The broad Mad River Valley, running along Vermont’s scenic Route 100 from the moody Granville Gulf north to the pastoral fields of Fayston, often wears the tag “quintessential New England”-and little wonder. With two picturesque villages, four covered bridges, a half-dozen white-clapboard churches and acres of river-bottom farmland, it richly deserves its reputation.
And just as every batch of central Vermont maple syrup is a different shade of sugary gold, each of the Valley’s ski areas-rough-hewn Mad River Glen and richly amenitized Sugarbush Resort-has its own flavor. What they share is a ridgeline of white, wintry peaks offering some of the East’s best skiing. When you’re not sampling the goods up in the hills, you won’t be wanting for warm, easygoing hospitality, a Valley specialty. You’ll have more than 3,000 pillows to choose from-and even more next year, when Sugarbush plans to unveil its long-awaited slopeside hotel at Lincoln Peak.
Best Lodging >The Featherbed Inn, one of the Valley’s originals, lies just south of Waitsfield’s commercial hub on Route 100. A recent renovation shows off the wide pine floors and exposed beams of the 1806 farmhouse’s 10 rooms and family-friendly cottage ($99-$225). It’s conveniently located-right next door to American Flatbread’s acclaimed wood-fired pizza and within walking distance of extreme skier John Egan’s Big World Pub & Grill. Antique beds with warm, fluffy featherbed mattresses make first chair a fleeting dream. Good thing the innkeepers, former Aspen ski bums Linda and Tom Gardner, know to tempt you out of bed with a proper three-course breakfast. 802-496-7151; featherbedinn.com
As scenic as Route 100 is, one of the Valley’s best-kept secrets is East Warren Road. Start at the covered bridge in Waitsfield Village and head up the east wall of the valley for beautiful views of Sugarbush’s six distinct peaks on the other side. The Inn at the Round Barn, two miles up on the left, feels like grandmother’s house. Forgot your slippers? You’ll get your own for shuffling down to the game room in this elegant 19th-century home. The main attractions are the crisp circular barn, built around a central silo, and the bucolic setting. $140-$315; 802-496-2276; theroundbarn.com
Continue south to tiny Warren Village to buy penny candy in one of Vermont’s best-loved institutions, The Warren Store, or ensconce yourself in luxury at the exquisite Relais & Chateau Pitcher Inn, where each of the rooms ($350-$700) is imaginatively decorated to evoke a different Vermont theme. The Chester A. Arthur room comes with fireplace, Tiffany lamps and sunsets from the porch. The formal main dining room features museum-quality works of Vermont’s painter laureate, Charles Louis Heyde, and a menu worthy of its gracious setting. 802-496-6350; pitcherinn.com[NEXT]If you prefer a country inn close to the slopes, the West Hill House B&B ($125-$210; 800-898-1427; westhillhouse.com) is near Sugarbush, and the Millbrook Inn & Restaurant ($130-$150, including dinner; 800-477-2809; millbrookinn.com) is just down the road from Mad River Glen. West Hill abuts both the Catamount Trail, Vermont’s top-to-bottom backcountry ski trail, and the Sugarbush golf course, so there’s plenty for nordic skiers to do. The homey Millbrook’s dining room (open to the public in the evening) offers hearty breakfasts and eclectic dinners, including handmade pasta and the best Indian food north of Manhattan’s East 6th Street.
Best Dining >Good restaurants often transport diners to a different era. Take The Common Man, with its Old World charm in a New World setting. In its reconstructed Vermont barn, Venetian chandeliers and the Venus de Milo compete for attention with broad 10-point deer racks. And the food is uncommonly good, from exquisite escargot to grilled venison to the signature snowball dessert, and the portions are ample. 802-583-2800; commonmanrestaurrant.com
Chez Henri has been a Sugarbush institution since 1964. This charming French bistro occupies the basement of the resort’s original ski school. Regulars in ski boots still clomp in and embrace founder Henri Borel, as Stein Eriksen used to do, before tucking in to what may be the best lunch in ski country. Cheese fondue is a specialty, and stacks of French bread stay warm by the fireplace. You can’t go wrong with a quick crocque monsieur at lunch or a filet with frites for dinner. 802-583-2600
Best Nightlife >Many tired skiers don’t make it past Henri’s or the venerable General Stark’s Pub at Mad River. But that’s more testament to the kicking terrain than a lack of viable options. Locals and longtime visitors have made acquaintances at the bar of the low-key Hyde Away Inn (802-496-2322; hydeawayinn.com) since 1947. And those wishing to ramp it up can do so at John Egan’s Big World Pub & Grill (802-496-3033; bigworldvermont.com), tastefully adorned with just enough memorabilia from the high-flying skier’s career to make a glass of Egan’s Extreme Ale taste all the more genuine.