By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
There’s never enough time. If you travel as we do — wanting to see as much of an area as possible — there is just never enough time to see it all. Even if you are highly organized. Even if the place you are visiting was supposed to be a relatively quiet little town.
When we were invited to visit Manchester, Vermont, last month as guests of the Wilburton Inn, I envisioned very leisurely days. Set in a valley surrounded by mountains, I imagined a stay in Manchester would mean plenty of down time. And while that could have been the case — why wouldn’t you want to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the views, especially when you’re staying at a beautiful hilltop estate? — on my first visit to any area I like to see as much as I can, to get to know its most beloved features and its hidden charms.
At first glance, you would think that three days would be plenty of time to see it all in Manchester, especially during a “shoulder season” after the skiing is over but summer fun has not begun. We visited this town in the southwestern part of Vermont in mid-April 2017, during Spring Break, and found much to do in and around the town. Here is our recap of what families can expect to enjoy, based both on our experience and what you can expect year-round.
The stars of the show in Manchester are the Taconic and Green Mountain ranges that surround the town. The mountains provide beautiful views during any season and of course active fun. Winter brings skiers to the family-friendly Bromley and Stratton ski areas. In the summer, these resorts keep the fun going. Stratton offers golf and ATV tours, while Bromley transforms into a giant action playground with, among other attractions, an Alpine slide, climbing wall, giant waterslide, chairlift rides, aerial park and rope course, and the Sun Mountain Flyer,a half-mile long, five-story seated zip line ride that reaches speeds up to 50 mph.
The time of our visit was too late for skiing and too early for summer fun, so we did not experience the mountain resorts but we still enjoyed outdoor recreation. On the recommendation of Melissa Levis, innkeeper of the Wilburton Inn, one of the first places we visited was Equinox Pond. We are always game for a nice hike and I had to see what this “spectacular wooded pond” was about.
After an easy, flat hike of a little bit over a mile at the Equinox Preserve, the woods opened up to a large clearing with the pond to our right. The view did not disappoint: the large pond with the mountain in the background looked beautiful in the spring when we visited, so I can only imagine how fantastic it must look in the bright summer, the colorful fall, and the snowy winter.
It was a sunny, warm, late-spring day and a few folks were taking advantage of the weather. A handful of people were fishing (catch-and-release, by permit only) or throwing sticks and tennis balls for dogs to chase in the water. If we’d known it would have been so nice, we would have brought a picnic to enjoy on the lawn.
With more time, you can enjoy an hour-long hike around the whole pond, or take three hours to climb to the summit and enjoy extraordinary views. You also can drive along Equinox Skyline Drive (off Route 7A in Sunderland). This is a serpentine road with hairpin turns that takes you to the top of Equinox Mountain for amazing views. (Side note: the mountain and about 7,000 acres are owned by the Carthusians, a Roman Catholic monastic order.)
If you’re visiting Equinox Pond, be sure to drive to the correct entrance gate at the end of West Union Street off Prospect. Your GPS may be tempted to take you to a shortcut right at the pond but this gate is private (The Equinox Resort owns the Preserve).
Another must-see attraction in Manchester is Hildene. Located on 400 acres in Manchester Village just outside of town, this historic home will appeal to people of different interests and ages. The Lincoln estate — this was home to Abraham Lincoln’s son — has historic artifacts, unique details, beautiful architecture, a magnificent garden, a farm, a great store, and even a completely restored Pullman train car.
This Georgian Revival mansion is stunning both inside and out, and contains artifacts throughout, including one of the president’s iconic stovepipe hats. The home also has an Aeolian pipe organ, more than 100 years old, and you can hear music from that time. The Hildene estate also includes beautiful gardens and a working farm. We loved visiting Hildene, something you can do at any time of the year. (See our special post on Hildene for more details.)
A delightful bookstore
“You must go to Northshire.” Everyone, from out hosts at the Wilbuton Inn to online reviews, kept touting this place, saying it’s a must-see in Manchester. And while a bookstore may not seem like a typical tourist attraction, Northshire is no ordinary book seller. As bookstores, especially small ones, have closed their doors, finding a book-specific retailer is rare. But it’s not just the “novelty” of a bricks-and-mortar store: as one of the finest independent bookstores in the country, Northshire is known for its nice selection, great staff, and fun extras like a coffee shop and special events.
Its exterior belies its size: looking at it from the outside, you don’t realize how big the place is until you start to explore (it’s actually 10,000 square feet). That said, it’s not a cavernous place: the store packs a lot in, and the lighting and displays make it look more like a cross between a library and gift shop rather than a large bookstore. Here you’ll find all kinds of books — contemporary best-sellers, classics, business tomes, guide books, antiques, truly anything — but our favorite area was the children’s section.
A wide wrought-iron stairwell leads you upstairs to the children’s area, which is huge and full of books, toys, and gifts. On the side that faces downtown Manchester is a large reading nook with several places for kids to sit comfortably.
My son and I laid down on some bean bags and I asked him to do his daily reading (gotta keep up even while on vacation!) so I expected to be there for maybe 15-20 minutes. Instead, we were there for well over half an hour, reading book after book. I think the ambiance, cozy feel, and great finds were encouraging for him.
Before we left we bought some books, signed art, and treats from the cafe (baked goods, a latte, and a mango smoothie, all of which were tasty). The coffee shop itself is small but there is a large room to the left for dining, and the cafe also serves lunch.
