Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Travel Matters One - Vermont In the Fall

Vermont Seduces The Senses
The seeds of intrigue were planted long ago. Way back in the 70s I watched a doco on the America state of Vermont and was mesmerised by the vivid colours of the autumn leaves. Then in the 80s I saw the movie Baby Boomer where ambitious business woman Diane Keaton quits her top job in New York and heads to a sleepy township in Vermont. Again I was captivated by the ineffable scenery, which to my Aussie eyes, raised on gum trees and coastal scrub, didn’t seem real, didn’t even seem possible. I made a quiet little wish to one day visit this glorious countryside and tucked it away in my heart with my stash of dreams.

So how did we land in Vermont? After breaking camp back in London, we endured the longest flight on record to New York via Zurich Switzerland; spending 12 hours in transit, when a direct flight takes five, and lobbed deadbeat at the New York Hostel.
I had lived on the edge of Central Park for three months some five years ago so this was a nostalgic trip for me seeking resolution of some poignant memories.

First there was New York
I wanted to show Andrew my favourite spots and so we visited the apartment on Fifth Avenue where I had lived and then trudged Central Park until our legs ached, jumped on the trusty Sightseeing bus and took in the famous locations; the neon psychedelia of Times Square, the bustling Rockefeller Centre, Wall Street, still shell-shocked from the previous day’s crisis, the iconic Empire State Building and took a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty with 150 photos to prove it!

We ate shrimp at Bubba Gump’s then, shivering without a jacket, braved the top deck for a night tour of the city lights and out to Brooklyn. The next day we joined the Hostel group and took the subway to see one of the last Yankees Game in the old stadium and ate hotdogs and drank soda in the Bleachers. Andrew was mightily impressed with having a genuine American experience that he had only known vicariously through sitcoms as a kid.

The next day we caught a bus upstate. It is amazing that in just an hour’s drive out of the busiest city in the world, you find yourself in tranquil countryside. We visited good friend Don, who heads the Enneagram Institute, and were privileged to tour the recently completed Barn, a magnificent venue set on his beautiful property. That perfect day was capped off with a spicy feast at a rowdy Mexican café being serenaded by bandolleros in sombreros.

Come Saturday we took in the vast and awe-inspiring Museum of Natural History then strolled to Central Park to see the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon and got swept up in an impromptu sing-along of old Beatles songs. Naturally, as lifelong fans, we jumped right in amongst it! That night we ended up in an Italian café in Greenwich Village, talking politics with a couple from New Jersey.

US Politics
All across the country and on every TV channel and newspaper, the hot topic is the election battle between Obama and McCain and the latest entrant into the fray, the perky hockey mom, Sarah Palin, who is threatening to steal the female and conservative votes with her ‘straight-talk’ championing the noble cause of war in other countries, chasing down those doggone ‘tearists’.

I would say ‘You Go Girl’ if her folksy warmongering wasn’t so doggone scary! Palin, Governor of Alaska, with a catchy motto Drill Baby Drill, when it comes to the oil beneath the pristine wilderness, is facing off with an ageing Joe Biden for the VP hot seat, given clout by good ol’ Dick Cheney; the power, along with cohort Rumsfeld, behind our old mate, George Bush, who after eight years of doing his worst has succeeded in wrecking the American economy with obscene military spending and his parting gesture of a $700 billion bail-out for banks! All across the country, ordinary hard-working Americans are hurting deeply. It is an unfolding tragedy.

Sunday morning we visited the Baptist church in Harlem where I was baptised in 2004 and we joined in the gospel singing with gusto then devoured genuine southern-fried chicken, grits and collared greens at Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too and, groaning with full bellies, wandered along Broadway on the Upper West, smelling the fresh fruits and veggies at the grocery stores bursting with goodies. These are the simple pleasures of New York street life.

But after a week in a mixed dorm, I realised hostel is really spelt ‘hostile’ because that’s how I felt, and also somewhat ridiculous at my age, ‘sharing my personal space’ (bedroom and bathroom) with a host of young travellers. I really don’t need to know how many times someone else brushes their teeth and I really don’t want to breathe in the aroma of six pairs of shoes which have trodden several thousand miles. My ‘youth’ hostel days are over and it’s motels and B&B’s for me; king-size beds and private showers.

Popping into Montreal
This decision was reinforced as we set off to cross the border into Canada for a look-see at Montreal, nursing a nasty head cold courtesy of the young guy in the bottom bunk with the hacking cough. Ah, such are the hazards of travelling rough but the joys outweigh the trials. Rattling along in the Amtrak train, sunshine streaming through the window, with a rolling movie of picture postcard views, listening to music, making notes, reading, daydreaming, sipping vanilla-hazelnut coffee…this is my version of Heaven. (I hope these details are being noted by the Admin. Angel up yonder!)

