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sep 04

Leaf-peeping in Vermont: An expert's guide

Michael Blanding and family (© Victor Lopes)

It's leaf-peeping season!

We asked Moon Vermont co-author Michael Blanding to let us in on some tips for having a great time in the Green Mountain State.

What are some great websites for planning a trip?

The Vermont Department of Tourism has an excellent foliage page on its Web site, vermontvacation.com, which has up-to-date information on the quality of the leaves as well as lodging. Another great foliage site is run by Yankee Magazine, yankeefoliage.com. It features an interactive map updated with reports from readers, and a leaf blog by Jeff "Foliage" Folger, one of the most prolific foliage photographers in New England. Also, www.foliage-vermont.com has an active forum in which readers give updates on color in their areas.

When and where can you see the best color?

The general rule of thumb for Vermont is that the color starts getting good in mid-September, and the show is over by late October.

All that said, you should know that trying to predict when the color will be absolutely perfect is a loser's game, and frankly not necessary. Being overly preoccupied with chasing the elusive "peak" of foliage is a great way to spoil a trip—and takes away from all of the other things that make a fall weekend in Vermont so magical: harvest festivals, farm-stands, fresh-pressed apple cider, and sunny days of crisp mountain air.

The geographical variety of the state means there is a wide variation in color in different areas at the same time—and at any time you can find good color just by driving an hour north or south or heading up into the mountains (or down into the valley) depending on where you are. Finally, this season is already shaping up to be an unpredictable one because of all of the rain that we got in August—the trees are expected to hold onto their leaves a little longer, making late October still perfectly viable for some peak color in some areas.

The only essential piece of advice is: book now! Most lodgings are already full-up for Columbus Day Weekend (Oct 12-13), though because of the economy, it's not as difficult this year to still find space in mid-week and even in the first and third weekends of October. When making bookings, you'll have the most luck in the Northeast Kingdom—where color is well underway by mid-September. Later in the season, try basing yourself in the southeast corner of the state, either in the Brattleboro area or the Okemo Valley, which tend to have more available lodging than the middle and north-central areas.

What would a best-of-Vermont tour look like?

We actually have just such an itinerary in our book (forgive the shameless plug). Our perfect two-week tour (adjust as necessary) starts with two days in artsy Brattleboro in the southeastern corner of the state, taking in the monthly Gallery Walk and the Brattleboro Museum; continues north to visit the Grafton Village Cheese Company in Grafton, the Vermont Country Store in Weston, and Billings Farm in Woodstock; then heads deep into one of our favorite areas, the Mad River Valley, which has some of the most quintessential Vermont scenery in the state, and is a perfect area for hiking or canoeing.

From there, it's north to tour the Ben & Jerry's factory in Waterbury and go skiing in Stowe (or ride the tramway to the top of Mount Mansfield, the highest peak in the state); then up to Lake Champlain to visit the maritime museum, aquarium, and historic sites in the big city of Burlington; and down the valley to the college town of Middlebury and the nearby sites dedicated to poet Robert Frost. Finally, you finish out the circle 'round the state by driving south to see the maple museum and covered bridges outside Rutland, and the historic sites in Bennington, before heading back to Brattleboro, full of cheddar cheese, maple syrup, and happy memories.

Sometimes, during the height of tourism season, some of the main highways and roadways can get crowded, making the experience of driving in Vermont a bit stressful. Do you have any advice about going to less-well known destinations and yet having just as magical an experience?

As I mentioned, the Northeast Kingdom is always a safe bet for getting away from the crowds. But there are a couple of other areas that are less remote yet that, for some reason, don't draw the same number of tourists—whether because they don't have any obvious "sites" or ski mountains that have put them on the map as destinations. One of the state's best-kept secrets is the area known as the "Southwestern Lakes Region," along the New York border west of Route 7. Lake St. Catherine is one of the prettiest in the state, and the surrounding countryside is just classic rural Vermont, with country stores and churches at every turn.

