Summer isn't always the best season for museum-going—too many warm-weather temptations. But since the Shelburne Museum, founded in 1947 by Electra Havemeyer Webb, is outdoors on a 45-acre plot, you can easily fend off those urges and take a walk among its 37 buildings and exhibits (Shelburne Rd.; 802/985-3346; adults $17.50, children 6-14 $6.50; open daily 10-5). The fact that it also has what may be the finest collection of Americana in the country is just a bonus.
In the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building, which re-creates the interiors of Webb's Manhattan town house, you'll find a trove of Impressionist works (Manet's Blue Venice is a must-see). In the nearby gallery, look for the Grandma Moses painting, signed by the artist as a Christmas gift to Webb. The Stagecoach Inn is a folk-art fantasyland, with its array of carved-wood tobacconist's figures (that's P.C. for cigar-store Indians), bird decoys, and weather vanes.
Girls and boys alike will love the Toy Shop, with its painstakingly reconstructed 19th-century dollhouses and its cast-iron piggy banks. The Circus Building holds just that—an entire miniature circus. The thousands of hand-painted figurines were designed by former Pennsylvania railroad employee Edgar Kirk, along with old carousel animals refitted with real horsehair (Kirk worked on it for 46 years, and he still hadn't finished when he died). After all that, leave time for the Ticonderoga, an intact steamship that was moved overland from Lake Champlain 45 years ago and later declared a National Historic Landmark. Going aboard is not a hermetically sealed experience—you get the full run of the vessel, and you have to duck under pipes and inch around the imposing coal engines in the hull.
Your ticket to the Shelburne Museum is good for two consecutive days, and you'd need to use both to take in its full breadth. But you should pry yourself away and drive to Shelburne Farms, which is home not only to the fabulous inn and restaurant but also to a thriving agricultural and educational enterprise (1611 Harbor Rd.; 802/985-8686; adults $11, children 3-14 $5; open daily 9-5 mid-May to mid-October). The 1,400-acre nonprofit farm on Lake Champlain, conceived in the 1880's by William Seward Webb and his wife, Lila Vanderbilt, is a marvel, both because of what it produces—first and foremost, award-winning cheddar—and the setting in which its products are made.
The grounds were laid out by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame. That means dirt roads full of twists and bends, which was Olmsted's way of surprising visitors: each turn past a thicket of trees suddenly reveals a new vista, every one more inspiring than the last. You'll get a ride around the property, passing by fields of cows, organic gardens, and bales of hay that would have humbled Monet.
The best stop is the gigantic Farm Barn—it's unlike any barn you've ever seen, with its hunter green Tudoresque turrets and undulating eaves. After the staff members inside show you how the cheese is made, you'll have a chance to put their cheddar where your mouth is at the end of the tour.
"This sunset's a good one—we even have some Jesus rays," says J. Whitney, kayaker extraordinaire, without the least bit of irreverence in his voice. We're out on Lake Champlain on a cool summer evening, and it's his description of those beatific shafts of light that clinch it for me—I am taking part in a blessed event.
I had wanted to try kayaking, but the idea of sea kayaking didn't thrill me—too much up-and-down lurching. Figuring a lake was a good bet, I called Back of Beyond Expeditions in Burlington to ask about the summer Waterfront Sunset Paddle, which ostensibly takes place at dusk every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday night. But here's the best thing about the folks at Back of Beyond—they'll accommodate almost any schedule. The only night I was free was a Saturday, yet they were more than happy to take me out on the lake.
With my wife, Joanna, I arrive at the waterfront just before 7 p.m., anticipating two solid hours of kayaking—sunset comes late when you're this far north. J., owner and operator of Back of Beyond, and his friend Lisa meet us with the kayaks and give minimal instruction, not because they're bad teachers, but because there's so little to teach: you just take the paddle, which has a contoured blade on each end, and twist as you dip it into the water.
Launching the boats, we paddle out around the breakwater in Burlington Bay—Joanna and I in a two-person kayak—and within minutes we're on open lake. J. is a 32-year-old mountain man with dirty-blond hair and a steely resolve to withhold the secret behind his mysterious initial. He regales us with tales of Vermont and a wealth of nautical tidbits gleaned from a life spent on or near the water.
It's quiet for a while, aside from the repeated clacking produced when my paddle hits Joanna's. Since I'm in the back, and can see when she's about to stroke in front of me, our lack of coordination is, of course, my fault. (Few things test a relationship like the clacking of paddles.) We do eventually ease into a rhythm, which is soon disrupted when I smell something burning.
"That's just the barbecues over at that campground on the shore," J. says.
"Where?" I ask, squinting.
"Over there?" We're at least a mile from land, and I can smell the burgers charring as if they were right in front of me.
"We get that all the time out here. Smells travel farther over the water than they do on land. So do sounds."