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Weekend in New England: A Vermont Roadtrip

Hit the road and head to Vermont -- just in time for some leafpeeping.

October 24, 2003 -- An invitation to a civil union coincided with the height of leaf-peeping season, so we headed for Vermont in early October, to enjoy the ceremony and the scenery without spending a fortune.

While Bennington, in southern Vermont, is not the farthest point in the state from New York City, construction and other northern travelers expanded our travel time from just over three to just over four hours. Once on the New York Thruway (I-87), we made good time -- which we lost again once we hit Route 7, just past Albany, which crosses into Vermont, a pretty but packed-in-the-fall two-lane highway.

Bennington, a cozy town nestled between the Taconic and Green Mountains in the southwest corner of the state, within a dozen miles of both New York and Massachusetts, is a prime destination for both tour buses and individual foliage fans, with the crowds (and colors) hitting their peak about mid-October, when rooms and reservations at restaurants can be hard to come by. A few weeks later, the colors might be peaking further south, but the town still offers plenty to see and do amidst smaller crowds.

We were lucky to book a room at The Kirkside Motor Lodge (250 West Main Street, 802/447-7596;, whose comfort and amenities belie the motel-like name. Owner Billy Soto offers 25 individually decorated rooms, some with antiques, all with private baths in a smoke-free facility. All the rooms have TVs and dataports. Some of the larger rooms are equipped with kitchens. With rates from $54-$119 per night in high season, the Kirkside is a cheerful, bargain alternative to the B&B scene, where rooms can start at $200 a night and up during high season. The Kirkside (named for its proximity to Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church) is within walking distance of most of the major Bennington attractions, shopping and dining.

We heard good things about Pangaea Restaurant & Lounge (1 & 3 Prospect St., North Bennington, 802/442-7171; when we were soliciting dinner recommendations, and chef/owner William Scully's establishment would be as much of a standout in the big city as it is nestled in the mountains. Vermont magazine called the food "world class cuisine" with an award-winning wine list (Wine Spectator, 2003). The staff is friendly, courteous and professional, knowledgeable about the excellent cuisine. We sampled several appetizers, including a butternut squash brulée with hints of citrus and curry, a sherry and roasted chestnut puree, and a roasted baby beet; hazelnut encrusted wild mushroom truffles with a pinot noir black current glaze; and Maultaschen (a ravioli-like pasta) filled with roasted duck, smoked gouda and thyme, served with a savory cranberry orange sauce. Appetizers run from $8-$15.

Our party had a hard time choosing from the entrees, but ended up with filet mignon alla Rossini topped with pancetta and taleggio served with a spinach and red pepper risotto; pan seared diver sea scallops on a sweet corn succotash with asparagus and shiitake, served with a citrus beurre blanc; and tenderloin of wild boar braised in Barolo with gorgonzola and boar tortellini and a savory pan gravy. Entrees range from $25-$33.

A lighter, less expensive menu is available in the restaurant's lounge next door, with soups, salads, crabcakes and quesadillas ranging from $6-$13. Local artists display their works throughout the restaurant. The lounge offers a complimentary chess and pool table in a cozy atmosphere.

Along with Pangaea's "event" dining, The Sugar Maple Inne (2968 West Road, 802/442-2529) on the grounds of the Vermonter Motor Lodge, catered the civil union we attended, and is especially noted for its country breakfasts, featuring favorites like Amish smoked bacon and hot cinnamon buns offered by hostess Maddalena Alvarez. The Northside Diner (132 Northside Drive; 802/447-0572) offers a small, homey, "seat yourself at a clean table" atmosphere with pleasant wait staff and excellent food, with most entrees well under $10. Norman Rockwell was a regular, and copies of his illustrations hanging on the walls. The white board special was a sampler of Pumpkin Pecan, Cranberry Nut and Blueberry Pancakes.

We didn't spend all our time eating, and did some exploring, starting out at the top of the Bennington Battle Monument, 15 Monument Circle, which at 306 feet, is the tallest structure in Vermont, and the view from the top showcases the colors of the mountains that cradle Bennington from Massachusetts, New York and Vermont. The air is noticeably crisp and clean, redolent of pine forests and the smell of maple wood fires as nightfall brings cooler temperatures.

The monument commemorates the Revolutionary War Battle of Bennington, where Brigadier General John Stark and his American forces defeated two detachments of British General John Burgoyne's invading army in 1777. The tower is open from April through October; from 9am-5pm. Admission is $1.50 for adults, and .50 for children.

Back on solid ground, The Bennington Centre Cemetery in Old Bennington is the oldest cemetery in Vermont, dating from 1762. More recently, poet Robert Frost and his family were laid to rest here, and his grave is a popular pilgrimage for poetry lovers. The Robert Frost Stone House Museum, hosting educational, literary and historical exhibits is nearby in Shaftsbury. (802/447-6200;

A historic site that's still a working factory is Bennington Potters, (324 County Street, 800/205-8033;, offers a free tour of the plant where you can observe the workings of the oldest continually producing pottery manufacturer in the region (founded in 1948), which crafts the largest pottery bowls in America. Four large hydraulic presses produce 10 to 100 tons of pressure to flatten and mold clay on its way to the tractor-trailer size kilns, which exceed 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. You can purchase all kinds of bakeware, stoneware, and other pottery items at their Potters Yard Factory Store. Store hours are Mon-Sat, 9:30am- 6:00pm, Sun 10:00am-5:00pm.

Chocolate lovers will want to indulge in the candy, chocolates, and 30 flavors of ice cream at the Vermont Confectionery, (Route 9 West Road, 802/447-2610, or at The Chocolate Barn, (Route 7A in nearby Shaftsbury, 802/375-6928) in a converted 1842 sheep barn which offers 65 varieties of hand-dipped chocolates, fudge, and molded solid chocolate figurines made from 800 antique molds.

We also caught the tail end of the season at the Oldcastle Theatre Company (Bennington Center for Natural and Cultural Arts, Route 9 and Gypsy Lane; 802/447-0564; The Equity theatre offers a June through October season of classic and modern plays; we saw a lovely "Glass Menagerie."

The long weekend wasn't long enough, and we plan on heading northward again soon.

The Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center (800/229-0252;, will send you a color guide to the area; or you can download one from the useful and frequently updated website.

What's Ahead When the Trees Are Bare...

While the foliage has fallen, there are a number of upcoming events in the late fall/early winter. The Bennington Museum (West Main Street, 802/447-1571; hosts The Festival of Trees from November 22 through December 11, a community celebration featuring over 80 holiday trees, wreaths, and other seasonal decorations in a variety of creative styles on display throughout the museum. All are available at a silent auction that concludes at the Grand Finale Gala on December 11. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; regular museum admission ($7 adults, $6 students/seniors, under 12 free) is charged.

The Park-McCullough Historic House in North Bennington (802/442-5441; hosts Victorian Christmas in the Mansion 1-4 pm, November 29-30, December 6-7 & December 13-14, featuring Holiday greenery and seasonal decorations that deck the spacious halls for Victorian teas, & performances by local musicians and artists. Every Sunday there's carol singing plus dulcimer performances by George Haggerty.

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