With a famed singing family in its history, Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream to boast and a reputation as ‘The Ski Capital of the East’, Steve Murray discovers many reasons to be delighted as he takes the road less travelled through America and ends up in Stowe.
When planning a recent road trip through the north east of the United States, I had decided on a couple of guiding principles. One was that I would try my best to avoid anywhere I had visited previously, and the other was to attempt to steer clear of the more celebrated tourist attractions and cities. That meant that if I arrived at a fork in the road with signs pointing to either Disneyland or Marge’s Apricot Pie Shed, I wouldn’t be coming home that night wearing a large pair of plastic mouse ears. My hope was that these basic rules would provide me with some unique experiences and the chance to uncover some lesser known small-town American gems.
Consequently, I was soon making my way through Vermont’s lofty Green Mountains, bound for the tiny township of Stowe, with not a theme park, casino or Wal-Mart to be found.
Nicknamed ‘The Ski Capital of the East’ and nestled at the foot of the state’s highest mountain, Stowe is best known for its world-class snow activities, with an estimated 425,000 visitors arriving each ski season. The area is dotted with lodges, ski and snowboard hire shops and challenging cross country trails, providing everything any snow sport aficionado could possibly need. However, although Stowe relies heavily on tourism during the winter months, there are some excellent reasons to visit during warmer times.
This was very comforting news for me, as I had arrived smack in the middle of a Northern Hemisphere summer, with not a snowflake in sight. Fortunately, I soon discovered that there were a couple of unanticipated experiences close by, neither of which involve hurtling myself down an icy mountain at high speeds.
You see, way back in 1938 as Europe was moving towards the outbreak of World War II, an Austrian family of eleven fled their beloved Salzburg and settled in America. Eventually discovering Stowe, where the majestic countryside so reminded them of their home town, they decided to make a fresh start high up in the hills here. That family – the von Trapps – were later immortalised when their life was retold on screen in the hit film “The Sound of Music”.
Later adding a guest lodge to their property, the von Trapps would spend the coming years entertaining family and friends by performing songs and plays. Today the lodge operates year-round as a guest accommodation for the many travellers who come from all over to pay homage to this famous family. Set on 2,500 acres and offering breathtaking views, the now world-class resort features Austrian-inspired architecture along with modern conveniences (Wi-Fi!), and is managed by Johannes von Trapp, the youngest of the surviving children.
The lodge houses a wonderful collection of family photographs and historical memorabilia, as well as a unique gift shop, a library and sitting rooms. The grounds of the estate are open to the public, where you can wander the vast gardens and flowerbeds where Maria von Trapp herself spent many years tending to her plants. Fans of the movie will be pleased to note that the Edelweiss flower can be found growing here during the cooler months, and can even be purchased by guests. Here can also be found the family cemetery and memorial garden, where visitors can pay their respects to the final resting places of Maria and her husband the Baron, as well as various other family members.
Not simply confined to this area of Stowe, the influence and presence of the von Trapp family extends back down the mountain where the recently opened Trapp Lager Brewery can be found. Longing for a version of his favourite Austrian beer, Johannes von Trapp decided to brew his own, with four versions of lager available at any one time. Operating out of the DeliBakery, the brewery is a worthy stop for the hungry and thirsty tourist. Combine a local beer with a slice of famed apple strudel or Austrian bratwurst sandwich, while relaxing on a deck overlooking the expansive countryside, and this will prove to be a memorable experience.
Having had my fill of all things von Trapp, it was time to move on to the next unexpected local delight. Just 15 minutes down the road in neighbouring Waterbury is the original birthplace of that delicious icon of ice-cream, Ben & Jerry’s, whose tubs of sweet creamy dessert have been putting smiles on faces since opening for business in 1978. From its humble beginnings in an old run-down petrol station, Ben & Jerry’s has grown to become one of the most popular ice-cream manufacturers worldwide, with locations in 27 countries around the globe, including Australia. Its flavours range from the traditional chocolate and vanilla varieties to the more indulgent New York Super Fudge Chunk and Strawberry Cheesecake.
