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Escape the city

Though it claims to be one, this idyllic getaway is anything but urban

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / September 20, 2006

Vergennes has laid claim to being the smallest city in the nation and the oldest city in the state. Nonsense. Sure, Vergennes has a wonderful history, especially during the War of 1812, when Commodore Thomas MacDonough built a fleet of gunboats along the shores of the Otter Creek Basin that helped defeat the British on Lake Champlain. And, no doubt about it, the town is puny, with a little more than three blocks of storefronts on Main Street. Yet how can a village with a population around 2,800 possibly call itself a city?

A dozen miles northwest of the college town of Middlebury and half that distance to the shores of Lake Champlain, Vergennes should simply call itself the ideal weekend getaway. Within that three-block radius are two French restaurants and two additional dining establishments for casual fare, an organic grocer, a chocolatier, a woman's clothing store worth a browse, and a century-old opera house. Except for one additional stop at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum , there's not much else to tear you away from the quiet waters of the lake and a fertile basin of farms and rolling backcountry roads to tantalize cyclists.

Rest

In summer, the Basin Harbor Club (Basin Harbor Drive, 800-622-4000, www.basinharbor.com) is a whirlwind of activity, with families coming from near and far to swim in the lake, jump on the waterfront trampoline, sea kayak, play a round of golf, or read a book in one of those Adirondack chairs planted on the sloping lawn overlooking the harbor. Indeed, 120 years after Ardelia Beach started taking in summer boarders at her 225-acre working farm, the club's fourth-generation hosts, siblings Bob and Pennie Beach, are proving that a family business can prosper over time. In fall, when families are back in school, children's gleeful screams are replaced by the sounds of your golf club hitting the ball or your paddle splashing in the lake as you cross to watch the waterfall trickle down the sheer cliffs called the Palisades. The last burst of family excitement is on Columbus Day weekend, when the resort celebrates Harborween . A pumpkin carving contest, haunted hayrides, trick-or-treat trails, and a masked ball are all part of the festivities. Rates in fall start at $150 a night, including breakfast.

If you prefer to stay in the city of Vergennes, consider one of the six rooms at the circa-1850 Emerson Guest House (82 Main St., 802-877-3293, www.emersonhouse.com) . Rates range from $75 to $145 a night, including a full country breakfast.

Do

Next door to the Basin Harbor Club, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (4472 Basin Harbor Road, 802-475-2022, www.lcmm.org) explores the history of boating on the lake. Indeed, a discourse on American boatbuilding can be viewed through the lens of this 120-mile- long lake. The wrecks of gunboats used during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, 19th-century steamboats, barges, canal boats, and 20th-century tugboats have all been found on the lake's bottom. Not to mention the mind-boggling amount of memorabilia that was associated with these ships. The museum is also known for its boatbuilding courses, which helped create the 54-foot replica of the Philadelphia found on the museum's grounds.

Three miles north of Vergennes, in Ferrisburgh , the Rokeby Museum (4334 Route 7, 802-877-3406, www.rokeby.org) features a 200-year-old house and eight farm buildings that were used by four generations of a Quaker family. The site was a valuable stopover on the Underground Railway for slaves seeking freedom in the North. Adults $6.

Play

The younger guests at the Basin Harbor Club can join the Children's Program, which runs weekends throughout the fall. Morning, afternoon, and dinner programs cater to ages 3-15 and include cookouts, arts and crafts, outdoor sports, and nature walks.

South of Basin Harbor, Button Bay Road (which turns into Lake Road) is a gently rolling valley nestled between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks across the border in New York. With silos and cows far outnumbering cars, it's one of my favorite places in the state to bring the family for a bike ride. Vistas of Lake Champlain are around every bend, and, in the distance, you can see the distinctive peak of Camel's Hump . An added bonus is the thousands of squawking white snow geese that reside at the Dead Creek Goose Management Area in October. Turn left on Atherton Road and Route 17 for a straight shot to Dead Creek.

Back in the car, head south again on Route 17 toward the Champlain Bridge to reach the nine-hole Extreme Mini-Golf Course (Route 17, West Addison, 802-759-2566) . Set in the back of a country store and overlooking farmland, nine holes are all you need to try your patience on this challenging up and down (but rarely in the cup) course. Be on the lookout for frogs.

Party

The 1897 red-brick Vergennes Opera House (120 Main St., 802-877-6737, www.vergennesoperahouse.org) reopened its doors in 1997 after a community-wide restoration project to celebrate its first century. The space features music, drama, and dance year-round. Events this fall include a performance by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra tomorrow, bluegrass, Celtic tunes, and sea shanties sung by the Woods Tea Company Sept. 29, and the improvisational skills of comedian Jason Lorber on Oct. 14.

Better yet, try a walk under the stars, breathing in the crisp Vermont air.

Spend

Open five years, but under new management, Everywear (233 Main St.) features an inviting mix of colorful blouses (one with a butterfly print sells for $79), sun hats, formal dresses with a vintage flair, and jewelry, all for women.

Fat Hen (10 Green St.) has a good selection of local organic produce and Vermont boutique cheeses such as Thistle Hill Tarentaise or the award-winning two-year-old cheddar from Shelburne Farm s.

Follow that sweet smell across the street and down the stairs to reach Daily Chocolate (7 Green St.) . Owner Chris White studied the craft of chocolate making in Santa Fe and still uses many of his West Coast sources for nuts and chocolate. But the organic dairy and maple syrup are pure Vermont. Try the heavenly chocolate chevre truffle or the maple chipotle pecan.

Fuel

Christophe's on the Green (802-877-3413, www.christophesonthegreen.com) serves innovative French fare, with classic choices such as braised rabbit, côte de boeuf, and monkfish on the menu. All entrees are $27.50, or opt for the $45 prix fixe ($38 Tuesday-Thursday) that includes appetizer, main course, and dessert.

Prints by Daumier and Matisse line the yellow walls of the Black Sheep Bistro (253 Main St., 802-877-9991). The restaurant takes advantage of its locale to offer fresh produce, such as the arugula and plums found in the salad or the maple syrup that sweetens the soy dipping sauce for the pork dumplings. You can't go wrong with salmon or steak for dinner, paired with yummy french fries or a big bowl of garlic mashed potatoes. All entrees are $17.

Up the block, Eat Good Food (221 Main St., 802-877-2772, www.eatgoodfoodvt.com) is a decent choice for lunch. Try the grilled panini on homemade ciabatta or pitas stuffed with hummus, tuna, or cheddar cheese. All washed down with lemonade.

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