Biking in the Champlain Islands
So I strap the bike on the back of the Subaru, reluctantly decide against one more cup of coffee at the Willard Street Inn, and head for the islands.
In Vermont, “the islands” means the islands of Lake Champlain, and most often, the big ones north of Burlington: South Hero and Grand Isle, North Hero, Isle La Motte and the peninsula sticking down from Canada like an elephant’s trunk, Alburg. By car, you enter the islands by crossing the sandbar at Sand Bar State Park and, after following Route 2 due north for an hour or so, exit via the bridge from East Alburg to the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge near Swanton.
Only I’m not gonna do that. While Route 2 is fine for cars, the combination of narrow highway, blind turns and Quebec drivers is hell on bikes. So at A&B Beverage on Grand Isle, I park the car, unload the bike, don my helmet and pedal east toward Grand Isle State Park. In minutes, the drone of traffic is behind me, and I find myself on a narrow, curvy and almost empty road. It’s typical of the island roads: some paved, some dirt, all well maintained. After a cycle around the park, I head north through the woods on East Shore South Road until it meets up with Route 2. From here on, my pattern is the same. I continue north, peeling off to the west or east whenever an appealing side road appears.
These quiet side roads are the heart of my day. There’s always something to see — the fish hatchery, the ferry coming in from New York, an isolated beach, an unexpected view. I wave to a couple of cyclists heading the other way. I slow down for kids with old fishing poles and high hopes. I stop at a deserted pier and dive into the cool waters of the lake. When my bike comes toppling after me — Should’ve bought that kickstand! — I take it for its first underwater spin.
The islands have the feel of the seaside — at times I’m almost convinced I can smell salt air. To the west, the Adirondacks of New York await the setting sun. To the east, Vermont’s Green Mountains serrate the horizon. But here, between ranges, the land is fertile and gently rolling. By Vermont standards, it’s practically flat, adding considerably to the pleasure of pedaling.
The warm sun quickly dries me and the bike. As I drift north, a dreamlike feeling takes hold — not quite lethargy but deep relaxation, as though I’m cycling through a slow-motion time warp. I glide past hairy Highland cows lazily munching the green island grass. Then apple orchards, brimming with reddening Macintosh. Then, as my byway peters out and I return to Route 2, I pass early-19th century houses of solid island stone and tiny wooden cabins built for 1930 ‘ s tourists. Which island am I on? Which century am I in?
What I do know is I’m getting hungry. Lunch at Hero’s Welcome on North Hero. Great sandwiches, homemade pies, and I can eat outside overlooking the lake. Food begets thoughts of food. Tonight, if I feel like spending the night on the islands, I’ll have garlicky Shrimp Marco at Ruthcliffe Lodge on Isle La Motte. If I decide on another night in Burlington, I’ll head south and either grab a pizza at Pan’s or savor a slice of homemade apple pie at Hacketts Orchard. Or maybe both.
Either way, I want to stop at one “attraction” while I’m here. On Isle La Motte is The People’s Shrine, St. Anne’s, complete with amateur miracle purveyors, crowded cafeteria, RV hook-ups, picnic grove, public beach, souvenir shop and soft ice cream stand. On Grand Isle is Hyde Log Cabin, claimed to be the oldest log cabin in the United States. Or I could stop on North Hero to pet the Lipizzan Stallions; the show, itself, is too commercially patriotic for my taste. No, instead, I head southwest to the Lady Chapel, a tiny Episcopal cedar log chapel in a stand of fragrant pines.
That decision commits me to return to Burlington, but not before I take one more dip in the lake. This time I walk in from the gentle slopes of Sand Bar State Park beach. And I leave the bike securely strapped to the Subaru.