The Waterbury factory is open to the public and runs guided tours throughout the week. Unlike most factory tours where the emphasis is on production, distribution and the importance of a snug-fitting hairnet, Ben & Jerry’s provides an ever-cheerful host, a brief but entertaining video, a quick viewing from above the main factory floor and ends with a generous sample of whatever batch of ice-cream is in production at the time. Happily, I was there when the sublime Triple Caramel Chunk was being liberally scooped out. Tip: if your tour group seems a little light on numbers, make sure you hang around the sample tray for leftovers.
If you pretend that you’re not just there for the sample, there are other areas worth checking out during your time at the factory. After exiting the tour via the customary gift shop, a short walk up the hill will bring you to the ‘Flavor Graveyard’, where rejected and short-lived recipes and blends have been lovingly laid to rest. From the artery-hardening ‘Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Dough’ to the somewhat frightening ‘Wavy Gravy’, you will find headstone after headstone of fallen flavours, along with a witty poetic ode to the ingredients and the number of months/years of existence (no real surprise that ‘Miz Jelena’s Sweet Potato Pie’ lasted only a few months in supermarket freezers before being politely asked to leave forever).
Once you have paid your respects to the passed-over confections, you can head back down the hill to the Top Ten Hall of Fame, where a wall of recognition celebrates the most-loved Ben & Jerry’s flavours of all time. Spoiler – not a single one of them contain the words ‘Diet’, ‘Lite’ or ‘Garlic’. Then after all of the viewing, listening and learning, it would be a crime not to swing by the on-site Scoop Shop for a cup or cone of whatever flavour has caught the eye.
Because of the size of the facility and the brevity of the tour itself, I would recommend setting aside only about an hour or two for the whole experience, rather than a full or half day. And like anything else that can draw a crowd, try and avoid visiting during school holidays, on weekends and during peak seasons. The amount of time spent in queue and waiting for a tour to begin can realistically be cut down by about a quarter.
And so ended my fleeting visit to Stowe. I was so pleased to have discovered some out-of-the-way places and found some new stories to tell. Although most of the world may know Stowe by its winter name, that shouldn’t mean that it is not worth a visit during the warmer months when the sun is high, the flowers blooming and the ice-cream refreshingly cold. It really is an all-season experience.
If you’re visiting as part of your own planned road-trip, Stowe is approximately 3 ½ hours from Boston, 3 hours from Montreal, and 6 ½ hour’s drive from New York City. If you are flying, nearby Burlington International Airport services the surrounding area with flights to all major US cities.
Plenty of accommodation options await the weary traveller. Although a small few only operate during the snow season, the better rates are offered during the warmer months with deals as low as $96 per night. Budget hotels, B&Bs and resorts are dotted throughout the town. For a real treat, consider staying at the Trapp Family Lodge, from $265 p/night.
What to do & see
Ranked #1 for Stowe attractions according to Tripadvisor, this 8 ½ km award-winning track winds its way through and around the township, providing wonderful views of the surrounding areas, and caters for both walkers and cyclists.
Trapp Family Lodge
There’s much more to this family lodge than just the guest rooms. Take a wander through the vast gardens, check out the family photos and gift shop downstairs from the main lobby, and pay your respects at the family cemetery.
Ben & Jerry’s Ice-Cream Factory
A 15-minute drive from downtown Stowe, Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tours operate daily, with starting times dependant on the season. A guided tour lasts 30 minutes, with a capacity of 40 people per group. Prices are very reasonable at $4 per adult, while children 12 years and under are free. The factory is closed for only three days per year: Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years Day.
There are plenty of dining options here, from casual pizzerias to pubs, cafes and family restaurants. The recently opened Bistro at Ten Acres Lodge has quickly established itself as a favourite for specials occasions, offering quality food along with views of the Vermont countryside. Open for dinner Wed-Sun only.