Summer Vacation Guide: Mad River Valley/Waterbury | Summer Guide | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Summer Vacation Guide: Mad River Valley/Waterbury


Published May 25, 2009 at 7:48 p.m.

In winter, the road between Stowe and Sugarbush sees a lot of slope-seeking Saabs and Subarus. The summer crowd tends to be driven by ice cream: The Ben & Jerry's Factory in Waterbury is one of the top tourist destinations in Vermont. If your visitors have heard of one thing in the Green Mountain State, sadly, this is probably it.

The guided tour doesn't dwell on the company's founding entrepreneurs - you have to search high and low for signs of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield - but it mentions their "If it's not fun, why do it?" philosophy. Don't miss the "flavor graveyard" and, of course, the free samples.

There are other ways to cool off in the summertime, of course, and this area scenic valley boasts some of the best swimming in the state.

The 830-acre Waterbury Reservoir was dry for seven years while the dam was being repaired, but has since been restored to its former boating-fishing-swimming glory. The only "development" on its pristine shores is Little River State Park, central Vermont's largest and most popular campground, with 101 sites. Look for cellar holes, an old sawmill and other evidence of an abandoned 300-year-old farming "campground" that preceded it.

The Mad River Valley specializes in swimming holes. Warren Falls maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, may be the most popular, with its multiple waterfalls, big diving rocks and deep pools. But there are other great spots, including one on the east side of 100B near Moretown. South of Waitsfield, the sandy beach at the Lareau Swimming Hole is ideal for kids. There are many more places to get wet in along the Mad River, but they may be clothing-optional, located on private property or have dangerous currents. You can either drive along Route 100 looking for parked cars - which may also indicate great fishing - or consult one of the websites below.

Want a quiet place to paddle? Blueberry Lake in Warren is an aquatic sanctuary that doesn't allow motorized watercraft.

The Mad River Valley's unique topography - on the east side of the Green Mountains - defines its recreational offerings. And ski resorts such as Sugarbush are making the most of it year-round - not just with "lift-served mountain biking" and "disc golf," but with an 800-foot "zip line" that brings daredevils down the mountain on a wire.

Another option is a Viking horse ride at "flying pace." The Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm in Waitsfield guides treks - for up to five days - on a breed renowned for its smooth ride and stamina. The Vikings reportedly brought the animals to Iceland, where they were isolated to preserve their purity, good temperament and unique bone density. They're small, but can easily carry an adult employing one of five gaits. An hour-long ride is 50 bucks, three hours is $100, and the full-day ride is $190 and includes lunch.

Looking for cheaper thrills? Drive - or bike - to the top of the Lincoln Gap in time to hike 1.5 miles south on the Long Trail to Sunset Rock.

However you work up an appetite, find time to check out American Flatbread on the Lareau Farm in Waitsfield. It's the original restaurant - two other versions are in Middlebury and Burlington - and would definitely be a stop on a "locavore" tour of Vermont, if such a thing existed. The Bread-and-Puppet decor is topped only by fabulous flatbread pizza festooned with fresh, local ingredients.

It helps to be creative if you live in the pricey Mad River Valley. Appropriately, the Route 100 corridor is lined with ski-loving farmers, chefs, innkeepers and craftspeople. Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield is worth a visit. It's a movie-theater-cafe-bakery - get the picture? Also check out the towns along the way, especially Warren. You have to get off the road to fully appreciate the charming downtown, with the Warren Store defying all preconceptions about general stores. This sleepy ski town hosts a wacky Fourth of July Parade that features hundreds of scantily clad Vermonters and lots of irreverent floats.

Innovation is in evidence at the Yestermorrow Design-Build School, a center of "hands-on education" that "integrates design and craft." There are intro courses for beginners, as well as continuing-ed opportunities for seasoned architects, builders, landscapers and engineers. Stop by and tour the campus. You'll see student-built cabins, solar-powered showers and other shapes of the future.