Montreal is a city blighted with a split personality. The locals are bilingual and slip easily from French to English. But speaking Strine as we do, a language all of its own, we confounded them. A late night ‘snack’ at the Hard Rock Café left me bloated and rendered quite speechless except to say: “Geez, I’m full as the python that swallowed a chook!” Fortunately tips are a universal language.

Thank Goodness for the ever-reliable sightseeing bus, I say! How on earth would you find your way around a foreign city without the accumulated wisdom of the bus driver/tour guide? Our man, Denis had a dry wit and a fine appreciation for a corny pun.
When he plays golf he wears two pairs of socks in case he gets a hole in one!

I am fascinated how every city has its own unique flavour and culture. Montreal is such a contrast to New York. For starters, to foil the freezing winter conditions, much of the city is built underground! No kidding. Then above ground, monolithic buildings such as Notre Dame Basilica, a tribute to gothic architecture, and St Joseph’s Oratory showcase the city’s Catholic origins. But the quirkiest building I’ve ever seen is the Olympic Stadium with a bizarre prong that juts out in the air at a 45 degree angle, built for the 1976 Games. Montreal means Mount Royal and is in fact an island with the harbour, rivers and gardens wrapping around a cosmopolitan, intellectual and complex city with the university playing a central role.

When we boarded a Greyhound for Boston I was reminded of the haunting Simon and Garfunkel lyrics that filled my impressionable teenage mind. I felt like a poet in motion gliding the highways with a busload of fellow travellers, each with their own colourful stories and ‘all come to look for America’.

Back in Boston
Our good friend Chris rescued us in the heart of Boston, weary and loaded up with luggage, which he thankfully stowed in his car as we strolled the streets, taking in the stately buildings and breathing in the dignified atmosphere of the capital of Massachusetts. There was so much news to catch up on so we chatted non-stop over Chinese.

The next day Chris took us and his brother-in-law John, visiting from Colorado, on a tour of the township of Marblehead. I adore American architecture. The traditional multi-storey timber homes date back to the early 1600s and yet they are in immaculate condition, so lovingly preserved. The delightful historic township is so peaceful and undisturbed by traffic. Chris showed us his ‘playground’, the harbour of Salem Sound, where this hardy Aussie guy paddles or sails every morning in his extra-thick wetsuit even in sub-zero conditions. Chris and Jo treated us to a hearty roast dinner before we joined their circle of friends in seeing a rivetting play at the college where Jo works.

Andrew could no longer ignore the pain shooting through his face so after picking up the rental car, he made an appointment with a dentist while I waited in the hotel lobby and sent emails. The news was bad. The gum was infected and required a hefty hit of antibiotics and pain killers and a return visit for a filling. With both of us now sick and suffering we headed gingerly onto the highway in the direction of Vermont. But at least we had a chirpy new travel champion, Nav Man.

Nav is a very smooth dude with a deep, resonating voice but can be quite pushy and intrusive, piping up and interrupting our conversation, giving us directions, telling us what to do in the most exacting terms; “In point 4 of a mile, veer right. Make a left at the next intersection. Perform a U-turn when possible. Give way to the moose. Stop picking your nose. Stop the vehicle and take a photo now”. And if you don’t comply immediately he has the annoying habit of repeating himself.

Andrew enjoyed having male reinforcements and enlisted Nav’s support in our arguments. Fortunately, I could just ignore Nav’s rude suggestions and turn him off.
Andrew wished he could find my ‘off’ button but so far has not found it. I remain turned on and fired up at all times!

Food trail through Vermont
In my travels, so far I have discovered a few places in the world I could live: Ireland (Ah Ireland!), the genteel English countryside, exciting New York, stimulating London and now I can add glorious Vermont to my wish list. To me, Vermont has to be one of the prettiest states in America and one of the world’s richest rural treasures. That old doco I’d seen way back in the 70s did not exaggerate the beauty of Vermont in the Fall.

A profusion of towering Maples, Aspen, Basswood, Red Oaks, Elms, Beech, White Ash and Sycamores set the sky on fire with spectacular foliage of red, orange and gold. The vision driving through the forest is a feast for the eyes, which warms your heart and nourishes your soul. Nature’s ostentatious display is so dazzling, it makes your head spin and takes your breath away!

