A cool car (a Mini Cooper) and a scenic route (from Massachusetts to Montreal) inspire a spur-of-the-moment vacation. Amy Bloom hits the road.

May 08, 2009

I didn't want to go anywhere. I had been away from home for almost three weeks, teaching and writing, trying to think big thoughts. I wanted to unpack, answer the pile of letters and sort through the magazines that threatened to overwhelm our kitchen table. I would talk to all my children and make plans to see abandoned friends, and by the time I looked up, it would be the following week and I would be gone again, unavailable, no fun and out of reach, for a month. "Don't even unpack," said my girlfriend, Joy. "Vermont," she said. "Lemon meringue pie. Used books. Back roads." Instead of checking e-mail, I could be uncovering first editions of Little Women. I didn't unpack at all, except to toss out the dirty clothes.

At home in central Connecticut, we drive a Saturn. It is a fine car for many things, but it does not say holiday. A Mini Cooper says holiday; it says rally; and, despite its English pedigree, it even says Laissez les bons temps rouler! The nice people at New Country Motor Cars in Hartford rent us a glistening black, corners-on-rails Mini and we zip up I-91, listening to Solomon Burke and accepting admiring glances for the Mini as we pass through Northampton, home of Smith College. Then off the interstate and onto Route 5: at first, it's Anywhere Ugly, U.S.A.—McDonald's, RadioShack, occasional pens of restless RV's.

But things are becoming weirdly lovely as we make our way north, stopping at the Whately Antiquarian Book Center in North Hatfield. It has the necessary mix of hodgepodge, ancient dust, grizzled dog, and doting owner, and everything from a Golden Book on trains to 17 volumes of Patrick O'Brian's 20-book swashbuckling Aubrey/Maturin series with exquisitely decaying Moroccan bindings. I pick up the first two O'Brians, because any series recommended to me, at alternate times, bya self-identified lesbian redneck, a 70-year-old Tory Englishman, and a Reform rabbi is worth checking out.

We pull over at the Yesterdays Antique Center in South Deerfield. Inside are Depression glass, porcelain salt-and-pepper sets shaped like tepees. We realize that there is more of this ahead, so I buy nothing. Joy and I make a pact for the rest of our trip: no antiques, no syrup, no cheese.

As I mutter, "Iced coffee, tuna on rye toast, lemon meringue pie," Joy answers by pulling over at the outstanding Four Leaf Clover Restaurant in Bernardston. The place serves just what I asked for (and much more, including baked haddock Portuguese-style, fried oysters, and seven other kinds of homemade pie). Full and happy, we get back in the Mini and switch over to Jimmy Cliff. Next stop Vermont, and its bookstore epicenter, Brattleboro. There's Everyone's Books, specializing in social justice and the general wish to make the world a better place; Brattleboro Books, 75,000 volumes and an owner who is civility itself (from whom I buy a copy of Kindred, the one-of-a-kind sci-fi book by the one-of-a-kind Octavia E. Butler); and the Book Cellar, for those who prefer new books with covers not even slightly foxed.

Route 9W takes us past stands with maple syrup and cheddar, maple syrup and sheepskin hats—we waver but hold to our vow. We sleep at the pretty (and pretty fancy) Inn at Sawmill Farm, in West Dover. It is a charming restored old barn, withcottages set around two well-groomed ponds. There's wood in the fireplaces and little candles to help start the fire. The 1,325-bottle wine list is extraordinary, the restaurant first-rate.

The next morning we follow Route 100into the eclectic town of Jamaica, which quickly becomes our favorite in Vermont. More real than postcard-perfect Woodstock, more soulful than Manchester (not that that would be hard), it has a palpable air of being home. On Main Street, there is the exceptional Elaine Beckwith Gallery—no reproductions and most of the 30 artists so good that if you saw their work and those prices in SoHo or Taos, you'd have your hand on your wallet. Farther up the road is the lovely Three Mountain Inn, 15 rooms in a beautifully restored 1790 Colonial cottage. Jamaica is old Vermont, with plenty of room for artists, transplanted Brooklynites, poets, printers, the pierced barista in the armchair-filled Jamaica Coffee House, and even an occasional visitor. It is Vermont as one hoped it would be: rough and bumpy, but not hostile; small and content to be itself; not a cheese stand in sight.

