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WHY GO: The oft-overlooked upper reaches of Vermont, affectionately known as the Northeast Kingdom, or NEK, has farmland, cheese, Bag Balm, and one of the best breweries in the country according to many craft brew fans.
At its center, the city of St. Johnsbury VT holds some classy surprises, including a Victorian-age library and Natural History Museum that entice visitors to shove cell phones in pockets and take a closer look. We round out this getaway with a Buddhist meditation center, a Pet Chapel, and one amazing country inn.
Things to Do in Northeast VT
TOUR: Cabot Cheese Factory, Cabot
Crafting good cheese is nearly as complex as making wine, as you’ll discover at the Cabot Cheese Factory in, logically, Cabot VT.
In 2017, Cabot suspended tours due to feasibility issues and food safety standards. But you can still come to the Visitor’s Center for your share of cheese samples. And you can watch a video, which actually gives you a closer look at Cabot’s cheese-making process.
The film begins with an overview of the Cabot Cheese Factory, now owned by a farm collective called Agri-Mark, the largest farmer-owned co-op in New England, representing 1,200 farmers.
This united front is nothing new here. In 1914, ninety four farmers banded together to form Cabot Creamery, shipping milk and cheese to Boston and down the Hudson River to market.
Now, Cabot obtains milk from 300 dairy farms, most within a 90-mile radius. Each batch is inspected carefully by in-house scientists who measure protein and butterfat and scrutinize for contents that may contaminate or compromise the final product.
Curds (solids) and whey (protein water) pour from large pipes into industrial-sized troughs, where they are separated. Nothing is wasted here. Whey water is recycled or dehydrated into powder and sent to developing countries as nutrition-boosters.
Cheese-makers cut huge blocks of fresh-pressed cheese into sections, wrap them in plastic and place them in time stamped boxes to be aged. Cheddars age from two months to five years, increasing in sharpness each year.
FYI- Monterey Jack is a “rinsed curd” cheddar, Colby is an orange Monterey Jack, colored by annatto (derived from a South American plant); all made here. Try the 5-year aged cheddar, Smoky Bacon, Pepper Jack, Hot Buffalo, Horseradish, and any number of flavored cheddars that Cabot is known for before leaving. Free, year round Mon-Sat 10-4.
STOP: American Society of Dowsers National Headquarters and Bookstore, Danville, Northeast Kingdom VT
The Getaway Mavens promise “Offbeat,” and we deliver. This tiny house is the national headquarters for the 2,000-member American Society of Dowsers. The public, however, can pop into the bookstore for information and books. Interestingly, you can also purchase pendulums ($20 for Amethyst), bobber-rods, brass antennas, L-Rods or any number of dowsing tools.
Most lay-people know about water dowsing. But this metaphysical force can also locate “physical or spiritual” problems utilizing “earth energy” and “sacred geometry.” The ASD offers a 2-day Basic Dowsing Course, now online. Experts maintain that it’s not good form to use dowsing tools for treasure hunting. “Dowsing is more for need than greed.” Bookshop open Mon-Fri 8-4.
PHOTO OP: Bag Balm Factory, Lyndonville
Though the factory doesn’t offer tours, Bag Balm, in iconic green square tins, has been made in the Northeast Kingdom town of Lyndonville since 1899.
Years ago, “farmer’s wives started noticing how smooth and supple their husband’s hands were,” after milking cows. So, they began using the cow-udder-softener themselves.
Hardware stores couldn’t keep the product on the shelves. Now, folks use Bag Balm for everything from cracked heels, cuts and scratches, softening dog and cat paws and pads, lathering bike shorts to prevent chafing, and even for waterproofing boots. Growing in popularity, over a million 1 oz. cans are shipped all over the county every year.
STOP/PHOTO OP: Museum of Everyday Life, Glover
Right on Route 16, you can’t miss this ramshackle barn that looks as if it will collapse at any minute. Enter if you dare (you may need a hard-hat).
There’s a donation box in front. Signs point to a storage shack one imagines to be crammed with rusted farm equipment. But, surprisingly, that’s not what this is. Someone has put some time and thought into this strange, obscure collection. It does hold promise, if the “museum” itself manages to hold up, structurally.
BREWERY: Hill Farmstead Brewery, Greensboro
You must be a dedicated craft beer aficionado to arrange a trip to Hill Farmstead Brewery. After miles and miles on a dirt road (dusty or muddy, depending on weather), you’ll finally make it to this remote place. Enter the cool tasting room. Then, take a number.
Yes, it’s come to that –in Vermont’s NEK (Northeast Kingdom). Hill Farmstead has become so popular, you’ll have to muscle through dozens, sometimes hundreds of people to pick up a growler of Edward Pale Ale or Susan IPA.
This brand is considered one of the “Holy Trinity” of Vermont breweries. (Alchemist’s Heady Topper and Focal Banger top the list, followed by Lawson’s Finest Liquids Triple Sunshine IPA). Once you get here and taste the goods, you’ll see why. Open Wed-Sat. 12-5.
