Here's a simple, straightforward strategy for exploring Brattleboro: Park and walk. The commercially vibrant downtown is blessedly compact, and strolling around is the best way to appreciate its human scale and handsome commercial architecture. A town of cafes, bookstores, antiques stores, and outdoor recreation shops, it invites browsing. One shop of special note is Sam's Outdoor Outfitters, 74 Main St. (tel. 802/254-2933), filled to the eaves with camping and fishing gear; it's open daily.
Enjoyable for kids and curious adults is the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (tel. 802/257-0124; www.brattleboromuseum.org) at the Union Railroad Station, 10 Vernon St. (it's the stone building downtown near the bridge to New Hampshire). Wonderful exhibits highlight the history of the town and the Connecticut River Valley. The museum is open from Wednesday through Monday from 11am to 5pm. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for students, and free for children 5 and under.
About 1 1/2 miles outside town on Route 30 is Tom and Sally's Handmade Chocolates, 485 W. River Rd. (tel. 800/827-0800 or 802/254-4200), a boutique chocolate shop purveying handmade confections. Of note is the chocolate body-paint kit, which comes complete with two brushes. Tours are given Monday to Saturday between 10am and 2pm; they cost $5 per adult, $2 per child.
Sweet Stuff: Maple Syrup & How It Gets That Way
Maple syrup is at once simple and extravagant: simple, because it's made from the purest ingredients available; extravagant, because it's an expensive luxury.
Two elemental ingredients combine to create maple syrup: sugar-maple sap and fire. Sugaring season slips in between northern New England's painfully long winter and its frustratingly short spring; it usually lasts around 4 or 5 weeks, typically beginning in early or mid-March. When warm and sunny days alternate with freezing nights, the sap in the maple trees begins to run from roots to the branches overhead. Sugarers drill shallow holes into the trees and insert small taps. Buckets (or plastic tubing) are hung from the taps to collect the sap that drips out bit by bit.
The collected sap is then boiled off; the equipment for this ranges from a simple backyard fire pit cobbled together of concrete blocks to elaborate commercial-capacity sugarhouses using oil or propane burners. It requires between 32 and 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of supermarket syrup, and that means a fair amount of boiling has to happen. The real cost of syrup isn't the sap at all; it's the fuel required to boil it down to the finished product.
Vermont is the nation's capital of maple syrup, producing more than 500,000 gallons a year, an industry whose worth has been calculated to be at least $12 million annually. The fancier inns and restaurants serve native maple syrup with breakfast. Some breakfast places charge $1 or so extra for the real stuff, rather than the flavored corn syrup that's prevalent in most of the nation. (You may have to ask if the real stuff is available.)
You can pick up the real thing in almost any grocery store in the state, but I'm convinced it tastes better if you buy it right from the farm. Look for handmade signs or maple-leaf icons touting syrup for sale posted at the end of driveways around the region throughout the year. Drive on up and knock on the door.
A number of sugarers invite visitors to inspect the process and sample some of the fresh syrup in the early spring. Ask for the brochure "Maple Sugarhouses Open to Visitors," available at information centers, or by writing or calling the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (Drawer 20, 116 State St., Montpelier, VT 05620; tel. 802/828-2416; www.vermontagriculture.com). The list is also posted online at www.vermontmaple.org by the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association in South Royalton (tel. 802/763-7435).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.