Beyond the fiery forests and charming tree-lined townships, we discovered that Vermont, which means green mountain, is blessed with lush farmlands. This primary producing heartland serves a banquet of all things good and delicious; maple syrup, cheese, chocolate, honey, wine, beer, coffee and apples and we felt obligated to try them all!

Our first overnight stay was outside a little town called Brattleboro at the Molly Stark Inn on the edge of an enticing walking trail which we resisted in favour of a warm bed in preparation for more strenuous exertions ahead (food tasting). Guided by our new best friend, Nav, we made our way to Bennington before hitting the tourist trail.

First stop was the New England Maple Museum and Maple Market where we took in fascinating displays on the history of maple syrup harvesting, which is an arduous process of tapping the trees for the liquid gold and carrying heavy pales through foot-deep snow. I went berserk in the gift shop tasting the array of gourmet delights. Later that same day we visited the Morgan Horse Farm and toured the stables viewing the stocky, handsome horses which are famous as America’s first breed of horse.

We stayed at Burlington on Lake Champlain and faced the grim task the next day of visiting a Chocolate Factory. Oh yes, how I suffered! I was force-fed samples until I cried out “Please no more! Desist!” As if that wasn’t bad enough I was then coerced into buying Raspberry Truffles, Cherry Liquors and Caramel Swirls. Being health-conscious, I chose only dark chocolate which is extremely good for you (triggers serotonin) and absolutely non-fattening. Honest.

The agony continued as, after a gourmet lunch, we headed for the Shelburne Winery and we were once again forced to sample the local produce. Someone had to do it! You can not be rude. As a Red Lover I actually succumbed to a very crisp and pleasing dry white proving how flexible I am in matters of the palate and we left with our wine glasses and a couple of bottles under our arms.

These extreme sports are very demanding. I confess that we were far too exhausted to face the Wildflower Farm so headed bravely off to our next punishing destination: the Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Factory. I know what you’re thinking. How is it humanly possible to cope with so many physical challenges in one day? Years of preparation, I guess.

Ben & Jerry were just two regular Vermont guys, fresh out of college, who didn’t know what to do with themselves so took a quickie course in ice cream making and three decades later they have created one of the most successful multi-million dollar companies ever, exporting their irresistible flavours worldwide. My personal favourites: Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey. If you haven’t tried them, you haven’t lived!

We stayed at Montpellier, the capital of Vermont, and visited the Historical Museum, which was brilliantly showcased the pioneering state’s 300 year history through revolution and Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery and the Suffragette Movement to recent battles over Gay Marriage. I came away with the unsettling view that the bible has been used to justify the violation of human rights throughout the centuries and that personal morality should not lead to the condemnation, persecution and victimisation of individuals or groups in our society. Weighty food for thought to digest following a serve of Ben & Jerry!

Thankfully there were more food treats ahead. Ah yes, the Cabot Creamery, where, after touring the factory, we sampled every possible variety of cheese: horseradish, jalapeno, tomato and basil, extra sharp. I simply had to buy some for Chris and Jo for our return trip to Boston. Only fair to share!

Enough gourmandising already! Two nights in St Johnsbury to catch up on laundry, phone calls, emails, painting my toe nails and eating canned soup and toast in a luxurious room overlooking a maple grove! I wandered into the Army Disposal store and found the forest green vest I’d been searching for. Wow, what a find! The grand town houses, set on rolling lawns with trees of crimson and orange leaves, somehow combine quaintness with massive dimensions.

St Johnsbury sits on the southern tip of Vermont’s revered Northeast Kingdom and we took in some of the unspoilt forest through the mist. 116 photos later, we are crossing the border into New Hampshire to stay at a ski lodge at Waterville Valley in the White Mountain National Forest. I am singing Annie’s Song as we crunch through the leaf-carpeted forest, along the bubbling stream, spotting a chipmunk, while wielding my Canon.

The resident cat takes a fancy to Andrew’s lap as we chat with an elderly couple from Texas and next morning after the great Palin-Biden debate, Mary serves us the biggest mountain breakfast of oatmeal, apple crumble, bagels and eggs you dare to imagine. Instead of heading south down the centre of New Hampshire we decide to notch up another state on our belt and head east to the coast of Maine, a choice part of New England with its distinctive seaside character.

But nothing will ever come close to the splendor of verdant Vermont, the dazzling Autumn trees, the country hospitality, the tranquility of a bygone era still alive and well in 2008, with the prospect of winter and visions of ladies who quilt and men who haul maple syrup in the snow and children who milk cows before school, living a natural life that tracks the seasons, blessed by an abundance of nourishing food and surrounded by the beauty of creation. We just had a glimpse of Heaven on earth.

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