Finish: St. Johnsbury
Time: One full day
Start your tour at Hardwick, which is at the intersection of routes 14 and 15, about 23 miles northwest of St. Johnsbury and 26 miles northeast of Montpelier:
A small town with rough edges set on the Lamoille River, Hardwick has a compact commercial main street with some intriguing shops, a couple of casual, family-style restaurants, and one of Vermont's best little natural foods stores (the Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op). A 2005 fire claimed part of this downtown block, but it has been rebuilt.
From here, head north on Route 14 about 7 miles to the turnoff to Craftsbury and:
2. Craftsbury Common
An uncommonly graceful village, Craftsbury Common is home to a small academy and a large number of historic homes and buildings spread along a central green and the village's main street. The town occupies a wide upland ridge and offers sweeping views to the east and west; be sure to stop by the old cemetery on the south end of town, too, where you can wander among historic tombstones of pioneers -- they date back to the 1700s. Craftsbury is an excellent destination for mountain biking and cross-country skiing.
From Craftsbury, continue north to reconnect to Route 14. Pass through the towns of Albany and Irasburg as you head north. At the village of Coventry, veer north on Route 5 to the lakeside town of:
This commercial (and commercial-looking) outpost is set on the southern shores of Lake Memphremagog, a stunning 27-mile-long lake that's just 2 miles wide at its broadest point (the bulk of it lies across the border in Canada). From Newport, continue north on Route 5, crossing under I-91, about 7 miles more to the border town of Derby Line. This outpost has a handful of restaurants and antiques shops; if you have a passport, you can also park and walk across the bridge to poke around the Canadian town of Rock Island.
Back in Derby Line, look for the:
4. Haskell Free Library & Opera House
At the corner of Caswell Avenue and Church Street (tel. 802/873-3022), this handsome neoclassical building contains a public library on the first floor and an elegant opera house on the second, which is modeled after the old Boston Opera House. The theater opened in 1904 with advertisements promoting a minstrel show featuring "new songs, new jokes, and beautiful electric effects." It's a beautiful theater, with a scene of Venice painted on the drop curtain and carved cherubim adorning the balcony.
What's most curious about the structure, however, is that it lies half in Canada and half in the U.S. (The Haskell family donated the building jointly to the towns of Derby Line and Rock Island.) A thick black line runs beneath the seats of the opera house, indicating who's in the U.S. and who's in Canada. Because the stage is set entirely in Canada, apocryphal stories abound from its early days of frustrated U.S. officers watching fugitives perform on stage. More recently, the theater was used for the occasional extradition hearing.
The library is open Tuesday to Saturday.
From Derby Line, retrace your path south on Route 5 to Derby Center and the juncture of Route 5A. Continue south on Route 5A to the town of Westmore on the shores of:
5. Lake Willoughby
This glacier-carved lake is best viewed from the north, where its shimmering sheet of water appears to be pinched between the base of two low mountains at its southern end. There's a distinctive alpine feel to the scene; this underappreciated lake is one of the most scenic in Vermont. Route 5A along the eastern shore is lightly traveled, and ideal for biking or walking.
Head southwest on Route 16, which branches off Route 5A just north of the lake. Follow Route 16 through the peaceful villages of Barton and Glover. About 1 mile south of Glover, turn left on Route 122. On your left, look for the farmstead that serves as home to the:
6. Bread & Puppet Theater
For nearly 3 decades, until 1998, Polish artist and performer Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater staged an elaborate annual summer pageant at this farm, attracting thousands of attendees who gaped at the theater's brightly painted puppets (crafted of fabric and papier-mâché, they could be an amalgam of Ralph Nader and Hieronymus Bosch). The huge puppets marched around the farm grounds, acting out dramas that typically featured rebellion against tyranny of one sort or another. It was like Woodstock, minus the music.
Alas, the event became too popular -- and attracted drifters of questionable character. In 1998, a murder at an adjacent campground prodded Schumann to shut down the circus for a while. His troupe still designs and builds puppets here, however, and periodically takes its unique shows on the road -- or offers live performances in Glover. (For the latest schedules, check the troupe's website, www.breadandpuppet.org.)
