Winter becomes Vermont. Each year, when New York and Boston streets fill with charcoal-colored slush, blankets of bright snow fall like goose down over the central part of the state, turning its mountains into some of the Northeast's best ski resorts and its villages into Christmas cards. Here, a sampling of three distinctive weekends for skiers, shoppers, and those who like nothing more than sitting in front of a fire.
Sugarbush ski resort has just spent $28 million on renovations, and the brochures gloat endlessly. Let it be said that the skiing has improved. A respectable 2,650 feet of vertical is served by 18 lifts to 112 ski-able trails; high-speed detachable quads have made lift lines nearly obsolete. The resort has increased snow making by 300 percent, providing skiers with a more consistent snow cover than they get almost anywhere else in New England. Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen are now connected by the Slide Brook Express, the fastest high-speed quad in the world. (Two miles in 11 minutes is fast, but the quads don't have roofs, and in 15-degree weather it can seem like an eternity.)
The scene is more casual and comfortable than that at competitive Killington, but when I was there it was a bit unorganized. Renting equipment was inconvenient: instead of one main house for skis, there are several, and I could never really decide who or what was affiliated with the resort (I hear that, since my visit, they've consolidated the rental areas). Signage on the mountain was misleading - at one point, I found myself floundering on a supposedly intermediate run. Afraid my skills had deteriorated, I was pleased to discover that I was actually on a black diamond that had been poorly marked.
The Sugarbush Inn, at the base of Lincoln Peak, seemed to have missed out on the bulk of the area's renovations, so I booked a room at the Inn at the Round Barn Farm. Upon arriving I slipped out of my icy boots and into flannel slippers, and headed downstairs to the game room - stocked with chessboards, a video library, and an antique pool table - for some herbal tea. The 12-sided barn that prompted the inn's name hosts art exhibitions and orchestra concerts. In the cellar, there's a greenhouse brimming with tropical plants, as well as a heated lap pool.
Back in the main house, the 11 guest rooms are tasteful, the beds satisfyingly downy. The Richardson Room, the inn's largest, is done in country pine and floral prints á la Laura Ashley. Chaise lounges rest next to the fireplace, and the whirlpool tub overlooks acres of Currier & Ives scenery.
Anticipating a hot soak after a day on the trails, I was thwarted by a note on the nightstand requesting that guests "not run the tub jets between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m." Unfortunately, that was the only time I was actually in my room.
There are plenty of places to dine in the small town of Waitsfield. The newest apres-ski spot is John Egan's Big World Pub & Grill. Opened last year by local extreme-skiing celebrity John Egan and his business partner, Gerry Nooney, the fireplace-equipped lounge is packed by seven o'clock most nights with a crowd composed mainly of surfers looking for something to do in the winter. Think Santa Cruz with snow. I found the service nimble and the menu inspired: the smoky wood-fired swordfish, duck wontons, and mustard-crusted pork loin are all terrific.
Just north of Sugarbush's moguls and high-speed quads lies sleepy Waterbury, the kind of town where a big night out would probably include a stop at the Ben & Jerry's factory. The Tyrolean architecture of the Groenberg Haus, a 10-room chalet, is complemented by roaming chickens and ducks. Hot, fragrant cider simmers all day, and the hilltop location offers exceptional views, especially from the dining room. The interior colors mimic those of the outdoors - evergreen, bark, and cloud. A stone fireplace and a dark, cozy BYOB "pub" done in crimson and gold add a dash of King Arthur's court. The sofa in front of the fire is the perfect place to curl up and listen to innkeeper Chris Sellers play the grand piano. Later, over mulled wine, he shares anecdotes about quirky Vermont customs. He and his partner, Mark Frohman, employ a friendly "what's mine is yours" style of innkeeping.
After breakfast I put on snowshoes for a tour of the hilly 40-acre grounds, with the inn's cat Fritz following me like a dog. About 100 yards away I discovered that the Groenberg Haus also has two private cabins; since they are hard to reach in the snow, they are available only in the summer. Upstairs at the inn, the rooms are sunny, with private balconies and beds quilted in gingham. The two-room carriage house out back sleeps four, with a full kitchen, bath, and deck, and it rents for pre-war prices.
Though Woodstock is a place steeped in the sweet qualities all good New England towns should have, it won't cut you off from your favorite urban trappings (if Waterbury is where you go when you need to escape the city, Woodstock is where you go when you can't escape without focaccia). This, after all, is Vermont's address for architecture, luxury, and shopping. I poked around for hours in Who Is Sylvia?, looking through boxes of ostrich feathers, vintage gowns, shoes, and linens. Deertan Leather has exquisitely crafted leather goods, including buttery totes, packs, and wallets. There are several galleries; my favorite was the Stephen Huneck Gallery, which has an assortment of carved wood dogs as wall reliefs and furniture. F. H. Gillingham & Sons, just one of the village's culinary shops, is something of an institution - one part old-fashioned general store to three parts gourmet grocery/wine shop.
All slate floors and polished brass, the Woodstock Inn & Resort has a big, rustic glamour that would play well in the Rockies. The rooms in the new wing have sunporches and are done in cranberry and navy; TV's and VCR's are hidden behind cabinetry painted a creamy white. Spacious marble bathrooms are stocked with the kind of thirsty towels you wish you'd splurged on for your own home. There are two restaurants and a tavern on the premises; the menu is poetic, if somewhat affected: "Romaine leaves, Caesar-style"?I had to laugh.
Another good choice is Hemingway's restaurant, in town (call ahead to reserve a table in the romantic stone cellar). I started with pan-roasted scallops and truffled potatoes, followed that with native pheasant accompanied by basmati rice and grilled asparagus, then dove headfirst into the dessert tray.
Hemingway's tries to recapture the lost art of dining - and succeeds. The focus is on the experience instead of on trends and design. Not unlike Vermont itself.
Michele D. Niesen is an Atlanta-based chef and writer.
INN AT THE ROUND BARN FARM
E. Warren Rd., Waitsfield; 802/496-2276; doubles from $115, with breakfast. Groenberg Haus Rte. 100 South, Waterbury; 800/800-7760 or 802/244-7726; doubles from $55; the carriage house from $80, including breakfast.
WOODSTOCK INN & RESORT
14 The Green, Woodstock; 800/448-7900 or 802/457-1100; doubles from $149; dinner for two $80.
JOHN EGAN'S BIG WORLD PUB & GRILL
Mad Bush Falls Country Motel, Rte. 100, Waitsfield; 802/496-3033; dinner for two $30.
Rte. 4, Killington; 802/422-3886; prix fixe dinner menu, $48 a person.
WHO IS SYLVIA?26 Central St., Woodstock; 802/457-1110.
DEERTAN LEATHER, 3 Elm St., Woodstock; 802/457-2146.
STEPHEN HUNECK GALLERY, 49 Central St., Woodstock; 802/457-3206.
F. H. GILLINGHAM & SONS, 16 Elm St., Woodstock; 802/457-2100.