Vermont’s storied "Northeast Kingdom" was given its name by former Governor and U.S. Senator George D. Aiken in 1949 for its special beauty.
While lots of people think of Vermont in terms of a snow-covered Christmas card – complete with skiing – there’s both quirkiness and tastiness to the area come summer. The Green Mountains and Vermonters’ passion for preserving the environment add to what makes this region on the Canadian border fun to visit.
What to do
Drive around the lakes, marinas, mountains, cabins. Check out offbeat signs, sculptures and natural wonders.
Go on a cruise! Yes, Vermont has cruises around beautiful Lake Memphremagog with Northern Star Lake Cruises. You’re welcomed onboard with a mimosa. So many cruise captains sound like the adults on "Peanuts," but Northern Star’s captain is fun. You’ll see crazy fishing lodges, Prohibition hideaways, Canada.
Swimming pools can be a little sterile. But old-timey natural swimmin’ holes still abound in the NEK! They say some folks skinny dip, but at the one I went to, people were wearing bathing suits. Swimming by the waterfalls is kind of amazing: you feel free.
If I’m going to be indoors on a trip, I like my museums deliciously odd. Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium is at least that. Living flowers share space with dead bug art, Civil War artifacts and the personal Victorian memorabilia of the founder. You’ll walk out peering into stoic New England countenances with a newfound appreciation.
While security in Derby Line, Vermont, has tightened after 9/11, they still quaintly celebrate their border with Canada: the town’s opera house and library straddle the two countries. Check in with the U.S. Border Control agent on the Vermont side; if you’re not local, he knows it. Checking in on Facebook? The library’s free WiFi signal works on their lawn for a cheap Canadian status update. Crossing the border now involves a bit of a drive through Canadian customs, instead of walking across the street.
Where to stay
Stay where people have been staying on the road from Boston to Montreal since the late 1700s: Rabbit Hill Inn. Rooms are both in a main house and also individual, motel-like layout, with amenities such as Jacuzzis and fireplaces. Décor is the feminine Victorian inn, old-fashioned quiet getaway style: no WiFi or TVs in rooms. There’s a pub on site and restaurant... but if you don’t make reservations ahead of time, it’s not happening. Local ingredients are used in the combination served/buffet breakfasts.
Littleton, NH, is actually part of the NEK’s “metro area.” Littleton residents call themselves "The Glad Town." Their outdoor sculptures are pianos with covers that you can lift and play: create your own glad sound.
Thayer’s Inn, right on Main Street, is over 165 years old and surprisingly modestly priced. An upstairs deck allows you to see the whole quaint town, just like movie stars and U.S. presidents have. They've reopened their restaurant after it was closed for years. Grille One Eleven has both casual fare and hearty dinners, with a nod toward local flavors. Guests of the hotel get 10% off their very reasonable prices.
What to eat
The NEK has an amazing bounty of natural eats and drink. Culinary-wise, I noticed a strict expectation for the finest quality of ingredients treated very simply. Nothing – not even that staple of mac and cheese – is greasy or goopy.
St. Johnsbury has a year-round farmers market. I was astounded by the unusual and plentiful veggies that grow way up north. There were cucumber varieties and colors that I'd never seen or heard of, crazy-looking beans, a rainbow of heirloom tomatoes that I was shocked to see so far from Dixie, locally made liqueurs, goat cheese and, of course, maple syrup. Maple syrup is Vermont's pride and joy!
The Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center is another place to gather the special products made in the region. The storefront is rather unassuming. Definitely bring a cooler or ice chest with you! They have fresh artisan meats, something to consider if you're renting a vacation home on the U.S. side. To see vodkas, rums, whiskeys, mustard from the Northeast Kingdom was surprising. Taste wine, cider, vodkas and cheeses at their Tasting Bar for a nominal fee... just sidle up to their counter. You can also tour the Eden Cider aging room downstairs. For a more intense foray into the flavors of the NEK, there's also The Brown Dog Bistro and Butcher Shop on site.
Cattle feed at Vermont's Kingdom Brewery
To taste the flavorful beers of Kingdom Brewery, you much have to experience them at the husband and wife-run farm brewery. Brian and Jenn Cook work a farm, manage Angus cattle, brew beer in the most ecologically sound and natural way possible... so their little tasting room is only open Thursday–Saturday from 3:30-6:30. If you’re able to catch the last cattle feeding of the day, it’s probably just as entertaining as Pamplona’s running of the bulls!
Several of their beers incorporate organic, harvested from their crops and – in some instances – wild-harvested ingredients. Maple, spruce tips, apples, etc., give their beers a real flavor of Vermont. Although you can occasionally get their varieties in local restaurants and the NEK Tasting Center, this is a small producer making small quantities. Best to get your growlers at the tasting room and carefully pack them in the car.
While it may not have the trendy buzz of other cuisines, a classic New England breakfast is hearty, unique and tasty. Littleton's Littleton Diner is award-winning and authentic, serving since 1930. Only 100% pure maple syrup goes in the pitcher. Hash – a New England staple – is great here. Theirs is an onion-y corned beef hash that's shredded, not diced.
Is there anyone who hasn't heard of "Boston" baked beans? They’re popular for breakfast all over New England (as well as in England and Canada!). If all you know is the stuff from cans or picnics, these are quite different. They're not too sweet, with mustard-y tang, slow-cooked with thick molasses.
Just one kind of pancake? Ha! Littleton Diner has three. Buttermilk, buckwheat and whole wheat pancakes are made from flour ground locally at Littleton Grist Mill.