Summer Vacation Guide: Champlain Islands/Northwest
There’s nothing tropical about Vermont’s islands, but they’ve got plenty of other enticements to lure visitors northwest. The windswept causeway at the southern end is one of several public engineering marvels between South Hero and Alburgh, including the fully functioning North Hero drawbridge. And the Missisquoi bridge, at the northern end of the island chain, is also a source of public-works pride. There are four state parks along the same retro route: Sandbar, Grand Isle, Knight Point and North Hero.
Look for the Miniature Castles made of little round lake stones that are scattered throughout South Hero — the handiwork of Harry Barber, who hoped the collection would be recognized and protected by the Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb. At one time, a number of the multi-story, diminutive houses even had electric lights. You can still see one across from the Folsom School in South Hero.
South Hero’s West Shore Road leads to Snow Farm Winery. Vermont’s first commercial grape vineyard has been “aging” nicely for 14 years. The winery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for tours and tastings, but it’s best experienced in concert with live music outdoors on Thursday evenings. Weather permitting, Snow Farm brings in popular local acts to complement the sunset. The music starts at 6:30 p.m. Come earlier with a picnic, but plan to buy wine — it helps fund the fun. The area’s spectacular Island Ice Cream is also available. The flavors reflect whatever’s being harvested locally that week.
If you’re feeling more creemee than sorbet, there are two options along the way. SEB’S seasonal snack bar serves up all the classic summer fast-food fare on the corner of Route 2 and South Street. Hang a left to find Allenholm Farm, selling berries and pies in season and real maple creemees. Between Allenholm and Snow Farm, scan the forest for brightly colored birdhouses. Retiree Hank Bischoff and his neighbor started building them as a way to control the mosquito population. There’s one on almost every tree — hundreds, in fact, in every imaginable hue.
You’re more likely to notice these delectable roadside details if you tour the islands by bicycle. Most summers, you can get to South Hero via the spectacular Island Line Trail when Local Motion’s bike ferry is in operation on August weekends. The trail, however, sustained major damage from flooding in the spring of 2011 and is waiting on repairs. The main road through the islands — Route 2 — isn’t bad for biking, but it’s more relaxed off the beaten track. Don’t miss the Hyde Log Cabin on Route 2 in Grand Isle. Built in 1783, it’s allegedly the oldest authentic log cabin in the United States. Take a right on East Short Road North and ride .7 miles to check out the Grand Isle Lake House. Also in Grand Isle, Route 314 is a nice rolling alternative to the highway, but beware of drivers rushing to make the ferry to New York State. Boats leave every 20 minutes.
Boating is also big in the islands, natch. The islands attract every kind of watercraft imaginable, from motorboats and Jet Skis to canoes and kayaks. If you’re not bringing your own, there are ways to get out on the water. North Hero Marina rents canoes, kayaks, pontoon boats and a 15-foot fishing boat. Nearby Hero's Welcome General Store also rents non-motorized vessels. Need boat shoes, sunscreen, snacks? They’ve got it all, including a sophisticated website that lets you buy unique Vermont souvenirs all year round.
You can’t bring them home, but the fossilized corals that make up the Chazy Reef on Isle La Motte are definitely worth a visit. Paleontologists believe the reef was formed almost half a billion years ago, when Lake Champlain was part of the shallow Iapetus Ocean. At the Goodsell Ridge Fossil Preserve, a well-marked path leads through the field to outcroppings swirled with signs of life — swirled skeletal remains of cephalopods and stromotoporoids. “Discovery Areas” are numbered and identified. The one-room museum sheds light — when it’s open.
If one side of the 7-mile Isle La Motte is evidence of evolution, the other is faith-based: St. Anne's Shrine attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. Fifty-seven years after Samuel de Champlain “discovered” it, in 1609, Fort St. Anne became Vermont’s first settlement. The first Mass was celebrated at the site of the shrine — now a rustic, open-air chapel in a spectacular natural setting. Leave your car in the parking lot there and bike a very short distance to the Fisk Farm Art Center. It’s Isle La Motte’s Shelburne Farms, but a lot more chill — a gallery, concert venue and teahouse. Presidents William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt were both guests. You can always stop in and look at the art in the 19th-century horse-and-carriage barn, but on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5, they serve tea and dessert to live acoustic music.
Want your own island? There’s camping in the state parks on Knight, Burton and Woods islands in St. Albans Bay. Reservations are competitive, and you have to be prepared to schlep your stuff — in and out. The “Island Runner” ferry leaves from Kill Kare State Park at the southern tip of St. Albans.
There’s more to northwestern Vermont than islands. From St. Albans, the Missiquoi Valley Rail Trail runs 26.2 miles to Richford. “Trail users enjoy picturesque views of Franklin County’s farms, forests, fields and wetlands,” Yankee Magazine noted in a recent article — and also eateries, such as The Abbey, which welcomes riders with trailside benches and food. Rumor has it some Quebec wineries are within striking distance, too. The route, which is mostly flat, winds along the river through Enosburg Falls, East Berkshire and Sheldon Springs.