A little piece of Austria in Vermont

Sweet spots and Scandinavian style in the classic New England countryside

 

In the rousing final scene of The Sound of Music, we leave the Von Trapp family, in a crescendo of capes, escaping over a mountain. How nice, therefore, on the 50th anniversary of the film’s release, to see where they fetched up – in a ski lodge in Vermont.

Boy, was it worth the walk. The Trapp Family Lodge (they lost the Von somewhere over the Alps) is nothing less than a little piece of Austria in a lot of Vermont. You’ll know because that’s what the sign at the gate says.

Of course, the people in the movie weren’t the real Von Trapps, just Julie Andrews and that bloke with the whistle. It’s a subtle distinction, which these real, live, non-movie star Trapps seem at pains to point out.

The walls of their gorgeous Alpine-style hotel (lots of dormer windows and decorative fascia) are bedecked with posters from the movie. But despite the weekly Sound of Music events and occasional sing-songs, you can’t help but feel the descendants, at best, ambiguous about the movie.

Johannes, the current owner and – pinch yourself – youngest son of Julie (sorry Maria), spent much of his life as a cattle rancher in parts of Montana and Canada so remote that the film isn’t out there yet. Obviously he’s been on an escape bid of his own.

His son Sam, the late lamented Maria’s grandson, talks animatedly about the family’s new craft brewery enterprise, but can’t quite hide his weariness when the movie is mentioned.

“We always try to remember that it’s the first time for a guest to make a comment to us about the movie, even if it’s the millionth time we’ll have heard it,” Sam smiles, weakly, before pointing out the lovely golden colour of his helles lager.

He does have a point. There is way more to see and do here than wallow in a (semi-fictional) past, no matter how epic.

The Trapp Family Lodge is in Stowe, one of the most picturesque ski resorts in the world, with the added advantage of New England charm. The resort has the biggest vertical drop in the area, and cross-country skiers can pick up any number of trails right from the Lodge’s front door. Once the snows clear, it’s a pristine environment for hiking and biking, with mountain bikes, helmets and maps available at reception.

There’s a picturesque kitchen garden to explore, all organic, a free-range herd of pigs, and some good old-fashioned Scottish Highlander cattle straight off the toffee tin, pointy horns and all. The Trapps, who take their farming seriously, had the seed stock shipped specially from Scotland.

Anyone travelling to Vermont today is likely to fly in via Boston and take the three- hour drive north, or into New York/Newark for five hours, making it a good option for a two-stop holiday (city lights and country life). Fly out via Montreal, just over two hours north of Stowe, and that’s the guts of a fantastic US road trip right there.

What could be better than heading north on an open highway in the kind of kick-ass SUV you wouldn’t be caught dead in (aka couldn’t afford) at home, listening to the strains of it’s a flag, not a rag, we don’t wear it on our head on the radio, and counting the “Live Free or Die” number plates as you pass signs for shops selling “sodas, ice cream, ammunition”. The N11 it ain’t.

As soon as you cross into Vermont, the scenery becomes tidier – the houses neater, the quota of antique shops greater. In fact, it’s spotless. What had been rather boring wooden houses along the roadside suddenly become fabulously twee. It’s exactly what you want from New England.

It’s also wonderfully Scandinavian, with deep-red cabins on expansive and beautifully kept lawns, typically backed by endless forest. Vermont is well named, being both mountainous and endlessly, relentlessly green. It’s no wonder they go nuts for the riot of colour autumn brings.

The state is, of course, a magnet for “leaf peepers”, attracted from late September on to see slow explosions of crimson, vermilion and ochre high up in the hills. The display is dazzling, notwithstanding the odd downbeat blow-in hotelier who reckons that “the fall foliage looks better in pictures than in real life”.

The glory of Vermont is that its forests are exactly as nature intended, a place where even the conifers oblige by changing colour, set aflame by the dying summer sun.

Tucked in amid them all is the quintessential New England town of Woodstock. No, not the one in New York with the hippies, but the one frequently referred to, albeit most often by itself, as the “prettiest town in America”.

Built in large part by the Rockefeller family, who put all the electric wires underground, Woodstock looks to have been pretty much preserved in aspic since the days when they’d ski into town for eggnog in the gorgeous Woodstock Inn, which they built just so that they could.

Actually you’d welcome a hippy here, just for the variety. Chances are they’d be run out of town before you could say patchouli. Ditto anyone vulgar enough to put a plastic sign outside their shop.

