Six of the state's finest retreats

When was the last time you solved a jigsaw puzzle? Slept for 10 hours straight? Drank a glass of whole milk?

When were you last in Vermont?

This past fall I set out in search of Vermont's finest inns. It was October, and I had a craving for penny candy and the smell of wood smoke. I expected to find great places—and no real surprises. This was Vermont, after all. How many ways can you say "cozy clapboard Colonial"?

I found six very different inns in six very different places. There's the majestic brick mansion on the shores of Lake Champlain; the 200-year-old house where Kipling vacationed, in the state's most idyllic village; the luxurious Green Mountains resort with one of the country's best wine lists. Anyone who thinks Vermont knows only one note hasn't been there lately.

When were you last in Vermont?

A Manor on the Lake
Inn at Shelburne Farms

Shelburne Farms takes you back to the days when men wore muttonchops, bathtubs had feet, and all the children's table manners were above average. Everything, from the leather armchairs to the andirons, is twice normal size. Lila Vanderbilt and her husband, Dr. William Seward Webb, built this sprawling Queen Anne- style mansion a century ago; the house was converted to a 24-room inn in 1986. This is still a working dairy farm with an on-site environmental education center, and the nearby Shelburne Museum has a vast collection of Vermont artifacts.

You won't be bothered here by alarm clocks, in-room faxes, and other modern intrusions. You also won't find any heat beyond the hearths downstairs, so pack layers if you're here after Labor Day. (The inn is closed from mid-October to mid-May.) Luxury takes on a different meaning at Shelburne Farms. Guests don't come for fluffy bathrobes. And you can't light the fireplace in your room—landmark laws prohibit it. That said, who cares?You're lord of the manor. Borrow a canoe to ply the waves of Lake Champlain. Vermont looks more like Maine up here—flat, rocky, waterbound. Sea-gulls roost in the pastures. Ask for a picnic lunch of smoked-cheddar sandwiches, and wander the Frederick Law Olmsted- designed grounds. You can walk all day—around the English-style gardens, down to the ramshackle dairy, or out to the 1886 Farm Barn, one of the most magnificent rural buildings this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.

You could also drive into Burlington to find shops and nightlife and young couples in Patagonia jackets, but that would spoil the fantasy. Better to stick to your 1,400-acre private reserve, puffing on a pipe and reading Henry James.

Dinner is where the few contemporary touches sneak in. My spicy corn and lobster chowder was topped with cilantro crème fraÓche and served with crisp tortillas. I could have been in Santa Fe, had it not been for the flocked burgundy wallpaper and checkerboard marble floor. Good old tradition has its part: I had a splendid rack of lamb with apple-sorrel relish.

My first room, the bright and spare South Room, was almost too capacious—the scale of Shelburne Farms can make you feel dwarfed. I preferred the less awkward layout of the Brown Room, with its maple-and-molasses tones.

Children are welcome at the inn, and they'll love the giant dollhouses in the attic. The rest of the building may be a little stuffy for them, unless they're in a Louisa May Alcott phase. For grown-ups, the thrill of Shelburne Farms is the chance to play the part of William and Lila Webb, ruling quietly over these bluffs, if only for a weekend.

102 Harbor Rd., Shelburne; 802/985-8498; doubles from $170; open May 17- October 19.

The Quintessential Village Inn
Old Tavern

The tiny village of Grafton is almost unsettlingly perfect. You couldn't construct a better model of Vermont life, not if you had millions—unless you were the Windham Foundation, a nonprofit collective that has spent just that restoring this colonial hamlet. But Grafton isn't Epcot New England. There's a genuine village here, with actual residents who are like everyone else—only they look better, because they live in Grafton. In the early 19th century Grafton was a thriving mill town on the Boston- Montreal stage route; the Old Tavern, which opened in 1801, was eventually visited by Ulysses S. Grant, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Rudyard Kipling. By the end of the century the region's wool industry was failing, and Grafton faded into the surrounding woods. Then, in 1963, a pair of philanthropists created the Windham Foundation, which has since restored 55 buildings here, including the Old Tavern.