We take more Route 100 and then 100A from Plymouth to Route 4. In Quechee, we stop for lunch at Simon Pearce, a restaurant and well-known glass factory housed in an old mill. We could go home now, we say. E-mail, laundry, bills. "Maybe a little city life," I say. "Museums," I say. "Shopping. Martinis."

"Montreal," Joy says. "Allons-y!"

We meet our friends, Gina and Michael, in Quechee. They are, like us, longing for a short vacation from real life. They are also owners of a large, only slightly scary Lexus LX 470S (into which we could put the entire Mini). We switch cars with regret and head west, then north on I-89. Once we cross the Vermont-Canada border, we find ourselves on one of the ugliest, most godforsaken strips of road I've ever seen: Canada's Route 133. This is dun-colored Ethan Frome territory, brightened only by the occasional sagging six-room motel or stripped pickup.

An hour later, we drive into Montreal. The whole city seems cozy, manageable, attractive if not breathtaking, easy to maneuver, and, without being Paris—or even Reims—it gives us great patisseries, big romantic dinners, and nighttime strolls through cobblestoned streets. Montreal also gives us poutine.

What arroz con leche is to Mexicans, what haggis is to Scots, poutine is to French Canadians. Poutine is a cardboard boat of sweaty frites (more Coney Island than Balthazar) smothered by a large ladleful of beef gravy and sprinkled with a mild, white cheese that nobody will identify. Gina is half French Canadian, so she makes us sit down in Pizza Madonna (a greasy poutinière on Boulevard St.-Laurent), where she falls upon the dish with nostalgic and rapacious enthusiasm. Joy, a Norwegian American genetically inclined toward potatoes and gravy, is an instant convert. Michael and I are from similarly carb-heavy backgrounds, but we fail to experience this Proustian epiphany.

For my own temps perdu, we walk one block to Schwartz's Charcuterie Hébraïque du Montréal. People talk about Schwartz's up here in a big way, the same way that people in San Francisco talk about their bagels: proudly, defensively, cluelessly. It's nice enough smoked meat. The garlic dills are first-rate, the Cott's Black Cherry flows like wine, and the English-speaking people all sound like my elderly relatives. But it's the Disney version of a true Jewish deli: the waiters aren't even rude.

The next morning, we venture four blocks from our hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, into Premiere Moisson, a patisserie, boulangerie, charcuterie, and chocolaterie (the marzipan aliens and octopuses are a nice change from the usual fruits and vegetables). There are 12 of these stores in Quebec; the one on Rue Sherbrooke West in Centre-Ville is outstanding. After a bowl of café au lait, we visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, two blocks away, where the contemporary Inuit art has elements of Henry Moore as well as Giacometti. I am surprised by its harsh wit, uncanny juxtapositions of materials (an entire ebony sea camp, animal and human, on a single, white whale vertebra), and a sense of tenacious life and melancholy understanding.

Melancholy understanding might be the theme for the Ritz-Carlton Montreal, open since 1912 and being expensively renovated since 1999. It now feels like certain middlebrow British department stores: blandly handsome, with elaborate layers of window treatments. Next time, we'll stay at the slightly surreal and entirely French La Maison Pierre du Calvet where, with the fireplaces, antique chairs, and canopied beds, you can pretend that you're Madame's house guest, sipping eau-de-vie in her ancestral home.

That night we eat at Les Halles, which is old-school French—attentive career waiters, large affectionate families, chic couples. If there were dogs and smoke, we'd be in Paris. (Fumeurs, take note: Canadian cigarette-pack warnings are nothing like ours—they feature large, vivid, and disgusting photos of blackened lungs, rotting teeth, and various lesions.) The second evening, we discover Milos, an upscale fantasy of a Greek seaside taverna. The Saint-Pierre, Dover sole, and loup-de-mer (true French bass) are as good as any I've ever eaten, the taramasalata is absolutely the best, and the friendly, knowledgeable staff ask if you prefer lobster head and tail or not. The restaurant does have those ridiculous six-pound lobsters (as appealing as giant asparagus), but the hostess assures me that she regards them as friends, so we come to see them as more like staff and less like dinner.

