BROWNSVILLE, Vt. -- We've come for a weekend at the Pond House Bed & Breakfast just in time to catch Cow Appreciation Day at a nearby farming museum. It's a testament to Vermont's pastoral history that cows outnumbered people here until the 1960s. Yet in recent years, the state has become a cultural hermaphrodite, a rural throwback battling creeping urbanization and development.
The two facets of its personality don't always fit together. We spot a ''Don't Jersey Vermont" bumper sticker on an all-terrain vehicle. But there are times when the mix of country and city work magic, as at the Pond House, where the tonic of bucolic tranquillity comes with a splash of urbanity.
Your first impression is of rustic intimacy. The operative word in Pond House is ''house," and this one is not huge. When we arrive, innkeeper Gretel Schuck suggests we keep our voices down so as not to disturb a napping guest upstairs.
There are just three guest rooms; 10 acres of field, stone walls, and a flyspeck of a pond; a chicken coop, and a barn with five goats; and a commendable willingness to accept guests with ''polite" dogs. (Walking ours, we stumbled across a wonderful rural scene of a fawn frolicking in a field under the eye of its mother.) The house and barn sit in a web of country roads along which bikers swarm like just-hatched spiders. The owner, an elfin blonde of 58, greets us in denim overalls that will be her uniform for most of the weekend.
''The goats don't care if I wear Armani," Schuck says.
Still, she's no Daisy Mae. She may be an avid cyclist who takes her dog Jackson along when she competes in triathlons (''It's hard getting him on the bike," she says.), but Schuck is also well traveled by air. We spent part of our Italian honeymoon in Cinque Terra, so Kathy immediately notices the photos of that seaside resort hanging in the living room. Schuck visits Italy as often as possible, and she drizzles her house with European frills. Our bathroom soap dish says ''Hotel Metropole/Monte Carlo"; a copy of Renoir's ''Sur la Terrasse" is on our wall.
If staying here is like being invited into someone's home, few hosts lay out such a cosmopolitan spread for dinner. When we called to book the room, Schuck seemed mildly distressed to hear one of us is a vegetarian, since she cooks one meal for all guests. Fortunately, our dinner-mates, a congenial California couple cruising cross-continent, were game for a meatless menu, and we dined on polenta with sauted mushrooms.
The entree is bracketed by an arugula salad appetizer (Schuck grows the arugula in her garden) and a lemon mousse dessert, all washed down with selections from a small but refined wine list. Dinner is included with the room if you stay at least two nights; a one-night stay means paying a $25-per-person dinner charge, not counting wine.
Dog owners should know that this is one of those houses where Rover is restricted to certain quarters. The living room, which doubles as a cozy dining room, is off limits, which our retriever discovered when she wormed her way out of our bedroom while we were eating. As she stood expectantly in the doorway, Schuck gently but firmly warded her off.
The meal negotiations demonstrate something else to bear in mind if you're considering a small B&B like the Pond House: Be flexible, and pray that your fellow guests are compatible. Determined carnivores or picky eaters would have meant a dinnertime standoff. If you're unwilling to bend or chance having someone facing you over a meal, the Pond House is not for you.
Otherwise, this is a wonderful destination for a relaxed country stay.
''It's nice to wake up smelling the fields of Vermont," Kathy says on a sunny Sunday morning. For fun, you can swim in the refreshingly cold pond. We wondered why such a tiny body of water had a dock until Jackson came along and used it as his diving board. The destination town of Woodstock, with its excellent restaurants, boutique stores, and a Town Hall movie theater on weekends, is a pleasant half-hour drive away.
Of course, there are always those biking roads, which is where we last glimpse our hostess, clad in Lycra, pedaling down Route 44 and waving goodbye as we drive out of town.