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Absolute Vermont

Historic Equinox: Hospitality fit for generations of presidents.

With its clapboard houses, clear mountain air, covered bridges and fly-fishing streams, tiny Manchester is classic New England.
Text and Photos by Toby Saltzman

If Abe Lincoln had escaped assassination in April of 1865, he may have spent the finest summer of his life that year in Manchester, a pretty village tucked in a valley between the high mountains of southern Vermont, in a suite specially designed for him at Equinox House.

The inn had served American history well by the time Lincoln's wife, Mary, and son, Robert Todd, visited a summer earlier. Its old Marsh Tavern (circa 1769) had harbored the revolutionary Green Mountain Boys. When they confiscated the property, the owner, a British sympathizer, fled to Canada.

Over two centuries the inn was transformed by successive owners whose tastes (or lack thereof) resulted in a nondescript, incohesive architecture. Yet the sprawling, white clapboard inn graced by fluted columns was so pleasing with its fresh mountain air, ingratiating hospitality and bathrooms running "splendid mountain water" that it lured the likes of Presidents Taft, Grant, Harrison, and Roosevelt.

By 1972, however, the Equinox was shuttered, so dilapidated it only missed demolition by the stroke of a pen listing it on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been extensively renovated since then. Today the Equinox is an impressive, all-season resort-hotel.

Vermont has numerous covered bridges.

We arrived in Manchester Village on the dot of noon. Its white marble sidewalks gleamed in the sunshine. The big "fish" weather vane on a pristine cottage, which turned out to be the American Museum of Flyfishing, twirled in the breeze. And bells in the church steeple pealed a sentimental melody. When the chimes stopped, it was blissfully peaceful.

Like many, early New England settlements that became fashionable summer retreats in the late 1800s, Manchester is a haven of clapboard estate homes, many of which are registered "historic", many of which are now hospitable Bed & Breakfasts or inns. None approach the grandeur of the Equinox.

Its sunny verandah, scattered with green rockers, gives way to a formal interior rich with antiques, plush carpets and decorative splashes of lemon and Wedgwood blue. Yet the ambience is absolute Vermont, exceedingly amenable to folks in fishing gear, golf togs or fancy dress clothes alike. And there's dining to suit. With its flaming hearth and Windsor chairs, the Marsh Tavern invites casual meals. Most nights it jumps with locals imbibing single malts to the music of popular bands. The opulent Colonnade dining room has a venerable sense of occasion. Once the inn's carriage house, now elegantly contrived in hues of crimson and cream, it is a beautiful, alcoved space with curved, hand-stenciled ceilings. Classical piano music enhances the memorable cuisine. Roasted oysters, smoked trout bisque and grilled yellow-fin tuna are tantalizing appetizers. The farm pheasant is lightly herbed, succulent beyond belief; the trio of snapper, scallops and lobster delicately poached so each flavor shines. Desserts are divine concoctions spun with sugar, dolloped with chocolate or dense with pecans.

Guests settle comfortably into rooms or suites appointed with bleached-pine furnishings, rocking chairs and Audubon prints. Chances are, the devoted team of concierges will entice you to Vermont's magical outdoor pastimes: learning the art of fly-fishing at the inn's private pond, horseback riding on guided mountain trails, hunting or shooting sporting clays, hiking the Appalachian Trail or biking to quaint covered bridges.

You can choose to stay put, thank you very much, indulge in the spa, or take cues on the art of "partner massage". Golfers who glimpse the Equinox's gorgeous Gleneagles Course will be hard pressed to stray...unless they're avid fishermen, too, in which case they'll suffer an emotional tug-of-war between teeing off and tackling the Battenkill River.

View of Manchester Village from
the Equinox golf course.

One of the finest 18-hole golf courses in Vermont, the Equinox Gleneagles Course, named after its sister course in Scotland, hosts the qualifying rounds for the US Senior Amateur Championship. Originally laid out in 1926 by Walter Travis, the 6423-yard par-71 course was rebuilt in 1991 by Rees Jones to incur a host of challenges: curving sandtraps guarding elevated greens, hilly bunkers flanking undulating fairways.

Though thoroughly enjoyable, Gleneagles is tough for the average player. Take the 13th hole. A long par-4 culminating in a slippery green perched on a hilly peak, its rough of high, wild grass, dubbed the "snake pit", virtually swallows stray balls. Even low-handicappers cringe at the 17th hole, a meandering par-4 with an out-of-bounds hugging its dogleg left.

"It's not the longest golf course in the world," said Gleneagles' pro Richard Wood. "Most players finish insisting the yardage on the score card is wrong. It's not. With the elevated greens, when the wind comes up, the course plays long. Everyone who plays Gleneagles, loves it."

Summer in Vermont is glorious, but for true fishermen it pales in comparison to the spring "mud season" or the dazzling fall foliage season. Craig Lawrence Sr., the "Brookside Angler" who teaches fly fishing at Equinox's private pond and organizes fishing excursions said, "The Battenkill is the most difficult fly stream in the northeast, if not the whole country. But if you get to know the river, the fishing can be excellent."

On the verandah we met novice fisherman Dr. Mark Seal, a urologist playing hooky from his practice in Ohio. Most of his time here, he was knee deep in water, loving every minute. He said, "I learned the end point isn't the fish, it's the art. Fly-fishing is a sport you can enjoy alone that takes you to serene places hidden from pagers and your hectic pace. Best of all, returning at day's end to this peaceful village and the Equinox feels so fine."

Manchester Village Center

Details:
Contact The Equinox, Historic Rte. 7A,
Manchester Village, VT 05254.
Phone: 1-800-362-4747 or 802-362-4700.
Website: www.equinoxresort.com
Rates vary from US $189. for a standard double room to US $599. for the top suite. Fully equipped townhouse suites vary from US $399. to US$699. Adjacent to the main building, the historic Orvis Inn is an inviting, all-suite corporate retreat with a private concierge and board room. (Call for current rates.) Golf, spa, sportsmen and ski packages are available. Non-guests may book golf games two days ahead.

Manchester Village is a good base for enjoying Southern Vermont's attractions.

Hildene, Robert Todd Lincoln's 1905 Georgian Revival mansion, is southern Vermont's grandest dwelling. In summer, its gorgeous gardens and meadowlands host the Vermont Symphony Orchestra concerts, polo matches and craft fairs.

The American Museum of Fly Fishing tells the "Reel Story" with displays of antique angling gear, rods, reels and flies once owned by Daniel Webster and Dwight D. Eisenhour. It is a good source of guidebooks, licenses and Vermont fishing information.

The Bennington Museum is a treasure trove of decorative arts, historic New England artifacts and the largest public collection of works by Grandma Moses.

Manchester shopping maps are as popular as touring maps. Orvis, the world famous fishing outfitter, is a hub of stylish gear and sexy fish lures. Manchester Commons is a collection of terrific designer factory outlets.

Vermont Website: www.vermont.com

 

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