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A quirky island without any sea

Jamaica harbors artists, exotic birds, and other treats for a traveler in southern Vermont

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / February 13, 2005

JAMAICA, Vt. -- You won't find Cuba to the north or Haiti to the east. In fact, at first glance this Jamaica looks like most of the villages nestled in the valleys of southern Vermont along Routes 30 and 100.

The 1808 white clapboard Community Church sits across the street from the 1851 white clapboard Town Hall like a pair of Olde New England bookends, complete with dark green shutters and Greek Revival entrances. The World War I and II Honor Roll fills the small traffic island between the two buildings. Memorial Library stands behind the church.

Still, Jamaica is full of quirky surprises, and the wide spot in the road makes a nice diversion if you're heading to ski country. It's only about 10 minutes from Stratton Mountain, about 20 from Mount Snow.

Next to Town Hall, the 1830s building once used as a hospital has been reborn as Main Street Studio. Nancy Price opened the photography gallery a little over a year ago to represent about 15 artists, most of them local. Her husband, photographer Robert Reichert, maintains his studio in the chestnut-wood barn in the back. Reichert is known for his portraits of business executives, Nobel Prize winners, and gypsy dancers. He also welcomes walk-ins for a sitting in front of his Hasselblad -- if you have the time and $1,000. Price and Reichert relocated from Connecticut to Jamaica for a more laid-back lifestyle.

"Jamaica is the quintessential Vermont town that hasn't been tampered with," says Price. "That's why we chose it. If you removed the cars, it would look the same as it did 100 years ago."

A leisurely stroll proves her right. The boxy commercial buildings and farmhouses with long gallery porches haven't changed much from the 1906 photo on the village website. Many of these taciturn structures have attracted artists. You could spend an afternoon browsing and chatting and learning life stories. At the same time, you could buy the goods to furnish a rustic lodge or vacation retreat.

"This community grew up around artists and artisans," says Elaine Beckwith. Her eponymous fine art gallery and Price's bracket the commercial district. Beckwith displays the work of about 30 artists -- local, national, and international -- in her Victorian home. Her husband, Joel, works out of a printmaking studio on the grounds.

"He grew up in Concord, Mass.," she says, "but I convinced him that there was enough trout fishing to move up here."

The sturdy old buildings seem hospitable to commercial and creative ventures. At Old Corkers Emporium, Skip Woodruff builds "rustic" furniture on the second floor. In 1998, after almost 20 years as an antiques dealer, he began crafting his own furniture, inspired by Adirondacks camps. His wife, Maureen, oversees the first-floor shop, which is stocked with old snowshoes and skis and other sporting camp antiques that perfectly match Skip's tables with birch root legs, twig chairs, and mirrors with birchbark frames. You also might see desks, dressers, and servers of local yellow or striped maple, pine, or cherry woods. A friend crafts the antler lamps and chandeliers.

Ceramist Jennie Connor doesn't actually maintain a studio in her shop, Jennie Blue, but, she says, "I can see it from here." Connor limits her production to special-occasion plates for weddings, birthdays, and other life events. Somewhat of a pioneer along the street, she opened her shop in 1985 to sell accessories (quilts, candles, lamps, linens, rugs, pillows) to complement country decor. Most striking are the brightly painted plates, mugs, teapots, and bowls of ceramist Susan Leader, whose husband is a well-known local fiddler.

It's hard to miss Margie's Muse Handweaving & Gallery. The tree out front is festooned with bird's nests made from leftover yarn. Clyde the cat often hangs out on the front porch. If cats dream of heaven this must be it: a cozy room overflowing with yarn and soft blankets. Margaret Miller Silvia began weaving about a dozen years ago when she left the Boston area for Vermont. It was a logical step, she says: "I had been playing with yarn since my grandmother taught me to knit."

She opened her shop in 2001 and set up her two floor looms. You might catch her at work on a blanket, throw, or scarf.

"When I don't have custom orders," she says, "I make what I feel like making and hope someone will like it." Silvia also carries the work of about 100 artisans, most of whom live nearby.

"I didn't really have to look," she says. People stop to tell her about their work in silver or glass and bring in samples they just happen to have in the trunk of the car. "There are a lot of really creative people in this area."

She also has a wide selection of yarn: lamb and sheep's wools from local spinners and more esoteric offerings such as alpaca from Chile, hemp, or hand-dyed Japanese yarns. You can purchase the raw materials to sit inside and knit away cold winter days, or take a short cut and select from the hand-knit hats, socks, sweaters, and vests.

If you want to pretend it's still summer, stop at Jamaica Country Market and its freezer of discounted Ben & Jerry's factory seconds.

"No guarantees, no returns, no peeking," says a sign, explaining that the pints "did not meet stringent high-quality standards." Go ahead and indulge; the profits help support community programs.

If you truly want to escape winter (if only temporarily), visit D&K's Garden Center on the outskirts of town. The Ameden family also operates a butterfly enclosure and aviary that they call a "3,000-square-foot tropical paradise." You won't find any butterflies this time of year, but the temperature in the connected hothouses hovers between 75 and 80 degrees. Small birds flit through the dense greenery: iridescent green or yellow conures, tiny spice and zebra finches, Java sparrows, curious cockatiels, and virtual flocks of chittering parakeets. Larger parrots and lories keep watch from high perches. Button quail scamper around the floors, while cooing doves roost on the overhead irrigation pipes.

Don't linger too long. Michel de Preux's hearty cooking will call you back to town and the pleasures of winter. After serving as chef in a number of kitchens in the United States (including Ivana's at the Trump Plaza Hotel in Atlantic City), de Preux opened Asta's Swiss Restaurant and Suites with his wife, Bonnie, about a year and a half ago.

"The ambience was just right for the Swiss style," the Swiss de Preux says of his dining room that looks back on a snowy meadow and distant peaks. "And there's enough land for my sheep, peacocks, and chickens."

In winter de Preux offers meat or cheese fondue and raclette every night (though you must have four people for raclette, a dish of melted cheese and potatoes), along with other entrees such as filet mignon with rosti or sauerbraten with spaetzle. Dessert can be chocolate fondue served with fruit and bits of cake. If you realize that you've passed the whole day in Jamaica and it's too late to move on, ask de Preux if one of his three suites -- two with gas fireplaces -- is available.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon are the authors of "Escape to Northern New England" (Fodor's/Random House).

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