DORSET -- Getting there is half the fun.
A left-hand turn on the second roundabout in downtown Manchester propels you up Route 30, the Stone Valley Byway. Named for the marble and slate that used to be quarried along the route, the trail runs to Hubbardton, 40 miles or so through some of the most enchanting scenery and working farmland in the state.
Dorset announces itself in classical New England style -- houses in white clapboard set against the ridge lines. Quarrying was the earliest industry to take root here, and the first commercial quarry in what would become the United States opened for business in 1785. On the drive up Route 30 -- just past the J.K. Adams store, known for its cookware -- is the Dorset Quarry, now a local swimming hole. Though the quarry is flooded in now, you can get a sense of what it was like to mine the marble that helped build the town.
In the 20th century, the area became famous as an artists' retreat and colony. An art show staged at the Town Hall in 1922 eventually led to the founding of the Southern Vermont Arts Center, now in Manchester. A scattering of art galleries testifies to the lasting imprint of artists drawn to the area a century ago. Some came to visit and never left.
For an overview of Dorset's past and present, start at the Dorset Historical Society Museum, across from Church Street. This is postcard New England -- a broad thoroughfare studded with private homes on neatly tended lots, an inn, a general store and an art gallery next to the smallest commercial bank you have ever seen.
The Dorset Inn is Vermont's oldest continually operating inn -- since 1796, owner Lauren Bryant says -- and the establishment offers breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as overnight lodging.
Dorset lends itself to a walking tour. Start near the intersection of Church Street and Route 30, at the Dorset Union Store. Founded in 1816, it's stood for nearly 200 years, and from 1955 to 2007 it was known as Peltier's. Its current owners, Gretchen Schmidt and Cindy Loudenslager, returned the original name to it.
The delicatessen area has moved to the back, near the kitchen, and a coffee bar area moved closer to the front of the store. But the wooden floors and the bell that announces a customer's arrival are still there; so are the mail slots in the new wine room, where some fortunate locals have their newspapers set aside for them.
"The goal was to modernize the store, but keep the old-time feeling," said Loudenslager.
Re-energized by some of the comfort food offered at the Dorset Union Store, stroll down Church Street. Next door is the 3 Pears Gallery, filled with art by local painters.
Admiring a painting on a wall that goes for a cool $5,800, but getting the sinking feeling that this is somewhat out-of-budget? Owner Greg DeLuca is ready to sell you a reproduction print for $400.
"I'm a man of many price points," he says with a chuckle.
Church Street takes you past the entrance to the Dorset Field Club, a private golf club founded in 1886, one of the oldest in the country. Across the street stands the imposing Dorset Congregational Church, founded in 1784.
You will walk past the Colony House, for many years the place where many visiting writers took up residence to work on their literary endeavors. More recently, it was the office and home base for the Dorset Theater Festival, which offers professional equity actor summer stock theater and is on an upswing again. Around the corner, on Cheney Road, sits the fabled Dorset Playhouse, which offers community-based theater by a troupe known as the Dorset Players during the winter, spring and fall, when the summer theater festival is not in session.
Continuing down Cheney Road takes you to Meadow Lane, which leads you back to Route 30, a short distance from your starting point. Heading back, you pass shops such as the Dorset Exchange, a consignment shop; Flower Brook pottery; and Mio Bistro, a small coffee shop. Overnight lodging abounds as well -- within sight are the Barrows House and the Cornucopia Bed and Breakfast.
You have one last stop to make -- the H.N. Williams General Store about a mile out of town on the way back to Manchester. Originally a harness shop in 1840, it's now in the hands of Billy Brownlee, whose great-great-great-great-great grandfather launched the enterprise. That's eight generations, if you're counting.
H.N. Williams General Store, or department store, is one of those places that has something for everybody -- honey, maple syrup, newspapers and candy bars, seeds (almost planting time); snow shovels (no more!); lawn rakes and clothing. Lots of clothing. As the sign at the entrance says, "If we don't have it, you don't need it."
On the main floor is a generous assortment of hats, gloves, polar fleece vests and regalia for the rugged outdoors man or woman. There's a snack bar to replenish the energy you've burned off. For many though, the crown jewel of H.N. Williams is a short walk downstairs -- more pairs of Carhartt shirts and pants than you ever thought possible, and enough hammers, crowbars, flashlights, nuts and bolts, drill bits and of course, duct tape, to keep a shopper preoccupied for a long time.
"We like to think of ourselves as a community store," Brownlee said. "In the mornings over coffee, it's like a miniature town meeting. There's a lot of flavor, a funky layout and unique products -- sort of a one-stop shop."