Leaving Williamstown and driving north to Manchester, your foliage tour only intensifies. If time allows and there's a wedding or shower gift that needs purchasing, stop along the way in Bennington, where Robert Frost's gravestone carries his self-styled epitaph, "I have had a lover's quarrel with the world," and where a gallery called Bennington Potters sells artful handmade giftware. Another half-hour of leaf-peeping up Route 7 and you swing off the exit toward Manchester Center. Your destination, The Equinox, is reached by turning left at a maelstrom of an intersection in the heart of the town's tasteful district of factory outlet stores. In peak foliage season, you may find the traffic in that spot so heavy you can watch the leaves changing while you wait.
The Equinox was in place a good 200 years before the outlet stores, and the most recent of its restorations has taken hold beautifully. If you walk straight out the hotel's front entrance, cross the street toward the Vermont State Craft Center and the gold-domed county courthouse, you'll only go another few paces before reaching the Gleneagles golf course and clubhouse. A mid-afternoon arrival at the hotel gave us time to fool around with mallets and wickets on the hotel's immaculate new croquet court--which on a Stimpmeter would measure out about 7. Our room was on the street side, with a glimpse of the eastern ridge but no view of the 3,800-foot Mt. Equinox--something you might request. We swam in the indoor lap pool, endured a little treadmill torture, then dressed for dinner at the Willburton Inn, overlooking the Battenkill River just a couple of miles away.
Offsetting the yuppie splendor of the Equinox (where a Land Rover off-road driving school and a School of British Falconry are both available) The Willburton provides a brief descent into rococo style and salon society. The old mansion is lovingly maintained but its common rooms give off an air of Edwardian carelessness. You could pause in one of them for long kiss without attracting attention. Our dinner in the theatrically darkened billiard room was transporting, led off by a garlicky broccoli and cheddar soup. As '40s jazz ballads came softly from hidden speakers, we proceeded on to salad, sole stuffed with diced crab and shrimp and a healthy slab of sauteed fennel. Service was warm and attentive throughout the evening, which concluded with some stargazing on the dewy lawn.
Gleneagles Golf Club is a pampered, politely challenging golf course that fits the personality of the Equinox. The first few holes of the front nine are seductively prim. When No. 4 beckons you down a toboggan chute at the sound of the previous group's gong of a bell, it's the signal to start doing what the golf course tells you. The final two holes on the front side play down, then up, to a pair of stately, terraced green settings, imaginatively bunkered. On the back nine, the ground beneath you gets more ru gged. The large 12th green features a dramatic circular ridge that requires a would-be par-shooter to play to the proper quadrant. No. 13 works its way along a bulging sideslope to a lofty green site. You might think you've reached the highest spot on the course, then someone points you up the stairs to No. 14 tee, where a pause for autumn swooning is required. The 14th, a downhill par-3, can be reached with 9-iron or pitching wedge (I made a 4 there). Two holes later there's a level par-3 where many players could hit driver (I made a 2). Then you turn back toward the church steeples of Main Street for two holes that each swing left, one dogleg guarded by bunkers the other by a huge Eisenhower-like tree.
Dinner that evening was at a fireside table in the Marsh Tavern. Cuisine at The Equinox has never incorporated European tableside flourishes or New York artsiness. The hotel's main dining room, the Colonnade, seems to lack warmth. But you can sit among the lumberjack flannel wall coverings and the polished wood floors and wainscoting of the Marsh Tavern and eat very well. Dishes like Yankee pot roast and Shepherd's Pie are reinvented by this kitchen, blending moist chunks of seasoned meat with airy crusts and subtle sauces. Our warm salmon salad and a California cabernet came from a different era but complemented the entrees perfectly. With business in Manchester concluded, you could head directly toward Woodstock, but this golf tour favors the wilder geography of Rutland Country Club over the more delicate, level lacework of the golf course owned and managed by the Woodstock Inn & Resort.
Rutland C.C. is a 97-year-old outpost of Green Mountain self-reliance in a prosperous but decidedly un-craftsy Vermont city. Here the rock-ribbed locals arrive in late-model American cars to golf their way up a demanding hillside. Their golf course, designed by Stiles and Van Kleek on the former Baxter Farm, opens with a straight, simple par-4 screened from a tidy neighborhood by a tall hemlock hedge. Then it zig-zags upland, playing back and forth over a deep, rugged creek th at's relied on to drain the walls of black rain that sweep in off the Champlain waterway. The fifth hole is a colossus of a par-3--driver distance over a vale to a deep, wide proscenium of a green sloped back to front. Your shot cannot finish above the hole if you have any hope of two-putting.