The Unique Allure of LGBT Vermont

by Our Editors

Beyond the headlines of our ski resorts, autumnal glories, farms, historic villages, and award-winning culinary and craft beer scenes, Vermont stands apart as a progressive, open destination.

by Jeff Heilman

Walkable from Burlington’s downtown (along with Waterbury’s, one of 24 state-designated historic districts), Lake Champlain, sixth-largest in the US, is for paddle boarding, kayaking, tours, and dinner cruises aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen. Currently being upgraded, the Burlington Bike Path, leading to the Lake Champlain Islands, is a must for wondrous lake and Adirondack Mountain views. To the east, distantly visible from the city, hikers have Camels Hump and Mt. Mansfield, two titans in Vermont’s collection of 52 state parks.

Inspired by an open-air pedestrian mall in Copenhagen and lined with restaurants, outdoor cafés, specialty and national retailers, and cultural venues, the brick-paved Church Street Marketplace District is Burlington’s main gathering spot.

Adjacent Pine Street has contemporary galleries and finds like Speaking Volumes for used books, vinyl records, stereo equipment, art, and other “ephemera.”

Frog Meadow Hot Tub

Frog Meadow Hot Tub

Burlington is home to the Pride Center of Vermont (PCVT). As the leading community and advocacy center for LGBTQ Vermonters, PCVT is also a dependable online and in-person resource for LGBT travelers. Now assuming day-to-day operations of the VGTA as Docto winds up his leadership, The Center also organizes the annual Pride Vermont parade and festival. Taking place each September in Burlington, Pride incorporates Northern Decadence, a food and beverage event founded by Docto in 2011.

Since the closing of gay landmark Pearl’s a decade ago, the city has not had an official gay bar. Locally called “Grrrlington” by some for its vibrant lesbian population, the city does not lack for queer-friendly watering holes and clubs, however.

“First Friday” dance parties at Higher Ground in South Burlington exemplify the active “pop-up” scene. Housed in a former cinema, this popular live music venue also hosts the annual Winter is a Drag Ball. Organized by Burlington-based drag performance group House of LeMay, this perennial smash sellout, launched in 1996, supports the Vermont People with AIDS Coalition.

With other signature events including the long-running Magic Hat Mardi Gras parade in March and Pop-Up! Queer Dance Party, Burlington-based Burly Bear Promotions regularly uses live music venue Red Square for leather, fetish, and other themed events benefitting Pride Vermont and other organizations. Other queer-friendly bars include The Three Needs and male-centric Half Lounge. Meanwhile, El Gato Cantina offers zesty Mexican-inspired food, while Leunig’s Bistro & Lounge evokes a bustling Parisian café.

Choice overnight options, each with lake views, include the boutique Hotel Vermont, featuring Juniper restaurant (and Hen of the Wood’s Burlington outpost next door); Hilton Burlington; and Courtyard Marriott Burlington Harbor. In nearby Essex, upscale The Essex, Vermont’s Culinary Resort & Spa is a long-time VGTA member renowned for its onsite culinary programs.

Culture is served at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. With programming including music, Broadway, theater, and dance performances at the 1,411-seat MainStage, this revival of a magnificent 1930’s “entertainment palace” also includes cabaret space and gallery with rotating exhibits from area artists.

Seven miles south of Burlington lies scenic Shelburne, where gayfriendly Shelburne Vineyard is a beautiful year-round spot for sampling award-winning Vermont wines.

Along with tours of The Vermont Teddy Bear Company, two mustsees are the Shelburne Museum and Shelburne Farms. Exhibited in 39 distinctive buildings on its verdant 45-acre campus that includes 25 relocated historic structures, the former’s 150,000-piece collection ranging from French Impressionist paintings to duck decoys is among the most diverse in the nation.

Biking in Autumn by Songquan Deng

Biking in Autumn by Songquan Deng

Set on 1,400 acres along Lake Champlain, the latter is a historic working farm offering tours, education, and overnight stays at the National Historic Landmark Inn at Shelburne Farms. This summer, the farm was one of eight Vermont agricultural sites hosting the second season of Farm to Ballet, a dance collaborative uniquely weaving together “the timeless arts” of farming and ballet, with some proceeds benefitting area farmers.

