They say – and locals seem to truly believe – that a monster lives in Lake Champlain. They call him Champ. The sightings have been many, and surprisingly consistent over decades. And, as far as anyone knows, he (or she) is a friendly creature, never having been known to harm a soul.
But that fact didn’t comfort me when I found myself bobbing, alone, in the quiet, deep waters, having ventured a little too far out on an early morning swim.
A cold undercurrent swept by my feet below. A shiver shot up my spine. And I booked it for the shore. Eyes closed.
There were four U.S. states I had left to visit, and Vermont was one of them. When I mentioned this to Suzie Craft earlier this year, over dinner at her husband Gerard Craft’s restaurant, niche, in St. Louis, she invited me to spend a week with her family at their summer place on Lake Champlain.
And so I did. And it was absolutely lovely.
There’s something about New England.
It’s quiet. It’s clean. It’s idyllic.
It’s the way America used to look, and the way I wish it still did; Jasper Johns and Norman Rockwell on the same canvas. It’s the way we remember our childhoods, even if the reality of it was much different.
There are roadside stands selling produce and ice cream. There are white picket fences – miles of them, stitched across rolling, green hills – hemming in old barns, painted new, and herds of Holsteins, dalmatians from afar. And there are magnificent gorges, and leafy forests, where elves live. I’m sure of it.
New England offers a slower pace, one that I sorely needed after nearly four weeks of heavy travel. I don’t need a lot of sleep, and I rarely get it (so far, I was averaging four hours a night), but here, I slept in, and slept hard.
Lake Champlain is long (125 miles) and skinny (only a dozen miles across at its widest). It’s the sixth largest body of freshwater in North America, after the five Great Lakes. Running north-south, it divides New York (to the west) and Vermont (to the east), with its head sticking up into Québec, Canada.
I arrived in Burlington, on the Vermont side, but stayed on the shores of New York, at a beautiful, cascading garden by the lake dubbed Wits End by Gerard’s parents, Bob and Jamie, my hosts for the week.
The view from my bed was unspeakably gorgeous, a panorama of sky and water, glowing at sunrise, blushing at sunset.
Our days were relaxing, but full.
We went boating and tubing, water skiing and swimming. We stayed up late, chatting on the dock, and playing board games past our bedtime. I haven’t done that in years.
In the morning, there were blueberry pancakes with Gerard’s and Suzie’s adorable girls. In the afternoon, we polished off dipped cones, spirals of soft serve coated in chocolate, cherry, and peanut butter shells, at Mac’s Ice Cream Parlor and Diner in Keeseville. I hadn’t done that in years either.
In Burlington, we had dinner at Pistou, where Gerard cooked a dinner with Wesley Genovart (formerly of Degustation in New York, now of SoLo Farm & Table in South Londonderry, Vermont – sadly, still on my bucket list) and Max MacKinnon, owner of the restaurant.
Also in Burlington, we had lunch at Misery Loves Co., a food truck that serves delicious sandwiches out of a ’76 Winnebago. My favorite one was the saucy “Farenheit 451” – Buffalo chicken with blue cheese dressing and pickled celery on a quilted bun. If you’re in town, I highly recommend it.
We had brunch at Mirabelle’s: popovers, split and filled with scrambled eggs, and crème brulée cake. It’s right around the corner from Burlington’s iconic Church Street, blocks of high-end retail shops with street performers in between, a mall for hippies and yuppies alike.
The farm sits on one of the most beautiful expanses of undulating green I’ve ever seen. It goes on, and on, until, finally, it reaches the lake, open, vast, breathtaking. Guests of MacKinnon’s, one of dozens of area chefs and local food producers who offered a taste of their food at the forum (including Eric Warnstedt of Hen of the Wood and the great cheese maker Jasper Hill Farm), we grazed the tables in and around the farm’s stunning coach barn until a downpour cleared out the crowd. Those of us who weathered the storm were treated to ice cream cones and a rosy sunset that chased away the clouds. I snapped a picture of it on the ferry ride home.
A roadtrip to Montréal had us up early one morning, and home late that night – so late that we saw the sun rise as we turned in.
I know this sounds terribly stupid: but, I had forgotten how French Montréal is. The last time I was in the city was over a decade ago, and I don’t remember having to rely on my college foreign language requirement so much.
Brasserie T! is a modern French bistro in a glass box on rue Jeanne-Mance. That’s where we had our first lunch that day.
We moved on for a second one at l’Express, where I had a memorable dinner years ago. Checkered tile, zinc bar top, cornichons on the table, and old ladies doddering over creamy rognons de veau and a glass of house wine – you wouldn’t know you were Canada. For a slice of authenticity, I say go.
Montréal’s Marché Atwater is wonderful, a collection of stands and specialty foodshops in an oddly shaped Art Deco building. In it, you’ll find produce and pastries, wonderful cheeses, chocolates, and meats. We whiled away some time over gelato at Chocolats Privilegé (they say they’re going to start bean-to-bar production at this location soon), and then spent the remainder of the afternoon at an outdoor café, enjoying the balmy weather.
Dinner at Au Pied de Cochon was late and heavy, a glut of meat and fat that is unavoidable here. We let the kitchen choose our meal, and out came boudin, trotters, whole rabbit, whole quail, poutine, and more – most of which included foie gras. By the end, even the sugar pie for two seemed a slimming finalé by comparison. Apparently, our waitress was impressed by our conquests (or, thankful for the tip she was about to receive from our hefty tab), because she rolled around at the end of dinner with a bottle of calvados and toasted us with a round of shots.
Gerard is currently working on opening Pastaria, his fourth restaurant in St. Louis. So, naturally, we had pasta, once as a cold salad with chopped vegetables, and once tossed with a simple tomato sauce, topped with fresh basil, and a shaving of Parmesan.
Chicken was roasted on the grill until juicy, served with wax bean panzenella.
And afterwards, there was almost always some cheese and ice cream (Vermont dairy is truly outstanding).
That’s another thing I love about New England: ice cream. It’s everywhere. And it’s great.
So, I’ve no sightings of Champ to report here.
But, I can tell you that I had a fantastic introduction to Vermont, thanks to the Crafts and their hospitality. A special thanks to Suzie, for getting up at an ungodly hour to take me to catch the 4 a.m. ferry to Burlington for my flight out.
Now, three states remain: Maine, Mississippi, and Alaska.
From New England, I headed to southern California and Mexico for another week of sun, water, good food, and great company. I report anon. Until then, a list of places I ate on this trip to the Northeast:
Au Pied de Cochon (Montréal. Québec)
Ben & Jerry’s (Burlington, Vermont)
Brasserie T! (Montréal, Québec)
l’Express (Montréal, Québec)
Mac’s Ice Cream Parlor and Diner (Keeseville, New York)
Mirabelle’s (Burlington, Vermont)
Misery Loves Co. (Burlington, Vermont)
Pistou (Burlington, Vermont)
Photos: Sunset on Lake Champlain, Charlotte-Essex Ferry, Vermont; cliffs along Willboro Bay, Lake Champlain, New York; Gerard Craft on skis, Lake Champlain, New York; Gerard Craft and Wesley Genovart plating at Pistou, Burlington, Vermont; Ben & Jerry’s headquarters, Waterbury, Vermont; cornichons on the table at l’Express in Montréal, Québec, Canada; Au Pied de Cochon at night, Montréal, Québec, Canada; Adam Altnether and pasta, Wit’s End, Lake Champlain, New York; “Farenheit 451″ sandwich at Misery Loves Co., Burlington, Vermont.