Stowe, Vermont: A Classic New England Town and a Ski Resort, Too
By Cathie Arquilla
Over homemade scones at the breakfast table of the Timberholm Inn, a bright-eyed Brit explained why she chose to spring ski in Stowe. “When we think of a resort (I think she was speaking for the entire European continent), we think of a town. Not like Americans, who think of a great big developed complex attached to a ski resort.”
Stowe is indeed a town unto itself. When someone says they’re headed to Stowe, the ski resort is usually what comes to mind first; but I found out that the town has its own sophisticated vibe and prideful presence.
Stowe, the ski resort and Stowe the village have formed a symbiotic relationship. The ski resort fancies itself the premier New England skiing destination for its skiing and because it harbors the lovely town of Stowe. Meanwhile, the town seems equally pleased to host one of the best skiing mountains in the East.
Similar to the vibe found in Nantucket, Stowe has that nuance of a hip town with lots going on against a very historic, quaint background. And it works as a vacation destination all year round. I went with my family during mud season, often referred to more sensitively as the shoulder season.
I’m talking about late March, early April. Even though it was, dare I say it, crap weather (half the time) with plenty of mud, Stowe did not disappoint. It is just too cool a place to get bogged down, literally.
Stowe –- The 411
Stowe is quintessential New England. The first settlers, just two families, arrived in the early 1790s. By 1800 the town’s population had reached 800. It is located in the Green Mountains of Vermont, 35 miles from Burlington and 325 from New York City, our point of origin –- a manageable six-hour drive away.
We considered taking the ski train. Known as the Vermonter; it’s run by Amtrak and takes eight hours from New York’s Penn Station, ending up in Waterbury Vermont, a mere 10 miles from Stowe.
No one has to drive, and for $100 (per person) round trip you’re treated to the space and freedom of train travel. But in the end we drove. The convenience and saved expense of having to rent a car once there, as well as the hours saved in getting there made our decision.
Stoweflake, a Vacation Saver
We stayed at Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa. The townhouse suite we checked into was ideal, luxurious in fact. This two-bedroom, two story “attached home” was decorated in gold, tan and brown hues, and features rich fabrics, granite counter tops and marble tiles.
Big fluffy beds, flip-a-dial fireplaces and flat screen TV’s, produced a happy dance from my daughter, a banshee scream from my son and meaningful sighs from my husband and me.
Stoweflake hosts guests for every season -– the Spa is an attraction that stands on its own. In fact several people told us Stowe is busier in the summer and fall than in the winter. Stoweflake turned out to be a vacation saver during the shoulder season. Offering so much to do, we almost forgot we came to ski, so that sour March weather was no problem.
For those who have no intention of stepping into ski bindings, Stoweflake is a great home base for doing things like taking in those rusty colors in autumn or hot air ballooning in spring… OR JUST SPA, anytime!
The Stoweflake Spa, a Crashing Success
The Spa at Stoweflake is quite extensive. My teen daughter and I had a blast one rainy afternoon getting acquainted with all the different ways to sooth the body. First, we relaxed –- I actually took a quick nap in the women’s lounge. Next on the list: sauna and steam.
My daughter was unfamiliar with the hot dry air of the sauna, so she was a little wary as she stepped into the heat. Once I assured her that she wouldn’t die in there if she stayed a reasonable amount of time, the eucalyptus smell and soothing heat along with some whispered thoughts shared between us, was delightfully calming for both of us.
After the steamroom, we showered, put on our bathing suits and ventured to the co-ed Aqua Solarium. This atrium-like area features hydrotherapy waterfalls and a Hungarian mineral soaking pool. Two waterfalls come cascading down over a twelve-foot high rock wall into a small pool.
The water really beats down on you and seeing her mother get pummeled by a crashing waterfall, threw my daughter into a fit of laughter, which got me laughing too. Yes, we saw other, more seasoned “soakers” enjoying the sensation of the water beating on their backs. But for me it will always be remembered as a treasured and hysterical moment shared with my teenage daughter.
Day Tripping Stowe Style
Meandering through Stowe village was our plan for the afternoon of day one, but first we warmed up our legs with a Nordic Walk led by Stoweflake guide and Marketing Manager Kim Dixon. Nordic Walking is basically hiking (or walking) with poles that you gently swing out in front of you as you walk along.
