WOODSTOCK, Vt. -- Vermont in early winter is like a beach in the rain -- leafless, snowless, bleak, bare. But on a recent drive to Woodstock, the dreary landscape suddenly receded, and I found myself in a historic town alive with charm and vitality.
Old stone walls meandered along hillsides. Vintage brick homesteads raised their double chimneys over lawns that sloped past gazebos to the rippling waters of the Ottauquechee River. Mountains loomed over minuscule parks and covered bridges.
I was irresistibly drawn to Central Street and Elm, the commercial hub. On the corner is Cabot Block with its timeless stone facade. At street level, it is a window-shopper's paradise. Boutiques stretch in every direction, among them art galleries, bookstores, and stores specializing in jewelry, glass, even flannel pajamas. Across the street is F.H. Gillingham and Sons, one of Vermont's oldest (and most upscale) general stores. In rooms that link like a crossword puzzle, anything might appear: English stout, Norwegian sweaters, French majolica, espresso makers, nails, guitars.
I had expected, considering the weather, to have the town to myself. I was wrong. The parking spaces were filled with out-of-state cars, and umbrella-toting couples strolled the sidewalks. In my bed-and-breakfast, which was full, I heard French and Italian. After cookies and cider, I donned my rubber-soled shoes and set out.
Every alley, doorstep, facade, archway, and ornamental window is a visual feast in this town of 3,200 inhabitants. Most of it makes up historic district. The barns and carriage houses bring to mind the days when horses plied these streets, and everywhere are white picket fences. But the star attraction is the houses -- brick Federal and immaculate Greek Revival homes with stark black shutters. They surround the boat-shaped green, yielding only for the covered bridge. On one side, set back discreetly behind hedges, is the Woodstock Inn, an expansive three-story resort with gables and a huge central chimney. White with black shutters, it makes for a perfect architectural blend.
If it exudes gentility, there's a reason. Owner Laurence S. Rockefeller, the philanthropist grandson of John D. Rockefeller, bought it in 1968 and rebuilt it the following year. He was determined to preserve the town's character, going so far as to restore the library, buy up surrounding meadows to protect the views, and move utility wires underground. In 1997 the Rockefellers donated their 500-acre estate to the government. Today it doubles as a museum and Vermont's sole national park.
Tourism is Woodstock's bread and butter. What began as a farming community evolved into a mill town and then a legal center. The fine 18th- and 19th-century homes were the fruit of prosperous law firms. Yet it was the inn that turned Woodstock into a year-round vacation spot and what is arguably Vermont's most elegant community. From a historic marker on the green, I learned that it is the only town in America boasting four Paul Revere bells.
When it bonged the dinner hour, I considered my options. The area boasts numerous eating establishments, and fast food is not among them. The region is gloriously free of anything resembling a national chain. I chose cranberry-crisped duck at Bentley's, a longstanding downtown eatery, then returned to my room and hit the sack. The next morning, innkeepers Charlotte and Cary Hollingsworth greeted me with a breakfast of fresh berries, pumpkin and pecan waffles drenched in cranberry butter and maple syrup, warm blueberry muffins, and fresh apple pie. It was a delightful start to what threatened to be a less than exemplary day. A cold wetness had moved in and it was drizzling from slate-gray skies. Rather than explore the streets on foot, I drove.
It was all photogenic. Even the newer houses were tidy and countrified in neighborhoods dotted with gems: miniature windows, elaborate tree houses, narrow foot bridges, and oddly, color. On the drabbest day, the pine needles glowed amber on the forest floor.
I glimpsed even more on River Road, a country lane that starts at the Billings Farm and Museum and winds east past stately, secluded farms. On a steep hillside that had turned lime green in the rain, a group of ink-black cows stood motionless. The fields vibrated shades of cinnamon, the grasses saffron, and the mountains mauve. It was like driving through a Sabra Field painting.
For miles I saw nothing but wilderness, a cleansing of the visual palette that made Woodstock all that more appealing when I arrived back into town.
Diane E. Foulds is a freelance writer who lives in Burlington, Vt.
Woodstock is 140 miles northwest of Boston, a 2-hour drive. Take Interstate 93 north to Concord, N.H., then Interstate 89 north. Get off at Vermont exit 1 (Woodstock-Quechee) and drive 11 miles west on Route 4 into town.
Check out www.woodstockvt.com and, when you check in, ask for a free "Best of Woodstock" local map.
Where to stay
23 Pleasant St.
One of Woodstock's classic white homes with black shutters, built in 1850 for the Gillinghams, owners of the general store. A friendly, antique-filled bed-and-breakfast a few minutes' walk from the town green. Rooms $110 to $175.
The Jackson House Inn
114-3 Senior Lane, on Route 4
The fastidiously restored 1890 home of a prosperous local sawmill owner, with Jacuzzis, fireplaces, and exercise room. Superb restaurant with fireplace, Charles Shackleton furniture, and garden views. Rooms $195 to $380.
The Woodstock Inn
14 The Green
A self-contained, 144-room resort with its own gift shop, fitness center, ski slopes, golf course, and restaurants; in the lobby, a huge fireplace. The $24.95 Sunday brunch features an elaborate buffet crowned by swan sculpted from ice. Rooms $129 to $364.
Where to eat
The Prince and the Pauper
24 Elm St.
The gourmet menu at this intimate dinner spot changes nightly. Entrees $12 midweek in November, $41 prix fixe menu Saturday nights.
Simon Pearce Restaurant
Quechee village center
Classy country ambience and excellent food overlooking a covered bridge and waterfall, served on handmade Simon Pearce pottery and glass. Open daily. Seven miles east of Woodstock. Lunch $9-$14; dinner entrees $21 to $30.
Where to shop
Charles Shackleton Furniture and Miranda Thomas Pottery
Workshop store at the Bridgewater Mill on Route 4, 802-672-5175, or in town at 23 Elm St. Open daily 10 to 5.
Upscale pottery teamed with cherry furniture made the old-fashioned way.
One Center Street, Woodstock
Designer kitchenware, gadgets, and gifts in a basement boutique.
591 Sugarbush Farm Road, Woodstock
Sample cheeses, syrup, and specialty foods at Betsy and Larry Luce's family farm, on a hillside a few miles north of town. Open year round, 9-5.
What to do
For an updated listing of events, check the town blackboard on the corner of Central and Elm (Routes 4 and 12).
A 25-minute, not-too-strenuous climb that rewards you with a spectacular view of Woodstock from a 1,395-foot peak. From Route 4 west of the green, take Mountain Avenue to Faulkner Park, then follow the zigzagging pavement.
Kedron Valley Stables
On Route 106, South Woodstock
Horseback riding, $40 per hour for one, $70 per hour for two and $30 per person for three or more. Sleigh rides in winter. About 3 miles south of the green off Route 106. Open year round except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
National Historical Park
Route 12, Woodstock
This 500-acre park contains 20 miles of trails for hiking, snow-shoeing, or cross-country skiing. You can also walk the one-mile loop around The Pogue, a scenic hilltop pond. For ski passes and information, call the Woodstock Ski Touring Center, 802-457-6674. The mansion, gardens, and carriage barn are open for guided tours Memorial Day weekend through Oct. 31, from 10 to 5.