I spent some of my childhood summers in a rustic cottage on Vermont’s Lake Champlain, skipping rocks, canoeing, sitting on the terrace to have dinners made from whatever ingredients my parents could pick up at Willie’s general store nearby. At night, my twin and I used to take flashlights to look for crayfish along the shallow shore, leaning over the water from a weathered dock — a dock that infamously collapsed with most of my family on it.
With the rugged Green Mountains in the distance and the calm waters, it was idyllic and a great escape from the noise of city life (we lived in Chicago).
Vermont is always charming; it’s slow-paced, beautiful, and all-around delightful. But in the fall, it’s truly a world-class destination.
I’ve travelled to 65 countries, and I rarely recommend a U.S. destination because I feel there’s usually a more charming or historic European version. But for a few months of the year — with the combination of colourful leaves, Civil War-era architecture, and 5-star accommodation — Vermont is a destination worth visiting from anywhere.
Visiting Vermont for the first time in the fall, I drove along its winding mountain roads, across covered bridges, and past sleepy villages, all blanketed in golden and ruby hues. The majesty of it all far surpassed my quaint childhood memories. It was Vermont 2.0.
My destination was Manchester, in southern Vermont. I pulled up to The Equinox Resort; its stately Greek-revival architecture makes it the centrepiece of the town’s main road. As I emerged from the car, the air was crisp and filled with thtee scent of leaves and distant wood fires.
The Equinox preserves the local historic charm, with its bright white wood façade, evergreen-hued shutters, and rocking chairs on the porch. It’s as luxurious as any five-star offering, with a veranda overlooking a perfectly manicured golf course, a light and airy indoor pool and spa area, and facilities in multiple buildings that give the spacious property the feeling of a prestigious university campus.
After getting settled, I sat down in one of the porch’s rocking chairs, with a medium-bodied cabernet, to watch the comings and goings on the few blocks of city life in front of the hotel.
The local pride is palpable — many locals were eager to share their stories with me about Manchester and The Equinox. While I sipped my red and rocked, one of the hotel’s staff members, Jillian Vullo, told me The Equinox’s most famous tale.
Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, visited The Equinox and was so taken with it that she had a lavish suite built for her and her family to vacation there. But the president was assassinated just a few weeks before he was supposed to arrive.
Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd, loved the area, too, and built his summer home just down the road from The Equinox in 1905. His descendents inhabited this Georgian revival masterpiece, named Hildene, until 1975.
The connection to the past is strong at The Equinox, and it was fitting that I partook in an ancient activity there — falconry.
Me and Moet, learning to fly
Falconry is the art of hunting with a bird of prey. It is thought to have emerged from China some 2,000 years ago, and it has changed little since then. In Europe, it has historically been an aristocratic pastime, and it remains fairly exclusive today because it is highly regulated. One may only own a bird of prey after completing a multi-year apprenticeship.
It’s rare for a lay person to have the chance to try it out, so I jumped at the opportunity to spend a day under the tutelage of a master falconer.
I met up with Rob Waite at the Green Mountain Falconry School. He has been teaching for over 30 years. Upon entering his barn, I saw birds on perches in individual stalls, each with a chalkboard behind it listing its “flying weight” and “today’s weight.” It’s best to hunt with a hungry bird, so when the stomach is relatively empty — signalled by a lighter overall weight or “flying weight” — that bird is considered ready to fly.
I put on the substantial leather glove, and before I knew it, I was looking into the deep brown eyes of Moet, my Harris’s hawk for the day (not only falcons, but also hawks and eagles are used in falconry). Moet sat barely over a pound on my forearm. She had charcoal feathers with cinnamon highlights and strikingly bright yellow rims around her eyes.
I put her jesses (leather straps affixed to her ankle) under my thumb, and we took her outside. Waite showed me how to launch Moet into flight and how to call her back. The trick to calling her back was a piece of raw steak on my glove. She had gone so far afield I almost lost sight of her, so I was amazed she managed to spot the treat and swoop right back.
After Moet and I became more comfortable with each other, it was time to take her on a traditional hunt, using simulated prey in the form of faux pheasants and rodents that had been placed along the way to emulate a hawk’s typical catch.
I walked along the edge of the woods while she flew above the treetops beside me. Waite said, “The chance to be around such beautiful creatures and to witness up close how they behave and hunt as if wild — I still feel amazed and as though I’m watching a painstakingly filmed documentary as the hawks follow us through the woods.”
Moet swooped down from the treeline to the simulated prey with precision, giving me a glimpse of her hunting prowess.
Fine dining with history
When my lesson concluded, I decided it was time for my reward too. Since I like my steak cooked a few minutes longer than the bits I offered my hawk, I headed to the Chop House at The Equinox.
I enjoyed a perfectly executed filet mignon and an exquisite tuna tartare atop avocado mousse. I sat near the original Orvis stone hearth, where the Green Mountain Boys — a militia of Vermonters that formed before the Revolutionary War — used to gather in the days leading up to the Civil War.
That night, I strolled through the grounds, with the stars out in multitudes, one of the great advantages of an escape from city life. Sinking into my luxurious bed, with its pile of white pillows and gazillion-threadcount sheets, I listened to the silence.