Essentially the poles are an extension of your arm. Making a slight lateral twist with your waist while walking gives you added core work. The public path Kim had us take (adjacent to Stoweflake) alongside a stream and fields was easy-going and picturesque.
We had just enough energy left over to tackle Stowe village. It’s compact and filled with interesting, artsy shops and touring spots. Walking Main Street may be a sport to some shoppers, but we found it relaxing.
Located smack in the middle of Main Street is the Stowe Area Association Visitors Center headquarters. Any trip to Stowe should begin with either an actual or virtual visit to this place.
As we say at GoNOMAD, “Plan ahead!” Area associations and visitors bureaus should be a first stop. Well, maybe after checking fares and hotels on GoNOMAD.com, that is!
We left the visitors center armed with a list of “To Dos” which began with lunch at Frida’s Taqueria + Grill. This California girl loves a tasty taqueria and Frida’s had some interesting menu items, including a variety of tacos; fried oysters with orange chipotle sauce, beef tongue with shredded lettuce and quesofresca. Yum.
Next was a quilter’s paradise known as Stowe Fabric & Yarn (82 Park Street). Located on the bottom floor of a rambling Victorian house with a wrap around porch, this store reeks of New England charm.
Rocking chairs, an indoor fireplace, quilts draped across bed frames, colorful textured yarn tucked in floor-to-ceiling cubbies, and calico fabrics inspire every sew-crafty pursuit imaginable! Not only can you purchase, but you can also learn. Stowe Fabrick & Yarn offers knitting lessons and quilting parties.
Back out on Main, we headed over to Laughing Moon Chocolates, a real sweet spot! We arrived just in time for a chocolate making demo that exemplified the artisanal aspect of this chocolate company.
It was Easter week and bunny making was in full swing; bunnies on snowboards, motorcycles, with floppy ears, his and her country walking bunnies, bunnies in sports cars –- you get the idea. And that’s just the bunnies; I won’t even go into the eggs! Leigh Williams is the proprietor of this chocolate company housed in yet another Victorian home.
Besides the large variety of chocolates, Laughing Moon also makes candy canes the old fashion way, by pulling with a hook. According to the staff, candy cane-making demos are well loved during the Christmas season and Williams is considered the undisputed front-runner of makers. Check her out on YouTube.
The parlor room effect of the store feels like you’ve dropped in to have tea and chocolates with an old friend. It’s merchandised artfully; ultra quaint, and the chocolates are sweetly presented and packaged. Don’t miss it.
Several other stores on Main Street called our name that afternoon and are mentioned in the sidebar here. They are a mixture of gift stores and eclectic shops, made more interesting by their historic background.
The Vermont Ski Museum, housed in a former Community Church built in 1818, happily diverted us from shopping and does a nice job of curating the area’s ski history.
If historic walking tours are you thing, the Visitors Center has a hand-out called the Stowe Village Walking Tour. Do this and you’ll be transported to the 19th Century, but if you and yours opt to create your own path for modern day, that’s okay too.
Fish and Travel
Sometimes while traveling, the ordinary turns into the extraordinary. I had planned a few meals “at home,” that is back at our Stoweflake suite. One of which was shrimp gumbo. I needed shrimp for the gumbo and when I asked for it at the Main Street grocery store, which only had frozen shrimp, they told me about Stowe Seafood (502 Mountain Road, 802-253-8004). This little fish shack tucked in the back lot of a restaurant looked right out of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
This was fish supply central for the whole area. The monger on hand was a sturdy Vermonter with a deep, friendly voice, proud of his profession and clear about his mission –- as his card reads: “bringing the best of the ocean home to the mountains.”
It was a double score: We got two pounds of fresh shrimp and we discovered an out of the way funky place that only locals would know about.
Skiing Stowe on The Shoulder
Skiing is supposed to be fun, right? Well it is, but it is also a fair amount of effort, dare I say, work. There is a lot to contend with –- hauling equipment, the expense, navigating the mountain and coping with uncertain conditions. Spring skiing ANYWHERE is unpredictable.
Unlike most New England resorts, Stowe Mountain Resort is high enough and far enough north to offer spring skiing into April, and our experience proved it –- but just barely! Unfortunately, this year spring snowfall was way down.
