Eating up the views, farm-fresh food on a ride through Vermont’s Champlain Islands.
A mid-ride beep from my neon-colored GPS watch usually signals a moment of weakness: a stop for a gulp of water or to rest quivering calves after climbing one of Vermont’s many mountains. Today, as I wheel my bike around the potholes in a farm lane, it’s signaling a more important item on the agenda: maple creemees.
The rest of the country calls the frozen treat twisting into my cone “soft serve,” but in Vermont, it’s a creemee. Made with farm-fresh milk and real maple syrup, it’s a delicious start to the weekend — and the official guarantee that no cycling speed records will be broken over the next two days. But we will eat well. And often.
After all, we have the home-court advantage on this vacation. My husband and I have been living on the southernmost tip of Vermont’s Lake Champlain Islands for nearly two years.
We’ve enjoyed getting to know the series of islands that hopscotch their way through Lake Champlain until they dead-end at the Canadian border 30 miles to the north. Framed by the Adirondack Mountains to the west and the Green Mountains to the east and surrounded by the waters of the lake, the islands enjoy a temperate climate that has earned them the nickname of “the banana belt of Vermont.”
Flat roads and warmer temps make them ideal for cycling, so we’ll be playing tourist with plenty of like-minded visitors this weekend — with the added benefit of knowing where to find the best strawberries and the most gratifying views. And even though Lake Champlain is only inches from flood level at the moment, the sun is shining today. Primary goal of the day: replace depleted stores of vitamin D. But first we have friends to meet.
Traversing ‘the Cut’
It’s not a long boat ride across “the Cut” — just 200 feet — but it’s the crucial link between Burlington, Colchester and South Hero, where my husband and I are waiting for our friends Matt and Emma.
When the trail was first built in 1899 as part of the Rutland-Canadian railroad, a drawbridge spanned the gap. That bridge is long gone, but until two years ago, Local Motion’s weekend bike ferry shuttled cyclists across the 200-foot stretch. In 2011, flooding damaged the causeway on both sides of the Cut, effectively closing that section of the trail. Repairing the damaged stretch of trail took two years and $1.5 million, but on June 11, the Island Line Trail reopened, and the bike ferry resumed service.
The ferry is bustling today, and if nothing else, it provides a dramatic entrance for Matt and Emma as they join us for our Champlain adventure. We pedal slowly away from the docks toward where the causeway joins solid ground in South Hero, marveling at the Volks–wagen-size blocks of marble used to build the manmade trail across the lake. We’re riding across a natural shallow spot here — about 10 feet deep — but there’s a 100-foot drop-off to the east, and to the west, the lake is almost 300 feet deep. You wouldn’t want to wipe out.
Once on the island, we don’t even make it 3 miles before we’re sidelined by creemees. We pass many roadside stands as we ride north, but not even the Blue Paddle Bistro — South Hero’s best restaurant, hands down — can distract me from reaching Pomykala Farm in Grand Isle. We hook right for a rapid-speed descent down one of Grand Isle’s few hills and a killer view of the lake, then continue onto East Shore North. Arguably the prettiest road on the islands, it hugs the rocky shore for miles, framed by farms on the other side of the road. The water looks tempting, but strawberries are a bigger priority.
When the four of us pull into Pomykala Farm, we discover an unexpected bonus: The annual strawberry social will coincide with our ride back to the ferry the next day. Trading up to strawberry shortcake (instead of strawberries eaten out-of-hand on a moving bike) seems like a good idea, so we ride on.
At this point the islands narrow, funneling you over a drawbridge into North Hero. We have to slow down for kids eating ice cream and a boat dock bustling with people enjoying the sun.
That’s not the case after you crest the peak of the bridge spanning the Alburgh Passage. The northernmost of the five towns in the Champlain Islands, Alburgh feels much less touristy, and I can imagine the fields filled shoulder-to-shoulder with sunflowers in August.
We’re pleased to enter Ransom Bay Inn to find an inviting-looking restaurant and a sun-dappled deck. We’ve booked last-minute on a holiday weekend, so all four of us are staying in one room; hence, one old-fashioned claw-foot shower-tub has to serve the needs of four road-dusty cyclists.
The inn is small — only four rooms — but husband-and-wife team Loraine and Richard Walker offer a warm welcome and plenty of food to fuel weary riders. There’s little that can keep us from our cherry-wood sleigh beds tonight, though — even the promise of dessert.
Another sunny day
The next day begins with sunshine — two days in a row! — and we decide to tack on a loop around nearby Isle La Motte, which lives up to its promise of empty roads and nonstop views out over the lake.
We arrive at the site of the Chazy Reef just as it begins to drizzle, so we stop for a minute at Fisk Farm, next door. The sign outside advertises the art barn and Sunday tea and concert series. Thirty minutes before concert time, the audience is an older couple and their aging yellow Labrador, who wags his tail at us before flopping back onto the deck. I sympathize. In the rain and with 20-plus miles to pedal until we reach the ferry, this side trip seems less appealing than it had over croissants and coffee. We spare a few moments to check out the reef — is that a mollusk? maybe a gastropod? — then head south.
We’re parking our bikes at a picnic table outside Hero’s Welcome general store in North Hero when the rain begins in earnest. A bit later, we arrive back at the ferry wet, a little chilled, and having missed the last two planned stops of the day — Grand Isle Art Works and Snow Farm Vineyard. Dinner at the Blue Paddle will also have to wait for another day.
But as we joy-ride over on the ferry to see Matt and Emma safely on their way, it’s hard to feel as if we’ve missed much of anything.