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Summer Vacation Guide: Upper Valley


Published June 2, 2009 at 2:22 p.m.

The popular New England saying, "You can't get there from here," rings true in many parts of Vermont. The Upper Valley isn't one of them. From the north, Interstate 89 delivers you to this picturesque mid-section of the state that spills over the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. From the south, I-91 delivers you right there. So turn off that ill-mannered GPS navigator and turn up the Talking Heads song "Take Me to the River," because that's the best place to start.

More precisely, grab a canoe and put in just after Hartland Falls, then paddle a lazy 12 miles down to the Cornish-Windsor Bridge, the longest covered bridge in the United States. Along the way, you'll be in the shadow of the mighty Mount Ascutney - a great hike, by the way, with a fire tower on the summit. You may even spot a bald eagle from your boat.

Alternately, see a raptor up close at the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences. VINS is a bird rehab and nature center in Quechee that is home to a brood of charismatic avian megafauna such as kestrels, barn owls and hawks. Get there on the right day, and you can see falcons hunt and kill their dinner. And if that makes you hungry, Simon Pearce Restaurant is less than a mile away. Here, you can watch glassblowing in action, indulge in a sumptuous lunch, or both. It's also a stone's throw from Quechee Gorge, a striking tourist attraction that's been dubbed the "Grand Canyon of Vermont."

Venture further west and you'll get to Woodstock - the Vermont one - voted the "Prettiest Town in America" by the Ladies Home Journal. That's owing to its quintessential New England feel, courtesy of white-clapboard colonial homes, four churches with Paul Revere bells and a football-shaped town green that hosts a farmers market every Wednesday afternoon all summer.

George Perkins Marsh, a noted naturalist and statesman, liked the town just fine, but he set aside 500 acres of conserved forestland that is now the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. More than 20 miles of carriage roads weave through the park, making it a spectacular place for a summer amble.

Have an hour? Walk up to Mt. Tom's south ridge and take in the view of Billings Farm & Museum, a functional replica of the 19th-century working landscape, with its broad cornfields stretching down to the Ottauquechee River. On a hot day, locals like to plunge into the river via a daredevil rope-swing hanging from a tree on River Road. Follow it up with comfort food at the Wasp Snack Bar, a 12-seat joint with some of the best fare to ever come out of a singlewide trailer.

After a meal at the Wasp, you'll need to burn some of that excess energy, and one of the best ways to do it around here is on a bike. Woodstock-based Bike Vermont will send you in all kinds of interesting directions, but independent types might want to pedal six miles north to Pomfret and pick blueberries or apples at Moore's Orchard. For strawberries, your best bet is Cedar Circle Farm, in East Thetford, which holds an annual strawberry festival at the end of June.

Mount Moosilauke, a 4800-foot monster of a peak, looms to the east of Cedar Circle's strawberry fields, in New Hampshire. It's the tallest of the western White Mountains, and a 3.8-mile trail leads to its windswept granite peak. On a clear day, the view is one of the finest in New England, a sort of old-fashioned Google Earth, where you can look down on Killington, Mt. Ellen and Mansfield, and up to Mt. Washington. The Dartmouth Outing Club keeps a big log cabin open to the public at the Ravine Road trailhead.

While Moosilauke's summit might feel like another world, the happening town of Hanover is just about an hour away. And, since Dartmouth College requires each undergraduate student to complete a summer term, Hanover rarely experiences the doldrums that afflict other college towns in the summer. Stroll along Main Street, stop in to Umpleby's Bakery for a fabulous chicken-curry pie, take in the Hood Museum of Art, or just lounge on the quad and watch the students blow off steam in an Ultimate Frisbee game. Down by the river, the Ledyard Canoe Club rents canoes and kayaks by the hour.

Cross the Ledyard Bridge into Vermont and you're in Norwich, home of the Montshire Museum of Science. The Montshire is an educational playground for kids, with plenty of hands-on exhibits that illustrate principles of physics, chemistry and biology. In the summer, the outdoor Science Park features the Water Rill, an exhibit that lets children and adults manipulate a 250-foot long watercourse. For adults, a wander through Dan & Whit's General Store can yield anything from wine and local cheese to mud boots, mousetraps and plywood. Next door, idle away a summer afternoon with a microbrew on the porch of The Norwich Inn.

A visit to the Upper Valley is not complete without a trip to White River Junction. What was once a railroad town is now a funky mecca for the arts. The Main Street Museum shows off an eclectic mix of curiosities and quirky Americana, and the nearby Briggs Opera House is where Northern Stage performs its plays, musicals and operas. Just down the street is the Center for Cartoon Studies, where you might catch a budding, or even a famous, cartoonist at work. Stop into the always-busy Tuckerbox for a cup of strong coffee, or drift down the street to Revolution Vintage for some quality thrifting. And with Amtrak's Vermonter making daily stops into White River, the town is a perfect place to start or finish an Upper Valley odyssey - just make sure it's not the only place you see.