Burlington to Cooperstown: Along the Foliage Trail in 48 Hours - Part I

by Brian Westbye / Jul 24, 2008 /
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The 4th is long gone, but the rest of the summer still lies ahead of you like a sopping blanket. Hazy, hot and humid will be the rule, whether going through the day-to-day motions in the city, getting your melanoma on at the beach or slaving over the grill yet again. You’re starting to feel summer burnout, especially when the mercury continues to play with triple digits. Your mind drifts….to foliage season.

Take a break from the summertime blues! The leaves will be turning before you know it, painting New England and the Northeast in a brilliant burst of red and orange. The heat and humidity disappear, and the air becomes crisp and cool, with a lilt of wood smoke.  A touch of frost greets the morning, to be fought off with hot coffee, real maple syrup and fresh apple cider. It’s the best time to be in the Northeast, when the autumn falls and these languid July days and restless July nights are way back in the rear-view.

But your getaway begins now. This is the time to start planning a foliage trip. And a memorable trip can be had in 48 hours along the trail between Burlington, VT and Cooperstown, NY.

Part One: Burlington, VT

Burlington Town Square 
It’s an inexact science, varying greatly from year to year and state to state, but generally northern New England sees peak foliage around the second week of October. (More info can be found here.) So that’s a good time to think about when planning your trip. That is when my wife and I headed out last year from central Maine to Burlington. We took Rt. 26 northwest through the Oxford Hills of Maine and picked up Rt. 2 west, which crosses New Hampshire in the middle of the White Mountain National Forest. As the elevation rises, the hills and valleys roll out endlessly on either side of the road, with breathtaking views of the White Mountains and Mt. Washington all around.

The White Mountains of New Hampshire 

Upon crossing into Vermont, the topography flattens out a bit, but not the utter beauty of the drive. Immediately upon crossing the border it seems the greens are greener, the red barns and white steeples more brilliant and the foliage more stunning. Vermont is love at first site, especially when the leaves turn.

A drive through rural Vermont 

 

Rt. 2 wends its way through the Northeast Kingdom, dipping south from St. Johnsbury to the capital Montpelier. This is the postcard version of Vermont come to life: small lake towns; rolling farmland and hills vibrant with color; town squares with churches and meeting houses dating to revolutionary times. Eventually you pick up I-89 north – not as pleasantly meandering a drive, but still very scenic. Keep an eye peeled on the right side of the road for the famous statue “Reverence” in South Burlington. Okay, just look for the pair of Whale tails sticking out of the field.

Reverence 

Kind of goofy, but a fun site to glimpse. You’re almost at your destination.

Burlington is hard to describe other than as a Town That Has Everything. It’s hip and cosmopolitan; it’s rustic and charming; it’s upscale and yet decidedly staid Olde New England. It’s location on Lake Champlain provides year-round water sports and scenic vistas, and it’s minutes away from the mountains, hiking and skiing. And it’s a college town, so there are plenty of great sports bars and live music venues.

Burlington is a year-round destination point, perpetually framed by the lake and the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York to the west (think of THAT foliage scene!) and the Green Mountains to the east and south. The enchantment begins, believe it or not, at the parking garage. Enter the Marketplace Garage at S. Winooski Ave and Cherry St. and drive up to the roof. You will get an amazing view of the lake and mountains and downtown Burlington, and you will immediately be hit with the smells of Thai, Pizza and other culinary delights.

Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks 

Take a walk up and down Church Street and the marketplace.

Church St. Marketplace 

Stroll down to Waterfront Park and watch the waves dance while the Adirondacks silently keep watch. Enjoy the tranquility while you work up an appetite.

You’ve brought that appetite to the right place! Burlington is a foodies dream.  Over the last twenty years, Burlington, and Vermont in general, has undergone a culinary renaissance, with heavy emphasis on fresh, locally grown ingredients. Sustainable farming is paramount in Vermont, and diners in Greater Burlington are very fortunate as a result. No matter if you’re craving Thai, Indian, Chinese (and I’m not talking about American Sysco fryolator ”Chinese”, although that ilk is also available) or just a great burger, you will find it fresh in Burlington.

And while upscale wine bars line Church Street, the signature dish of Burlington is a little bit less chi-chi. A trip to Burlington is not complete without a plate of Gravy Fries. (Hey, you’re on vaca. Get that stomach pump when you get back home.) The two best examples are quite different, but equally great. Nectar's is straight-up with a turkey gravy

Gravy Fries at Nectars 

while the Vermont Pub & Brewery offers an onion gravy.

Gravy Fries at Vermont Brew Pub 

The beers are freshly home-grown at VPB, and the food – hearty pub fare – is terrific. But there are plenty of beer and grub options at Nectar's, which also features live music seven nights a week. Apples and apples. Either way, you’re in great shape.

There are plenty of lodging choices in downtown Burlington, mostly of the large chain variety. Get off the map and stay at a B&B. One truly unique option is the Catamount Inn in nearby Williston.

Catamount Inn; Williston, VT 

The Inn was built in 1796 by Thomas Chittenden, the first Governor of Vermont. It is now part of a year-round outdoor recreation center, but the inn maintains its timeless character. Jim and Lucy are warm and gracious hosts, and a night in the Ball Room offers a restful sleep in the utter silence of the country. And at $95 a night, The Catamount is an absolute steal. Of course, if you want to pay $100 more for an undistinguished room in a chain hotel in town, go for it…

Get up early for a walk in the frosty morning and a hot breakfast courtesy of your hosts. You’ll need the fuel for the second leg of your journey...

Frost

Morning in VT

Next up: Part II: Burlington to Cooperstown. 

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