On the drive north from Connecticut into western Massachusetts, buildings and factories crowd up against Interstate 91 and I feel myself barreling past them a bit wildly. An hour or so later I’m still on the interstate and my cruise-control setting hasn’t changed, but I’ve crossed the Vermont border and everything around me has slowed down. And spread out. Even its silhouette in the road atlas shows Vermont opening up the further into it you travel. You can feel this widening and deepening terrain absorb you the way lake water accepts the hurtling weight of a diver.
Moose Crossing. These signs have become common around northern New England in recent years. Many a local mentioned that they have seen the giant ruminants too many times now to count. This trip happened to coincide with the peak of the rutting season, early October, so I made a note to look out for antlered Romeos while searching for errant tee shots in the woods.
Like with the moose count, the population of discerning golfers has increased up here. My list of courses to play included two that in less than a decade have morphed from semi-private to almost-completely-private. The courses, Vermont National GC and Country Club of Vermont, permit play by golfers staying at certain local hostelries. To gain access to CC of Vermont, in Waterbury Center, I lodged myself at the nearby Trapp Family Lodge. Walking the halls of this Stowe landmark, I naturally thought of wartime escapes, singing nuns and the Swiss Army knife I lost in a poker game 20 years ago.
Perched on a ridge above the swank ski town, the Von Trapp family’s historic lodge commands a broad view of valleys and peaks. The interiors of the establishment are filled with captioned photos of the “Sound of Music” clan’s life in their adopted Vermont homeland, as well as framed movie posters and other memorabilia. The rooms are alpine in their décor, with lots of angles and built-in features. Views out the east-facing wing are better than those facing south. The tubs were new, gleaming and loaded with aquatherapeutic contraptions—of the type my back will someday need in order to play golf five days in a row. The menu is a bit too schnitzel-y for my own taste, but in wintertime it’s surely just the thing.
The next morning began with some aimless moseying along Route 100, lined for many miles with craft barns, antique shops, glassblowing studios and wood stove suppliers. And yes, there is also the opportunity for a Ben and Jerry’s factory tour—not such a great idea in the morning because you are certain to eat the ice cream anyway.
The Country Club of Vermont previews its front nine for you as drive from the main entrance to the clubhouse. The day I set off from its first tee with just a bag of clubs for company was eternally pretty. Stretched out above the open terrain of those early holes were a half-million acres of blue sky–you could walk past your ball in the fairway looking up to admire it. Even after just a few holes on this course one has sampled a good variety of shots, including a tee shot on No. 2 over a ravine to a tilting fairway, and a testing par-3 uphill at No. 4, decorated by an adjacent red barn. There are quite a few greens where a shot can be bounced in from the fairway and allowed to curl into position near the hole.
Some might feel that the greens here are overly contoured for their speed. On the 560-yard ninth hole, I made it to the fringe in three and holed out a 50-footer with five yards of break in it for birdie. That green’s contours are just fine. On No. 18, which had a pin cut front on the green’s low tier, I stood over a little wedge and watched players in the group ahead tap downhillers that started slowly, then raced past the hole. To avoid that same fate I would have to hit a lob to a slender landing area—the kind of shot that’s tougher than boiled owl, as an old Vermonter would say.
Visitors from points south may not realize that the Green Mountains do not rise steadily higher the further north one travels. On a trip from just about any Vermont locale into Burlington, the last half-hour of the drive marks a return to level ground and a stronger dose of civilization. My stay at The Inn at Essex reminded me that Montreal is just 90 minutes away (thus the well-heeled Canadian tourists), that IBM has a major corporate campus here and that the state university plus several small colleges are all nearby. The conditions are right to make this an outpost of the fast-growing “culinary vacation” business, and the Inn at Essex’s co-op program with its next-door neighbor, the New England Culinary Institute, does just that.
The two institutions form a horseshoe of gray colonial-style buildings grouped around a green shaded by tall pines. The breakfast menu in the Inn dining room features “class-made” sausage and pastries. High marks were earned on each. That evening I found myself seated at the one and only table in the compact Chef’s Kitchen, where NECI chefs display their proliferating knife skills while seducing patrons with refined dishes. In our little dining party were some legitimate food critics—the kind of people who can comment knowingly as they watch the chef hand-grate Himalayan pink salt from a big rock of the stuff.
