Unplug and Explore the Outdoors in Vermont

Jun 22, 2012 by

Unplug and Explore the Outdoors in Vermont

by Heather Cassell

Prepare to unplug from the Internet. Vermont is about celebrating individuality, getting outdoors, and unwinding, as my girlfriend and I discovered on a recent trip to the Green Mountain State that left us wanting more.

As a committed urbanite it was a challenge getting me to disconnect from my tech gadgets, but near the end of our trip, sitting on the deck of our cabin at the Basin Harbor Club overlooking Lake Champlain, I was finally relaxed and not quite ready to go home.

I had taken a bike ride along one of the many trails earlier that morning, while my girlfriend played a round of golf. The night before we enjoyed a five-star meal in the main dining room and partied Dirty Dancing -style with the staff and other resort guests at the Red Mill, an old barn that was converted into a bar and casual restaurant. At the mill I succeeded in getting the ring onto the hook. Hooking the ring is a game of skill, swinging a brass ring tied to a string around a hook several feet away.

The view of Lake Champlain from one of the cottages at the Basin Harbor Club. (Photo: Courtesy of Gay Travel Vermont)

The view of Lake Champlain from one of the cottages at the Basin Harbor Club. (Photo: Courtesy of Gay Travel Vermont)

The Basin Harbor Club is a quintessential New England resort founded by Ardelia Beach more than 125 years ago. It remains family-owned and -operated by Beach’s great, great, great niece and nephew Pennie and Robert H. Beach Jr., and attracts families and groups of friends year after year who enjoy boating on and swimming in Lake Champlain, long country walks, and any number of the other activities planned daily.

Vermont’s slogan should be eat, drink, play, and live well. Stopping to enjoy life and the scenery is what it is all about in the New England state that is filled with picturesque towns and friendly people.

Vermont is very lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women-friendly; so LBT and women-friendly that being queer is just as normal as apple pie and women-owned businesses abound everywhere. It was a bit disconcerting for my girlfriend and me that there isn’t a gayborhood and to learn that there wasn’t a gay bar in the entire state. We missed the feeling of being “different” and having our own space to gather with our community. On the other hand it felt good to be outside of our San Francisco bubble and still be an out couple, especially in small town America.

Vermont is progressive on gay rights. It currently has a strong pro-gay Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin, who while in the state Senate sponsored the marriage equality bill that was passed by the legislature in 2009. He appointed out lesbian Beth Robinson, an attorney and LGBT civil unions and marriage equality advocate, to the state’s Supreme Court in 2011. The state’s landmark civil unions law was amended to recognize such unions performed in other states, and the governor most recently supported two anti-bullying laws passed last month by the legislature.

Peter is also actively supporting LGBT tourism and why not? The state is home to more than a dozen LGBT-owned bed and breakfasts, restaurants, shops, and tour companies wanting to share everything the state has to offer to LGBT visitors and their friends.

This plethora of LGBT-owned travel businesses inspired the formation of the Vermont Gay Tourism Association in 2003. Northern Decadence, launched last year, is a festival that showcases the best of what LGBT and gay-friendly Vermont has to offer.

Easy living

Everything is at Vermonters’ doorsteps, from urban life to serenity in the wilderness. Nothing is too far away. At any moment, any one of the more than 600,000 Vermonters, about 200,000 less than San Francisco’s population, can be high atop any one of the state’s 223 mountains or hanging out at any of its five lakes or eight rivers. Seventy-five percent of the state is forest and greenery that presents a dazzling display of color during the fall.

Lake Champlain, the nation’s sixth largest fresh water lake, provides a variety of boating and water fun during the summer.
Vermont is also known for its microbrews and friends can raise a pint of specialty crafted beer at any one of the 21 microbreweries that make the state number one in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association.

No matter what the season, Vermont, the second largest state in New England nestled snuggly between Canada, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York, is an outdoor adventurer’s wonderland.

Vermont’s natural beauty, easy outdoor living, and cozy communities attracted Jennie Date and Jenn Childress, owners of Singletrack Mindfulness, a mountain biking and yoga retreat and tour company. The 39-year-old couple, who followed former partners to Vermont, stayed and found their passions for sports and each other about six years ago. Around a year and a half ago the couple took the plunge and formed Singletrack Mindfulness.

Jennie Date and Jenn Childress, owners of Singletrack Mindfulness, a mountain biking and yoga retreat and tour company. (Photo: Courtesy of GirlMTNbiker.com)

Jennie Date and Jenn Childress, owners of Singletrack Mindfulness, a mountain biking and yoga retreat and tour company. (Photo: Courtesy of GirlMTNbiker.com)

Bike lovers, they own about seven bikes between the two of them and they are looking at buying two more bikes, they say. The two commute regularly by bike around Burlington.

“You can ride your bike from Burlington and in 10 minutes you are on a country road,” says Jennie, who likes the fact that within a half hour she can go skiing in the winter, biking in the summer, or take part in any number of outdoor activities.

The couple also likes exploring Vermont’s food culture.

“Another huge piece for me is the food,” says Jennie. “There is a huge local movement here. We don’t have necessarily fabulous restaurants; there are some good restaurants. But it’s not so much about that, it’s more about the access to farm fresh food, the cheese, the bread, and all the produce in the summer.”

Vermonters aren’t simply country bumpkins. Long since its founding as an independent nation in 1777 – before becoming the first state to enter the United States after the original 13 colonies in 1791 – Vermont’s residents have had an independent and socially progressive streak that gives them an air of country sophistication. At the same time it retains a small town neighborly attitude that keeps residents closely connected to one another.