Grafton still holds town meetings, and you can read the minutes displayed outside the post office:

1. On the matter of the Muelrath driveway. A. Board unhappy with response Muelraths have given on subject of fixing their driveway. After lengthy discussion it was agreed that Gregory would meet the Muelraths in their driveway at 8 a.m. Tuesday to go over what was needed to fix the problem.

As you pull up to the inn at sunset, seeing a light in each window and a porch full of rocking chairs, it's hard to decide what to do first. Should you calmly unload your suitcases and check in?Or should you jump from the car to catch the last of the sunset from one of those rockers?This is how outsiders visit Vermont. There are so many possibilities for idling, you tend to panic trying to fit them all in.

I loved the leather-bound editions of the Rubaiyat and Anna Karenina in the inn's library.

I loved the Irish knit sweater draped over a wing chair, as if this were someone's house. And I especially loved the pub, carved out of a two-story wooden barn and decorated with hunting and farming artifacts.

There are 14 guest rooms in the Main Tavern, 52 others in eight buildings scattered about town. I was shown across the street to my room in the 1858 Homestead House, where I found a maple four-poster bed with a lace canopy, a pair of well-placed reading lamps, and a surprisingly comfortable Shaker-style desk. Dormers let in the sound of a rushing creek. When the old wooden door silently shut and locked itself behind me, I realized this was a subtly contemporized version of the past, one with oiled hinges, thermostats, and carefully concealed elevators. The Old Tavern is like a freshly paved country road—you get all the scenery without any of the bumps.

I'd planned on a nap, but having seen the pub and its big fireplace, I decided to have a drink instead. The bartender with the handlebar mustache suggested a bottle of McNeill's, a Vermont ale that I've been trying to track down ever since. The World Series was on, and although the inn was nearly full, only one guest was up in the pub's TV lounge. The others were quietly enjoying bottles of Merlot, some assembling jigsaw puzzles.

I had heard good things about dinner at the Old Tavern, so I was surprised to find my meal rather dull. The setting was lovely, if stodgy, in a low-ceilinged room with equestrian paintings and Chippendale chairs, and the menu was certainly extensive, with 16 entrées (since cut down to five) and a page of specials. I did enjoy the inn's trademark cheddar-and-ale soup. But the entrées were uninspired: a lot of baked fish. My simple almond trout didn't live up to the waitress's recommendation. I may have been jaded after the up-to-date cooking at some other inns. (And besides, who wants chipotle salsa served on antique pewter?)

Before checking out the next morning, I borrowed a bicycle and rode to the Grafton Village Cheese Company to stock up on chutneys, jams, and cheddar. Following the river, I made it past the historic zone. I even spotted a mobile home within the town limits, concealed by a stand of pines. But I soon came back to Grafton's Village Store, beside the inn, where I considered buying a fireball or a bottle of sarsaparilla—something small-towny.

On my way out the door I passed a trio of skate punks in Nine Inch Nails T-shirts who were idling on the porch. "Morning," they said, popping the caps off their sarsaparillas.
Main St., Grafton; 800/843-1801 or 802/843-2231, fax 802/843-2245; doubles from $125, including continental breakfast; open year-round.

A Sybaritic Retreat
Inn at Sawmill Farm

I knew I was at a different sort of inn when I found the latest issues of Vogue and Fortune on my bedside table. The Inn at Sawmill Farm, Vermont's only Relais & Châteaux property, is quite an accomplishment: this converted barn, with its creaky floorboards and rough-hewn beams, is at once the most rustic of the inns I visited, and the most urbane.

I arrived just past sundown, frustrated by a longer-than-expected drive (Vermont may be small, but its back roads go on forever). All that vanished as I passed through the courtyard, under a majestic stand of birches illuminated by spotlights. I was reminded, in a strange moment of displacement, of an evening at the Bel-Air Hotel in L.A., certainly not the flash you'd expect in the Green Mountains. But there it was: the mist rising from the pool; the rich scent of burning wood; the bungalows hidden in their groves. And let's not forget the three Jaguars in the parking lot.

