Clouds billow overhead as you thum-thum your bike over an arched bridge and meandering river. Outdoor sculpture glistens from either side of the path, and the sound of cars is blissfully absent. Awaiting you are miles of fields, woods and smooth pavement interspersed with pit stops at which to be fed and watered.
Pedaling along the Stowe Recreation Path can make for an idyllic few hours, and the 5.3-mile-long course — used by thousands of bikers, skaters, skiers and walkers each year — is also a byway to some of the eateries that dot this tourist-friendly village. Biking may be about getting fit, not fat, but there’s still something appealing about two-wheeling it from pancakes and coffee to burgers and beer.
The roots of the Stowe rec path stretch back to mid-1960s, when the accumulation of traffic on the Mountain Road inspired townspeople to contemplate a quieter alternative. In 1964, the Stowe Better Business Association voted to create a walking path, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that landowners began donating easements for its construction. The first 2.7-mile-long section debuted in 1984; the remainder opened in 1989. For about $680,000 — plus ample neighborliness, generosity and vision — the town created a phenomenal social resource. The greenway has multiple entry points along its length and is the perfect conduit for a low-key food tour.
A good starting point is the path’s terminus in Stowe Village, behind the Stowe Community Church at 137 Main Street. Before you strap on your helmet, however, cross Main Street to Black Cap Coffee, the bustling café facing the church. Here you can load up on carbs — scones, lemon bars, gluten-free pumpkin muffins, chocolate croissants, cookies and macaroons — or caffeinate with bracing, house-roasted coffee or espresso. Chef Heinz Remmel’s sweet or savory crêpes are special treats, albeit ones that might weigh you down for the ride. A crêpe Marcel comes with Vermont cheddar cheese, spinach, mushrooms and scrambled eggs; a Shrimp Tasso is a silky mélange of Cajun ham, shredded shrimp and cream. The picnic-minded can pick up a quiche or wrap. But the oozing panino — such as one with marinated asparagus, coppa salami and Gruyère cheese on ciabatta — is a bit too messy to pack.
Once you’re on the rec path, the best way to monitor your whereabouts is by keeping track of the 10 arching bridges that cross the West Branch River, the first of which appears immediately. You will pedal beneath artist Ria Blaas’ giant yellow spoons and alongside Tom Holmes’ giant red starbursts, both part of this summer’s “Exposed!” outdoor art show presented by the Helen Day Art Center.
Soon enough, tiny wooden signs beckon riders away from the path and into various eateries. After you cross Weeks Hill Road and bridge No. 4, a sign indicates the Grey Fox Inn and its Dutch Pancake Café. You’ve only gone about a mile, but if you’ve skipped the goodies at Black Cap, this place may tempt you to tackle breakfast in earnest. The kitchen turns out foot-wide, lightly charred, buttery pancakes with various fruits, meats or veggies folded into the batter. A Rembrandt combines pineapple, raisins and apples with shredded potatoes, ham and cheddar, the whole amped up with piquant curry powder. For the less adventurous, an apple-and-bacon pancake smothered in Vermont maple syrup is a satisfying mashup of salt, fat and sweetness.
For epic eaters who can chase an enormous breakfast with an equally hearty lunch, the Rusty Nail Bar & Grille beckons about a half-mile farther along the bike path. Its stone terrace, cheerful perennials and multiple bike racks are visually inviting, and the new menu put together by chef Michael Werneke ups the ante on traditional pub grub.
Werneke covers popcorn in white truffle butter and shaved Parmesan, stews plump oysters with bacon and cream, fries potatoes in duck fat, and tops hot dogs with kimchi. The fare is creative but not fussy, and most of it works: The popcorn is tender, salty and sumptuous; the bacon-wrapped kimchi hot dog is a crunchy, saline, subtly pickled treat (as is the kimchi-topped Reuben); the duck-fat fries are richer than regular spuds, and addictive.
