The hoped-for Christmas snowstorm had failed to materialize, so we left Bromley Mountain in Southern Vermont for a day of cruising through villages that charm in all seasons. What better way to immerse in holiday nostalgia than the Vermont Country Store in Weston, bursting with toys, games and foods of childhoods from all eras? Or amble around the borders of the solitary village green in Dorset? Or grab a hearty deli sandwich to fuel up for upscale outlet shopping in Manchester?
We headed up Vermont Route 7 for Weston, where three generations of the Orton family have operated the Vermont Country Store for 69 years. While the store is well-known from its ample catalogue, you can get lost for a day among the "remember-whens" and things both whimsical and practical, from strings of old-fashioned bubble lights for the Christmas tree to flannel nightgowns, woolies, entertaining car games before iPads and DVDs and gadgets last seen in great-grandpa's garage.
Food samples scattered across myriad stations in several directions introduced us to multiple varieties of Vermont cheddars, pretzel dipping sticks to plunge into jars of sweet mustards, smackingly rich walnut fudge (and quite a few other fudge concoctions) - and even a coffee honor bar where you grab and go, after leaving $1.50 in a jar. Perhaps the secret of the store's longevity is the owners' ability to also be intuitively modern - as found in warm gloves that can stay on for texting and a Trump Coloring Book, full of outrageous assertions fit for wild coloring (and a rueful reminder of the tortuous run-up to next year's critical presidential election). Southern Vermont may feel remote, but it's here that local son Bernie Sanders' presidential candidacy was the #1 story of 2015.
Southern Vermont is sturdy in every season, its winding roads passing both quaint and gourmet country stores, year-round Christmas shops, challenging ski slopes and mountain hiking trails, local playhouses where famous actors guest-star in "the season" and brook-powered grist mills displaying the fundamental engineering of modern technology. Like these snapshots from the 18th century, Southern Vermont reminds us that timeless is good, but updating where pragmatic for modern tastes is OK too. Across its towns and villages are restaurants recognized (far beyond the immediate area) for their individual interpretations of regional cuisine both daring and comfortable. Along the rolling countryside, wrapped by Green Mountain slopes, low-slung farmhouses connect mismatched wings extended by enclosed breezeways and holding their ground against occasional McMansions. From ski chalets to clapboard Victorians, this region - 90 minutes from Albany and 3-4 hours from Manhattan and Boston - anchors locals and attract fleets of SUVs retreating from Northeast's urban and suburban intensity.
With appreciation for Yankee ingenuity, I was thrilled to find a solo espresso stand in a rural stretch of Hoosick Road between the Vermont border and the New York Thruway. The drive-up window delivered not only a strong, warm latte on a cold rainy morning, but also a locally grown bag of fresh popcorn - which turned out to be the best I've ever had (in a lifetime of popcorn eating). Perhaps that's because it was raised on a family farm - "grown only with soil, sun and rain." You can't go to a website to buy Rockpop Popcorn, but you can email the proprietors at email@example.com (or telephone Refuge on the Rock Farm in Buskirk, New York, at 518.686.9162).
What to visit:
The Dorset Inn, Dorset, Vermont: Well-regarded regionally but also far beyond, the dining room here has spawned talented chefs and features exquisitely prepared regional specialties - a combination of 5-star and cozy quaint. The inn has operated continuously for 219 years, which affords a particular grace, and the tavern is a popular hangout for locals as well as tourists. Across the Green, the country store offers a high end selection of foods and wines, subtly suggesting the class and taste that this area attracts quietly, but no one wants to brag about. After all, here can live or travel well while leaving pretense behind.
Vermont Country Store, Weston, Vermont: Shop the rambling rooms onsite, but also visit online. And the print catalogue is simply fun to peruse - and worth a purchase or download.
Ye Olde Tavern, Manchester, Vermont: Manchester is the hub of the region, featuring upscale outlets, an independent bookstore (where you can spend hours) and shops by regional artisans and craftspeople. Food fits all styles, including yummy delis for casual fare and giant sandwiches (like The Works Bakery Cafe, 13 Riverside Heights St.). We particularly enjoyed Ye Olde Tavern on a wintry night by the fireplace, although all of its dining rooms are lively and welcoming. The delicious regional cuisine - amplified by outstanding seafood and seasonal game dishes and easy hospitality - make this a go-to spot for memorable meals. Make mine the bouillabaisse.