The town park
We had walked down to Northshire after visiting Dana Thompson Memorial Park. We had gone primarily for a community Easter egg hunt and magic show, but were pleasantly surprised to find a huge playground area with climbing structures, swings, and tire swings.
The park is just about a mile from the main part of town and easy to get to. Parents who need to let the kids just run around for a bit will appreciate the three playgrounds and spacious grass fields.
Younger kids also can enjoy a large sandbox, which already has plenty of toys such as trucks. There park also has a walking trail and dog park, a skateboarding park, stadium, soccer fields, tennis and basketball courts, and more. There is also a large swimming pool (and a wading pool) open in the summer.
Fun on the farm
You can’t be in Vermont without coming upon a farm or two. Or several dozen. In the Manchester area you can visit Earth Sky Time Farm for homemade bread, shop at a farmers’ market, and see animals at working farms, such as the Larson Family Farm. Our travels took us to Taylor Farm, an authentic family Vermont farm where we saw pigs, chickens, horses, cows, and a donkey.
You can buy feed (grains and carrots) to feed the animals, an activity that’s always fun for the kids. Walking around the farm was when we saw why Vermonters call this “the mud season” but we had come prepared with good boots.
The farm also has a small shop where we bought some fantastic cheese, crackers, and coffee ice cream, all made in Vermont. Unfortunately we ran out of time to visit The Alpaca Shack in nearby Londonderry!
Small-town charm with sophistication
If getting dirty down on the farm is not your cup of tea, fear not: Manchester may be a small town but it is not lacking in sophistication.
Downtown Manchester is home to the Southern Vermont Arts Center. The center, which sits on more than 100 acres, has a museum, galleries, botany trail, and the largest sculpture park in Vermont. Manchester also has theatre and music festivals and Manchester Hot Glass, a gallery and studio where even kids can make their own glass objects (paperweight-making for ages five and up and glassblowing for tweens through adults). For an educational experience and insights into one of the oldest sports, there’s the American Fly Fishing Museum, which houses thousands of angling-related items — world’s largest such collection.
One of the places you can’t miss while driving through Manchester is the beautiful Equinox hotel. This elegant hotel, spa, and golf course in the heart of town has been around for more than 200 years. Shoppers will find a good number of boutiques and speciality stores selling clothing, food, and Vermont products. And bargain hunting meets world-class shopping at Manchester Designer Outlets, with stores including Coach, Kate Spade, Armani, Bass, Le Creuset, and dozens more.
Restaurants – unchained
There are plenty of dining options in Manchester, and the key to restaurants here is that by far they are independently owned. While you will find familiar stores from national brands, fast-food places or chain restaurants are scarce here. Instead, most dining venues are unique to the area.
Because we’d had such a good and filling breakfast each day, we didn’t eat out as much, though we did like our pizza delivery from Christo’s and had a lovely late-night meal once at The Perfect Wife. While I admit the names caught my eye — The Perfect Wife is the fine dining room downstairs, while the casual eatery upstairs is The Other Woman — it was the promise of a fun vibe and good food that ultimately drew us in. Award-winning chef Amy Chamberlain’s menu is varied but we stuck with classics and enjoyed the nachos, meatloaf, and BLT chopped salad. It’s also a good place for live music, and while there were no bands when we visited, my husband and son and a good time “battling it out” with the foosball table and electronic game board.
Nature and adventure
You can always “burn off” your meals enjoy the great outdoors. The Manchester area has hiking areas and outdoor activities year-round. One popular spot for visitors is the Dorset Marble Quarry, the country’s first commercial marble quarry. Its claim to fame is that here is where workers mined the perfect white marble used to build the famous New York Public Library at 42nd Street. Your claim to fame could be jumping off the 30-foot marble cliffs into the water.
If you want more adventure and one-of-a-kind experiences, the Equinox offers year-round Land Rover off-road driving instruction and the Green Mountain Falconry School will teach you how to handle and fly a Harris Hawk. If you like to treasure-hunt, visit the Vermont Country Store, which carries clothing, housewares, Vermont products, nostalgic toys, and hard-t0-find products.
Planning your trip
Ready to explore Manchester? While each family is different and your options for what to do will vary by season, here is an example of what you can do — how our itinerary turned out. The activities we did can be done just about any time of the year.
Day One: Attractions just outside of town
– Breakfast at the Wilburton Inn
– Tour the Sculpture Trail at the Wilburton Inn
– Hike to Equinox Pond
– Tour Hildene (home, gardens and Pullman car)
– Visit Taylor Farm
– Pizza dinner at ——
Day Two: Manchester town
– Breakfast at the Wilburton Inn
– Play at —- park in town —
– Tour, shop, read, and enjoy a coffee break at Northshire Bookstore
– Walk around the town of Manchester
– Dinner at The Perfect Wife
Day Three: More fun
On our last day we just drove through some of the country roads to get a last look at this neat town before making the long drive back to Virginia. With more time we would have used our last day to see the quarry, visit more farms, tour other museums, and return to the Vermont Country Store. Have you visited southern Vermont? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below!
Disclosure: We were guests of the Wilburton Inn, which provided us with accommodations for three nights, breakfasts, and complimentary tickets to Hildene; we paid for all other activities. This article is my original writing based on personal experience and, as always, expresses my personal and honest opinion.