Facades here are of the determinedly ye olde kind, even when they’re not. What’s more, the interiors are so chic and the stock so unnecessary (maple-scented stationary, antique cash registers) that you can only wonder where locals buy their groceries.

Certainly, they can’t survive on what seems to be 90 per cent of Vermont’s primary output: maple. As well as in stationery, it appears in fudge, ice cream, donuts, and sweet and plain old syrup form.

It’s not so much a staple diet as a maple diet, and they surely have the Type 2 diabetes to show for it? Not at all. In fact, you’ve never seen a fitter population. Everyone was either running, power-walking or getting ready for the ski season by racing up and down roads on skis with wheels on them. Whole families, Von Trapp style. They’re a fit bunch.

Despite Woodstock’s affluent air, the real money is in neighbouring Manchester. So it’s a surprise to find its outskirts lined with outlet stores. Dozens of faux period houses flogging discounting Armani, Eileen Fisher and Coach.

Yet set well back from the roads, the mansions hint at permanent residents who would sooner wear a flag on their head than look for a discount on a name brand.

These guys are much more likely to be found at the local Orvis Store buying waxed jackets and fishing rods – the store’s rods are world famous. Visitors to Manchester who eschew the joys of buying a $200 jumper they don’t need can, for a mere $100, book a fly-fishing lesson at the store’s adjacent, well-stocked lake.

One of the biggest houses in Manchester is open to the public. Now, if you saw a sign saying “he Lincoln Family Home”, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the home of a certain person. Actually, it is the home of honest Abe’s son, built nearly half a century after the president died.

It’s a lovely spot, and the drive from Woodstock to Manchester is full of lovely spots, including some of Vermont’s famous “swim holes”, dramatic and picturesque waterfalls that flow over giant boulders into deep pools.

Just up the road is dinky Montpelier, the smallest state capital in the US, with all the neo-classical executive buildings you’d expect, but in miniature. If it seems positively Lilliputian, the Vermont Country Store, another must-see stop, keeps the fictional theme going. If Willie Wonka mated with Avoca, this would be the insulin-injecting result. A massive enterprise, it is packed to its quaint rafters with every conceivable kind of US sweet, or more properly candy.

It’s also packed with tour bus passengers of a certain age calling out in delight over peg legs and bulls eyes. Twin it with a visit to the Ben & Jerry factory in Waterbury and you’ve the makings of a very expensive dental job right there. And that’s before you give in to the complimentary premium-grade maple syrup tapped from the Trapp Family Lodge’s own forest and left for you in your room.

That last one you’re better off bringing home as a souvenir. Otherwise, what with the sugar rush and all, when Johannes Von Trapp says goodbye at check-out, the urge to sing so long, auf wiedersehen, farewell is just too hard. You’ve got to feel for these people.

Where to stay... Vermont

Stowe Mountain Lodge (stowemountainlodge.com, 7412 Mountain Rd, Stowe, VT 05672, 001 802 2533560) is a rarity, a super- swish resort that’s so upmarket it’s positively relaxed – dogs are welcome and the service unstuffy. Ski slopes run right to the back door, with a terrific spa for rejuvenating tired legs. From $249 (€227) a night for a double room*.

On the River Inn (ontheriverwoodstock.com, 1653 W Woodstock Rd, Woodstock, VT 05091, 001 802 4575000) won a gong from Conde Nast Traveller last year as the 2015 ‘place to visit’. Classic Vermont laid-back luxury with a great bistro, atmospheric lounge and a rocking chair on your terrace, from which to gaze at the Ottauquechee river like some old- timer in a Norman Rockwell. From $279 per night for a double room, B&B*.

Basin Harbour Club (basinharbor.com, 4800 Basin Harbor Rd, Vergennes, VT 05491, 001 802 4752311), on the shore of Lake Champlain, has welcomed the same families for summer vacations for generations. Stay in one of its newly refurbished cabins for a picture-perfect, back-to-nature holiday back-flipping off pontoons and peddle boats(kids) or dozing in giant Adirondack chairs (grown-ups). Spring rates from $218 per couple, including kayak and motorboat rental.

Trapp Family Lodge (trappfamily.com, 700 Trapp Hill Road, PO Box 1428, Stowe, VT, Tel 001 800 8267000).

What can I say? A little piece of Austria in a lot of Vermont – doubles from $275*.

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