Inside the 1803 main barn the mood is thoroughly New England. Copper pots and kettles hang over the brick fireplace in the living room. Ten of the 20 guest rooms are in this building; the rest are in five separate cottages. These tend to have fireplaces and whirlpool tubs, and each has its own character: Cider House II is a snug suite with a canopy bed and Federal blue trim; the Woodshed feels more like an A-frame lodge, with a towering window overlooking a pond.

I was led down a cedar clapboard hallway to my room, No. 9, which seemed to have a gender-identity problem: alongside the candy-stripe wallpaper, pink bedsheets, and floral chintz curtains were some exposed white barn timbers. (Maybe this was Rita Hayworth's farm.) Vivaldi chirped from a tiny speaker on the wall. (Sounds cloying, somehow isn't; I didn't even notice it until later that night.) There are no phones in the rooms. No locks on the doors, either, the night clerk pointed out. I shouldn't worry. I wasn't worried, but I did wonder whether the car alarms were on in those Jaguars. After following the piped-in classics down to the dining room—the music permeates the place, like plush carpeting—I found myself seated near a vacationing senator. I could have curled up with the wine list as a bedtime story: the inn has a 36,000-bottle cellar that leans heavily on France, as does the food. I considered the curried scallops for a first course but instead tried the wild-mushroom tart (excellent, remarkably rich), then passed over the frog's legs in Riesling in favor of venison that made me forget everything else.

Evenings are for the sybarite in you, mornings for the country squire. The ponds are stocked with trout; catch one, and the chef will prepare it. The inn's 19 gentle acres are ideal for short hikes, or for Nordic skiing in winter (Mount Snow's downhill trails are right up the road). The town of West Dover is really just a strip

of real estate offices along Route 100, hardly the typical Vermont village you might have come for, but it isn't far from Weston, Grafton, and great foliage spots—and the inn, after all, is the reason everyone's here.

After a knockout breakfast, I sat beside the hearth sipping cider and watching a storm roll in. For the rest of the morning the wind blew leaves into the pool and branches against the windows, while the old barn creaked and moaned. There before the fire I couldn't have been more content.

Crosstown Rd., West Dover; 800/493-1133 or 802/464-8131, fax 802/464-1130; doubles from $320, including dinner and breakfast; closed April 1 to mid-May.

The Quiet Country Life
Inn on the Common

Here's the first thing that made me swoon at the Inn on the Common: walking up the path and hearing the crunch of dry leaves under my shoes. (Note to Vermont innkeepers: Always rake leaves onto front walk so that they crackle underfoot. Arriving guests will swear allegiance forever.)

The Northeast Kingdom, on the border of Quebec, is a few decades behind even New England's calendar—the town of Granby, 25 miles east of the inn, didn't get electricity until 1963. I bounced happily over gravel roads, listening to French-Canadian radio; past hillsides as wrinkled as a shar-pei, past satellite dishes perched like broken toadstools in pastures, past friendly signs for llama farms (llet llamas into your llife!). On the porch of the Lake Parker Country Store was a bulletin board covered with homemade business cards:


In the middle of all this is Craftsbury Common, one of those ur-Vermont villages with more fence posts than people, one main road, and tyke-league soccer games on the town green. Innkeepers Penny and Michael Schmitt moved here in 1974 from Manhattan. (It's true that many Vermont inns are run by former New Yorkers—what you might call the Newhart Contingency.)

The Schmitts' number one rule of innkeeping: It's Vermont, stupid. Visitors come for the rural life, not for a lot of contemporary distractions. It took several requests before Penny put clocks in the rooms; she's still opposed to telephones, and don't even mention TVs. ("For those who enjoy it," there's a television in the inn's living room, with a VCR and a movie library.)

