I'll admit it: I'm a northern Vermont snob. It's not that the southern part of my adopted home doesn't have its charms, it's just that the North has bigger mountains, better skiing and fewer urbanites. And that's coming from someone who grew up in the glow of the Big Apple. Back in the '80s, when I first escaped the city to attend college, my friends from southern Vermont would try to bring me down a notch. "Flatlander," they'd scoff, "you don't know a heifer from a cow, and you're going to tell us the 'Bush beats Bromley in spring? Go learn yourself a thing or two about Vermont, wouldya?"
It took 20 years, but I finally decided to venture down to the devil's playground: Manchester, Vt., home to Stratton's famously pricey lift ticket and a parade of company stores packaged as "Fifth Avenue in the Mountains." Pinning my hopes on a late spring weekend, I called up an old classmate, Todd Ameden, a third-generation Manchester native who lives in town with his wife, Meg, and their 3-year-old son, Jack.
"Come on down," Todd said. "We'll give you the grand tour."
After passing through John Irving's hometown of Dorset, my wife, Tricia, and I cross the Manchester line in the waning light of the day. The gateway from the North isn't quite as impressive as is coming up from metropolitan New York-about four hours away-but the stately Colonials and well-kept Victorians that characterize the town are still welcoming.
Sans Meg and Todd, who strike out looking for a sitter, we head to The Perfect Wife, a popular eatery offering suburban chic in the downstairs dining room and local color in an upstairs bar. Surrounded by Bromley beer league trophies, we carbo-load on eggplant fries as a birthday celebration rages in the oversized "Titanic" booth.
Saturday 8:30 a.m.
First chairs crank at Bromley and Stratton. But it's spring and we're still in bed, dreaming of corn.
"Bromley's definitely more the locals' mountain and where we go," Todd informs us as we load our cars for the short jaunt to the slopes. Founded in 1936 by Milwaukee beer scion Fred Pabst, Bromley has long been famous for its place in the sun. With a prime southeastern exposure, the mountain feels warmer in winter and tends to corn up more consistently in spring. Happily, the same glow permeates everything from the lifties to the venerable Bromley Outing Club, which runs a low-cost after-school ski program. "You gotta love this place," Todd says, as we boot up in the timber-frame lodge complete with big-game trophies mounted overhead.
We begin on the gentle slopes off the East Meadow Chair, coaxing young Jack's skis into "pizza pie" and "French fry" formations. Once he hits "hot chocolate mode," Meg heads indoors so we can go play on the classic Bromley cruisers that snake beneath the Sun Mountain Express. Warmed up, we set out for a rib cage of black-diamonds before being stopped in our tracks by views of neighboring Magic Mountain and Stratton.
With three top-flight ski areas all within 15 minutes, Manchester should be all about the vertical. Instead, the town maintains an even keel anchored by a well-heeled tourist tradition that predates the robber barons. "Summer is huge. People have been coming here for hundreds of years," notes Todd, pointing to one draw, the 3,816-foot Mt. Equinox on the western horizon. "More and more, you don't want to go away in summer because there's so much to do," he continues, citing the Southern Vermont Arts Center expansion and the Riley Rink-which doubles as a summer concert venue-as two recent additions to the community.
After lunch, as Todd and I set out for town, we pass a 2,400-square-foot ranch under construction. Asking price? $695,000. Todd, a builder riding the local construction boom, can't help but shake his head and smile.
First stop is Manchester Depot, a cozy enclave of vibrant shops and businesses ensconced in old Victorrian homes. Back in the '50s, when soda-fountain Cokes flowed inside Reed's drugstore, trains from New York's Penn Station delivered stylish skiers in gabardine pants. Today, suburbanites arrive in SUVs, buy studio-blown glass and get their hair coiffed in what was once Todd's childhood home. Luckily, Al Ducci's gourmet market serves up enough Italian treats to ease the pain of seeing the neighborhood change.
Back in the truck, we breeze downtown, with Todd slyly circumventing the array of four dozen outlet stores that have invaded Manchester over the past two decades. "They completely changed the face of the town," one merchant complains later, arguing that a certain cachet has been lost in the process. This may be true, but from the vantage point of the historic Main Street, Manchester remains vaguely reminiscent of Crested Butte and other attractive mountain towns.
Heading south from "Malfunction Junction"-a Rube Goldberg collection of roads due for a new roundabout in 2006-Todd suggests we plunge into the Orvis factory store to survey the famous fly rods. On this damp afternoon, tweed-jacket types gobble up clothes and home furnishings while the indoor/outdoor pond roils with brookies, browns and rainbow trout. Orvis, one of Manchester's marquee names, was the first company to promote catch-and-release fishing. Ironically, the practice is now mandatory on local sections of the legendary Batten Kill river as the fish population has weathered a marked decline.
On the road again, with Willie Nelson as our soundtrack, we hit ManchesterVillage, "notorious for big houses and musty money," notes Todd. Exhibit A is Robert Todd Lincoln's Hildene, a 24-room mansion and 414-acre estate hastily rescued by a local "friends" group before one of Honest Abe's ancestors donated it to a church. A 1,000-pipe organ and gracious gardens make it a perenially popular spot for weddings.
Finding the estate closed for the season, we seek solace in the Marsh Tavern, tucked inside the colossal white-clapboard Equinox Hotel. A Rockresort property offering high-brow pursuits like falconry and a Land Rover driving school, the Equinox is the lap of luxury set in country casual.
Over dinner, I pepper Meg and Todd with questions about the impact of Act 60, Vermont's controversial education funding law, on the local schools. Manchester, like many resort towns, started a nonprofit school fund to mitigate the flow of property tax dollars to Montpelier. The mechanism, perfectly legal but dependent on voluntary participation, has created some interesting dynamics in town, Meg and Todd admit. "You know who contributes and who doesn't," says Todd, who now bypasses his favorite coffee stop because they've failed to ante up. Private financing aside-or maybe because of it-Manchester's schools remain first-class and a strong magnet for the flood of post-9/11 urban refugees, Meg tells me.
The day dawns gray, and all reports indicate a storm's brewing. We hastily say our goodbyes and promise ourselves "only one stop" at the outlet stores. Three stops later, we've saved a couple of bucks, but not that much more than at a good sale back in Burlington.
The storm totals come in: Bromley 10 inches, Sugarbush 2. "Flatlander," I mutter. "Maybe I should lower my nose and follow it south."