Between June and October, you can still visit the venerable, slightly tottering barn, home of the Bread and Puppet Museum (tel. 802/525-3031 or 802-525-1271), which preserves many of the puppets from past events. This remarkable display shouldn't be missed if you're near the area. Downstairs, in former cow-milking stalls, smaller displays include mournful washerwomen doing laundry and King Lear addressing his daughters. Upstairs, the vast hayloft is filled with soaring, haunting puppets, some up to 20 feet tall. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged.
From Glover, continue south through serene farmlands to Lyndonville, where you pick up Route 5 south to:
7. St. Johnsbury
This is the largest community in the Northeast Kingdom, and its major center of commerce. First settled in 1786, the town enjoyed a buoyant prosperity in the 19th century, largely stemming from the success of platform scales (invented here in 1830 by Thaddeus Fairbanks), which are still manufactured here. The town, which still hasn't been overtaken by sprawl, outlet shops, tourist boutiques, or brewpubs, features an abundance of fine commercial architecture in two distinct areas, joined by steep Eastern Avenue.
The commercial part of town lies along Railroad Street (Rte. 5) at the base of the hill. The more ethereal part of town runs along Main Street at the top of the hill; here, you'll find the local library (with its fine art museum), the St. Johnsbury Academy, and a second grand museum (see below for details on the two museums). This northern end of Main Street is also notable for its grand residential architecture.
In St. Johnsbury, at the corner of Main and Prospect streets, find the:
8. Fairbanks Museum
This imposing Romanesque red-sandstone structure was constructed in 1889 to hold the accumulations of obsessive amateur collector Franklin Fairbanks, grandson of the inventor of the platform scale. Fairbanks was once described as "the kind of little boy who came home with his pockets full of worms." In adulthood, his propensity to collect continued unabated. His collections include four stuffed bears, a huge moose with full antlers, art from Asia, and 4,500 stuffed native and exotic birds -- and that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. (In fact, it's surprising there isn't an iceberg here as well.)
The soaring, barrel-vaulted main hall, reminiscent of an old-fashioned railway depot, embodies Victorian grandeur. Amid the assorted clutter, look for the, er, unique mosaics of John Hampson: He depicted famous moments in American history -- such as Washington bidding his troops farewell -- made entirely out of mounted insects. (In the Washington scene, iridescent green beetles form the epaulets, and the regal great coat comprises hundreds of purple moth wings.) These works alone are worth the price of admission, and capture the peculiar oddity of the place.
The museum (tel. 802/748-2372; www.fairbanksmuseum.org) is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm, and Sunday from 1 to 5pm; from April to October, it's also open Monday from 9am to 5pm. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and children ages 5 to 17, and $18 per family (maximum of two adults). There's a planetarium here as well -- the only one in Vermont.
Also on Main Street, just south of the museum at 1171 Main St, find the:
9. St. Johnsbury Athenaeum
In an Edward Hopper-esque brick building with a truncated mansard tower and prominent keystones over the windows, St. Johnsbury's public library also houses an extraordinary art gallery dating to 1873. It claims to be the oldest unadulterated art gallery in the nation.
Your first view of the gallery is spectacular: After winding through a cozy library and past its ticking regulator clock, you round a corner and find yourself gazing across Yosemite National Park. The luminous 10*15-foot oil painting was created by noted Hudson River School painter Albert Bierstadt, and the gallery was built specifically to accommodate this work. (Not everyone was happy about it moving here. "Now The Domes is doomed to the seclusion of a Vermont town, where it will astonish the natives," groused the Boston Globe at the time.) The natural light flooding in from the skylight above enhances the painting.
Another 100 or so other works fill the remaining walls of the museum. Most are copies of other paintings (that was a common teaching tool in the 19th century), but look for originals by other Hudson River School painters including Asher B. Durand, Thomas Moran, and Jasper Cropsey.
The Athenaeum (tel. 802/748-8291; www.stjathenaeum.org) is open Monday and Wednesday from 10am to 8pm; Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 10am to 5:30pm; and Saturday from 9:30am to 4pm. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.