Vermont bike tour: swimming holes, antiques and crabs amandine

Bob and Cindy Maynard believe that Vermont is too beautiful to be seen properly from a car window. They also believe their state's high-quality inns, gourmet cuisine, and summer happenings can get short shrift on the standard bicycle tour.

So two years ago they decided to combine their knowledge of the Vermont good life with bicycle tours in which the cycling was only part of the fun. Entering its third season on May 8, Vermong Country Cyclers offers a choice of weekned or five-day tours on which cyclists of all abilities have plenty of time for searching out covered bridges, divin ginto secluded swimming holes, and savoring a chef's special soft-shell crabs amandine at the end of the day.

"We spent a couple of years beforehand searching out what we think are among the best of Vermont's inns, and then we planned our routes around them," says Bob Maynard, who fell in love with the state six years ago and hasn't left since. "We also include our favorite swimming holes and out-of-the-way country stores and villages, places that you don't know about unless you live here."

Curious about the tours but too early in the season to sample one by bicycle, I opted for Mr. Maynard's invitation to ride along a few of the routes in the Country Cyclers' big yellow van, getting a good idea of the sort of inns and scenic attractions along the way. The van, it turns out, is part of the cycle tours anyway, always an option for a tired cyclist to climb into and ride to the top of the hill.

Heading out from Montpelier, we turned onto Route 100B, the kind of wide-shouldered, untrafficked road that makes Vermont cycling particularly safe and enjoyable. As the first leg of a tour based in the village of Waitsfield, it was typical of what was to come: a quiet road following a clear stream and set in the middle of a long valley lying between two majestic mountain ranges.

After pointing out an especially good swimming area in the gurgling Mad River to our right, Mr. Maynard explained that the tours are kept small, usually with no more than seven or eight cyclists riding together. Only about 4 1/2 hours a day are usually spent riding, with cyclists having the option of taking routes covering distances anywhere from 12 to 45 miles.

In the village of Waitsfield we passed a large, white clapboard building with leaded windows called Longfellow Hall, the delightful shelter for plays, crafts, and antique shops. "That's just one reason we include play tickets and lots of time for browsing for antiques and crafts," Mr. Maynard said. "The van comes in very handy for carrying whatever the cyclists stop and buy. The only thing we couldn't handle happened last year when a woman found a grand piano at a bargain price. She had to rent a truck."

After passing an 1833 covered bridge and a few more tempting antique shops, we took a sharp turn up a hill to the secluded setting of Tucker Hill Lodge. The blue clapboard inn with its pine paneling and rooms with flowered wallpaper and puffy quits looked to be just the thing for after a day on the road. Like all of the inns on the tours, this one is equipped with a swimming pool and tennis courts.

While based at Tucker Hill cyclists get on the road by 9 a.m. or so for a tour of the surrounding Sugarbush Valley, arriving back at the inn about 3. What they see are rolling, green meadows dotted with the kind of small farms that agribusiness hasn't yet been able to touch. One such along the way has the landmark Joshlin Round Barn, a huge, white cupolaed structure that is one of only three round barns left in the state.

Other delights on the route include a small red cottage with an array of metal sculpture standing in the front yard. "We always stop and see what the sculptor is making," Mr. Maynard explained as we drove by. "Now he even makes some in the shape of bicycles just for us." Around a few bends in the road from there is the Applewood Equestrian Farm, where cyclists last summer were able to stop and watch the US Olympic team put its horses through their paces.

The best part of this excursion comes midway at the tiny, picture-book village of Warren, mainly consisting of a few gingerbread cottages and one of the best country stores in New England. For lunch, cyclists invariably stop here at the Warren Provisions Store for freshly baked French bread, pastries, cheeses, and fruit temptingly heaped in open baskets. As the store is perched right next to a waterfall, a good picnic spot is not far away.

After completing a loop back into Waitsfield, cyclists can soak in the hot tubs at the Waterworks Hot Tub Spa, relax at the inn, or take in a polo match, a sport undergoing a big revival in this part of central Vermont.

But Waitsfield is only one of the choices that cyclists have for a weekend tour or as part of the five-day breakaway tour. Others include touring the countryside in and around Stowe and Craftsbury to the north.

Heading up a cycle route into Stowe, we were treated to the spectacular view of the Green Mountains on our left and the Worcester Mountains on our right. In Waterbury Center we came to a popular stop: Cold Hollow Cider Mill, where cyclists can be refreshed by cider poured right out of a wooden barrel.

Although best known as a ski area, Stose is less crowded and just as filled with things to do during the off-season. While based here, cyclists stay at Ten Acres, an early 19th-century inn with three candlelit dining rooms and plenty of cozy nooks for curling up with a good book. Often the Stowe tours include play tickets to see one of the theater groups that perform in the village during most of the summer.

From Stowe, cyclists on a five-day tour follow the Lamoille River up to Craftsbury, making an important stop at the Morristown Corner Store, where Cecile Valcour turns out thick and soft hand-knit sweaters. Craftsbury quite charmingly consists of little more than its wide, green common and lovely inn, which is aptly called the Inn on the Common. The gourmet dinners here are served at long tables that can often accommodate the entire cycling group as well as innkeepers Michael and Penny Schmidt.

This year the Maynards are offering their tours from May 8 until Oct. 18, with weekend tours costing $130 and five-day tours $310. Cyclists can bring their own bikes or rent them from the Maynards for $25 a weekend or $50 for five days. Those who arrive by airplane, bus, or train will be met at their stop or terminal and provided with free rental of a 12-speed bike for the length of the tour. More information is available from Vermont Country Cyclers, Box 148, Waterbury Center Vt. 05677, (802) 244-5215.

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