With the crowds starting to thin, the grapevines and orchards ripening, and plenty of quiet roads for running and biking, now is the time to head to the Champlain Islands.
If you want to take a mini-vacation, park your car at Oakledge Park in Burlington, pack a change of clothes in a backpack or pannier, bring a credit card and head north on the bike path to the Island Pond Rail Trail. Thirteen miles (eight of which are mostly car-free along the bike path and causeway) and a five-minute bike-ferry ride later, you’ll be in the Champlain Islands.
While many cyclists turn around here for an out-and-back, or make a loop coming back via the roads of Colchester, don’t. Keep heading north, book a room at one of the islands’ small inns or B&Bs and get ready to kick back.
The Champlain Islands are to Burlington what Nantucket used to be to Boston: a quiet getaway where time seems to stop. Grand Isle (also known as South Hero), North Hero, Isle LaMotte and the Alburgh peninsula are dotted with farms and small inns, roadside cremee stands and dilapidated antique shops. Their windswept fields hold summer sun late in the season and the apple orchards and vineyards start bearing fruit in September.
Late August through October, summer guests begin to leave and there are even more reasons to visit. Here are a few:
Bike the Islands, Win Prizes
Earlier this year, eight new bike rest areas were built by Timberhomes between Shelburne Vineyards and the Alburgh Golf Links in North Hero, more than 40 miles north. During the month of August, Local Motion’s Emily Boedecker explains, “You can pick up a punch card at each rest area, ride to as many as you can, and then for each punch you get a raffle ticket for prizes from local Islands businesses. There’s a grand prize drawing with a gift from each location to the person(s) who visits the most.”
Beyond the Island Line Rail Trail, a number of gorgeous routes have been mapped out and named as part the Champlain Bikeways project. “Stone Castles” is a 15-mile loop around South Hero that will bring you by a number of the miniature stone castles built by Harry Barber. Some are even wired for electricity and with running water in the moats.
Or, try the 11-mile “Island Life” tour of Grand Isle which passes by one of the oldest cabins in the United States, built in 1783 by Revolutionary War hero Jedediah Hyde.
“A Trail of Two Beaches” starts at Alburgh Dunes, a 625-acre state park with the state’s only true sand beach (though no real dunes), and loops for 17 miles to North Hero State Park. Be forewarned, the shallow waters off Alburgh Dunes are great for kids but often mean the park is crowded on summer weekends. You can download a map and brochure of these routes at champlainbikeways.org.
Kiteboard or Windsurf
With steady breezes and often shallow waters, the islands are among the best place in the state to kitesurf or windsurf. You can take a lesson over in St. Albans with Jerri and Kurt Benjamin of North Short Kite/Sail/Surf and then practice on your own in the shallows near Sandbar State Park (just before crossing to South Hero from Colchester) or, when the wind is from the south or west, White’s Beach on South Hero is a reliable bet.
Run Like Clarence Demar
Vermont’s most successful runner, South Hero’s Clarence Demar won the Boston Marathon seven times between 1911 and 1920 and the National Marathon Championship four times. On October 9, the Green Mountain Marathon and Half Marathon begins and ends near Demar’s house on the west shore of South Hero. For a shorter distance, try the Island Vines 10K which starts and finishes at Snow Farm Vineyard on September 25.
Food & Wine Tasting
It’s not quite Napa Valley but South Hero’s vineyards are offering some increasingly good wines. Snow Farm Vineyard hosts tastings of its pinot noirs and Rieslings as well as a summer concert series on Thursday nights through September 1. East Shore Vineyard’s Landon Farm on the shores of Lake Champlain has a tasting room that’s open afternoons, Wednesday through Sunday. After, head to the charming (and always-packed) Blue Paddle Bistro in South Hero for chef Phoebe Bright’s special crab cakes or the North Hero House porch restaurant for an elegant meal such as local pan-roasted walleye or to the hotel’s Steamship Pier Bar for a lobster roll or more casual fare.
Stay in Style
The islands are home to some of the prettiest B&Bs and inns in the state. With its big, white wrap-around porch with views down the lawn to the lake, the Grand Isle Lake House is a perennial favorite. North Hero House, right on the water, has 26 rooms in series of small historic buildings, some of which have been taking guests since 1891. Owner Walter Blasberg, who was named Innkeeper of the Year in 2015, had been coming to the islands for 40 years before settling here and keeps things lively with fishing packages, biking packages and even a murder mystery weekend over Halloween. The excellent restaurant serves up fresh-caught lake walleye and other local fare. The Crescent Inn, an 1820s farmhouse owned by the Lane family (who also own Snow Farm Vineyards) is another lovely B&B.
With 117 tent/RV sites, 36 lean-to sites, and 4 cabin sites—and nearly a mile of shoreline—Grand Isle State Park is Vermont’s second-largest state campground. For a quieter time, bring your kayak and park at Knight Point State Park and kayak three miles east to Knight Island’s remote seven campsites (six have lean-tos). You’ll need a reservation and will have to hike from the dock to your site but it’s worth it to have the mile-long island pretty much to yourself. Or, make a loop of it and kayak on another mile or two for a night at Woods Island State Park’s five remote campsites. Larger and more crowded, Burton Island State Park is also within striking distance. To reserve a site visit Vtstateparks.org