A getaway at the Lake Champlain Islands
GRAND ISLE, Vt. -- If you love Cape Cod but might be weary of the traffic, the bottlenecked bridges and the population surge, then the Lake Champlain Islands of Vermont offer a refreshing and relaxing alternative.
It's easy to imagine these islands echoing post card images of 1950s Cape Cod -- as in unsophisticated attractions, mostly downhome eateries and lodging options, more laid back shop-owner attitudes, and unaffectedly scenic views.
All are framed by the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks of New York, and are within easy driving distance from Burlington and Montreal.
The islands, reachable via bridges, a causeway and ferry service, are long and narrow enough for drivers to sometimes glimpse the waters of Champlain to the east and west as they drive. They stretch out for some 30 miles from just north of Burlington to the Quebec border.
From the Berkshires, the distance is about 175 miles from Pittsfield, and the common routes include Route 7 up through Vermont and Route 22 in nearby New York. Interstate-89 north of Burlington, has an exit for South Hero and Route 2, the principal north-south island highway.
Judging from a recent week-long stay in North Hero, a back-up at the first "bridge" -- really a man-made causeway -- never approaches Bourne or Sag-amore bridge levels, weekend or no weekend.
Likewise, the ferry from the New York side to Grand Isle -- 14 quick minutes -- could never approach the headache inducement, or outrageous cost, of a trip to Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket.
Our cost for a vehicle and two passengers to Plattsburgh, N.Y., and back for the evening (they operate on a 24-hour schedule) was about $24. Other Lake Champlain Transportation Co. ferries run from shore points south of the islands, and various lake tours leave from the islands and from Burlington.
Just north of South Hero, is Grande Isle, the shire town of the islands. Connected to it by a drawbridge (which only caught us once in a week) is North Hero. And Isle La Motte is a rectangular island on the New York side, accessible by bridge.
It is worth a drive along Isle La Motte's scenic shores, especially when the lake is sparking in the sun. This island also features one of three state parks and one of the several small sandy beaches -- somewhat underwater this July because of record rainfall.
Isle la Motte has history as well. It was first visited by Samuel de Champlain in 1609 as he came south from New France to explore the lake, and it was briefly the site of a French fort, established in 1666 by a military commander named La Motte.
Route 2 continues from North Hero and Grand Isle into Alburgh, which is really the tip of a peninsula extending down from Canada into the lake, the national border chopping it off near the tip.
Two new looking arch bridges head west into New York and east to Vermont near the border. Another road heads directly north from Alburgh into Quebec, with Montreal another 30 or so miles.
Much of the seemingly endless coastline features bedrock ledges of a few feet to 30 or more, often topped with woods and vacation homes and a deck facing the water. Sometimes there's a short dock extending into the lake. Our place for the week -- a cottage facing west on Pellott's Point -- offered but one of many spectacular views from either side of these islands.
The western side looks over a wide and at times choppy lake channel, with waves that some days flap hard into the ledges of warped metamorphosed bed-rock. The lake bottom itself was like walking over mostly smooth flagstone out into the water.
Needless to say, there are motorized and sail boats moving past in the distance everywhere in the islands. But it never seemed enough to make the lake appear crowded, just enough to provide a more interesting view, and when the water was ocean-like, some entertainment watching outboards bash over the waves.
In fact, it seems every native and a hefty percentage of visitors have boats of some kind. There's even an amazing "junkyard" along Route 2 with all manner and size of boats perched at scattered angles in farm fields -- as if an ancient ocean had evaporated and left behind dozens of shipwrecks.
The Champlain Islands have a population of about 7,000 year-round but that surges during the warmer seasons -- just not enough to create a bona fide traffic jam.
While there are numerous farmhouses and vacation homes on both sides of Route 2, there also are some large farms, and wider hay and corn fields and pastures than those seen in Berkshire County. And, yes, they do spread real manure on the fields; these are working farms.
Wooded areas are fairly extensive throughout the islands, which are home to state parks with extensive camping sites and a number of private resorts for tent and RV campers.
Other lodging options include private home or cottage rentals, housekeeping cabins, small motels and B&Bs.
The islands, unlike Martha's Vineyard, can't expect President Obama and family to vacation there, but that great environmentalist, Theodore Roosevelt, did visit at least once. In fact, he was attending a huge dinner meeting of conservationists on Isle La Motte when he had to leave early upon word President McKinley had been shot and he would soon become president.
Ethan and Ira Allen also figure prominently in the history of the islands. North and South Hero are said to be named for the brothers, both original property owners there.
Lodging and meals for both upscale and medium-scale tastes are scattered throughout the islands but concentrated more in the south. None seemed to be associated with a national fast-food or lodging chain.
The general stores and small markets likewise were local rather than chain-owned. The Hero's Welcome general store and deli in North Hero might be the most interesting to visit -- it's narrow aisles are jammed with goods, food, drink, souvenirs and more.
In fact, every store or small market seemed unique and unhomogenized.
Burlington is close by, only about 25 miles from Grand Isle, and we drove down twice, once to see the Vermont Lake Monsters. The minor league baseball team is named for the legendary Champ -- Champlain's version of the Loch Ness monster. We didn't see him, but others say they have.
The most common physical activities -- other than fishing, that is -- include biking, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, swimming and golfing. Less physical pursuits involve art galleries and museums and antique hunting.
For additional information, start with the Chamber of Commerce website at www.champlainis
To reach Jim Therrien:
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_therrien
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