When I first considered moving to Vermont several years ago, the annual tapestry of fall colors was a major draw, as were the pristine land, beguiling towns, independent thought, and maple syrup. A far less expected draw was the high-caliber art tucked into these hills.
Being an extreme culture vulture with an art history degree, I have been continually impressed with the number of museums regularly showing contemporary and historical work by renowned artists.
Though I frequent these institutions throughout the year, fall has me reserving entire weekends for fine art and leaf-peeping, usually with visitors in tow. My beau, Sam, and I recently took a 120-mile round-trip drive through the southern part of the state. Taking Route 30 northwest from Brattleboro, we passed through Newfane, with its classic town green, handsome courthouse, and antiques shops, continuing to Townshend and Jamaica, up into the lower slopes of the Green Mountains.
Villages in this area, chartered in the mid- to late 1700s, are often admired for their Victorian storefronts or saltbox homes, but at this time of year the striking mantle of trees takes center stage.
As our car climbed higher, each bend in the road brought more glimpses of the early gold of black ash trees. We turned west onto Route 11, passing through the bustling village of Londonderry, and pulled into the Bromley Mountain Ski Resort. After driving through a tunnel to an overlook, the shift in altitude and the spectacular view were exhilarating. The real jaw-dropper, though, was yet higher, via ski lift.
Through Columbus Day, the lift takes visitors up Bromley to 2,600 feet, with the remaining 600 feet to the summit accessible by foot. "The best view is from the fire tower," says Bromley's Mike van Eyck. "It's a 15-foot-high wooden structure at the summit, for anyone who wants to get the best of the best, 360-degree views of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, including the tip of Mount Washington. And there's no time limit, you can hike around to your heart's content."
Later we set out for our first cultural destination, a few miles down the other side of the mountain in Manchester. Known for its retail outlets and stately seasonal residences, it's also home to a creative gold mine.
The Southern Vermont Arts Center, a 407-acre spread set on the hem of 3,848-foot Mount Equinox, is comprised of the modern Wilson Museum, with its bright, airy exhibition spaces; the Yester House, a Georgian Revival gem housing 10 intimate galleries; and the Arkell Pavilion, a 400-seat performing arts space, where legends like Dave Brubeck frequently grace the stage.
At Yester House through Oct. 26, the juried 52d Annual National Fall Open Exhibition showcases approximately 200 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs, all of which are for sale. The Wilson Museum has a timely show up, celebrating photojournalist Diane Walker's 25 years of capturing presidential moments.
After a brief stop at the Robert Frost Stone House in Shaftsbury to see an exquisite show of J.J. Lankes's woodcut book illustrations from the 1920s we headed south on Route 7 for lunch at Izabella's Eatery in Bennington.
With its art-lined brick red and mint green walls, the mod decor counterbalances a rustic menu full of seasonal, locally grown organic produce and homemade breads and desserts. After sharing a hearty lunch, we were ready for the second half of the trip, which began with a dose of local history.
The Bennington Museum is most known for its heirloom furnishings, American glass, Bennington pottery, and Grandma Moses collections. On display through Oct. 26 is a dynamic multi-era sampling of objects d'art and industry from Vermont.
We were just as dazzled by the 1924 Martin Wasp town car, built in Bennington, as we were the gallery of work by Vermont artists from the 19th century to the present. Included in the exhibit was a lush black and white photograph by John Miller, depicting a Holstein grazing alongside an overgrown, reflective pond.
After a dash over to the nearby Bennington Battle Monument, a 306-foot obelisk that offers a panorama of the region, it was time to head out.
A few miles outside of Bennington, heading east on Route 9, we stopped at trailheads for the Appalachian and Long trails. Undaunted by its "difficult" rating, we chose Harmon Hill and within minutes found ourselves on a veritable stairway of mossy boulders, traversing a steep incline into verdant woods. Constructed in the 1930s by the Green Mountain Club, the trail was framed by subtle hints of vibrant color to come.
Invigorated by an hour of nature-immersion, we hopped back in the car and headed 15 miles farther to Hogback Mountain Scenic Overlook in Marlboro for an expansive four-state view. During peak foliage this sprawling blanket of low hills is ablaze, with patches of crimson red maples stealing the show.
We ended our journey at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center and, this being the first Friday of the month, it was open late for the local Gallery Walk.
On display through Nov. 16, "Jules Olitski: An Inside View" spans six decades of this color-field pioneer's contribution to the evolution of American abstraction, from intaglios of the 1950s to minimal lithographs of the '60s into vivid, buoyant monotypes of the '90s, which he continued to master until his death last year at 84.
The museum is known for presenting significant surveys by everyone from Andy Warhol to Jacob Lawrence, along with regional artists.
"I can't tell you how many times out-of-town visitors tell us our exhibits are on a par with what they see in Boston and New York," says Danny Lichtenfeld, museum director. "They're consistently amazed that an independent, contemporary art museum located in a Vermont town of 12,000 can offer this kind of work."
Paired with the profusion of hues on hillsides, mountaintops, and valley floors, these art repositories make southern Vermont a prime spot to soak up autumn's aesthetics - whether natural or manmade.
Anne Lawrence Guyon can be reached at email@example.com.