Travel

This Hidden Vermont River Town Is Bursting with Fall Colors

Can Vermont have too many cute fall towns? Nah.

Structured Vision/Shutterstock
Structured Vision/Shutterstock
Structured Vision/Shutterstock

“Nobody knows all this is here,” a grey bearded man with a familiar voice says as he holds court in the middle of a woodworking shop.

“You stop at the Vermont Deli between November and April on a Sunday, and you can’t find a spot. People pay for their overpriced sloppy joes, they pee, and they leave. They have no idea all this is less than a mile down the road.”

“All this,” as radio personality and voice of Motel 6 Tom Bodett calls it, is the town of Brattleboro, Vermont. He’s standing in HatchSpace, a sort of co-working space for woodworkers, which Bodett opened in hopes of drawing people into an area for which he’s passionately appreciative.

The New England allure of Brattleboro is obvious as soon as you turn onto Main Street, a meandering drive lined with historic brick buildings and topped with a skyline of church steeples. Downtown is dotted with art galleries, food co-ops, breweries, and artisan co-working spaces. The surrounding hills are filled with fall colours and endless apple farms.

But little of it is known to those who breeze by on their way up Interstate 91 to Vermont’s chic northern towns. Lacking the leaf peeping crowds but overflowing with leaves to peep, Brattleboro makes for an immersive escape into the season.

Whetstone Craft Beers at Whetstone Station
Whetstone Craft Beers at Whetstone Station
Whetstone Craft Beers at Whetstone Station

Take one of Vermont’s most scenic fall hikes, with beer at the bottom

The hills will be on fire in a couple of weeks, Ironman Leo tells me as we look out over Miner’s Ridge. Not a literal fire, mind you, but alive with the oranges, yellows, and reds of dying leaves. By month’s end, they’ll be completely ablaze.

Leo Marshall, an Ironman triathlete and former Marine, has hoofed us to the top of Wantastiquet Mountain: greater Brattleboro’s best vantage point for fall colours, where mountains stretch to the horizon and the river runs past it. Though Leo had us to the top in 40 minutes, the hike is usually an easy hour for most.

At the base of the trail, across the river, is Whetstone Station, the city’s best-known brewery and only spot for waterside dining. It’s also the rare bar where you can drink in two states at once, a fact Whetstone owner Tim Brady takes pride in.Brady, one letter away from a noted New England icon, is a legend of his own. He splits his time between Brattleboro and Key West and easily fits in both places. He jovially walks me through his brewery’s lineup of beers as nearly everyone we encounter stops to say hello.

Whetstone is about the closest thing Brattleboro has to a tourist attraction, mostly because it’s the only restaurant on the water. But not one person takes a selfie with a beer on the state line. Well, no one besides me.

Alan Schein/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Alan Schein/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Alan Schein/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Go apple-picking in this mill town turned hippie enclave

Brattleboro was founded in 1753 along the Connecticut River and developed into a mill town, thanks mostly to its abundance of timber and proximity to a waterway. But because most early buildings were designed to have their rear loading docks on the river, downtown Brattleboro faces inland.

That resulted in a narrow Main Street that could have been pulled from the outskirts of London. The winding, uphill drive offers small shops around every literal corner and the excitement of seeing something different each time the street curves.

Scott Farm Orchard
Scott Farm Orchard
Scott Farm Orchard

Since the 1970s, Brattleboro and its agricultural environs have drawn hippies yearning to live off the land. The agricultural lifestyle is what attracted Simon Renault from the French region of Brittany. He dropped out of law school to work farms in Ireland and Oregon before settling in Brattleboro and now manages Scott Farm Orchard, a 571-acre apple enclave set in the rolling hills of nearby Dummerston.

The land Renault presides over is a fall-lover’s paradise, complete with classes in making hard cider, 130 varieties of heirloom apples unavailable in regular grocery stores, and gallons of the farm’s special apple-ginger cider. The stuff is like nature’s own intoxicating liquor.

Just across an idyllic creek sits The Stone Trust, where stoneworkers create art and teach about their craft. This makes Scott Farm the odd place where you can learn to make hard cider and build a stone wall in the same afternoon.

River Garden Marketplace
River Garden Marketplace
River Garden Marketplace

Get cozy with downtown dinner and drinks

One of fall’s great joys is coming inside after a day in the crisp air. Downtown Brattleboro, with its glittering street lights and big-windowed restaurants, is the reward you long for in the cold.

For a warming beverage, hit Mocha Joe’s, a simple coffee shop with single-origin roasts from around the world. The Ethiopian brew is barely $2.50 and one of the best cups of coffee out there. For comfort food, the open, inviting dining room at Duo is the move. The restaurant fills your stomach with prosciutto wrapped potatoes and flat iron steak au poivre.Atop Main Street you’ll find the River Garden Marketplace, a space where you can sample a collection of over 50 craft beers, then peruse stalls from local artisans. The onsite fast-casual kitchen also switches themes every month. Stomach-warming schnitzel and potatoes are on the menu in October. November has a Thanksgiving theme.

If you’d rather order take-out and snuggle, grab some dumplings, noodles, and other Chinese street food from Cai’s Dim Sum, located inside an art gallery. Chef Cai’s makeshift kitchen sits within the C.X. Silver Gallery, all set inside an unassuming home. So it might be worth showing up a little early for your Chicken Box Abundance to peruse some provocative modern works.

Latchis Hotel
Latchis Hotel
Latchis Hotel

Where to stay in Brattleboro

Hotel options in Brattleboro are limited but ideal for a more secluded experience. If you want to stay in the heart of downtown, opt for the Latchis Hotel. The city’s lone art-deco structure also houses the Latchis Theater, so you can walk from your hotel room, down a terrazzo staircase, and into the lobby of the cinema. The record players in each room and the views of the mountains are the best in Brattleboro.

For the classic, Vermont B&B experience, opt for the six-room Inn on Putney Road. The building was once home to the director of the Brattleboro Retreat, the town’s mental hospital. Now, it backs up to miles of the Retreat’s trail system, where you can hike deep into fall colo urs and back out for warm cider in the living room.

In a long weekend in Brattleboro, I didn’t meet another person from further away than New Hampshire. The place felt like an autumn unto its own. Full of apple cider and mashed sweet potatoes, I realized fall had taken over my body in less than three days. What a treat for all the lucky motorists who venture just a mile off the exit.

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Matt Meltzer is a freelance globetrotter and Thrillist contributor. Follow him: @meltrez1.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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