Vermont's rolling, cow-spotted hills, shaggy peaks, sugar maples, and quaint towns clustered along river valleys give it a distinct sense of place. Still mostly rural (even if a few slices are gradually becoming more suburban), this state is filled with the dairy farms, dirt roads, and small-scale enterprises that bring joy to the hearts of back-road travelers. And the towns are home to an intriguing mix of old-time Vermonters, back-to-the-landers who showed up in VW buses in the 1960s and never left (many got involved with municipal affairs or put down business roots -- think Ben & Jerry); and newer, moneyed arrivals from New York or Boston who came to ski or stay at B&Bs and ended up buying second homes. Some of those second homes ended up becoming first homes.

This place captures a sense of America as it once was -- because, here it still is. Vermonters share a sense of community, and they still respect the ideals of thrift and parsimony above those of commercialism. (It took years of haggling for Wal-Mart to get approval to build its first big-box store in Vermont.) Locals prize their villages, and they understand what makes them special. A Vermont governor once said that one of his state's strengths was knowing "where our towns begin and end," and if that seems a simple notion, it also speaks volumes in a time when so many East Coast small towns have already been swallowed up by a creeping megalopolis and the concurrent erosion of local identity.

For travelers, Vermont remains a superb destination of country drives, mountain rambles, and overnights at country inns. A good map opens the door to back-road adventures, and it's not hard to get a taste of Vermont's way of life. The numbers tell the story: Burlington, Vermont's largest city, counts just 39,000 year-round residents; Montpelier, the state capital, about 8,000; Brattleboro and Bennington, perhaps 12,000 and 16,000, respectively; and Woodstock, just 3,000. The state's total population is just a shade over 600,000, making it one of only a handful of states with more senators (2) than representatives (1) in Congress.

Of course, numbers don't tell the entire story. You have to let the people do that. Former Governor Howard Dean -- no, he wasn't born here, but some consider him an adopted son -- made a national splash in 2004 as a presidential candidate speaking with, er, unusual candor. That was more or less in tune with his state's hard-won identity as a place of its own separate peace. (For 14 years during the late-18th c., in fact, Vermont did essentially function as an independent republic, a historical moment that many Vermonters still savor with surprising pride, and that many wish to repeat.)

More than 70 years ago, one of the state's better-known former residents, Nobel prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis, wrote: "I like Vermont because it is quiet, because you have a population that is solid and not driven mad by the American mania -- that mania which considers a town of 4,000 twice as good as a town of 2,000. Following that reasoning, one would get the charming paradox that Chicago would be 10 times better than the entire state of Vermont, but I have been in Chicago and not found it so."

Southern and central Vermont are defined by rolling hills, shady valleys, and historic villages. Throughout you'll find antiques shops and handsome inns, fast-flowing streams and inviting restaurants. The southern edge is anchored at each corner by the towns of Bennington and Brattleboro, like pushpins; between them, running northward, is the impressively obdurate spine of the Green Mountains, much of which is part of the Green Mountain National Forest and all of which rewards explorers who consider dirt roads and quiet hiking tracks to be irresistibly tempting.

Here and there you'll find remnants of former industries -- marble quarrying around Rutland, converging train tracks at White River Junction -- but mostly it's still rural living here: cow pastures high on the hills, clapboard farmhouses under spreading trees, maple-sugaring operations in spring, and the distant sound of timber being felled from a woodlot on the far side of a high ridge. These steep hills are also the site of many of the state's most popular ski resorts, including Okemo, Killington, Sugarbush, and Mount Snow.

Though it is the closest part of northern New England to New York City, southern Vermont has somehow mostly resisted the encroachment of city-dwellers, except within ski resorts during a busy winter weekend and on any road leading to a bright maple leaf in October.

But even in these hectic moments -- which are really not all that hectic -- southern and central Vermont remain wonderful introductions to a place that is both rugged and lovely.

Looking for More Information? -- The best source of information for the region is the great state visitor center (tel. 802/254-4593), off I-91 in Guilford (just south of Brattleboro, a few miles after crossing the Massachusetts border); you can only reach it traveling from the south on I-91, not from the north. The attractive building, inspired by Vermont's barns, is filled with maps, brochures, and videos on activities in the region. Helpful staff dole out up-to-the-minute information, make reservations, and otherwise guide you; there are even bake sales outside in good weather. The vending machines and spotless bathrooms are priceless for families.