The house begins calling to us. We dream of mountains of mail, corridors of paper. The next morning, we drive straight home, transferring from Lexus and—happily, albeit briefly—back to Mini, finally dropping off the Mini. We're in our Connecticut driveway in five hours, and I am braced for the real world by pie and art, old books, back roads, friends, and plenty of Joy for four days and three nights.

AMY BLOOM is the author of the short-story collections Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. She is currently at work on her third book of short stories.ITINERARY

Day 1: Take I-91 from Springfield, Massachusetts, through Northampton. Exit onto Route 5, which runs alongside the interstate. Stop at South Deerfield before crossing into Vermont. Take Route 9 west out of Brattleboro to Route 100 north and West Dover. Overnight at the Inn at Sawmill Farm. Day 2: Follow Route 100, which winds through Jamaica and up to Plymouth, where it forks east into Route 100A. Take Route 4 east to Quechee, then I-89 for the trek to the Canadian border. Once in Quebec province, take Route 133 to Montreal (about one hour's drive). Spend the night at the Ritz-Carlton Montreal. Day 3: Explore Montreal on foot. Day 4: Marathon it back to Springfield in just over five hours.

THE FACTS

Whately Antiquarian Book Center RTE. 5, NORTH HATFIELD, MASS. 413/247-3272
Yesterdays Antique Center 226A GREENFIELD RD., SOUTH DEERFIELD, MASS. 413/665-7226
Four Leaf Clover Restaurant LUNCH FOR TWO $30. 19 SOUTH ST., BERNARDSTON, VT. 413/648-9514
Everyone's Books 25 ELLIOT ST., BRATTLEBORO, VT. 802/254-8160
Brattleboro Books 34 ELLIOT ST., BRATTLEBORO, VT. 802/257-7777
The Book Cellar 120 MAIN ST., BRATTLEBORO, VT. 802/254-6026
Inn at Sawmill Farm DOUBLES FROM $350. 7 CROSSTOWN RD., WEST DOVER, VT. 800/493-1133 OR 802/464-8131; www.theinnatsawmillfarm.com
Elaine Beckwith Gallery MAIN ST., JAMAICA, VT. 802/874-7234; www.beckwithgallery.com
Three Mountain Inn DOUBLES FROM $145. MAIN ST., JAMAICA, VT. 800/532-9399 OR 802/874-4140; www.threemountaininn.com
Jamaica Coffee House MAIN ST., JAMAICA, VT. 802/874-4400
Simon Pearce Restaurant LUNCH FOR TWO $40. 1760 MAIN ST., QUECHEE, VT. 802/295-1470
Pizza Madonna POUTINE FROM $2. 3605 BLVD. ST.-LAURENT, MONTREAL; 514/499-1082
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal 1379-1380 RUE SHERBROOKE W., MONTREAL; 514/285-1600
Ritz-Carlton Montreal DOUBLES FROM $235. 1228 RUE SHERBROOKE W., MONTREAL; 800/363-0366 OR 514/842-4212; www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/montreal
Les Halles DINNER FOR TWO $75. 1450 CRESCENT ST., MONTREAL; 514/844-2328
La Maison Pierre du Calvet DOUBLES FROM $196. 405 RUE BONSECOURS, MONTREAL; 866/544-1725 OR 514/282-1725
Schwartz's LUNCH FOR TWO $20. 3895 BLVD. ST.-LAURENT, MONTREAL; 514/842-4813
Premiere Moisson 1490 RUE SHERBROOKE W., MONTREAL; 514/931-6540
Milos DINNER FOR TWO $88. 5357 AVENUE DU PARC MONTRÉAL, MONTREAL; 514/272-3522

Milos, Montreal

Greek seafood restaurant Milos opened in Montreal in 1979 and was chef-owner Costas Spiliadis’ first eatery, preceding locations in New York, Athens, and Las Vegas. Fresh seafood ranges from sardines and octopus to Gulf shrimp and red snapper—all served with olive oil pressed by Spiliadis’ sister in Greece. A bed of ice displays the daily catches market-style, while the whitewashed walls evoke a Greek taverna. For dessert, both the loukoumades (fried pastry) and baklava are sweetened with Kythiran honey produced by bees that feed on wild thyme. A surprising wine list focuses mainly on Greek labels, French Chardonnays, and Pinot Noirs.