What the Schmitts have created is a wonderfully sleepy inn in a wonderfully sleepy hamlet. I'd nearly forgotten what the REM stage was until my first night here—I woke up feeling as if I'd spent a week at a spa.

There are 16 guest rooms in three Federal-style buildings, one of which overlooks the common and its soccer games. I stayed in No. 3, a sunny, sea green spot that was converted from a second-story porch; it now has the airy simplicity of a beach house, with clapboard walls and wraparound windows. The view was of a Palladian landscape—a row of cypress trees marching down the lawn, which stretches toward the hills in a series of terraces. Gravel paths lead to the clay tennis courts and to a lovely pergola surrounded by white roses, white irises, white wisteria. The inn held four wedding ceremonies here last year.

Meals are served family-style at a long communal table. During my visit the only other guests were an amiable couple in their seventies, who were quietly cooing at each other before the hostess sat me down beside them. I felt like a chaperon at a school dance. Luckily the escargots in garlic butter came right away, followed by a salad topped with artichoke hearts and sevruga caviar. All three of us ordered the very good pan-blackened red snapper, with roasted peppers and feta.

The last thing that made me swoon at the Inn on the Common: a long walk I took around the dew-smacked grounds, eating raspberries the breakfast chef had given me. And, finally, the receding image of the maple tree out front. It's an apt focal point for the inn, which, while supplying just the right man-made comforts, knows to step aside and let Vermont show its best profile.

Main St., Craftsbury Common; 800/521-2233 or 802/586-9619, fax 802/586-2249; doubles $200- $280, including dinner and breakfast; open year-round.

Bring the Family
Barrows House

People had been saying to me, "I know about romantic getaways, but where would a family feel at home?" The answer: Barrows House, a nine-building inn on 12 acres in the historic resort town of Dorset. In Dorset you can have Vermont any way you want it—village scenes in the town, with its summer playhouse and white-fenced lawns; hiking and skiing in the Green Mountains; outlet shopping at Donna Karan and Armani in nearby Manchester. Those who want Vermont to be all things to all people, this is your place.

And Barrows House is your inn. Among the 28 rooms, you can find one to suit your tastes—in the 19th-century main house, which has cozy dollhouse-like rooms with flowered wallpaper; or the Stable House, with its pitched ceilings and gas fireplaces (Robert Redford felt at home here, they'll tell you); or the modern Schubert House, whose ground-floor suite has digital thermostats, a TV-VCR (a first for me in Vermont), a shared kitchen, and a sunroom with a daybed. Barrows House is ideal for groups of friends or for family reunions; several cottages have adjoining rooms with sofa beds. And while your suite may be equipped with all mod cons, you need only step outside to find an old New England setting.

I was happy to see children romping across the lawn when I arrived. So many inns cater exclusively to couples, I'd forgotten how much fun it is to watch five-year-olds play in a pile of leaves. Barrows House will arrange for a sitter while parents enjoy a quiet dinner or a play. There are plenty of games and videos to keep the children busy. Nor is there a shortage of adult distractions: tennis courts, an outdoor pool, bicycles, a sauna, and, of course, all those outlets down the road. Each afternoon, exhausted guests return in their rental cars, back seats filled with shoe boxes and fishing rods. They eventually turn up at the inn's pub, where stories of giant trout compete with tales of 50 percent discounts at Cole-Haan. It's all very convivial, as befits a pub whose entrance is crowned by a stuffed moose head—stuffed like a teddy bear, that is.

I had a fine meal in the dual-personality dining room, one-half grandmotherly with rose stenciling, the other a sleek solarium. The menu has a lot of Pacific Rim and Southwestern touches, as well as old standbys like tournedos of beef. Pheasant consommé was a terrific first course; the pan-roasted salmon with ginger was equally good.

My suite in Schubert House was nice enough, though I'd have preferred one in the more traditional cottages, such as Halstead or Hemlock. But mine had plenty of space, and I loved the view from my sunroom onto the garden's cupola. After breakfast my last morning I took a nap on the daybed, basking in the brilliant sunshine. I didn't wake up until long after the checkout hour. Don't feel embarrassed, they told me. Apparently it happens all the time.

