NORTH HERO, Vt. -- ''There are many pretty islands here, low, and containing very fine woods and meadows." Though penned in a 1609 journal, the observation could easily have been made today.
The observer was none other than French explorer Samuel de Champlain, the first European to set eyes on the freshwater lake that would bear his name. Arriving in July with 60 Algonquians, 24 canoes, and a pair of French crewmates, he discovered an archipelago teeming with fish, game, and wild fruit.
What surprised him was the scarcity of humans. Intertribal hostilities, the Indians explained, had forced the natives inland. Yet four centuries later, the islands are still sparsely populated, for reasons that are hard to fathom. Too few restaurants, perhaps? Only a handful dot Route 2, the north-south highway that strings the largest islands together along the Vermont-New York border. Luxury hotels are rare, and the only nightlife is an ice-cream stand, Seb's.
Pleasing dishes that come with a lovely view. Traveler's Taste, Page E6.
For all their pastoral beauty, sandy beaches, and quiet seclusion, the Lake Champlain Islands are overlooked. Unless it's to pick apples or lounge at Sand Bar Beach, even Vermonters rarely venture beyond the causeway linking Grand Isle to the mainland.
Perhaps it's just too rural.
Alburg, a peninsula extending south from the Canadian border, boasts Lake Champlain's longest sandy beach and is only an hour's drive from Burlington. A haven of rolling dunes, nature trails, and shade trees, it is peaceful and quiet, the perfect place for a barefoot stroll.
''That, by far, is my favorite swimming beach," said Rochelle Skinner, a Vermont State Park employee. ''You feel like you're on the ocean. It's so different from being in the mountains; it's a different world up there."
The south-facing beach, whose powder-soft drifts stretch almost a mile along the shoreline, became a state park in 1996, charging visitors $2.50 to spread their blankets. Yet few take the opportunity.
Chuck Woessner, a longtime islands resident who manages the region's seven state parks, is hard put to explain it. ''It is probably the most undisturbed spot in the islands," he said. ''It's just gorgeous, with some very wild and natural spots."
Being flatter than the state's interior, the islands lend a feeling of wide-open space, not the kind of landscape usually associated with the Green Mountain State, though ideal for biking, boating, and birdwatching. Woessner likened the Alburg dunes to the beaches that run the length of the New England coast, minus the crowds. A sense of serenity pervades every corner, with inviting back roads luring you off Route 2. All three of the main islands, Grand Isle, North Hero, and Isle La Motte, offer spectacular views if you know where to look.
In Grand Isle, there's the aptly named Sunset View Road. Follow it west from the town of South Hero to watch the sky turn coral over the Adirondacks. At dawn, take East Shore Drive to see the colors dapple the waves. For more rewards, you need only turn inward.
Grand Isle hosts miles of orchards. Apples, mostly, but the raspberries, peaches, and sour cherries ripen in July. Allenholm Farm will pick them for you by the pound, or you can stop by, meet owner Ray Allen's furry pet menagerie, and pick up a freshly baked pie. The lake has such an insulating effect that even grapes thrive here. The Snow Farm Vineyard and Winery produces three whites, three reds, and an ice wine, all of which you can sample in its twice daily tours. Children enjoy watching for the miniature castles that look like they're made of sand but are made of stone. Several of the castles, complete with turrets and moats, are scattered here and on Providence Island. You can picnic at Knight's Point State Park and watch a performance of Lipizzan stallions, which spend July and August here to escape Florida's heat.
Isle La Motte's attractions are more unusual. Its southern third forms part of the world's oldest coral reef, a 480 million-year-old fossil that at one time straddled the equator. At Fisk Quarry on its southwestern shore, you can gaze at the black rock and spot remnants of extinct sponges and crinoids, the ancestors of starfish. At the northern tip is yet another relic, a shrine marking Vermont's first settlement, a French fortress. Built in 1666 by Captain Pierre La Motte, it is run by the Edmundites, a religious order that celebrates Mass, serves lunch, and displays historic relics dating from the 17th century. Nearby, a statue of Champlain gazes at the shore, an unnamed Algonquian at his side.
If the French admired the lake's 70-odd islands, the English settled them. After the Revolutionary War, the three largest were granted to Ethan and Ira Allen, named ''hero" islands in their honor. Bunker Hill veteran Jedediah Hyde followed them north in 1783 and built himself a house from cedar logs. Now a museum, the homestead gets you thinking about life in the wilderness, when the only thoroughfare was the water.
In those days, everyone had a boat. Today, the many smaller islands dotting the landscape are all but inaccessible. Probably half are privately owned, but a few are uninhabited. Boaters gliding by might see a camp or a pair of cottages tucked among trees. The more remote islands have been set aside as nature preserves. But three neighboring islands, Knight, Woods, and Burton, are state parks with camping facilities.
Woessner refused to name his favorite place but did divulge one secret gem: the eastern shore of Burton Island. The 253-acre site has its own rustic nature center, a picnic and swimming area, a tiny store, and extensive footpaths over the remains of a long-vanished farm.
One trail skirts the edge of a 100-foot cliff that drops dramatically to the water's edge. From there, he said, you can look over the islands to the Green Mountain horizon as far as Mount Abraham some 40 miles south. Unless you rent a boat in North Hero or paddle the distance from tree-shaded Kill Kare State Park at the tip of St. Albans Point, the only option is the local ferry, the Island Runner (www.vtstateparks.com/htm/ferry.pdf). There are worse ways to spend a day. The vessel stops at three islands twice a day on summer weekends and makes the run to Burton Island five times every day. Set foot on the green sanctuary, and you may want to stay awhile. For starters, you can lunch at the Burton Island Bistro, a snack bar run by New England Culinary Institute graduate Juanita Manley. Hers is an open-air dining room with 10 picnic tables overlooking the water; the herbs and vegetables come right from her garden.
Manley has no qualms about naming her favorite island spot.
''It's sitting right where I am," she said. ''When you're out here, you feel like the real world can't get to you. It's a little paradise."