A featured story by David Gould, a renowned travel writer and former Executive Editor of Travel + Leisure Golf.
You can stroll into most gourmet shops these days and purchase Himalayan pink salt blocks, mined in Pakistan from deposits more than 100 million years old. But in the late 1990s, when I was introduced to these epicurean wonders, they weren’t so well-known.
The setting was a chef’s-kitchen dinner for a small group of food critics and travel writers in northern Vermont. Our host hand-grated some of his ultra-pure salt crystal for us, as the food critics smiled discreetly. From that night forward, I was aware that traveling due north in the Green Mountain State didn’t mean you were leaving civilization behind — not hardly.
Northern Vermont is something of an epicurean hotspot, with three main towns holding court as its culinary centers: Stowe, Burlington, and Middlebury (and their surrounding areas). Explore the best of each on a three-stop itinerary via Tradewind Aviation.
Fly into Stowe on a private charter or shuttle flight (resuming in December), and you’ll soon find yourself on a descent into Morrisville–Stowe State Airport, staring at the giant’s-face-in-profile view of Mt. Mansfield’s 4,300-foot peak, complete with its forehead, nose, lips and chin. May sound corny, but if you hike up there it’s likely you will use those features to navigate.
Also out the aircraft window should be glimpses of Montreal, just 100 miles to the north and a steady source of prosperous, urbane tourists who know fine dining when they come upon it. Their influence, combined with the luxury vacation-home culture generated by Stowe and other ski resorts, generates considerable demand for cool things to see, do, and dine upon.
In the village of Stowe and down Route 100 at the eponymous resort, there’s no shortage of options for where to dine. Inside six-year-old Plate, on the village’s Main Street, you’ll find locals and visitors alike in comfortable booths of slate gray with polished wood trim under sparkly pendant lighting. The menu, atmosphere, and execution all adhere to lofty standards at Plate — presentation of the dishes is artistic, though never precious. There are small plates for the foodie who wants to sample and savor, but also generous portions of Curry Pork Loin or Jamaican Jerk Half Chicken, if you’re up for it. Reservations are suggested.
The decor and branding of highly popular Doc Ponds may seem reminiscent of legendary local jam band Phish and the creative-slacker element found in any prominent ski town. But then you’ll consider how much discipline and devotion it takes to make an ambitious restaurant concept succeed the way this one has. A scan of the Doc Ponds menu shows comfort recipes wherever you look, but visually and gastronomically it’s a refined experience (don’t be surprised if post-graduate discussions of beer and how it’s produced arise).
Even during a tour of northern Vermont is by plane, the gondola ride up to the Cliff House Restaurant at Stowe Mountain Resort should still be a kick, and the wall of windows inside this chalet-style eatery offer breathtaking views of inspiring panoramas. Logically enough, the restaurant serves lunch only, except for the dinner opportunities afforded via a special Summit Series schedule of themed evenings.
A quick Tradewind flight over to Burlington International Airport is next, transferring you from an alpine backdrop to an urban one. As you approach the Champlain waterway, you’ll get a chance to discover, as I have, that the prairie-like parts of the state are as visually poignant as the mountainous regions.
It was here in greater Burlington, by the way, that I received my introduction to the dazzling pink salt block. That evening’s intimate dinner was hosted by a first-class hostelry now known as The Essex, Vermont's Culinary Resort & Spa. Conditions are right to make Burlington an outpost of the so-called “culinary vacation business,” and the location of The Essex next door to the prestigious New England Culinary Institute is emblematic of the collaborative energy that keeps the local foodie scene humming.
Hotel Vermont, with its plain-country name contradicting its chic sophistication, is an obvious choice for lodgings. The hotel’s bar and restaurant, Juniper, is visually appealing with its copper, hardwood, and gleaming glassware. There’s even an outdoor space with a fire pit and Adirondack chairs. Order the Lake Champlain Perch with frisée, malt vinegar, shallots and hazelnut oil. In the same neighborhood are two other top-rated Burlington restaurants, Hen of the Wood and Bleu Northeast Seafood. These three award-winners are mainstays of what’s considered the Cherry Street dining scene, and empty tables are rarely spotted up and down the boulevard.
The Inn at Shelburne Farms, the centerpiece of a 1,400-acre preserve along Lake Champlain, is a destination all its own. You get here from Burlington via Route 7 on a ride that is quite short, especially given that it takes you back in time a century or two. To enjoy dinner here you have to make reservations a month in advance. The rooms are exquisite, but the place has no central heating or air conditioning. Cuisine doesn’t get any more farm-to-table than the ISF, but if you simply want the vibe of the place, wander by to watch the artisan cheesemaking operation. It’s housed in a cathedral-like barn and produces cheddar that’s almost too good to share with your house guests, every block of it made from raw milk produced by the Brown Swiss cows that roam the acreage in country contentment.
The third stop on your tour brings you into Middlebury State Airport, a few miles southeast of the the town’s central business district. Part college town, part county seat, Middlebury is an easy place to feel comfortable in as soon as you arrive — all the more so if you drop by the spirited Two Brothers Tavern on Main Street. You can try their cheddar ale soup, grilled Spanish octopus or the popular comeback burger, made with comeback sauce and offering a taste of Southern-style cooking in the north country. Sabai Sabai Thai Cuisine is a can’t-miss stop for high-quality Asian food — it’s known for a squid specialty called khan soi.
Drive 15 minutes up Route 7 and you'll come upon the little city of Vergennes, named for a French nobleman who helped swing the American Revolution our way. On Green Street you’ll find Bar Antidote and its pub-crawl pairing, Hired Hand Brewing. The location is hard to miss, given the retro, better-living-through-chemistry logos of these two establishments.
We’ve known for quite a while that this part of Vermont attracts chefs and innkeepers who could be working in the big cities, but come here instead for the lifestyle. But interestingly, a Vermont farm kid, Ian Huizenga, is currently outdoing most (if not all) of those who parachuted in. Huizenga is the chef and brewer behind Antidote and Hired Hand. He was named Vermont Chef of the Year in 2017, but his talents extend beyond cooking and beer-crafting to interior design and the artistry that goes into his branding and graphics.
Hired Hand would be part of the farm-to-glass movement, if there were enough microbreweries using local ingredients to actually call it a movement. The sourcing effort Huizenga makes to hyper-localize his product is tireless, but worth it. Downstairs from the brewpub, Bar Antidote is where locals and visitors gather to dine on grilled Vermont flat iron steak served on roasted mushroom toast and crispy-crust pizzas — also made with locally sourced fixings.
If you find that you keep extending your visit, be advised that people have become residents of this region very gradually — without ever consciously deciding they would move here.
Tradewind will offer shuttle flights to Stowe beginning in December 2019, and also offers charter flights to Stowe, Burlington, and Middlebury year-round. To reserve a charter, call us at 1-800-376-7922 or click here.
Featured photo: Mark Vandenberg