As you drive through Manchester you are squarely confronted with the controversy that divides its residents. Are the upscale outlet stores that crowd the heart of this historic town a welcome boon to the local economy, or are they eyesores that corrupt its bankable beauty and choke its streets with traffic?
Visitors, too, are divided. Some spend entire visits blithely strolling from sweaters to slacks to shoes; others are appalled to find the very malls they fled.
To its credit, Manchester has handled this recent growth well. Strict zoning dictates the size, style, signage and color of every building. A new red-brick Stewarts, for example, looks more like a Twenties public library than a gas station. And at either end of the commercial strip, Manchester fiercely guards the authentic charm that has lured summer visitors since well before the nearby slopes of Bromley and Stratton began drawing skiers in winter. At the north end, where four roads and the Batten Kill intersect, a classic Vermont downtown still bustles. Stroll sidewalks of marble (nearby quarries yield some of the world's finest), or lose yourself in one of New England's best bookstores. But it's the south end that lures photographers and water-colorists. Route 7A climbs a low hill that tops out in Manchester Center, where a cluster of historic structures is set off by the surrounding farm fields and hardwood forests. Mt. Equinox, tallest of the Taconics at 3,852 feet, creates an imposing backdrop. Its namesake hotel, the stately Equinox, has been a village focal point for 230 years. A pair of churches, a courthouse, a green, an extraordinary stone seminary and dozens of soaring mansions built by 19th-century industrialists reinforce your sense of having slipped through a time warp.
Like those who developed this area more than two centuries ago, today's visitors come here to play. The Batten Kill, though heavily fished, remains a hallowed Eastern fly-fishing stream. Hiking is in whatever direction you care to strike out, though the 2-mile climb to Equinox's Lookout Rock is the area's most popular hike. Bring a picnic, and lunch where the views take in rugged green hills and mist-filled valleys, as well as country roads dotted with tidy farms and turn-of-the-century homes. Even as it grapples with growth, Manchester is Vermont at its loveliest.