The two days we skied it rained, the first day worse than the second, but real wet stuff. Fog and rain meant visibility was low, producing lots of conversation about whether it was better to wear goggles or not. I challenged my family to four runs that first day.
I decided we’d start with the gondola, less getting wet than in the chairs and longer runs. This worked out okay. The snow conditions at the top of the mountain were fine, but the last third of the way down they were,to say the least, challenging.
Slushy sticky snow and hard icy patches, led to some anxious complaining and a few falls, but surprisingly no tears! Overall we managed and headed up again.
Stowe: What is Old, is New and What is New is Very New
We were skiing the “old part” of the resort known as Mt. Mansfield, not to be confused with newer Spruce Peak. Stowe has undergone a “mountain makeover” in the past 10 years, which includes construction of The Over Easy Gondola connecting Spruce Peak ski area to Mt. Mansfield as well as Spruce Camp Base Lodge and Stowe Mountain Lodge.
About Spruce Peak base, they got it right. It has all the appeal of a Western deluxe resort without any of the snobbery. Its design is well thought out, allowing for limited time walking in ski boots with equipment. Love that!
The construction is what I would call, Western Lodge, East! It is a cross between a California craftsman lodge and Vermont county inn, perhaps with a little Austrian ski town thrown in. This may sound hodgepodge, but it is actually extremely pleasing, upscale, and inviting.
Use of natural materials; stone, granite, cedar shingles,with interior choices such as twig chairs, big log benches and exposed beams, makes for a contemporary, yet traditional atmosphere with comfort built in. The result is more fun and less work!
People Watching, Stowe Style
Breaking for lunch that day was more highly anticipated than usual. Happy to come in from the rain, The Great Room Grill at the Spruce Camp Base Lodge was exactly what we needed to rejuvenate from a chilly wet morning. As the name implies, this is a big round space with a cathedral ceiling. There are several food stations providing more than your typical fast food fare.
The bar/lounge is rather posh with a contemporary lounge vibe, again natural colors and textures and a big inviting fireplace. The best part about the Great Room? It makes for awesome people watching. We settled in, dried off, chowed down, and checked out the rest of the folks skiing Stowe.
On day two of skiing Stowe, the weather cooperated a bit more and we had the advantage of skiing with a local, Communications Director Jeff Wise. I asked Jeff what his thoughts were on the affordability of skiing; especially considering so many resorts are maneuvering toward luxury accommodations and amenities.
He said that he liked to think of Stowe as competitive with Disney as far as a family activity. What’s more he thinks skiing provides even more fun and family interaction. I could see his point.
Skiing is a fantastic family activity and when you think of what it costs for a day at Disney, it almost seems like a good deal! He also assured me that the Stowe area has great places to stay with price tags to match any family budget.
Here are a few Cliff Notes on skiing Stowe:
News flash for skiers: While it somehow gained the reputation of being an expert level resort, it’s not. In fact it was manageable ski terrain for my family of intermediate skiers. The mountain is well marked and I never felt like I would unwittingly end up on a triple black diamond with only one way down (on my butt).
High speed lifts and gondolas move people up the mountain quickly and efficiently. This is a ski resort I would pick to go to on Martin Luther King weekend (known for being the busiest weekend of the ski season). Stowe can handle crowds.
The resort has won several “green” accolades. It is the first and only US resort to receive the Audubon Green Community Award. Two thousand acres of forest has been dedicated to preservation. An elaborately engineered water system using run off from the Spruce Peak project and including a 110-million-gallon snowmaking lake, protects the nearby West Branch stream.
Staying Stowe, Mountain or Village
Stowe Mountain Lodge just celebrated its first anniversary. Like the rest of Spruce Peak, the Lodge is quite luxurious, elegantly designed, with all the ski-swank of Deer Valley, Utah minus the celebrities (Actually, I’m not sure about that!).
Spruce Peak may encourage an East coast skier to reconsider his annual trip out West, but I imagine it has also had to fend off a lot of criticism from Vermonters wanting things to stay the same. Progress can be alienating.
Tradition still rules in Stowe, including lots of classic B&B’s and Inns that are not threatened by the new.
The Timberholm Inn built in 1949 is a historic landmark–one of the original Vermont ski lodges. Former residents of Florida, TV producer and public defender couple Tom and Susan Barns reinvented their lives by purchasing the Timberholm.
