Whether there was snow or no snow, we decided to ski in Vermont over the winter holidays. Now, as a family of four, we ski on a tight budget. This is tough with the high price of lift tickets, especially during the holidays, when no off peak discounts are available. We also want to be able to drive to our destination from our home, for convenience and savings.
Heading north of our home in New York City, into New England, usually assures us snow. Last year we chose to explore the Middlebury, Vermont Snow Bowl. Owned and operated by Middlebury College, it is used as a training ground for the college’s competitive ski team.
Middlebury Ski Bowl lift ticket rates were nearly half the price of neighboring Vermont ski areas. Though it features only 15 trails, the terrain seemed varied enough to meet our family’s differing needs. My husband, Antonio, grew up in Switzerland, so he likes challenging terrain. I am an eternal beginner who enjoys long, flat runs. My teenaged children Alec and Madeleine are intermediate level skiers.
Home Exchange – Great Way to Save Money
I arranged a housing swap with a family of five, parents who work at Middlebury College and have three teenagers of their own. As long-time residents of the region, our fellow swappers agreed that the Snow Bowl was the perfect family ski mountain for those seeking a low-key experience.
Home exchange is a great way to save money while living like locals. It offers a spacious alternative to all of us cramming into one motel room. It allows us to cook some of our meals in. The Vermonters would use our New York City apartment for three days between Christmas and New Years, and we would use their 1840’s house. (By the way, HomeExchange is a good resource to find house swaps.)
The location was perfect, within walking distance of all of the town’s attractions, so the kids were free to go off and explore on their own, on foot.
Getting to Know Middlebury, Vermont
Being home to a small, prestigious liberal arts college, Middlebury is a pedestrian’s paradise. We could walk to all the colorful local shops, restaurants and to the Marquis, a movie theater on Main Street. The kids went to the movies on our first night in town, and enjoyed being able to walk there and back on their own, while my husband and I enjoyed a quiet evening in our new “home.” As it was unusually warm, we could and did comfortably walk all around town.
On the town’s Main Street, we enjoyed browsing at the independently owned, 60-year-old Vermont Book Shop. It features a large selection of books and poetry by Vermont authors, and Robert Frost, who was along time resident of the area, is said to have been a regular customer. Just out of the town’s center on Industrial Avenue, we got a kick out of Beau Ties Ltd., which specializes in selling ties in all styles, colors and fabrics.
When there’s No Snow, Explore Vermont
As much as we were enjoying exploring the town, skiing was never far from our thoughts. We did not bargain for late December temperatures in the mid 50’s. We drove to the Snow Bowl, a scenic 15-minute drive from town and were discouraged, because even as the altitude increased, very little snow covered the ground. We arrived at the Snow Bowl to a nearly empty parking lot. We entered the lodge, and were told that three trails were groomed and open.
The resort has limited snow-making capabilities, unlike its more expensive neighbors, Sugarbush and Mad River Glen. It didn’t seem worth the expense of renting skis and buying lift tickets for only three open runs, so we decided to pray for snow and wait and see if more trails would open.
That left us with the day to explore northern Vermont. We had never been to Burlington, Vermont’s largest city and home to a large student population. The drive would have been under an hour, but we stopped in Shelburne at the Vermont Teddy Bear Company factory and museum on the way. In spite of being older, both of my kids still cherish their stuffed animals. Ever since they saw the film “Chicken Run,” they have enjoyed factory tours of all sorts, so the 30-minute tour was lots of fun. We learned how teddy bears are stuffed and sewn, and enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and the opportunity to cuddle the vast variety of bears, with no pressure to buy.
Getting to Know Burlington, Vermont
We parked easily in downtown Burlington. We had lunch at Henry’s Diner, an old-fashioned railroad car diner. Two of us ordered from the all-day breakfast menu, and two from the lunch menu, so we got a good idea of the high quality, standard diner classics that are served.
Burlington is very pedestrian-friendly, with many of its shops on vehicle-free malls. We browsed at the Frog Hollow Vermont State Crafts Center, a spacious gallery that sells Vermont-made furniture, housewares, clothing and art. They also offer classes and workshops for children and adults. We spent most of our afternoon at the Church Street Marketplace, where Madeleine was thrilled to find post holiday sales at many of her favorite chain clothing stores. My husband and I were happy to find an eclectic assortment of decidedly non-franchised shops, including some gourmet food and chocolate shops. We were impressed by Peace and Justice, a Vermont based not-for–profit center. They predate the “Feel the Bern” movement by decades and remain dedicated to selling third–world produced items exported by wholesalers committed to non-exploitation. We enjoyed listening to some great street musicians, brought out by the fine, spring-like weather.