Werneke doesn’t ignore the vegetarians or the light-of-appetite, either; his baby lettuce salad comes delicately dressed in a tangy Dijon vinaigrette with a hunk of Bayley Hazen Blue cheese, sliced pears and earthy walnut dust. He also serves up a platter of mushroom rillettes, zucchini terrine, hummus and tapenade with crunchy pita chips.
Biking while inebriated is illegal and unwise, but the Rusty Nail is a pub, after all, so you’ll be tempted to wash down lunch with a local brew or summer cocktail, such as the Vermontini, a potent blend of Green Mountain Organic Vodka with maple liqueur and a dash of Baileys Irish Cream. Or keep it in mind for later.
About another half-mile along the path — between bridges 5 and 6 — is the Blue Donkey, a low-key joint that has served up 30,000 burgers since opening two years ago. You place your order at the counter and top your beef, turkey or veggie burger or sliders with avocado, horseradish, mushrooms or chopped bacon. Tucking into one, you realize why these burgers have earned a solid local rep: The juice drips slowly down your hands as you savor a robust, almost nutty flavor, with pickles adding puckery crunch. The fresh-tasting fries come hand cut or curly, and bottles of soda and Long Trail Ale are on hand, too.
On Sunday afternoons, the Stowe Farmers Market gets into full swing on the lawn adjacent to the Blue Donkey, offering up cubes of local queso fresco and goat cheeses, samples of Boyden Valley wines, fresh wood-fired pizza and tall glasses of fresh-brewed hibiscus iced tea.
A few steps along, hopheads may want to pull their bikes into the back paddock of the Shed Restaurant & Brewery, which brews its own beer and serves it alongside heaping portions of gastropub fare such as nut-brown, crispy fish and chips, or a chicken marsala generously laced with sherry. The bar usually rotates at least five brews on tap; one is always an inky, filling porter or stout, making the pub a warming stop during a rainy or chilly ride.
Past the Shed come two and a half restaurant-free miles of path. There’s a smattering of picnic tables, though, for those who pick up lunch to go. To put together a Euro-style picnic, cyclists can raid the wares at Mountain Cheese & Wine, inside the Red Barn Shops. Here you can grab a bottle of vino, a fresh baguette, prosciutto, smoked salmon or any of dozens of cheeses, many of them local — including the ale-rubbed, soft and vaguely stinky Oma made at the von Trapp Farmstead in Waitsfield. Fresh fudge, Vermont Cookie Buttons and minicups of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream are on hand for those who need a sugar fix.
Back on the rec path, you soon cross Luce Hill Road and ride along beside the shimmering Little River. The air may smell of manure from surrounding farms, while stunning views open up to the west and north. The only food here is the kind that grows in the earth — corn, mostly, or anything you can forage in the woods. So, take advantage of those picnic areas and streamside rocks for a picnic, a dip in the water, or both. At the end of the path — the Topnotch Resort and Spa parking lot — you can linger at the Brookdale covered bridge for a breather before doubling back into town.
If you want to hang with some locals on your return, turn right when you hit Luce Hill Road and pedal into the parking lot of Burt’s Irish Pub. It’s a friendly, loud, classic bar with cold pints and lively banter. Food-wise, expect morsels along the lines of poppers, unless someone’s firing up the grill for a birthday. It’s a refreshing respite from the legions of tourists who invade Stowe in almost every season.
If you’ve traveled the nearly 11 miles and made it back to the village, cross the street once again to treat yourself to tacos and tequila at Frida’s Taqueria & Grill. Here, miniature house-made tortillas serve as bases for such eclectic toppings as beef tongue, cactus and oysters — the last generously battered and fried, then drizzled with a creamy orange-chipotle sauce. The bartenders at Frida’s mix a full line of margaritas and pour wines from a thoughtfully composed list. Hugely refreshing on a hot afternoon, though, is the Paloma — a tall glass of El Jimador tequila and grapefruit and lime juices topped with soda.
By the time you head home, you may have ingested as many calories as you have burned — if not more — but some rides are meant to yield pleasure, not pain.