For the second least-populous state in America, Vermont punches far above its weight. Sandwiched between New Hampshire and New York, east to west, and Massachusetts and Canada, south to north, it is almost ridiculously well-rounded, like the smartest kid in the class who aces all tests and also happens to wear a leather jacket. Everybody wants to be friends with Vermont. Vermont is the definition of cool.
Vermont is where Ben and Jerry's ice cream comes from. Vermont produces more maple syrup than anywhere else in the country. The coffee is very good, or even excellent. Snowboards were perfected here, after Jake Burton founded his company in South Londonderry in 1977. Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book in Vermont. On the social side of things, Vermont was the first American state to abolish slavery in its constitution. The state declared war on Nazi Germany before America officially did. It was one of the first states to give the thumbs up same-sex marriage, in 2009. Bernie Sanders lives in Vermont. It is an independent kind of place.
Then there's the natural splendour: those legendary maple leaves which hit the end of summer and turn a fiery red, yellow, and orange, so that the rolling hills appear to be on fire. Billboards were banned in Vermont in 1968, because they spoil the view.
"Vermont's a place where barns come painted red as a strong man's heart," wrote Robert P. T. Coffin, a Pulitzer-winning poet. "Where stout carts and stout boys in freckles are the highest forms of art."
When I visited Vermont this February, nobody seemed particularly stout, though the barns were indeed a bright blood red. I was on the road and they flashed past the car in quiet valleys and obscenely beautiful vistas of trees still sleeping off the winter.
Vermont is excellent for driving. Scenic Route 100 Byway, for example, stretches 222 kilometres in a zip-zag formation across the Green Mountains, taking in tiny villages along the way. It is also part of the "Skiers Highway," which is why I was there, at least in the beginning.
Think of skiing in America and you will most likely think of Vail, Aspen, or Lake Tahoe in California. What Vermont offers is an East Coast alternative, perfect as an addition to a New York stay. Most visitors head to Stowe, a mountain resort offering 116 trails in two square kilometres of skiable terrain. Vermont's highest peak, Mount Mansfield, is here, along with golf courses and innumerable shopping options.
Alternatives to Stowe include Stratton, the New Yorker's choice, which is centred around a small ski village with a bar, Grizzly's, that serves very good Bloody Marys for when your lesson takes a horrifying left turn into a wall. Or so I've heard.
Killington, also known locally as "The Beast" is a resort so enormous it is possibly visible from space, or at least an airplane. More than 200 trails sprawl over five peaks and mountains, offering a combined skiing distance of just under 150 kilometres. Maps of the resort are a dizzying tangle of snakes and ladders, making it a good place to get lost in for several days at a time. Thankfully, the ski instructors are excellent, and the beginner's slopes easy without being condescending, so you feel like you've conquered something by the end of your first day.
Smaller and less commercial than Stowe, Stratton or Killington – though perhaps more charming for its deliberate minimalism – is Sugarbush. Winn Smith, the majority owner, told me that his intention with Sugarbush was to "keep it in the personality of the valley," which is characterised by small, family-owned farms. The main building at Sugarbush is shaped like a barn. The mountain's motto is "Be Better Here" – both encouragement and a challenge.
There are other ski-fields in Vermont, including a co-op at Mad River, with a chair-lift that can handle only 80 visitors a day. Indeed, it would be possible to pass an entire visit to the state doing absolutely nothing but jumping from one resort to the next, slaying mountains.
Still, it quickly becomes difficult to ignore the parts in between.
As you drive from Sugarbush to Killington, or Killington to Stratton, the natural charisma muscles in on your consciousness, demanding you pay attention. In four days of driving around Vermont, I saw virtually no fast food outlets or strip malls – ubiquitous in other parts of America. I saw almost nothing, in fact, except real estate I would like to purchase, and a string of hotels that worked well as introductions to the refreshing imaginativeness of Vermonters.
For example, take Windham Hill Inn in West Townshend, near the Green Mountain National Forest. From the outside, Windham Hill Inn looks like a picturesque farmhouse built sometime around 1825. Which is exactly what it is, containing everything generally expected of intimate, high-end bed and breakfasts organised around a country theme. The wine is award-winning, the restaurant refined, and the tennis court made from native Vermont clay. But then there's the barn (those barns again) with the giant plush bear in a sleigh, and the nondescript door opening onto a shock of wallpaper and hidden suites. My room, named "Marion Goodfellow," comes with its own cupola in the roof – a first, in my experience.
