A Ramble Through Vermont's Northeast Kingdom
BY MARIA BUTEUX READE / ILLUSTRATION JESSIE HARTLAND
More people inhabit one block in Brooklyn than the entire 1.3 million acres of the Northeast Kingdom. And that’s the way Vermonters like it.
But the Kingdom does embrace geotourism, which National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations defines as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—the environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and well-being of its residents.” Welcome to God’s country.
The best way to experience this decidedly rural region is to get off the interstate and ramble. After all, more than 50% of Vermont’s roads are still unpaved, so drive like the locals—and save those paved highways for mud season. Detour off the Northeast Kingdom Byway, aka Route 5, and start your adventure in East Burke, home of Burke Mountain and the Kingdom Trails Association. Savvy entrepreneurs, many of them homegrown, have created more than a dozen fresh eateries, drinkeries and lodgeries in the Kingdom’s recreation nexus.
According to the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, Vermont has approximately 85,000 acres open to recreation and thousands of miles of trails on public and private land. East Burke has become a hot spot for skiers, bikers, hikers and snowshoers, and the town’s also a hub for the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), one of the oldest snowmobiling organizations in the U.S.
Community-minded denizens of East Burke formed the Kingdom Trails Association in 1994, a conservation organization that manages a network of multi-use trails on private land. Purchase a $15 day pass or a year-round pass for $75, and hit the packed and groomed trails with your fat bike or glide off on your Nordic skis. Bike and ski rentals are available on site, and knowledgeable staffers can arrange a trek geared to your ability. In winter, the Kingdom Trails Nordic Adventure Center relocates from the village up to Darling Hill adjacent to the Wildflower Inn, where the trails start. The stunning mountain vistas remind you why it’s called the Kingdom.
If Alpine’s your thing, attack the slopes of Burke Mountain then settle into the Gap Pub at the spankin’ new Burke Mountain Hotel. The floor-to-ceiling windows face north to the dramatic Lake Willoughby gap between Mounts Pisgah and Hor. At sunset, sip a pint of top-notch Vermont craft beer or cider and tuck in to corned beef poutine with Guinness gravy; an ahi tuna burger with wasabi mayo and pickled ginger; or a goulash of pork, tomatoes, kraut and sour cream over egg noodles.
Down in the village, everything is within walking distance, so ditch the car. First stop: the Northeast Kingdom Country Store and Café, haven of carb-hearty fare for ravenous outdoor enthusiasts. Hello, make-your-own-waffle bar! Hefty sandwiches can be toasted, grilled or pressed. While you wait for your order, browse the shelves of pottery, woodcrafts, hand-woven table linens and prints from local artists.
Patrons of the Trout River Brewery will be relieved to discover their beloved sourdough pizzas (and chef) have moved north to the Foggy Goggle Osteria, a clean, well-lit tavern. The delicious crust serves as a palette for creative combos of veggies, seasonings and cheeses. Don’t miss the Smokin’ Hot Trout. Grilled pub sandwiches also deserve consideration, as do pasta entrées with beef, pork and seafood.
Get your java fix at Café Lotti, a red clapboard beauty from 1838 that’s done time as a Congregationalist church, a bar and a beauty salon. The airy space now boasts polished hardwood floors, immense windows and comfy stuffed chairs. Order an espresso, steamer or breve and a slice of warm fruit pie with whipped cream before you peruse the art displayed on the walls. Housemade cinnamon rolls and English muffins sell out quickly.
Continue your ramble up the Northeast Kingdom Byway to Parson’s Corner, a former parsonage-turned-diner in Barton. The sweet potato fries alone are worth a tank of gas. Grab a stool at the counter and hunker with the hunters, or slide into a back-room booth. That’s the chef/owner at the grill, one hand shaking the fry basket as the other spatula-flips home fries and golden French toast. Don’t let the simple menu fool you—the home-style food is top quality and served piping hot. Try the Vermonter, a creation that merges the state’s bounty into one luscious bomb: chicken, bacon, spinach, apple, onion, cheddar cheese and maple mayo in a grilled wrap.
Now to Greensboro Bend, which for craft beer aficionados means only one thing: Hill Farmstead Brewery. If your trek to mecca yields a packed parking lot, pay silent homage and head down to Willey’s Store in the center of Greensboro. Here you can pick up bottles of these world-class farmhouse ales within minutes, not hours. While at this iconic general store (117 years young and still funky as ever), stock up on cheese from Jasper Hill and Sweet Rowen Farmstead and throw in some Vermont salumi (fennel, red wine and garlic, or spicy) made from antibiotic-free ground pork. Poke around the side rooms and linger over wool socks or perhaps a shiny new hatchet.