Rte. 30, Dorset; 800/639-1620 or 802/867-4455, fax 802/867-0132; doubles from $190, including dinner and breakfast; open year-round.

Inn at Weathersfield Rte. 106, Weathersfield; 802/263-9217; doubles from $195, including breakfast, afternoon tea, and dinner. A 1790 farmhouse with a cattail-lined pond and a splendid old dining room (with actual candles in the chandeliers!)—not far from Woodstock's shops and restaurants, but enticingly quiet and unpretentious.

1811 House Rte. 7A, Manchester; 802/362-1811; doubles from $110, including breakfast. Across from the Equinox, the town's splashiest hotel, this gracious 14-room B&B with beautiful grounds is within easy reach of Manchester's outlet stores. The inn is smaller and a bit more polished than the nearby Barrows House (see ), but it doesn't serve dinner.

Jackson House Inn 37 Old Rte. 4 West, Woodstock; 802/457-2065; doubles from $160, including breakfast. This longtime favorite was undergoing a renovation during my visit. The new innkeepers are adding four suites (opening this month) and a French restaurant (slated for early fall). Could be the ideal place for watching the trees turn.

Great country stores

Fact No. 1:There are more salsa makers in Vermont than in all of New Mexico.
Fact No. 2: Vermonters can make salsa from just about anything.
Fact No. 3: Maple-flavored salsa actually isn't bad.

You can't know Vermont without knowing its country stores. Besides the expanding shelves of salsa (apple, pear, ginger, dill), there's always a selection of allegedly utilitarian items, such as the Squirrel Baffler, a wobbly 20-inch disk that fits over your bird feeder and sends curious rodents plummeting. You'll also find battery-heated socks, six-foot licorice twists, and Rubik's Cubes. (Yes! They're still out there!) Among the more interesting places:

Vermont Country Store Rte. 100, Weston; 802/ 824-3184. The great-granddaddy of them all. Wool sweaters, smoked Gouda, bird-watcher's guides, jigsaw puzzles (you'll need one of these), griddles. . . . It has become a bit like L. L. Bean—overcrowded, overbig—but still could teach Wal-Mart something about running a megastore.

Grafton Village Store Main St., Grafton; 802/843-2348. Like the town's Old Tavern, this small shop fits almost too well, down to the clerk who might have been in a Pepperidge Farm commercial. But this is the real deal, and everyone passes through at some point.

Warren Store Main St., Warren Village; 802/496-3864. A twist on tradition: here you'll find the expected penny candy and pickle barrels of lore, but upstairs are Japanese teapots worthy of a ceremony, Day of the Dead diablos, Burmese rice bowls, and some very chic suede jackets. There's also a great café serving coq au vin, cold sesame noodles, and IBC root beer.

Best Books
Vermont: An Explorer's Guide by Christina Tree and Peter S. Jennison (Countryman Press)--Information on sights, accommodations, and local festivals.
The Vermont Atlas and Gazetteer (DeLorme)--Maps covering every road and town in the Green Mountain State, no matter how small.
Vermont: Off the Beaten Path by Lisa Rogak (Globe Pequot Press)--Follow this guide to a 16-sided church, a 55-mile road laid out by George Washington, and scores of other odd sights.
Where the Rivers Flow North by Howard F. Mosher (Penguin)--Six tales set in the harsh splendor of the Northwest Kingdom depict a community of eccentric Vermonters.
--Martin Rapp

On the Web
Vermont Traveler's Guide --A complete on-line travel planner. In the events section, you can enter the dates of your stay and your specific interests to find out what's happening during your trip.
Virtual Vermont --Helpful information, handily indexed, on everything from antiques shops to snowmobiles. There's a section on cows, of course.
Discover Vermont --A little local flavor and a lot of nuts-and-bolts travel information.
--Nicole Whitsett