We had some Shelburne aged cheese wrapped with local apple and bacon matched with a Ferrari-Carrano red, and on it went from there. Talk turned to the annual Cheese Convention in July, and the foodies were off on their conversational horses again. I wandered down to the pub, which is being renovated soon both to accommodate more patrons and to add some character to the space. If you have a group of six to eight you can arrange one of these Chef’s Kitchen dining experiences and probably learn a little something.
Guests of the Inn at Essex have privileges at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Vermont National Country Club, one of those courses that seem eminently playable but can very easily wind up playing you. Head professional Zack Wyman, who has run the golf program at VNCC since opening day in 1998, can point out a dozen sections of smooth fairway that are strategically undesirable. “I’m out there thinking two or three shots ahead a lot of the time,” says Wyman, “especially when the breeze is up.” The layout was carefully routed by Nicklaus (and Jack II) in respect of prevailing winds, which in the meadow-like confines of the Champlain Valley are dependable. It has 17 holes that run north-south and just one, the 10th, oriented east-west.
There is enough variety and novelty—a split fairway on No. 3, a shared green for holes 10 and 15—to make the course seem like a charmer rather than the taskmaster it really is. The opening holes may have a cordon of housing down the far perimeter but between their fairways are lively swaths of bottlebrush, goldenrod and even thick stands of cattail. I played most of the back nine with two older, low-handicap players who met on the first tee, were playing Vermont National for the first time and by this point were raving about it.
Rutland Country Club, a citadel of Vermont golf history, looks and feels like a pleasant private club but opens its first tee to any presentable-looking traveler who calls in advance and has a spare $70 to cover the green fee. The ancient layout has good bones and character throughout. It opened in 1896 as a nine-holer and was expanded to 18 in 1928 by the underappreciated coure architect Wayne Stiles. With greens that are smooth and gospel-true—but only lightly contoured—it’s a course where you could show up with a hitchy putting stroke and perhaps make it well again.
After a mild opening hole along Grove Street the course works its way down to the banks of a waterway called East Creek then boldly up from it, along a ridge that has plenty of ups and downs worked into its flank. No. 3 is a one-shotter with a green perched on an out-thrust of rocky ledge and shaggy rough surrounding small bunkers. Should all four in a group miss, they will each be playing a different sort of recovery. No. 5 is a long par-3 over the creek to a broad, squared-off green. You may have to hit driver but there’s breathing room to land it.
No. 6 is where RCC begins doling out the distant views of Killington Peak, Ram’s Head and all the various high points to the east. Putting out on the sixth you are soothed by the sound of a nearby falls. Then it’s a slightly uphill drive over the creek to a fairway with a deep swale that dictates placement. On the back there is more sweet shaping to the layout, including a smooth dogleg along sentry pines at No. 11 and a much-imitated diagonal, raised-up green at the long 13th. Other than a short, deep plunge to the green of the par-3 15th, the inward nine climbs steadily up the ridge until you hole out on lofty No. 16. From there it is down toward the creek again before a testy par-4 finishing hole with a curling fairway and a tucked green.
I took Route 4 east out of Rutland and rode past the next day’s challenge, Green Mountain National—and yes, these courses have maddeningly similar names—through the postcard town of Woodstock and down to the Kedron Valley Inn, which you know already as the setting for that famous Budweiser commercial with Clydesdales clopping through powdery snow ahead of an antique sleigh. Part of the newly formed group of local hostelries called Benchmark Inns (www.benchmarkinns.com), Kedron Valley is an unusually configured lodge complex anchored by a Federal style main building with a handsomely authentic bar and a great dinner menu. Travelers and locals come inside to sit under casement windows in dark leather chairs while someone’s retriever warms a corner of the wide oriental rug.
The front porch, when I arrived near sunset, had scarcely an empty rocker and several conversations going on at once. My room was in the center building and featured a huge fireplace with a raised brick hearth. Recently renovated, it was dominated by an antique sleigh bed lavished with expensive linens and comforters. Up the street from the KVI is Vermont’s first water buffalo farm and creamery, a sign of things to come in the Northeast dairy industry, people say.