VISIT: St. Johnsbury Athenaeum
Oh, those Victorians sure knew how to study and research with class. Step into this beaut of a library/art gallery and drink in that 1870’s charm, lovingly preserved.
Books on two floors are accessed by intricately carved wooden spiral staircases. Lamp-lit communal tables entice all who enter to stay awhile. It’s the perfect place to overcome procrastination.
As a New York-adjacent resident, my frame of reference for planetariums is the Hayden at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. It’s large and fantastic, with celeb astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson narrating the history of the cosmos.
But this intimate “Junior Planetarium” show, with a real astrologist who provides up to the minute information via aps and internet, has got to be the coolest, most engaging program I’ve ever come across in a science museum.
One day before my visit, NASA had identified over a thousand potentially inhabitable worlds. Incredibly, this information was incorporated into the presentation. You can’t get a fresher look than that.
Speaking of fresh looks, the Fairbanks also hosts the Vermont radio weather report, Eye in the Sky. This report dates back to even before Franklin Fairbanks founded the museum in 1891, when he kept meticulous weather records at home in the 1850’s.
You’ll find all the usual mounted animal specimens in glass cases that line the walls of a long arched room. The Fairbanks houses a range of local and rare birds. Standouts include the Rhinoceros Hornbill and iridescent Resplendent Trogon.
Upstairs, find artifacts from other indigenous people all over the world. Pay attention here, as there are some rarities – including tigers and other endangered species caught mid-intense glare for all eternity. Open daily 9-5, $9 adults, $7 kids under 17.
VISIT: Dog Mountain/Pet Chapel/Stephen Huneck Gallery, St. Johnsbury
You will cry, guaranteed. Conceived by artist and author, Stephen Huneck, (who passed away in 2010), the Dog Chapel, has been a magnet for people who have lost beloved pets.
Dog, cat, and other animal owners make their way to VT’s Northeast Kingdom to leave notes, leashes, collars, toys, even ashes. And they’ve been doing so since the chapel opened in 2000. Not one has been removed. So, when you go inside to pay your respects, be prepared to read some and weep.
Dog Mountain also encompasses an art gallery featuring Huneck’s paintings, prints and books. Naturally, there’s a “leash-free” 150-acre park with hiking trails and swimming ponds for dogs. Open year round, Dog Mountain periodically hosts parties and events for animals and their owners, but you can visit any time. The Chapel and gallery are open daily 10-5.
SHOP: Maple Grove Farms, St. Johnsbury.
Pop into the Maple Grove Farms store, a couple of miles from Dog Mountain. Make a purchase and know that you’re supporting a company launched in 1915 by a couple of women entrepreneurs – Helen Gray and Ethel McLaren.
Gray and McLaren, Home Economics students at Columbia University, came up with the idea to make confections from maple syrup. Their passion turned into a business.
Now, Maple Grove is the largest packer of Maple Syrup in the country, and the largest manufacturer of Maple Candies in the world. Cracker Barrel is their largest account. Maple candies, sold across the USA, are still made on original 1930’s equipment.
MEDITATE: Karme Choling Shambhala Meditation Center, Barnet in the Northeast Kingdom VT
On a dirt road a couple of miles off I-91, this is a “retreat” in all ways. The 30 people who live here full time consider the Center a “true community.” It also happens to be open to the public for weekend to months-long classes.
Visitors come from all over the country (most from the East Coast) to learn “Mindful Gardening” (2-days, $275), “Natural Confidence” (One month, $1530), and the rudiments of Shambhala Buddhism. However, the most popular weekend session, “Relax, Renew, Awaken” ($285), is generally sold out way in advance. Although classes are restricted to those who sign up, all are invited to stroll the grounds, and enjoy a meal for $7.
Where to Eat in St. Johnsbury and Northeast Kingdom VT
EAT: Rabbit Hill Inn
A destination restaurant par excellence, food here is innovative and fine for foodies; Big Picture by Executive Chef, Andrew Hunter. Everything is outstanding. The menu changes seasonally to reflect what is available locally. A very special place.
EAT: Locals Recommend
Locals favor Juniper’s at the Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville for burgers and fish in a rustic and lovely B&B. Café Sweet Basil – also in Lyndonville – a 50’s style hole in the wall noted for excellent food. Burke Publick House in East Burke, a popular gastro-pub, and nearby Foggy Goggle Osteria in Burke for multi-ethnic comfort food.
Where to Stay in the St. Johnsbury Area
STAY: Rabbit Hill Inn, Lower Waterford
Leave it to the 19-room Rabbit Hill Inn to make log-pine luxurious. The Cedar Glen room, kited out in Adirondack-chic, is an elegant blend of pine and plaid, and one of the most difficult rooms to leave once settled in. But this is not the only reason Rabbit Hill has been among the top lodging establishments in Vermont: any country inn can be prettied up.
No, Rabbit Hill is tops due to the owners, Brian and Leslie Mulcahy, who have been here 23 years, and exude warmth and good will that radiates throughout the inn. As a Maven Favorite – read our Rabbit Hill Inn hotel review here.