Moving south, find The Candy Lab (champlainislandscandylab.com). Albert Reyes and Michael McCarver, who met in New York City and have been married four years, had vacationed here for three years. When they chose to go into business in South Hero, they decided it had to be creative and it had to be fun. Albert, a biochemist, got a certification from Ecole Chocolat in Paris and began creating recipes. Michael focused on growing the fruits and vegetables for developing extracts. The Candy Lab was born in 2017, offering artisanal chocolates. Now there’s also iced coffee with a touch of CBD, gelato, biscuits “big as your head,“ and an even larger assortment of candy. Albert says, “The camaraderie of the community, the small-town wonderfulness here is not what I was used to. It feels more like a community institution.“ What’s the most popular candy at the Candy Lab? “Hands down, bleu cheese and honey caramel in dark chocolate,“ Albert says.
Also in South Hero, Tinkers Barn (web.vermont.org/Shopping-Retail/Tinkers-Barn-5271) is a memorable antiques/collectibles shop. Two floors of looka-this include a Bernie Sanders doll, furniture, McCoy pottery, a Turkish-French bayonet, 500 hats, Darth Vader masks and its owner, Joanne, who’s been there for 45 years. She inherited the place from her mother and has great conversational skills. Jack, Joanne’s pet chipmunk, runs in and out. She says, “I don’t know its gender because it will bite me if I try to pick it up.“
For good wine, lift a glass at the Snow Farm Vineyard and Winery (snowfarm.com). To get there from Route 2, turn onto South St. for 2.5 miles, then turn right onto West Shore Rd. and continue for 3/4 mile until you see the sign. Sit outside or in the woodsy tasting room and shmooze with the friendly and knowledgeable staff. Cold Vermont winters make for some excellent local wines and Snow Farm is especially proud of its ice wines, which are also dessert wine-contest winners. In Summer, Thursday nights are times for celebration and this is where to find a big party. Bring a blanket or chair and fuel up on Snow Farm wine or beer. There’s food at the Sausage Shack here and a different band every week, usually with crowds as far as the eye can see. In an area this quiet and uncrowded, that’s unique. Some people just can’t help themselves, they get up and dance. The “dance floor“ is the lawn.
For a must-see, stop at the winery’s neighbors. Cameras typically come out at nearby White’s Beach (southhero.net/rec/whites-beach), or more accurately, on the other side of the road. Here’s a Hansel and Gretel forest filled with birdhouses; it’s a showstopper in rainbow-flag colors. Originally, two neighbors built twenty houses to attract the tree swallows they hoped would become bug-eating tenants. Now there are 800 and most are occupied. Less visible are the dinosaur statues, hidden somewhere back there, between the trees.
Swallows are just one of 318 species of birds around Lake Champlain, but in recent years, most protected are the ospreys. Federal and state Fish and Wildlife Departments and Vermont power companies have cooperated to add nesting platforms on top of electrical grids to provide a safe, level surface for nests so they can raise their young. They’re part of the unspoiled scenery and easiest to spot along the power lines in Grand Isle, which has a dense osprey population.
If birds and politics are any indication, Vermont’s heart is in the right place. It was the first state to introduce civil unions in 2000 and also the first to introduce same-sex marriage by enacting a statute without it being required to do so by a court decision.
Doug DiSabito is the Grand Isle City States Attorney and the first openly gay elected attorney in the State of Vermont. He beat a threeterm incumbent and was endorsed by both Republicans and his own party, Democrats. “I don’t like labels. People just accept who you are here,” he says. He and his partner, David FitzGerald, a professional horse trainer and dog groomer, live on a farm with David’s four horses and their four dogs, but no marriage license.
“As an attorney, I’ve seen too many terrible divorces,” Doug says. He and David met at a house party in 2001 and they’ve been together ever since.
Formerly a couple and now business partners, Mandy Hotchkiss and chef Phoebe Bright own the Blue Paddle (bluepaddlebistro.com), a bistro decorated with pescatorial art and inventive detail. Artist Rachel Laundon’s fish plaques on the walls surround the bistro’s 60 tables. The menu changes with the seasons and the creative whim of the chef. Dishes range from the popular Paddle Burger to a Lobster Sauté.
Another dining option is the Ruthcliffe Lodge (ruthcliffe.com), a casual lakefront restaurant/inn on the Isle of LaMotte. It features an allinclusive menu with an Italian twist. Bread, salad, dessert, included. Remember surf and turf? $35 indoors or outdoors at the lakefront. Dress code here and just about everywhere on these islands is come-as-youare. Buon Appetito.
If packing nothing but flip flops and old tees is a draw, so is the possibility of a budget vacation. The Airbnbs are very popular options, and there are campgrounds, rental farmhouses, and reasonable rates. Another plus is the Islands’ proximity to Boston, Burlington, and Montreal. Ferries regularly cross the lake from Grand Isle to Plattsburgh in New York and there’s a “bike ferry“ that leaves from Allen Point in South Hero to Burlington. Both make the crossings in about thirty minutes.
When I asked a visitor walking his pug and beagle mix why he likes to come here, he smiled and said, “It’s a whole different world up here.”
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