Time for some culture, so on to St. Johnsbury. The gateway to the Kingdom supports a vibrant arts scene, thanks to the Arts & Culture Alliance, a collaborative of Catamount Arts, the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, St. Johnsbury Athenaeum and St. Johnsbury Academy. The Alliance contributes venues for film, music, theater, dance and the visual arts. Another regional arts group, Kingdom County Productions, produces independent films based in Vermont. Check out their film adaptations of Howard Frank Mosher’s novels, including Northern Borders and Where the Rivers Flow North. Mosher possesses Mark Twain’s ability to lovingly capture the spirit of this unique region and people.
The Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium ushers visitors into the Victorian era. Pass by the regal bronze lions guarding the entrance to this museum of natural science and history. The 19th-century taxidermist William Balch created striking dioramas of stuffed birds, moose, bear, bison and muskrats in their natural habitat, considered cutting edge at the time. Balcony galleries house eclectic works, including several panels by Snowflake Bentley and “Bug Art” mosaics made entirely of beetles and moths. Here’s your chance to see crunchy portraits of Presidents Washington and Lincoln! Then return to the present and lounge under the darkened dome of Vermont’s only public planetarium for a 30-minute tour of our night sky.
Up the street is the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, the town’s public library. Founder Horace Fairbanks hoped that “the people make these rooms … a favorite place of resort for patient research, reading and study.” Wander through this stately Victorian edifice, taking note of the ash and walnut floors, intricate woodwork and graceful spiral staircases leading to tiny balconies above.
The library displays 19th-century masterworks, including Albert Bierstadt’s dramatic “The Domes of Yosemite,” in the oldest unchanged art gallery in the United States. Fittingly, the Athenaeum was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, one of the few libraries to earn this honor.
On the other end of the spectrum, canine worshippers congregate at Stephen Huneck’s Dog Mountain just a few minutes outside of St. J. Take your pup on the well-marked trails winding through 150 mountaintop acres. Then spend a few moments inside the reverential Dog Chapel, whose walls are thickly covered in tributes honoring the spirit of beloved hounds. Dogs can romp freely anywhere on the grounds while their humans visit the gallery shop stocked with all things Huneck: clothes, pillows, books, prints and, of course, leashes and collars.
Back in town, you can pick up a set of antlers, a bearskin rug or antique snowshoes at Moose River Lake and Lodge Store. This funky shop also carries stylish woolies along with vintage dishware, cutting boards, pottery and rustic furniture. Or pop into Boxcar & Caboose, an award-winning independent bookstore, for that Howard Frank Mosher novel.
Now onto St. J’s comestibles and quaffables.
Authentic Mexican food in the NEK? Hit the Casa Aguilera Trading Company, where colorful woven ponchos, Aztec art and saffron and bright blue walls set the tone. The chef smokes and grills the Vermont meats that fill tacos, burritos, tortas, tostadas and gorditas. Look for carne al pastor, or shepherd’s-style pork, infused with special marinade and slow-cooked on a vertical grill. La Casa keeps the veggies crisp and adds queso judiciously so you feel satiated, not comatose. Zesty salsas also pack a punch. In winter, savor a bowl of pozole, rich stew made with pork or chicken, shredded cabbage, chiles and avocado. Don’t miss the cocido, a short rib beef stew with cabbage and corn.
Caffeinate yourself at the nearby Gatto Nero Press, a café ensconced within an art studio that creates intaglio prints. Sink into the red leather couch or score a table in front of one of the windows, sip an espresso-based drink and ponder the art that surrounds you.
Or if beer’s on your mind, hie thee hither to the Kingdom Taproom. Descending the steps may flash you back to subterranean dive bars with sticky floors. But this Taproom’s a classy joint with Persian rugs, copper-top bar, vintage filament bulbs and rustic wood tables. Study the backlit display of the day’s pours, from straw gold to hazy amber to rich coffee brown. Snack on a curated cheese and charcuterie board or delve into a sandwich of pulled pork, cheddar and maple bourbon sauce or shredded slow-roasted chicken, crushed avocado and aioli. A crock of chorizo mac and cheese also balances those brews.
Kingdom Crust Company, located in an old ice cream factory, commits to using the cleanest ingredients possible for its pies, steadily eliminating industrial ingredients that come from bags and boxes. Sunflower oil replaces canola, crusts start with unbleached King Arthur flour and area farms supply produce and meats, including the freshly processed beef that arrives every Thursday. The shaved steak pizza flaunts the glorious results.
Alas, the interstate hails and the real world beckons. But fear not: The Kingdom reveals new treasures each season, and you still have about a million acres left to explore.