Les Halles

Four Leaf Clover Restaurant

Pizza Madona

Madona, one of the city's original cheap-pizza joints, serves its 99-cent slices until the early-morning hours. Located on a busy stretch of Saint-Laurent where the “The Main” intersects pedestrian Prince Arthur Street, the pizzeria is close to bars and nightclubs. The pies are New York-style with a thin crust, and sold by the slice or as a whole. Only the cheese pizza goes for the bargain price, but there are other toppings available and most slices don't exceed $2.50. Pizza Madona is also known for its poutine—French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.

Simon Pearce Restaurant

Perched alongside the Ottauquechee River in eastern Vermont, this restaurant in Quechee serves globally accented American comfort food like horseradish crusted cod, pomegranate glazed Atlantic salmon, and sesame-seared chicken with spicy apricot dipping sauce. For ambiance, the converted 19th-century woolen mill is regarded as one of the top romantic venues in the state, especially the brick and wood terrace which looks directly down onto a waterfall and covered bridge. Emphasizing its environmental stewardship, the restaurant generates its own power from the river and sources ingredients from local organic farms whenever possible.

Schwartz's

Opened in 1928, this kosher-style Jewish deli marinates its meat for 10 full days before hot-smoking it. The preservative-free beef brisket (similar to pastrami) is ordered by the fat content: either fat, medium-fat, medium, or lean. All tables are communal; counter seats overlook the busy meat-slicing area. The classic order is a smoked-meat sandwich with a side of fries and half-sour pickles. Daily lunch lines form along Montreal’s “Main Street,” Saint-Laurent Boulevard, so in 2008 the restaurant expanded with a take-out counter next door. By noon, there's still an hour-or-more wait.

Inn at Sawmill Farm

Spread across 20 acres in West Dover, the Inn at Sawmill Farm comprises a main house surrounded by several smaller cottages. The inn embraces its roots as a 19th-century working farm—for instance, hallways are lined with original red-and-white barn siding, while the hayloft now houses a library and game room. The 21 guest rooms are individually designed, although many have wood-burning fireplaces, private balconies, and floral-print linens that match the antique Victorian furniture. The property also includes two fishing ponds and an Italian restaurant called Nonna’s, known for its signature meatballs and 17,000-bottle wine cellar.

La Maison Pierre du Calvet

Thick stonewalls, a Breton façade, and iron shutters hint at the heritage of La Maison Pierre du Calvet, built in 1725. Located on a cobble stone street in Old Montreal, the hotel has a library for guests, plus an outdoor garden terrace and indoor greenhouse with parrots. Rooms have intricate furnishings, including custom-made canopy beds in a French regency style, mahogany furniture, and the owner’s family heirlooms. Each also has a fireplace and beds made with Eqyptian cotton linen. The hotel art gallery, the Montreal Bronze Museum, exhibits the work of owner and artist Gaëtan Trottier.

Ritz-Carlton, Montreal

Located in downtown's Golden Square Mile, the palazzo-style building housing the Ritz-Carlton, known as “La Grande Dame”, has a history dating back to 1912. A $150-million renovation that started in 2008 has modernized the hotel and its 130 rooms and suites. Guest areas include a rooftop indoor swimming pool, fitness center, and restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud. The chef's first venture in Montreal, Maison Boulud serves locally sourced French cuisine and retains the hotel’s famed terrace, pond, and ducklings.

Three Mountain Inn

Housed in a restored 1780’s building, Three Mountain Inn is located in the small village of Jamaica, Vermont. Despite renovations, the inn maintains its original Colonial style in the private cottage and 12 guest rooms, most of which include pine-planked walls, antique furniture, four-poster featherbeds, and views of the Green Mountains. From 4—5 p.m., hot cider and crackers with Vermont cheddar are served beside the fireplace, and a five-course prix fixe menu is available each night in the highly regarded restaurant. The inn is adjacent to Jamaica State Park and about a 10-minute drive from Stratton Mountain Ski Resort.

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