Burlington is the home of the first Ben and Jerry’s ice cream store, opened in 1978. We waited on a 30-minute line to purchase cones. I am sure the unusually warm temperature had something to do with the long wait, but it was worth it. We can and do eat Ben and Jerry’s at home, but I like to think that it tasted a little better in Vermont, and I’m glad we got there before its big renovation.
Before heading out of town, we had a look at the renovated waterfront, where we enjoyed views of Lake Champlain. We imagined that strolling along the lakefront must be terrific in warmer months. We liked that Burlington had a condensed center, making for easy exploration.
American Flatbread Pizza, a Middlebury Institution
That evening we returned to Middlebury for dinner. We decided to try American Flatbread in The Marble Works, because it was walking distance from “our home.” This former industrial complex now houses a variety of shops and restaurants. The restaurant is only open evenings, Tuesday to Saturday, as the space is used to bake pizzas that are frozen and shipped to health food stores all over the U.S. during the rest of the week.
Flatbreads are large, freeform pizzas topped with local, organically grown ingredients, baked in a wood–fired oven. The pizzas are for sharing, and are said to serve at least two people, so we ordered two for the four of us, one with Vermont sausage and one classic cheese and herb. They were both delicious, and we had plenty to take home, even with two teen-aged appetites at our table.
We also enjoyed the salad, organic greens and veggies topped with sesame seeds and a house-made vinaigrette. The casual atmosphere was perfect for our family. Our talkative waitress was a fulltime baker, and explained not only the menu but also the philosophy behind the bakery. She advised us to come in during the week to observe the baking process and taste whatever pizza they were making hot out of the oven, before they are frozen and shipped all over the country. She told us that there are several American Flatbread locations throughout Vermont.
A Day at Middlebury Snow Bowl
Sunday arrived just as warm as its predecessor. We really did want to ski, so we headed over to give the Snow Bowl a try. Luckily, a fourth trail had miraculously opened. We rented our skis, and immediately liked the helpful staff, who even remembered us snooping around the day before.
To our liking, the rates were reduced to the non-holiday, mid-week rates as compensation for the limited number of trails available. Of the four trails open, only two were truly skiable, as the other two had large bare patches. But Voter and Lang were nicely groomed beginner runs, and though it did get a bit boring to ski the same trails all day, we enjoyed the old-fashioned charm of the mountain.
There were no lift lines, and the trails were nearly empty. We had tasty, reasonably priced chili for lunch, and met lots of interesting people on the chairlift, mostly Middlebury faculty and their families.We asked them for advice regarding local diners, as Henry’s in Burlington put us in the mood for more authentic diner fare.
When there’s No Snow, Explore More of Middlebury
Rosie’s Restaurant, just south of town on Route 7, was suggested by several people. We decided to stop there for an early dinner as we headed home from the slopes. More a coffee shop in appearance than a classic diner, Rosie’s food did not disappoint. We had built up big appetites skiing, and enjoyed the baking powder biscuits, meatloaf and burgers, topped off with homemade pie for dessert.
The kids liked it so much that they asked to come back for breakfast the next day. Breakfast lived up to our expectations. Madeleine tried the baked oatmeal, the eggs were tasty, and the Vermont maple syrup was perfect with the fluffy pancakes.
Before beginning our homeward drive, we took a leisurely walk around the Middlebury College campus. The students were all gone for the holiday, so it was very quiet, but still enjoyable. The kids were particularly impressed that the college has its own ski area. We all imagined how pretty the campus would be in other seasons, or with a blanket of snow, as is the norm for late December.
Although we didn’t need to rent a hotel room, we enjoyed exploring The Middlebury Inn, facing the town green. This imposing, historic structure has dominated the center of town since 1827. We enjoyed snooping around the hotel’s public rooms, quietly elegant yet comfortable.
Morgan’s Tavern was the right choice for afternoon tea, amidst its antiques and books. The giant Front porch looked like it would be fun to relax on during a summer’s eve. Another good option for families would be the more generic Courtyard by Marriott, just a half mile from the town center. The hotel boasts a heated indoor pool, which would surely provide some family fun.
Making the Most of a Family Weekend
We left Middlebury and headed home. We had made the best of the disappointing ski conditions, as it had given us the opportunity to explore this part of Vermont, particularly Burlington, in greater depth.
Madeleine was happy with her shopping purchases, and Alec was happy that the vacation was a short one, as he was antsy to get back to his social life.
We all agreed that the Middlebury Snow Bowl merited a second chance when more trails were open, and vowed to return to this lovely part of Vermont soon.
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