Unfolding as I motored south on Route 7, the Champlain Valley, Vermont’s leading agricultural region, is a hypnotic expanse of endless open fields and pastures. After passing through Vergennes, Vermont’s smallest and oldest (1788) chartered city, home of the 1897 Vergennes Opera House and lakeside Basin Harbor Club and Resort‚ and Middlebury, I turned east on Route 4, “the Crossroad of Vermont Byway,” in Rutland.

Side note: Route 4 West leads to Lake Bomoseen and its bordering state park. The largest lake entirely within Vermont’s borders, Bomoseen was once a glamorous resort destination where stars like Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong performed, and most famously, is home to Neshobe Island, summer retreat in the 1920s for Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, and other members of the Algonquin Round Table, or “Vicious Circle.”

Skirting the southern edge of the Green Mountain Forest, Route 4 passes by Pico Mountain and six-peak Killington Mountain, “The Beast of the East,” renowned for its double black-diamond runs. Housed in a renovated 1849 farmhouse, VGTA member Red Clover Inn & Restaurant in nearby Mendon is a stylish spot for gay weddings and escapes.

Route 4 continues east to Woodstock and Quechee Gorge, Vermont’s “Little Grand Canyon,” but here I veered south on Route 100 (briefly concurrent with 4) toward glorious Southeastern Vermont and Windham County.

Also known as “Vermont’s Main Street” and “The Skier’s Highway,” Route 100 connects most of Vermont’s major ski resorts along its 146mile length. Just below Killington is Ludlow, home of Okemo Mountain Resort. Chartered in 1761, this former mill town features a pretty historic district stop on the Green Mountain Railroad scenic tour route, and The Downtown Grocery, where Chef Rogan Lechthaler, from nearby Weston, hand crafts a winning seasonal menu from locally sourced fare.

Also chartered in 1761, Weston is home to the original Vermont Country Store, and Bobo’s Mountain Sugar for wood-fired Vermont maple sugar.

Crossing into Windham, my favorite Vermont county, is always like coming home. Outside of its ski resorts Mount Snow and Stratton, the area has gone largely untouched by tourism development until very recently, giving it pristine country character reminiscent of my upbringing in rural Sussex, England.

In Londonderry (1770), where three-time James Beard semi-finalist Wesley Genovart woos diners at SoLo Farm & Table, I chased Route 11 East to Chester (1754), boarding point for the Green Mountain Railroad and where Jersey Girls Farm Store sells great dairy products and prepared foods.

Fetching, too, is Route 35, which descends into Grafton (1754), home of hand-made Grafton cheese and The Grafton Inn (1801), one of America’s oldest operating inns. Chasing yet another spellbinder, Route 30, I passed through Townshend (1753), where draws include the 277-foot wooden Scott Covered Bridge from 1870, Townshend Dam recreational area, and 22-room Windham Hill Inn, one of Vermont’s three Relais & Chateaux properties.

Rainbow near Stowe, Vermont by Ron Land

Rainbow near Stowe, Vermont by Ron Land

Finally, nearly 200 meandering miles after leaving Waterbury, I rolled into Frog Meadow Farm and was greeted by quite the welcoming committee. Drawn up the driveway by the smell of campfire smoke, I encountered a wood-fired hot tub full of naked men, just as my hosts enveloped me in welcoming hugs. “That’s the ‘aloha spirit’ of Hawaii, inspiration for Frog Meadow,” said owners Scott Heller and Dave King as we settled outside and they shared the story of their frolicsome fraternal retreat.

The couple met over coffee, sort of. In 1991, Heller, a New Yorker who frequented Vermont for weekend skiing and other pursuits, pedaled into Mount Snow (in Dover, near Newfane) while training for a triathlon. Cold and tired, he encountered King, a Newfane native then directing the resort’s Mountain Bike School, and inquired about coffee.

“I was so taken by Dave that I never got the coffee,” said Heller. “We saw each other mostly on weekends over the next five years, until I said enough to the long-distance relationship and moved to Vermont.”

Initially, the home they built, on the site of a 1700’s hilltop dairy farm and apple orchard in Newfane, was their sanctuary and place to entertain friends. Following a life-changing visit to a rural gay-friendly escape in Hawaii, it became their place of transformation. “We swam with dolphins, strolled the black-and nude beach, and had Sacred Intimate massages (originated by the Body Electric School, focused on explorations of body, eros, emotion, and spirit) so powerful that I saw a new future,” related King, who subsequently enrolled in massage school as the couple set to creating their own clothing-optional retreat for men.

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