From my perspective, this was a wise business decision and an enviable life change. The Timberholm came equipped with a loyal clientele. And no wonder people want to come back again and again. It is lovely. Susan told us a story about a guest from Taiwan taking pictures of every corner, down to every nook and piece of furniture. To him it was all very American and it is –- classic New England Americana at its best!
Stoweflake’s GM Sheri Baraw Smith, told me that after 9/11 there was a noticeable amount of people relocating to Stowe. It represented a less hectic, and potentially safer place to be, but still with a wide variety of influences. Today the allure remains as tourists and locals continue to flock there throughout the year. It’s arty, sporty, foodie and fun –- restful and reflective, a great destination for all seasons.
Details on Visiting Stowe
The Stowe Area Association at 51 Main Street, 802-253-7321, gives you many suggestions for planning your vacation to Stowe, Vermont; Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour, Cold Hollow Cider Mill, Cabot Visitors Center, B&B, inns, hotels, resorts, events, walking tours, kayaking, birding, fishing, biking, skiing, hot air ballooning and more! Below is a select sample of places I experienced and would recommend.
Food, Glorious Food
Charlie B’s -– At the Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa. Don’t miss the Gaufrette Gratin; waffle chips topped with Gruyere and blue cheese. Add local brew, Pat Leavy’s All American Organic Ale, you’re done!
Piecasso -– I’m from New York. This is the best pizza I have EVER had! BUT owner Eduardo Rovetto did learn how to make pizza in New York at his parents’ and uncles’ pizza shops!
Jamie’s on Main -– 802-253-0077 Inside the Old Depot Building this is eat-in or take-out sandwich/salad/soup/breakfast place. See the old pictures of Stowe underneath the glass counter top in the dining area.
Trapp Family Lodge -– A trip to Stowe would not be complete without visiting the Trapp Family Lodge. Dining there was an intimate, tasty and relaxing experience. The setting is memorable, the backdrop nostalgic… a little bit of Austria in the USA.
The Cliff House –- At Stowe Mountain Resort atop Mount Mainsfield, just off the godola, expect awesome views and, in partnership with Vermont Fresh Network, farm to table cuisine.
The Green Mountain Inn –- A historic hotel right in the heart of Stowe. The Whip Bar & Grill has a stagecoach stop feel right out of the early 1800’s when the Inn was established!
Shops and Style
Green Mountain Fine Art Gallery –- Lovely Stowe imagery mostly in oils and watercolors. Buy something here and hang New England in your home.
Well Heeled –- As the card says, “Absolutely exquisite shoes and accessories for every affair.” I would agree! From investment banker to Stowe chic boutique owner, this gal knows style.
Oxygen -– Working out is more fun when you look good! Pop into this store to see what’s what in yoga and fitness fashion.
Shaw’s General Store –- They’ve got Mad Bomber hats and Uggs, plus a whole lot more gear and togs for tots and adults alike. GENERAL for sure!
Green Envy — Proprietor Mary Lou Baraw has made some stylish buying choices in this little boutique. Useful to a wide range of shoppers, Envy carries premium jeans, organic lines like Stewart + Brown and PI (stands for perfectly imperfect). It was great to see cotton resort wear from C&C California in Stowe!
Stowe Kitchen Bath & Linens –- So much more than a kitchen and bath store. The displays are worthy of ABC Carpet in Manhattan. I wanted to redecorate every room in my house after seeing this place! They’ve got interesting things you NEED for every occasion and the collection of stuff is international and LOCAL! Plus, they offer private shopping, transportation, delivery, parties, registry and of course free gift-wrapping. Clients come as far as Florida to shop here.
Mountain Cheeses & Wine –- Cheese? Wine? What else is there to say? The floor is made from native spruce, kiln dried. The shelves are repurposed brick drying shelves, now holding what else–wine, wine and more wine.
End to Enders!
The Long Trail –- The oldest long distance trail in the US. This-273-mile hiking path runs along the main ridge of the Green Mountains. It is maintained by the Green Mountain Club, which celebrates its 100-year anniversary this year!
Almost every Vermonter we encountered proudly told us of this trail and its distinguished history. Some boasted of having hiked it once or twice and kids still dream about making the trek some day. Some geologically important points along the trail are easily accessible from Stowe.
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