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Over the Covered Bridge and Through the Woods to Quechee, Vermont

Known foremost for brilliant fall foliage, Vermont’s small towns have plenty more stimuli to offer at any time of year. And Quechee has a silo full. Red covered bridges lead you over cascading streams. Herds of sheep and cattle pose on grassy hillsides as if folk artist Warren Kimble waited below with a paintbrush and easel. It’s almost too picture perfect to be real. Look a little deeper though, and evidence of tenacious local pride emanates from the windows of craft shops, restaurants, country inns, and farms.

The skilled Vermonters working in these settings aim to please everyone, raising the bar on quality and keeping prices low. Even the cows seem happy.

With $500 in hand, I started my quest for the quintessential Vermont experience at the newly opened Farmers Diner, the main reason I decided to come to Quechee.

A taste of Vermont in Quechee

A member of the Vermont Fresh Network, this anti-greasy spoon originally built in 1946 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, was later transplanted to Quechee Gorge Village and reinvented by now-owner Tod Murphy. In the September/October issue of Yankee Magazine, author Bill McKibben asks whether the Farmers Diner could revolutionize how America eats. I think it could. While it doesn’t stray too far from its classic diner roots, serving staples like burgers, meatloaf, and even soda pop, all the ingredients are fresh, local, and natural. Playful but revealing sayings are peppered throughout the restaurant such as “I prefer butter to margarine because I trust cows more than chemists.”

My breakfast started out with a cup of Vermont Liberty Tea Company‘s Organic Breakfast Blend, then quickly led to a dish of organic yogurt from Butterworks Farm and a bowl of fresh strawberries on the side. For the main course, I chose the Vermonter, two eggs and Vermont Smoke & Cure maple sausage, with a few triangles of toasted LaPanciata organic wheat bread and a glass of Champlain Orchards apple cider. The bill for all this food? Just $15.95. I left stuffed and could have been satisfied with just the egg plate for $6.95.

After eating, I poked around Quechee Gorge Village’s many Vermont-product shops, such as Danforth Pewter and Vermont Country Iron. The Country Store and Mercantile was stocked with what I call pantry filler—jams, condiments, pancake mixes and the like—and gifty doo-dads from soaps to socks. At the Cabot Store, I sampled at least 12 flavors of cheese, and then picked up some spring water and maple berry granola for $7, in case I got hungry after hiking up the road at Quechee Gorge.

Known as “Vermont’s Grand Canyon,” the mile-long, 165-foot-deep Quechee Gorge attracts casual hikers to view the drop or walk on the rocks among the rapids below. The trails continue through the State Park woods to Dewey’s Mill Pond, where I stopped to photograph clusters of water lilies and beds of cattails.

In need of some relaxation, I headed to the heart of town to check into my inn, passing through the Quechee Covered Bridge on the way. My room at The Parker House Inn & Restaurant, a historical Victorian home, was small but well appointed in a French country style with fresh red and yellow linens and rooster lamps. Friendly hosts Adam and Alexandra LaNoue-Adler offer each guest a beverage upon arrival and a hefty cooked breakfast in the morning. During the high season, my room cost $190.75, including tax, per night for two.

Not wanting to get back in the car, I dined on the Parker House’s outdoor balcony overlooking the Ottauquechee River. The food was a bit upscale, but features nightly farmers’ market specials such as a baby field green salad with seasonal fresh herbs, dried bing cherries, and a balsamic-beet vinaigrette. For my entree, I opted for the chef’s summer linguini, with local cherry tomatoes, fresh garlic and basil, and Maine Mahogany clams. My meal total before wine came to $29.

The Parker House’s superb location lends itself to quiet strolls, and there are a few gems within walking distance. Right next door, the Simon Pearce flagship store and restaurant sells fine home accents, mainly hand-blown glassware and pottery. If you don’t have discretionary cash or a registry to get others to chip in, stop by anyway to see the craftsmen painting pottery or making glassware. In just 15 minutes, two men will transform a glowing, molten glob into a perfect wine glass.

