Vermont's Inn Tune With Young Foodies - My Family Travels

Fine dining, a great location, and top-notch service make the large Essex Resort — and wonderful cooking school for families and guests — a delightful retreat near Burlington, Vermont.

When you vacation in an exciting, engaging place with lots of attractions, finding a special hotel seems unnecessary. You picture your family being out and about all day, and just needing a place to sleep and eat. At the Essex Resort & Spa, however, sleeping and eating are taken seriously. So seriously, in fact, that your family will enjoy northern Vermont even more for having selected this full service hotel and spa.

Centrally located, with the bones and charm of a traditional New England B&B, the Essex Resort is in Essex Junction, about 20 minutes from downtown Burlington and within 30 to 60 minutes of Vermont's best wintersports at Smugglers Notch, Bolton Valley, Stowe and Jay Peak.

Full Service Inn Becomes Resort Getaway for Foodies

Spacious rooms have two queen beds with down comforters, Chippendale armoires, TVs with VCRs and cable reception, coffeemakers stocked with Green Mountain Coffee, complimentary WiFi Internet access and, in some, large handicap accessible bathrooms. Over two visits, we especially liked room 340, which easily adjoined to its neighbor across a private foyer to make a larger suite for a big family. The inn has other suite types and larger, long-stay units with kitchenettes.

Unlike many New England inns, this stylish place has true hotel-style linens and turn down service, great water pressure and bathroom fixtures, and an adjustable heating system that gave us a place to dry gloves and long underwear after a day of skiing. Summer visitors will appreciate the large windows and, when breezes don't blow, the adjustable air-conditioning.

Pets and kids are welcomed at what is also home to the Cook Academy, one aspect of the inn that makes a stay so special. Families will enjoy interacting with the young staff and watching students in toque hats stroll across the manicured grounds.

Cooking Confidentially for Adults & Kids

These students attend what was an offshoot of NECI, as it's been known for the past quarter century. Most take the two-year associate's degree program in the culinary, baking and pastry arts, or hospitality and restaurant management, but some come for four years or just a summer refresher course.

At Essex, Camp Cook classes for budding chefs are designed for children aged 10 and up. Classes could be two hours or all day. Week-long programs include activities outside of the kitchen including swimming, gardening, and farm visits. Make early reservations for Camp Cook summer weeks priced at $400 per child.

Families can enjoy cooking experiences offered by the hotel as special packages. We watched through the windows of the small demonstration theater off the lobby as a mom and young girl were coached in the elements of a successful brunch menu. Inn guests may register for Chef "Inn" Training, a hands-on, three-course dinner (or other meal) demonstration with Chef Courtney Contos, who plans a nightly menu of fresh, local ingredients prepared with style.

More simple Culinary Demonstrations occur regularly; even children seem interested to watch. For a fee, up to eight spectators join a master chef instructor preparing different themed meals. This might be Sushi, Everything Vermont (a menu of fresh local meats like venison, cheeses, maple syrup sauces, and berries) or, for families with younger children, making Pizza and Ice Cream. At the end of the 90-minute session, snacking on any comestibles you've seen created is heartily encouraged. Any of these sessions can also be part of a hotel package that includes breakfast.

Families looking for a very special event can book a Customized Private Dining session 48 hours in advance, with a personally selected five-course menu for two to 10 guests. The chef will shop for the ingredients you'll need, then your private party will come to the cooking classroom to help prepare the meal, serve it to yourselves, and enjoy an evening of intimate "Kitchen Confidential" so to speak.

Fine Dining Fit for All Ages

Other families took the occasion of being at a culinary capital to enjoy dining together, as we did, in Butler's, the simple but elegant dining room distinguished by landcape paintings done by local artists. (There is original art hanging throughout the inn and in each room, making the place seem even more intimate and local.) At Butlers, our excellent server, Meghan, explained that while she was not a student, the chefs-in-training rotated through all the restaurant's functions on two-week shifts — both as servers shadowing the professional wait staff, and as busboys, cleaners and even at the front of the house, where professional maitre d's stayed by their side.