The idea of individually decorated rooms is taken a dramatic step further at the Pitcher Inn, in Mad River Valley. The owners wanted to make sure the hotel was "mountain-proof," explained Ari Sadri, general manager here since 1997. What he means is that the hotel is such a spectacle that even in bad weather, when the snow doesn't fall, "each room is its own destination." The inspiration was the scene in Yellow Submarine in which a normal-looking hallway is revealed to hide crazy things behind each door, such as a speeding train.
So the "Ski" room is filled with vintage signs and original trail maps, as well as a genuine lift ticket booth. "Lodge" features a bed based on Cleopatra's throne as interpreted by Cecil B. DeMille, along with an alabaster settee inspired by Tutankhamen's tomb. And just down the hall, "Trout", where I spent a hallucinatory night, has a giant stuffed fish hanging above the television.
Over near Barnard, Twin Farms may not be as strange as the Pitcher Inn, but in terms of extravagance and luxury it outdoes almost every small hotel in the world. Tucked away behind an imposing gate, this is as close to perfection as it is possible to get. A private ski mountain looms over the main building, which dates to 1795. Another building holds "The Furo," a Japanese heated pool. Several of the cottages, sprinkled in private vantage points throughout the woods, are decorated by Jed Johnson, an affiliate of Andy Warhol. Maybe it is enough to say that every carport on the property has a Tesla plug-in – no detail is overlooked here, no-matter how seemingly trivial. If you want to go to the private on-site pub at 2am and have a bartender come and talk to you while you play the grand piano beneath a Cy Twombly mural, you can. I asked.
How does the second least-populous state in America end up with these kind of places? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Vermont values difference, and personality. "Vermonters are most concerned with what sort of person you are," one local told me. "Do you work hard for a living? Are you nice to your neighbours? That's what's most important here."
Lance Richardson travelled as a guest of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. Visit vermontvacation.com.
Vermont is a one-hour flight from New York with an airline such as jetBlue. See jetblue.com. Vermont is also less than two hours driving from Montreal, Canada.
The Windham Hill Inn, in West Townshend, offers 22 unique rooms in three buildings, as well as an award-winning restaurant with the Relais and Chateaux stamp of approval. Prices start at $234 per night. See windhamhill.com.
The surreal Pitcher Inn, just five minutes from Sugarbush, is also Relais and Chateaux-approved. Its 11 wildly different accommodations start at $489.95 a night. "Trout" is recommended. See pitcherinn.com.
Twin Farms, an all-inclusive experience, offers rooms, cottages, and – for the ultimate indulgence – an exquisite farmhouse at Copper Hill. The restaurant is a knockout. Rates start at $1960 a night. See twinfarms.com.
A full-day adult lift pass for Stowe in the regular seasons costs $150, though tickets are slightly cheaper with advance online purchase. See stowe.com.
At Stratton, adult lift passes are $77 per day, and come with a "Snow Guarantee." See stratton.com.
Lift passes at Killington vary wildly based on number of days and availability, though it is always cheaper to book online in advance. From US$25 a day. See killington.com.
A full-day regular season adult lift pass to Sugarbush is $121.50 a day. See sugarbush.com.
Good deals on lift passes can also be found using Liftopia. See liftopia.com.
FIVE MORE VERMONT EXPERIENCES
THE LONG TRAIL
Vermont has more than 1600 kilometres of hiking trails. One of the best is aptly named Long Trail, which runs the length of the state and is the oldest long-distance trail in the country.
Tucked away in Burton's new state-of-the-art snowboard factory, in Burlington, this small but well-curated museum takes visitors through the evolution of a relatively new sport, including numerous vintage items.
THE SOUTHERN VERMONT ART CENTRE
Located on a rambling campus dotted with modern sculptures, including a multi-coloured space shuttle, the Southern Vermont Art Centre is the best place to go for a sense of the state's creative verve. Exhibitions are rotating; works are often for sale.
The behemoth outdoor brand Orvis has its flagship store in Manchester – along with a fly-fishing school, where visitors can learn everything from making a fly to casting one; and a wingshooting school, where you can wield a shotgun, because this is America.
Popes and secretaries of the UN have acquired pottery from Shackleton Thomas, and for good reason: it is exquisite. The workshops of Charles Shackleton and Miranda Thomas are located in Bridgewater and open to the public.