Another area that tends to see less traffic is the "Vermont Piedmont" area, along known as the northern part of the "Upper Valley"—a hilly area in the east central part of the state centering around Fairlee and Corinth. Like other parts of Vermont, this area has seen a resurgence in agro-tourism, with all kinds of specialty farms and sugarhouses; and Route 5 along the Connecticut River is a classic fall foliage route.

Lodging is generally marked-up during the height of tourist season. Any creative suggestions for saving money on hotels or inns?

Foliage season sees big spikes in rates in Vermont, and you won't find any dirt cheap lodgings anywhere. But in fact, fall is not nearly as busy as winter ski season. Outside of Columbus Day weekend and the weekend on either side of it, lodgings are still competing for tourists, and you can find relatively cheap motel rooms if you are willing to book mid-week or slightly outside of peak foliage time (for example, late September or late October).

Vermont's emphasis on local businesses means that there are still many independent motels that work hard to undercut the chains and where you can still find a room under $100 in high season. Try around (but not in) ski resorts, for example around Killington, Stowe, and West Dover (Mt. Snow). Rutland is also a good city to look for less expensive rates—and it is perfectly located to jump off to the northern and southern sections of the Green Mountain State Forest, Middlebury, Manchester, and other attractions. Last but not least, two of our personal favorite "value" lodgings: the Old Red Mill in Wilmington (oldredmill.com), a friendly lodge with clean and comfortable rooms in the south-central part of the state; and the Latchis Hotel (latchis.com) in Brattleboro, which just went through a renovation of its 1930s Art Deco building and has an attached movie theater with discounted admission for hotel guests—but still offers $95 rooms in foliage season.

Skiing. What's the most common mistake out-of-state visitors make when planning ski trips to Vermont?

The biggest mistake people make is the head right to the "biggest" mountains with the biggest names—especially Killington, Sugarbush, and Mount Snow. While those mountains have earned their reputation for some of the most exciting and difficult terrain in the northeast, and its understandably tempting to want to test yourself against them, they can also be a frustrating exercise in standing around in lift lines or spending half the day trying to make it across a bewildering trail map for those one or two perfect runs.

Meanwhile, there are many mountains in Vermont that will more than test your skiing ability and offer a much more satisfying overall skiing experience—especially if you are not all about the double-diamonds. Mountains like Burke Mountain and Jay Peak, both in the Northeast Kingdom, are virtually deserted in winter, and both boast lots of natural powder. Mad River Glen, just up the valley from Sugarbush, has a cult following among skiers for its uncompromising terrain full of rocks, moguls, and glades, with a full half of its trails for experts. On the other side of the spectrum, families would do better to leave the big mountains behind and head to Smugglers Notch or Ascutney, which offer a range of terrain for all abilities as well as excellent kids programs. Finally, in a welcome contrast to the sometimes impersonal "mega-resort" feeling of Mt. Snow and Killington, Stowe Mountain has kept it real, with an authentic village full of real people and businesses that make the time off the mountain just as enjoyable as the time on it.

Tell us about your guidebook.

Thankfully we hit the ground running when we produced the first edition of Moon Vermont because we had recently completed Moon New England (another shameless plug!) the year before. So we were able to use some of the material from that book to form the basis for this one. As we started spending more time in Vermont, however, it quickly became clear to us that this was its own place with its own unique sensibility that was influenced by the rest of New England, but also stood proudly apart from it. Capturing that unique quality was the challenge and pleasure of writing the book.

Personally, I feel proud that we took time to highlight the kinds of things that visitors to Vermont are truly looking for (even if they may not be aware of it): farm tours and farm stays, restaurants using organic or local ingredients, quirky country stores, and family sugarhouses alongside the more "obvious" attractions like Ben & Jerry's and Killington. Along the way, we fell in love with parts of the state that aren't as familiar to tourists—and weren't as familiar to us either—such as the Mad River Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. We truly hope that readers enjoy exploring them with us!

(Moon Vermont is available at Amazon.com. Find other great guidebooks at Moon.com.)

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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