Driving the last ten miles along Route 100 toward Stowe, Vermont, I was entering another way of life. There are no sky-scrapers, no fast-food chains, no billboards or even back-lit signs. There are independent little one- and two-storey shops, selling cheeses and maple syrups and cider doughnuts.
I pulled into the parking lot at the recently renovated Topnotch Resort and Spa and quickly ducked inside and out of the warm rain. The reception area is small and spare, with simple stonework giving a rustic feel. I checked in and asked whether I should move my car from its front space; a pleasant young bellman offered to park it for me after bringing my bags up to my large room on the top floor of the three-storey resort. That was fine with me; one of the great pleasures of travel is surrendering to being taken care of in the small ways.
After a short rest on the comfortably firm king bed, I headed with my travel companions to the Trapp Family Brewery, noticing on the way out that my car was still in the same space.
Sam von Trapp looks much like you’d expect for the grand-son of Maria and Georg. Tall and blond and friendly, standing by a glowing orange fire in a brick fireplace, he explained that his father Johannes, the youngest son and one not in the movie, was never satisfied with the quality of Vermont lagers and decided to start brewing his own. Sam led us through a tasting of four, all which I tried and liked as much as I like any other beer, in other words not at all. He also gave a little of his family history, noting a few things that the movie got wrong, like the fact that they escaped via train to Italy, not by foot over the Alps, which would have taken them right into Germany. Clearly proud of his famous family, he said he reminds himself, when answering the same question “for the 40,000th time”, that it’s the guest’s first chance to ask a real member of the family, and calls being able to connect with people over something that they enjoyed in youth or childhood “the best thing about being a von Trapp”.
For dinner we headed to another brewery, Crop Bistro, which the outside sign helpfully informs guests and passers-by is open “til close”. There I had my beer the way I like it, in Cheddar Lager Soup, tangy and filling. But the surprise treat was the pretzels, soft and salty and slightly eggy, they tasted faintly like French toast.
Back in my Topnotch room, the night maid had not only turned down the bed but even filled the ice bucket. In the morning, I awoke to find both USA Today and The Wall Street Journal placed neatly outside my door.
It seemed a good sign that the morning was warm and sunny, because I was going skiing—for the first time since 2001, and I was terrified. I signed up for a “Stowe for Starters” lesson, and Art, an agile instructor old enough to be my father, asked whether I had skied before.
“Thirteen years ago, and it didn’t go well, because the guy I was with was a domineering jerk.”
“Do you remember where?”
“They can be pretty tough there.”
“Oh, he wasn’t a professional instructor; he was the guy I was dating.”
Art was the anti-jerk. By the end of the lesson I was gliding, stopping (very important!), and even turning on a 12%-grade slope at the base of Spruce Peak. “Beautiful!” he’d exclaim. (If Mr. Switzerland had been 12 percent as patient and encouraging as Art, my life might be very different.)
After skiing came, well, après ski. The spa at Topnotch is, like the rest of the resort, and the rest of Stowe, and the rest of Vermont, simple and spare. There are hot tubs and saunas and steam rooms as you’d expect but little of the plushy extras of high-end big-city resort spas. But the service is at least as good. I indulged in the signature treatment, the Mt. Mansfield Saucha, which began with a full-body salt scrub.
“Would you like your abdomen exfoliated today, Ms. Carbone?” Stowe is warm but polite; there’s none of that first-name SoCal’d friendliness.
Once my tummy was as scrubbed as the rest of me, the therapist gently rinsed the salt off with warm towels, saving me from having to interrupt my Saucha with a shower the way some even high-end spas do. Next came the full-body wrap and face-scalp-neck massage, pressing away tension I hadn’t realized was there. Finally was a 25-minute full-body massage with sage oil; at my request the therapist paid extra attention to my ski-swollen feet. On the way back to the waiting room, she gave me a small vial of the sage oil.
Unfortunately, I had to climb back into my ski pants all too soon, because we were going moonlight snow-shoeing through the woods. Well, it would have been by moonlight, had the clouds not been so thick, so we relied on headlamps as we were led by Umiak Outdoor Outfitters’ Max, another young and friendly character, who regaled us with the story of his nightly adventure in “skinning”. Max arises at 2 am, drives to whichever slope he chooses, hikes for an hour up the mountain on skis wrapped in seal skins, which he then removes and skis one run down the mountain. Then he goes home for a nap before heading to work.
So certainly we were in capable hands as we trudged on aluminum snow-shoes through woods whose bears Max assured us were in hibernation. There was so little snow that I probably would have done just as well in my boots, but the shoes felt surprisingly natural, and it was fun to try them as I stepped through patches of crunchy snow and matted grass, warm in my ski pants and parka. After about 20 or 30 minutes, we arrived at an old sugar house, a small cabin where maple sap is boiled into syrup. As we sipped white wine, Max filled the stove with wood and built a fire, lit a couple of lanterns, and spread meats and cheeses and crackers and condiments on paper plates over a plastic tablecloth. The highlight of all this for me was the Cold Hollow Cider Mill honey mustard, which brought a sweet tang to the savory pepperoni coins.
Back in my room, finally pulling off my snow pants for the night, my Sauchaed legs felt like satin. I slept well, and awoke to a snowy morning. After all the activity of the day before, I was relieved, as we passed my snow-covered car still in the same spot, that we were simply going shopping in the Village. Crossing back and forth in front of cars that actually stopped for pedestrians, large powdery snowflakes sticking to our coats, we visited clothing boutiques and a general store, but my favorite stop wasLaughing Moon Chocolates. There aren’t a lot of powerful aromas in Stowe; the air is pretty crisp and clean. Walking through the door of Laughing Moon, my head felt like it could drown in the pure scent of rich chocolate, made on site. I couldn’t resist sampling a Vodka Truffle, the combination of two of my favorite things. It tasted as good as the shop smelled. The dark chocolate coating was slightly bitter, the soft filling rich and creamy. Supposedly vodka doesn’t have a taste, but it lent a subtle cool sharpness to the chocolate gliding over my tongue. It was a sensational small surprise on our snowy last full day.
The next morning, after a breakfast of mini-pancakes topped not merely with maple syrup but also with Slopeside’s maple spread, a concentrated sweet maple taste with the consistency of soft butter, I passed through the bare-bones lobby and out the front door for the last time, sad to be leaving not so much a geographic state as a state of mind. Vermont is not Vegas. It is not the place to go for constant and varied activity and over-the-top gourmet food and showy service. It’s the place to go for spare and simple pleasure, the surprise of an unusual pretzel bite or the sweet tang of a dollop of honey mustard or the punch of pure maple or chocolate, the silky feel of your own salt-scrubbed and sage-oiled legs, the invisible service of a filled ice bucket and a choice of newspapers, and the pleasant and polite helpfulness of people who’ve got nothing to prove.
My car was still in its front space; the snow had been brushed off.