The next day’s round was at Green Mountain National, where an outing group of 32 Vermont PGA members were playing for a little something and clearly enjoying themselves. I took some extra time on the second tee box staring at the same Appalachian backdrop they give you (for several times the price) at The Homestead’s Cascades Course in Virginia. This course isn’t quite on par with the Cascades, but it cuts merrily through noble woodland and packs a great variety of shotmaking challenges into its 6,500 yards. Course architect Gene Bates also did the award-winning Circling Raven Golf Course for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in northern Idaho, so we know he can handle terrain above the 43rd parallel. His No. 8 hole at Green Mountain National is a bite-it-off dogleg to the left that punishes the greedy. No. 16, where you blast down a hill then have to thread your approach into a well-guarded green, is like a ski run you’ll want to turn around and scoot down again.
Flying solo most of the week, I managed to meet up with my wife for one night at The Windham Hill Inn, a well-chosen rendezvous. Up the hill from Route 30 in quiet West Townshend, this inn results from an ingenious renovation of original farm buildings carried out with a perfectionist’s eye for detail. The grounds are ringed with specimen flowers and a dazzling kitchen garden from which menu ingredients are picked every afternoon. The 21–room inn has sleek millwork painted in soothing tones inside. Outside there are trails carefully marked and maintained fingering out from the main lodge and its astounding former barn. Dining and wine-drinking here is on par with what you might experience in a well-chosen eatery anyplace from DC to Boston. Staff members include interns studying at the University of Manchester, England. If you are with the spouse and promising to leave golf off the agenda one day of the trip, this is the place to check in the night before. One of those, yes, romantic sorts of inns, with no televisions, just fireplaces, Jacuzzis, in-room massage and other such diversions.
The Windham Hill is also convenient to an institution which, in a state that’s all about the great outdoors, provides the finest sort of indoor field trip. The Vermont Country Store is not a place you stop into, be warned. Yankee bargains, childhood treasures you didn’t think they made anymore, kitchen gadgets you would use twice in your life—but have to have. Owned and operated by the Orton family since the 1940s, it’s one of few places where you could buy a brand-new manual typewriter and a pair of socks rated for 30-below temperatures.
I had Rutland’s swerving beauty and towering conifers in mind as I took my first looks at Brattleboro Country Club, where the Ross-influenced architecture of Stiles is also on display. Stiles redesigned Brattleboro’s original Tom MacNamara nine in 1930 to more or less put the club on the map. Much of that work was retained by Vermont course designer Steve Durkey when he oversaw renovation and reconstruction of the course and expanded it to 18.
The first at Brattleboro is a stout, dignified straight two-shotter with a thin creek to carry or land short of. No. 2 is a dramatic, just slightly awkward uphill-then-uphill dogleg right. The front side swings down and around from that high point, down corridors of rolling timberland. The best par-3 at Brattleboro is No. 13, which requires a long iron, a hybrid or a utility wood but stirs you to really rip the shot. You know you’re going to play from somewhere along the broad, interesting greensite—from back at the tee you can see a variety of possible shots sprawls out in front of you like a display in the Vermont Country Store—including little downhill pitches from chancy but not overly penal rough.
No. 17 is a par-4 that plays down to an outdoor rock festival bowl of ground, with a tall shoulder of ground jutting in to block the way. It’s an easy drive, but also an easy to get lazy on. No. 18 has a lyrical look, downslope to a green crossbunkered in front and scented by lofty pines that scent the air and put a stamp of character on the final plays of the day. The day ended with some inchoate touring of Brattleboro’s main streets, and the impulse purchase of a Be Good Tanyas CD I had heard at high volume in Mocha Joe’s, the artsy coffee shop off Main Street, that morning.
And the entire Green Mountain tour ended some two weeks later with an intriguing coda, as I whistled all the way back up to Stowe and experienced a new beginning—the chance to play one of the first 50 rounds ever at Bob Cupp’s new Spruce Peak Golf Club, a daring excursion that takes place with Vermont’s highest peaks, Mt. Mansfield and a neighboring bump called The Chin, in full IMAX view almost throughout the round. We stayed the night before at the Green Mountain Inn, which is an excellent hotel in downtown Stowe. The golf course is a wonder of engineering, the way its fairways have been ramped onto hillsides and its greens perched on precipices. For the four-season sportsman who comes to Stowe year-round, the Spruce Peak course is a spanking-new amenity to the luxury ski-and-golf hamlet now being built across from the grand old ski hill.