fresh-cut wood hits you in the face like a hand-carved cutting board. Which is exactly what I bought for my culinary cousin in California, along with some wooden cooking utensils. From tables and kitchenware to decorative items and dollhouse furniture, if it can be fashioned from wood, they probably make and sell it here. And while checking out, you can even get a peek at the process in the large workshop just behind the register.
If you need a bit of inspiration when it comes to gift-giving, or you simply want a unique trinket to appease your kooky grandparents, Above All Vermont (802-362-0915; aboveallvermont.com) sells an eclectic mix of kitschy fun and local flavor. Think old-time memorabilia and Vermont-made foods and maple syrup. You can find more gifts for the foodies in your life — whether they like to cook, eat, or both — on Main Street, where Vermont Kitchen Supply (802-362-0111; vermontkitchensupply.com) sells chef-worthy cookware and
Olive & Ives (802-366-1899; oliveandives.com) offers aromatic olive oils, balsamic vinegars, and locally roasted coffees.
WHEN YOU’VE HAD ENOUGH OF SHOPPING, there’s plenty more to do in Manchester — like the 11 miles of trails in the 914-acre Equinox Preserve, which cascades down the side of Mount Equinox toward town. A hike to the summit takes a solid few hours (and might not be possible, depending on snowfall), but I managed to hike the Red Gate Trail and Robin’s Lookout — a roughly one-hour intermediate trek with a nice payoff view of the village below and mountains beyond.
At the Land Rover Experience Driving School (802-362-0687; landroverexperienceequinox.rezgo.com), a professional driver took me on a slow-motion, off-road thrill ride through its 80-acre, purpose-built course. The cost: $25. As we lurched over moguls, plunged through deep puddles, and teetered at the top of what felt like a black-diamond ski slope, I received a surprising amount of driving tips for poor-weather conditions. Better-heeled and more adventurous drivers can take the wheel themselves in private or group lessons ranging from one hour to two full days, with prices starting at $250.
Of course, if the snow is blowing when you visit, you might as well check conditions at the two closest ski resorts. Kid-friendly Bromley Mountain (802-824-5522; bromley.com), about 8 miles away, plans to open Fridays through Sundays after Thanksgiving and then operate full time beginning December 9. Larger Stratton Mountain (802-297-4000; stratton.com), about 17 miles southeast of Manchester, expects to open for the season the day before Thanksgiving.
AFTER YOU SHOP, YOU’LL NEED A PLACE TO FLOP. The Equinox Golf Resort & Spa (802-362-4700; equinoxresort.com) is a luxury hotel at the base of Mount Equinox in picturesque Manchester Village, just over a mile from the outlets. The Equinox, which hosted several presidents in the 1800s and early 1900s, put Manchester on the map as a vacation destination. These days, it spoils guests with a spa and indoor pool with views of the mountains.
If you’re less of a Land Rover high roller and more of a Subaru-and-dog type like myself, try the Kimpton Taconic Hotel (802-362-0147; taconichotel.com), which opened last year just a couple blocks from the Equinox. The quirky charm of this pet-friendly boutique hotel — where I met a happy dog while getting coffee — was the perfect landing spot. A cozy wood-burning fireplace in the restaurant and lobby made my welcome all the warmer, and some rooms boast their own gas fireplace.
And while the abundance of coffee shops dotting Manchester Center makes it possible to power through your trip on caffeine alone, you really ought to eat something. Ponce Bistro (802-768-8095; poncebistro.com) is an inventive BYOB cafe that keeps somewhat irregular hours but makes a comfy stop for a late breakfast, lunch, or early dinner. Order the Spanish meatloaf sandwich if it hasn’t sold out. Otherwise, try the rosadas beans and rice: Simmered in a traditional Puerto Rican sophrito and punctuated with olives with avocado, the dish was easily the best 10 bucks I spent in Vermont.
That’s saying something, because the $10 I dropped on dark chocolate buttercrunch at Mother Myrick’s Confectionery (802-362-1560; mothermyricks.com) was a very close second. At the end of my trip, I stopped in to load up on stomach- and stocking-stuffing homemade candies, from dark-chocolate-covered hazelnut clusters to gift boxes of buttercrunch toffee — which, I regret to say, will never reach their recipients intact. Yum.
Manchester is a fairly simple and scenic drive from Boston, but it’s not the only picturesque shop-and-stay getaway within easy reach. Coastal charmer Freeport, Maine, is also home to dozens of outlets, including Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, North Face, and Patagonia. Accessible by Amtrak from Boston’s North Station, it’s certainly worth a weekend stay — but you could theoretically put the “free” in Freeport by spending a night shopping in L.L. Bean’s wonderful flagship store, which really is open 24 hours a day, all year long. However, if Maine’s 5.5 percent sales tax is a deal-breaker for you, try heading farther north into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where you can shop tax-free or die at the Settlers Green outlet mall in North Conway.
Or, of course, you could always just stay put. I hear the CVS next to Dunkin Donuts has some great new gifts in the seasonal aisle this year.Jon Gorey is a writer in Quincy. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.