Lake Champlain Islands
Summer sojourners looking to enjoy Lake Champlain often head for Milton, Vermont’s Sandbar State Park, with its broad beach, safe shallow waters, and convenient location, just a few miles up Route 7 from Burlington. But the more curious among them often wonder just what lies at the other end of that long causeway that swings out into the lake past the park — the one that appears to end at a point that certainly isn’t the New York side, but isn’t the Vermont mainland, either.
That green horizon belongs to the Champlain Islands, one of the big lake’s greatest treasures — and a splendid reason to fold up your beach chair and follow the causeway west. Twenty-eight miles long, barely four miles across at their widest point, the three bridge-linked main islands and one peninsula of Grand Isle County offer spectacular water’s-edge views of the Green Mountains and Adirondacks — plus myriad ways to get out and enjoy the lake and its surrounding attractions.
Start Drive Here
The first island — and town — on the western end of the causeway is South Hero. (Legend has it that South and North Hero were named for Vermont’s two Revolutionary-era heroes, brothers Ethan and Ira Allen.) If you come at the tail end of summer or in early fall, Allenholm Farm and Hackett’s Orchard keep up an old islands tradition, with row upon row of trees bearing more than a dozen apple varieties. Patrons may pick their own and enjoy a variety of treats made from the new crop.
On West Shore Road, along South Hero’s New York-facing side, a far newer crop flourishes at Snow Farm Vineyard. Harrison and Molly Lebowitz’s vines benefit from the islands’ mild microclimate, yielding an assortment of award-winning red and white wines. There’s a tasting room at the vineyard and an outdoor summer music series.
West Shore Road is a scenic alternative to U.S. 2 for meandering northward through the islands, and a particular favorite among cyclists who enjoy countryside devoid of Vermont’s famously daunting hill climbs. (On weekends in August, the islands are connected to Burlington’s recreation path by a five-minute bike ferry ride.) Soon after the side roads divert back to the highway, a drawbridge (be prepared to pause for sailboats) scoots traffic across to North Hero, where a quick right marks the entrance to Knight Point State Park. This is the summer home of Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzan Stallions, the famed white horses that keep alive the centuries-old Austrian military tradition of precision leaps and jumps. This day-use park also hosts a summer outdoor Shakespeare series. Two other island parks, Grand Isle and North Hero, offer tent sites, cabins, and lean-tos.
The area’s prettiest village clusters around City Bay, in North Hero. Here, the Hero’s Welcome store offers everything from guidebooks to kitchenware, rents watercraft and bikes, and provides dockside picnic tables for enjoying its custom sandwiches, soups, and chili. A few doors away, the shipshape North Hero House boasts the islands’ choicest accommodations — opt for one of the lakefront rooms with private screened deck, facing the sunrise — along with excellent meals. Swim and fish just steps from your room.
At Carry Bay, just north of the village, Route 2 slices along a portion of North Hero Island so narrow that there’s scarcely any land at all on either side of the blacktop. It’s easy to see, with the bays, passages, and smaller islands all around, how this place got its name: Indians and early French explorers found it the perfect spot to carry their canoes from the western part of the lake to the Vermont side’s “Inland Sea.”
The next bridge carries the road to Alburg Peninsula. It pokes down into the lake from Quebec and harbors Vermont’s newest day-use state park: Alburg Dunes, a beautifully desolate stretch of shoreline. Just beyond, a causeway carries Vermont Route 129 over to Isle La Motte, the most remote and least populated of the Champlain Islands. The main road loafs through table-flat farmland, but the best way to see this two-by-five-mile green speck in the lake — and the sky- and water-framed vistas surrounding it — is via the pokey shore roads that nearly encircle it. One of them leads to Fisk Quarry Preserve, where you can see the fossilized remains of the primitive creatures that made up a 450-million-year-old reef formed in a warm tropical sea. Another road dead-ends at Vermont’s most out-of-the-way accommodation and dining surprise, Ruthcliffe Lodge. Here, tucked away from everything but spectacular views, Mark and Kathy Infante welcome guests to snug, cheerful rooms, and to Italian-inspired fresh seafood dinners.
For working up an appetite, nothing beats taking out one of the inn’s canoes or kayaks. One scenic three-mile round trip follows the coast down across Wait Bay to a tiny, rock-girt island just off Reynolds Point. Here, according to an old story, John Philip Sousa saw a flag snapping in the breeze and was inspired to write the instrumental arrangement for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” With the great expanse of Lake Champlain spreading south past the horizon, North Hero to port and the rugged New York shore to starboard — and perhaps a lone heron taking wing from the shallows — you don’t have to be a march king to enjoy a sublime moment of inspiration.