Navigating the Land of Maple Syrup: What to Do in Central Vermont

Vermont offers 18 alpine ski resorts, dozens of covered bridges, countless charming small towns, and abundant opportunities to purchase maple syrup. One area to experience some of that -- and perhaps among the best of that -- is in central Vermont. Two major ski resorts, Stowe and Sugarbush, are only 40 minutes from each other. And in between them are the kind of authentic towns that visitors come from all over to see.

The Mountains

During the winter, most people visit this area for the downhill skiing and snowboarding, although plenty of non-skiers have fun snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and just enjoying Vermont's peaceful beauty. There are several ski areas concentrated in a small space and, if you want, you can sample a different resort each day.

Stowe Mountain Resort sure has bragging rights: Its trails cover Mount Mansfield, Vermont's largest mountain. While it's known for its expert terrain, Stowe still offers something for everyone. However, to take the gondola lift -- a real treat on freezing cold days -- you must be able to at least handle intermediate trails.

Although smaller than Stowe, Sugarbush Resort holds its own with two separate ski areas, Mount Ellen and Lincoln Peak, which are connected by a mid-mountain chairlift. The views from Sugarbush are breathtaking and from some spots, you can see Stowe. An intermediate's paradise, Sugarbush also has something for everyone, especially those who enjoy runs with lots of twists and turns.

Sugarbush and Stowe each have a smaller resort located nearby that has its own dedicated fan base. Sugarbush has Mad River Glen, whose devotees post bumper stickers on their cars that say "Mad River Glen: Ski it if you can." They have a right to be proud: It has the nation's last remaining single-seat chairlift; it's owned as a co-op; and it doesn't allow snowboarders. Smuggler's Notch is near Stowe and calls itself "America's Family Resort."

The Towns

What's great about taking a ski trip to central Vermont is that you can enjoy yourself as much off the mountain as on. These charming towns all offer nice places to stay and wine and dine, as well as unique attractions of their own -- and plenty of farmland, of course.

Warren

Sugarbush is located in Warren. The village of Warren is tiny, but what little it does have is very nice. There's the Warren Store, an old-fashioned country general store from which you can walk away with a bag of potato chips, a bottle of wine, and a new sweater. Across the street is The Pitcher Inn, a Relais & Châteaux-rated property and the fanciest lodging in the area.

Waitsfield

The heart of Mad River Valley, Waitsfield manages to be a vacation destination that feels real. There's a historic downtown area -- which includes The Great Eddy Bridge, which was built in 1833, making it the oldest operating bridge in the state -- but this town isn't stuck in the past. One of the restaurants in the historic area is The Spotted Cow, which is run by Bermudians. The après ski night life has a fun, laid-back vibe. John Egan's Big World Pub & Grill and the Purple Moon Pub, with its painted ceiling, are two standouts.

Waterbury

To travel between Warren or Waitsfield and Stowe, you take Route 100, Vermont's famed scenic route. This two-lane highway meanders past farms, fields, and very tiny towns until it reaches the larger and more commercial town of Waterbury, which is home to some interesting manufacturers that offer tours. When the weather won't cooperate, head to the Vermont Teddy Bear factory. Ice-cream lovers can pay homage with a Ben and Jerry's factory tour. Meanwhile, apple-cider lovers can see how it's made at the Cold Hollow Cider Mill, which is one of the top fresh-cider producers in New England.

Stowe

When you get to Stowe, you know you've arrived somewhere special. Stowe is a town almost as glamorous as it is charming, and it has no shortage of charm. Its sense of history -- it was chartered in 1763 -- keeps it grounded. Although budget lodging does exist, it's generally more expensive to stay in Stowe, compared to Waitsfield and certainly compared to Waterbury. Don't worry, you don't have to eat every meal in a four-star restaurant, there are plenty of casual options. The hotels and restaurants are more concentrated than in Waitsfield, making for a lively après ski scene. If you need to take a break from the slopes, hit the shops or take a sleigh ride.

Where to Stay
Central Vermont has dozens of cute inns that will offer you a great experience, but here are some highlights:

Tucker Hill Inn, Waitsfield, Vt., www.tuckerhill.com
Tucker Hill Inn is an excellent example of exactly what a country inn should be. Charming and immaculate, it offers guests a delicious breakfast, and the restaurant -- with a pub to have a drink in while you wait -- is open to the public for dinner. Many inns throughout central Vermont are located right on Route 100, but Tucker Hill Inn is off the main road, giving it a lovely setting while still being conveniently located.

The Pitcher Inn, Warren, Vt., www.pitcherinn.com
If you don't want to pay the big bucks (rates start at $350) to stay or eat at The Pitcher Inn, you can still enjoy this beautiful inn by visiting its bar, Tracks Lounge. With a fireplace, a huge, mounted moose head, and a pool table, the bar manages to be cozy and gorgeous at the same time.

Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vt., www.trappfamily.com
You don't have to be a "Sound of Music" fan to enjoy this family-friendly resort. The von Trapp family, who inspired the classic movie, opened the hotel as a 27-room lodge in 1950 and reopened it in 1983 as a 93-room lodge. Now, time-share villas are being built on the 27,000-acre property.

Even if you're not staying at the resort, you can still get your "Sound of Music" fix at The Austrian Tea House, which sits just down the road. Enjoy the view while sipping an incredible hot chocolate and snacking on Austrian pastries. When you're fully replenished, you'll enjoy the adjoining gift shop with von Trapp family memorabilia.

Getting There

Central Vermont is a five- to six-hour drive from the New York Metro area, and a three- to four-hour drive from Boston, which means you'll find a lot more visitors and second-home owners from Connecticut and Massachusetts than from New York and New Jersey. A two-hour drive from Montreal and a much shorter trip from Quebec's eastern townships mean there are lots of French Canadians who visit the area, too. Those traveling from farther away can fly into Burlington's airport -- the largest in Vermont -- which is only a 40-minute drive from Sugarbush or Stowe. Home to the University of Vermont, Burlington is a funky urban center that deserves some time of its own.

No matter how you get there, don't forget to leave with some Vermont maple syrup.