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Great Drives: Lake Champlain Loop


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How to improve a mountain view? Paint a wind-tossed lake into the foreground. Vermont and New York are lucky to have just that in Lake Champlain, a needle of blue stretching 100 miles south from the Canadian border.

This deep inland sea-visible from the slopes of Bolton Valley and Sugarbush, Vt., as well as Whiteface, N.Y.-sits between New York’s rugged Adirondacks and their Appalachian cousins, Vermont’s Green Mountains. The setting suggests Lake Como in Northern Italy, but with clapboard barns instead of stuccoed villas.

The drive takes advantage of two of the lake’s ferry crossings, and shows off all its scenic personalities. Start and finish in Burlington, on the Vermont side. Burlington (pop. 40,000) is a college town ascending from the lakeshore.

Avenues lined with lumber-baron mansions stretch to the Church Street Marketplace, a pedestrian way dotted with shops, bars and outdoor dining. Try Leunig’s for upscale bistro fare or Sweetwater’s for a family meal in a handsome converted bank.

Once one of the busiest shores in the Colonies, Burlington’s waterfront is re-emerging as the city’s front yard. Stroll on the boardwalk, roll on the rec path (it’s a mile to North Beach), throw a Frisbee or just sit in the grass.

At Perkins Pier, board the ferry (about $12.75) to New York, a 30-minute ride with unmatched views. History buffs know Champlain as a Revolutionary War battleground (and later, a rum-runner’s super highway). Divers prize the wrecks that litter its depths, and film crews have come from as far as Japan seeking footage of Champ, a water monster or overgrown lake sturgeon, depending on who you believe.

From the ferry landing in Port Kent, N.Y., drive three miles to Au Sable Chasm on Route 9. This natural wonder attracts 60,000 visitors annually to see the cliffs and waterfalls, which have been featured in several silent films.

From there it’s a scenic drive down Champlain’s western shore, past Adirondack-style camps and graceful farmland. Have time for a side trip? Lake Placid-and its Olympic wonderland-is 40 minutes west, in Adirondack State Park.

Finish your New York meanderings in Essex, a village with classic New England inns, restaurants, shops and an ice cream parlor. The Essex Ferry takes you back east across the lake and terminates in Charlotte, Vt. It’s a five-mile drive north on Route 7 to Shelburne. There, the 1906 steamship Ticonderoga lies hove-to in a meadow. The 892-ton Lake Champlain passenger ship is the centerpiece of Shelburne Museum, an important depository of Americana amassed by former resident Electra Havemeyer Webb.

West of the village on Bay Road is Shelburne Farms, the Webb family’s 1,400-acre Gilded Age summer estate. Today it’s a model farm and agricultural center, with tractor rides, cheese-making and an irresistible petting zoo. The grounds include three extraordinary buildings: the mansion, the enormous Farm Barn and the truly vast Breeding Barn.

The “Big House” is now an exquisite inn and restaurant, both requiring reservations. Or just stroll its formal garden, then drive 10 minutes back to Burlington. There, Church Street bustles well into the evening.

Drive Length Around 60 miles.
Drive Time About three hours, plus stops.
Don’t Miss The chance to feed the goats and milk the cows at Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, Vt., 802-985-8686.
Try To Avoid Route 7 during rush hour, and the bomb-dropping gulls at the Burlington waterfront. Don’t sit under a roof’s edge.
Contact Lake Champlain Transportation Co. for ferry info: 802-864-9804;; Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce: 802-863-3489;