Menu items change nightly so that the students, under the supervision of master Chefs, get plenty of practice. We'd venture to say, however, that anything you order will be outstanding. The menu includes a choice of three courses and is modestly priced (at least, for New York standards) at $37 to $48 per person, a top value for such quality cuisine. The extensive wine list had several excellent vintages available by the glass, and Meghan was well versed in these too. Overall, we saw families with much younger children than ours enjoy the same dining experience, which took about two hours with the gracious, efficient service.

Those UV alumni parents who recall the New England Culinary Institute NECI Commons on Burlington's pedestrian-only Church Street mall will be sad to learn that it was smothered by its own success; the teaching staff felt they had no time to properly instruct their students.

Around & About Essex Junction

In summer, the Inn's outdoor pool, tennis courts and fitness room provide recreation right on site for guests who want more activity at day's end. In winter, families may request a pass from the front desk to use the pool and gym facilities at a nearby racquet club. The Inn is well organized at sharing the neighboring attractions. In addition to a full rack of brochures, the front desk had the nightly show times at the Essex multiplex, printed directions to the closest ski resorts, Burlington information and tips on other fun things to do.

We took advantage of our proximity to Stowe (about 45 minutes) for a day of snowsports. Our teen hit the steeper slopes of Mt. Mansfield while we cruised the blue terrain on Spruce Mountain, then teamed up at day's end to tour Stowe's new basecamp and condo complex. Stowe is actually a quicker drive in summer, when the Smuggler's Notch Pass/Vermont Rte 108 is open to traffic. Summer's the time to use the mountain's lifts to access terrific mountain biking and scenic hiking terrain (rental bikes available in Stowe Village). Year-round, "couch potato" families should be aware that the Mt. Mansfield Pizza at Stowe village's psychedelic Pie in the Sky pizza shop, followed by a stop at the Old Cider Mill, is more than enough to make the scenic drive worthwhile.

Just five minutes from the Inn is the Essex Outlet Mall, where kids will find (shhhh!) the nearest fast food outlets. Casual Ralph Lauren Polo, Adidas and Levi/Dockers shops, an elegant Bogner ski clothing boutique and other stores will keep shoppers busy. Don't forget to ask for the hotel's discount coupons.

For those keeping with the cooking theme, there's always a visit to the Lake Champlain Chocolate Company factory (802/864-1807). During the free factory tours (weekdays on the hour from 9am-2pm at the 750 Pine Street location), friendly tour guides explain cocoa bean growing, harvesting, fermenting, conching, tempering, and molding. Some of the processes you'll see are chocolate enrobing, depositing, molding, packaging, and hand painting, then you can sample some for yourself. Call ahead to find out when professional chocolatiers will be in session to demonstrate new creations.

The Burlington headquarters of the Burton snowboard company is another great destination for the snowsports or culture maven in the family. Within its spare warehouse-like exterior (the flagship retail shop and corporate offices are on Industrial Parkway near the railroad tracks south of town) is a warm and inviting space where staff dogs roam freely and the latest stylish snowboard wear lights up the shelves.

Large photo murals of Burton's sponsored riding team (including Olympic gold medalists Shaun White and Hannah Teter) are complimented by time capsules iinset into the floor that preserve each rider's favorite snowboard, knickknacks, perhaps gloves or a hat, some toys, a headset, some postcards, a slogan, etc.

Combined with the wall-mounted display of vintage snowboards dating from 1977 (Jake Burton is credited with the first mass production if not the "invention" of the sport itself) are enough to keep even non-afficionados interested. And if you're not interested, then you can just nestle up on the one of plush couches in front of the roaring fire with a golden Lab and relax…. in that true New England tradition.

For more information and reservations, contact the Essex Resort & Spa Cook Academy (800/727-4295, 802/878-1100; at 70 Essex Way, Essex, VT 05452.

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