A few doors down, the family-run Downer’s Mill Deli & Cafe sells creative lunch items in the kind of old wooden building you’d expect to find in Vermont. Since it’s next to the post office, I ordered the Postmaster Tinkham sandwich stuffed with turkey, cheddar, apples, and honey Dijon for $5.95. On nice days, I recommend eating your sandwich on park benches along the river.

A few nearby towns

Though Quechee can be a destination in itself, I can’t help but mention some of the interesting things to do within a few short miles. The town of Norwich, just across the border from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, is a draw for those who are enticed by food-related activities.

Any baker, or lover of baked goods, must make a pilgrimage to The Baker’s Store at King Arthur Flour. Dating back to 1790, King Arthur is the oldest flour company in America, and in my opinion as a prolific baker, it’s the best. Unlike other mainstream flours, you won’t find any chemical additives, and the results are consistently great. Though you can buy basic “never bleached, never bromated” King Arthur flour on grocery store aisles across the country, the Baker Store sells hard-to-find varieties like spelt, pastry, and gluten-free, alongside shelves of recipe books and cookware. Also, for those wanting to perfect their foccacias, baguettes, or petit fours, the Baking Education Center offers classes by master bakers starting at around $45. For the more casual enthusiast, there’s a small cafe and bakery on the premises.

Nearby, the Norwich Farmers Market, open Saturdays from May through October, is the queen mother of farmers’ markets, with stalls upon stalls of local produce, grass-fed meats, cheeses, prepared foods, and garden plants. If you ever wanted to discuss the difference between a husk cherry, tomatillo, and a tomato, this Prius-driving set will keep you engaged for hours. On some days, there are cooking demonstrations and live music, too.

Going in the other direction past Quechee, be sure to jump off Route 4 for a minute to drive over the Taftsville Covered Bridge built in 1836. Back on the main drag, head to Woodstock, an idyllic Vermont town settled in 1768. Before exploring the village gift shops and restaurants, spend a few hours at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. Here, you’ll find a working farm and hiking trails through protected land, as well as receive a history lesson on the town of Woodstock and these three famous Vermont families.

The Billings Farm & Museum recounts Vermont’s rural heritage and the model of land stewardship devised by Frederick Billings, a lawyer and financier who gave his heart to conservation in his home state. The farm showcases indoor exhibits depicting aspects of Vermont farm life such as making cheese or tapping trees for maple syrup. Outdoors, you can visit the cows in the heifer pasture or peek inside the ice house, 1890 farmhouse, and livestock barns. For a midday snack, the Dairy Bar serves Vermont-made ice cream and Cabot cheese.

From the Billings estate, take a short hike through the base of the summer pasture to the Pogue, a small pond. If you have more time, continue on to South Peak just outside of the park to get a birds-eye view of Woodstock. At 1,250 feet, you’ll have a bit of a climb, but the walk is relatively easy. A discounted combination ticket for the farm and park costs $16.

After a busy day, there’s nothing better than settling in with a glass of wine, and there’s no better place to do it than at Pane e Salute. Like the Farmers Diner, this small Italian osteria and wine bar in Woodstock is a member of the Vermont Fresh Network and heeds the seasons with many local ingredients. However, you can expect to also see a few select items like cheeses and cured meats imported from Italy. For the full effect, go for the four-course, fixed-price menu for $36.50 with everything from antipasti (think prosciutto with fresh cow’s milk mozzarella) to dessert (homemade gelato).

Though fall is a superb time to visit Vermont, don’t limit your options. Just turn over a leaf and you’ll find acres and acres of local culture to experience. For more ideas, read The freshest destinations from farm to table or visit Vermont Vacation, Vermont’s official tourism website.

Because I drove from my hometown of Boston, transportation was virtually free. However, if you need to fly, the most convenient airports are located in Burlington, Vermont; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Boston. Luckily, low-cost airlines like JetBlue and Southwest service these airports.

Cost breakdown

  • Three nights, shared double room: $286.13
  • Food (not including wine or taxes): $94.40
  • Admissions: $16

Total: $396.53

Check back next month, when I’ll tell you how to experience the local side of Seattle for under $500.

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