Take the back roads: Vermont’s historic Route 100

Main Street in Brattleboro, Vermont.
  • Main Street in Brattleboro, Vermont.

In an era where places rarely or barely live up to their reputations, Vermont’s Route 100 looks and really feels like old-fashioned Christmas cards depicting the New England state.

Mount Snow, Vermont. Winters here are all about the slopes.

Mount Snow, Vermont. Winters here are all about the slopes.

I visited in winter, when buildings were covered in clean, white snow, and of course, it was ski season! It was the first time I'd ever skied in my life. But not everything on Route 100 is as pristine as it looks: the venerated Vermont Country Store holds some dirty secrets and Hildene, the home of Robert Todd Lincoln, shows that he didn’t share his father’s beliefs in regards to civil rights.

What to do

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of skiing to the fiber of Vermont’s culture. It’s part of their schools’ – both public and private – P.E. classes. Little babies learn how to ski. I figured I could try it without incurring mortal status or permanent injury.

Side view of the house at Hildene.

Side view of the house at Hildene.

My instructor at Mount Snow was superhuman-ly patient in explaining how to get into all of the unfamiliar gear and how to make basic moves. He was comforting when I related my Sonny Bono ski death fears: he explained that the late senator was horsing around and not paying attention to what he was doing. I, on the other hand, was hyper-vigilant, yelling at toddlers in my path: “Get out of the way, baby! C’mon little baby! Move it!”

Top view.

Top view.

Hildene was the Manchester home of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only child of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln to survive into the 20th century. He was general counsel during the Pullman strike and eventually the president of the Pullman Company. Whether you’re interested in labor unions, civil rights, transportation or luxury travel, you’ll be fascinated by the handsomely restored Pullman train car on the grounds. Lincoln served in the Union Army for a brief time and was present during Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" plays as you ascend the stairs on the player organ inside the house.

Pullman train car at Hildene.

Pullman train car at Hildene.

I tasted the rich goat cheeses of Hildene. Mary Lincoln "Peggy" Beckwith – granddaughter of Robert Todd Lincoln and last descendant to live in the house – allowed lots of random animals inside the home and loved gardening. To honor her spirit, Hildene built a solar-powered barn on the beautiful estate to house goats and make cheese. There’s an on-site “cave” for aging the cheese that they sell at the gift store.

Have you ever gotten the Vermont Country Store catalog? It's a treasure trove of hard-to-find "practical" items from the past. I smile at the memory of scents, flavors... Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, Bubble Up, Black Jack. My husband jokingly calls the collection "Crap you didn't want in the '70s at triple the price." The original family store in Weston has been in business since 1945.

The operation is huge, with a lunch and ice cream place on site. The food department has a lot more than just cherished penny candy brands: there are wines, specially commissioned artisan local cheeses and other gourmet goodies. Gleefully, there’s sampling. Of course, the kitchy stuff also lives: Postum, Bosco (next to Guittard!), Fartless Black Bean Salsa. In the catalog, they've got something surprising amongst the Lanz flannel nighties: a bunch of sex toys!

Brattleboro's Museum & Art Center is housed in a former Amtrak station.

Brattleboro's Museum & Art Center is housed in a former Amtrak station.

As soon as you step off the train in Brattleboro, you're in the environs of a little cultural gem with big impact: Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. Housed in what used to be the main section of the Amtrak passenger waiting section, the museum has no permanent exhibits. Their curating eye for what they choose to display for a temporary time is quite interesting. Even if you're not the type to spend several hours at a museum – I get that, sometimes I'm "museumed out" when traveling – this is a way to see modern art that's often fun and thought-provoking.

One cool exhibit that was on display was the result of the second VT Kids Design Glass competition: Children submitted drawings of imaginary creatures. Winners had their drawings rendered in 3-D colored glass by local artists, and the results are charming! Also charming are the children's descriptions of their imaginary creatures.

Where to stay

I learned that ski lodges have more space and cleaner design than typical hotel rooms. All of that gear wouldn’t coincide with delicate furniture and knickknacks. Grand Summit Lodge has the country lodge feel, but with extra touches, like a spa featuring treatments to help with skiing aches and pains. Stratton Mountain has several kinds of accommodations, including Black Bear Lodge. The Preferred Wing overlooks the valley, and rooms have sophisticated decorating touches.

Latchis Hotel and Theatre is an unusual boutique accommodation up the hill from the Brattleboro Amtrak station. Connected internally to a gorgeous Art Deco theater, you can see movies and live shows with special packages.

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