Modern day Vermont farmers are venturing into exploring viniculture, producing a variety of wines at local wineries, including experimenting with new grape varietals and creating unique blends of ice wine, says Andrea Van Hoven, a representative of Shelburne Farms and Vineyards, about the state’s emerging wine industry.

Northern Decadence

Northern Decadence unlike its more rowdy counterpart in New Orleans, is a culinary and cultural expo that takes place at Vermont’s Pride Festival in Burlington in late September. Just in time to enjoy the foliage season.

This is the second year Northern Decadence is beckoning visitors to come hungry to sample the gastronomic delights from cook-offs by Vermont’s best chefs to savory and sweet offerings from local businesses and farms.

Last year’s event was a two-day extravaganza that included a dance party cruise on Lake Champlain and an after-party. The cruise will be happening as a separate event this year and other events are currently being planned, says Willie Docto, co-founder and president of Vermont Gay Tourism Association, who is spearheading the event with the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing.

Jay Kerch, back, and John Perkins, front, owners of Phineas Swann Inn. (Photo: Super G)

Jay Kerch, back, and John Perkins, front, owners of Phineas Swann Inn. (Photo: Super G)

Intimate retreats

Willie also owns the Moose Meadow Lodge with his husband of nearly three years, Greg Trulson. The couple, who met at a bed and breakfast 20 years ago and love to travel, have owned the inn for 14 years, they says.

The cozy inn, tucked away up a long dirt road, rests on 86 acres that host a pond and hiking trails. It is luxurious, but at the same time feels like home and that’s just what the couple intended, they says. Guests like it too. The lodge boasts an estimated 33 percent return rate and high occupancy, says Willie.

Greg officiates at civil unions and weddings, including Navy Lieutenant Gary Ross to his partner Dan Swezy the minute the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy officially ended, at the lodge last September. The day we stayed at the lodge a lesbian couple from South Carolina was enjoying wedding day bliss. Greg also officiates unions between couples throughout the state. He tells Girls That Roam that couples love the personal touch that bed and breakfasts’ provide.

“You are talking to a local who will tell you things and show you things that you wouldn’t get from a concierge,” he says.
Vermont is filled with charming inns and small restaurants and shops, many of them LGBT or women-owned and are very welcoming of queer and women travelers.

In Montgomery Center, close to the Canadian border, we stayed at the beautiful and luxurious Phineas Swann Inn, owned by gay couple Jay Kerch and John Perkins, who were more than hospitable, telling us all about the ski town. They suggested that we dine at Bernie’s Restaurant across the street. The small restaurant, owned by Bernie – who cooks – and her husband, with a bar in back didn’t look like much from the outside, but it was almost hard to get a table. Fortunately, we slipped in just in the nick of time to enjoy the casual, fun, and good food and service. The following morning Jay served up an indulgent breakfast that anyone would swoon over.

The dog-friendly bed and breakfast housed in a converted farmhouse and barn is plush and affordable. My girlfriend and I needed a stepping stool to get into the pillow-laden king size bed in our suite – I felt like the princess and the pea. The inn hosts many weddings and it is also a short drive to Jay Peak, a golf and ski resort that is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation.

A sight to see foliage season in Vermont. (Photo: Courtesy Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing)

A sight to see foliage season in Vermont. (Photo: Courtesy Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing)

Finding community

In spite of the integration and spread out nature of Vermont’s LGBT community, finding queer people surprisingly wasn’t difficult due to my well-honed gaydar, good eye for rainbow flags, and local LGBT and straight business owners that gladly chatted up and pointed the way to other gay-owned businesses.

My first stop upon landing in Vermont was Montpelier where I found the simply named Coffee Corner Diner flying an inconspicuous rainbow flag the owners had just put up. The corner diner on Main and E. State streets was taken over nearly two years ago – at the request of the retiring owner – by a gay couple Michael Raymond and Sean Ward.

The two men have been married for more than two years and have been together for more than 16 years. They had worked at the diner for years and are beloved by the community. The love showed as people steadily came through the door for a mid-afternoon bite to eat or cup of coffee and donated some extra dollars toward the couple’s Hurricane Irene fund. The two men’s entire life possessions, except the diner, were wiped out by the storm last September, they say.

The community doesn’t “want to see us go anywhere,” says Sean, his voice strained as he held back tears chatting with me over lunch. Before leaving he pointed me in the direction of the Square Biscuit, a Southern restaurant in Northfield Village owned by a lesbian couple and their openly bisexual daughter.

First, I stroll through the main center of Montpelier and stop at the Vermont History Museum, an interactive maze that takes guests from the founding of Vermont to its present day, housed at the Vermont Historical Society. It was there that I began to grasp the spirit of Vermont, learning about the industriousness of the state and all of the ways it reinvented itself and remained self-sufficient through our nation’s history. Many of Vermont’s picturesque towns turned 250 years old this year and last year.

During the days that followed my girlfriend and I explored modern Vermont, stopping off at wineries, microbreweries, and general stores as we drove along the winding mountain roads. We also couldn’t resist making a dessert stop at Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory.

Surprisingly, we didn’t spend much time exploring Burlington. We only spent an evening dining at Leunig’s Bistro and Café, one of Vermont’s most popular fine dining restaurants that is co-owned by out lesbian chef Donnell Collins, a former Californian; and an afternoon strolling through the shops at Church Street Marketplace before returning home.

To find out what is happening in Vermont and plan a visit, check out this Quick guide to Vermont or www.vermontvacation.com or www.vermontgaytourism.com.

Originally published by the Bay Area Reporter.

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