THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Champlain isles linked by bridges and funky, folksy charm

Email|Print| Text size + By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / October 30, 2005

ISLE LA MOTTE, VT.- ''Need a map?" the guide asked. Nope, all set, we said. ''How about water?" she asked. Nope, have what we need.

She was awfully nice considering she wasn't our guide. She and a colleague were in charge of about 20 adults who were staying at a nearby resort and preparing to spin out along the shores of Lake Champlain for a 10-mile bike ride around northern Isle La Motte, one of the three Lake Champlain Islands in northwest Vermont.

Under the gaze of the 15-foot-high, gold-leafed Our Lady of Lourdes statue at St. Anne's Shrine, the pack rolled out on gentle West Shore Road, soon to encounter myriad farm stands, the oldest quarry in the state at Fisk Quarry Preserve with its white rounded fossils from an ancient reef, and apple orchards bearing fall fruit. There would be benches for reflection and steps leading down to the water's edge. Traffic would be light, and sweet cherry tomatoes from an honor-system vegetable stand would be 50 cents a bag.

This we knew because we had just finished the very same loop.

The Lake Champlain Islands are more Carhartt than Tommy Bahama, more corn and cows than conch shells. There's no salty smell of the sea as the waves slap the shore; instead it's the pungent scent of agriculture that occasionally wafts along the landlocked west coast of Vermont's so-called ''inland sea." Indeed, between 12,000 and 13,000 years ago, the area was covered by an inland arm of the Atlantic Ocean. There are plenty of boats in backyards.

Near the Quebec border and across the way from upstate New York, the three islands -- Isle La Motte, North Hero, and South Hero -- are linked by bridges over a 27-mile stretch. There are inns, motels, bed-and-breakfasts, and a handful of state parks along with lakefront farms, stone homes, rural peacefulness, antiques shops, and recreational opportunities. For the bicyclist, there are plenty of shoulders, back roads with low traffic, good signage, and places to ponder.

That's because the islands are part of the Lake Champlain Bikeways, a 350-mile network in New York, Quebec, and Vermont. Finding a place to pedal is as simple as showing up.

Our base of operations was the lakeside North Hero House. Even before arriving, we downloaded a couple of area bike routes from the inn's website. The main building of the inn, built in 1891, overlooks the water and moored boats and rounded mountains on the horizon. Breakfast was in the enclosed porch. Up in the room, a window seat also had the postcard view, but showering under the eaves was a Leaning Tower of Pisa experience.

A short walk from the inn is Hero's Welcome, a general store emporium. Its waterside picnic area is a quiet place to watch the world go by. Next door is the Chamber of Commerce, which offers a free brochure with five self-guided bicycle tours of the islands. The brochure has brief descriptions, directions, and a small map of the rides, each of which is 6-16 miles. Start from the inn and either add some miles or drive to the public parking areas and start pedaling from there.

The loops are easy enough that you can do one in the morning and another in the afternoon, with a stop for a sandwich along the way.

Know, however, that Vermont roads can be filled with surprises. Not all are paved, and the unpaved ones can have the temperament of an adolescent: sweet and smooth for a stretch followed by potholes or washboard surfaces. That's fine if you're riding a hybrid or mountain bike. Thin-tired roadies should be OK, too, even when the trail turns to a short, two-track grassy stretch. Route 2 can be a tad busy, but the shoulders are decent.

The island terrain is generally flat to rolling hills with the Green Mountains to the east and Adirondacks in the west. The wind can come up off the lake and make its presence known.

With Robare's Harbor Store smack in the middle of a 16-mile figure eight circuit, quench your thirst between two state parks. The sand dunes of Alburg Dunes State Park, on a tongue of land, are quite the sight in this non-ocean state. The trail heads past a marshy area teeming with reds as swamp maples turn from summer to fall dress. North Hero State Park is the site of a turtle nesting area along the uncrowded beaches. Poor Farm Road seemed anything but impoverished with its rich beauty. A stop in an antiques store, The Right Place, near the North Hero/Alburg Bridge, yielded a plate and bowl that the proprietor wrapped to fit into a backpack.

Bubble wrap for a bottle of wine and two glasses was the covering of choice at the Snow Farm Vineyard in South Hero the next day during a 13-mile ride that showcased the woods and water of West Shore Road, the state's first winery, and tiny stone castles. Starting from the Grand Isle Ferry Dock, where passengers are shuttled between Vermont and Plattsburgh, N.Y., the unpaved hilly road wanders by cottages, homes, and forest. Soon enough, miniature castles made of stone spring up. These were created by Harry Barber, a gardener who used Vermont stone to build dozens between the late 1920s and his death in 1966. Only a few remain, looking like impressive miniature golf obstacles.

The Snow Farm Vineyard is funky Vermont, with an outdoor patio for sitting. A late-morning wine tasting made the remainder of the circuit interesting as we rolled by llamas, a house with dozens of multicolored birdhouses, and the apple orchards of South Hero's South Street.

Marty Basch can be reached at www.martybasch.com.

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