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With apologies to John Denver, ‘Almost Heaven’ is Lake Champlain

A Summer to Remember

With apologies to John Denver, ‘Almost Heaven’ is Lake Champlain

Tucked away between the Adirondack Mountains and Green Mountains is paradise on glimmering shores
With apologies to John Denver, ‘Almost Heaven’ is Lake Champlain
In the distance, Tyler McNeil stares at the ruins of Fort Crown Point during a 2013 vacation.
Photographer: Photo provided

Tucked away between the Adirondack Mountains and Green Mountains is paradise on glimmering shores that feels beyond the Northeast I’ve always known.

In early 2013, my parents rented a small cabin for August on Lake Champlain in Essex County. After mostly vacationing on Maine’s southeast coast and Cape Cod with my family for nearly 15 years, it was a break from tradition. It proved that my family was missing something wonderful closer to home.

Lake Champlain is roughly a two-hour drive from Albany. While there, it’s close enough for an effortless day trip to the Adirondacks and Green Mountains, yet far enough to feel disconnected from the concrete jungle.

History awaits

I stayed in Crown Point. Because the weather was divine, several mornings I would wake up to neon orange mountain edges and glimmering waves underneath the Lake Champlain Bridge, an architectural marvel. The double arch-shaped 2,200-foot bridge, built in 2011, connects Crown Point to Chimney Point, Vermont.

There’s also a bridge to history. Tough to miss, ruins of the once mighty Fort Crown Point are scattered off Route 185. The French built the fort in the 1730s. It was eventually captured by the British in 1759 during the French & Indian War. Visitors can walk freely through mounds of stone-based remains.

Across from the fort is a lighthouse, which dates to 1858 and was deactivated in the late 1920s. My legs felt deactivated after walking up nearly 60 steps to the top.

Creemees

I have a problem: I can’t consume ice cream the same way again. It started on a day trip through Vermont. Outside the car window, I noticed a strange word referenced on signage aplenty. “Creemee,” it read. 

After a barrage of hounding, I convinced my parents to stop by a creemee stand in Addison, Vermont.

Upon the first lick of my maple creemee, I had questions. Researching the soft-serve delicacy later that evening, I learned that a creemee is niche to Vermont and parts of New York state’s North County. With a high fat content, the soft-serve treat is not a diet favorite.

Would I go out to Vermont just to wrap my paws around a maple creemee? No comment.

Island adventure

Lake Champlain is 120 miles long and 12 miles across at its widest point. Inside the glacier-formed body are the Pastoral Isles, a string of marshy islands rich in beauty. Anytime I go for a road trip through the towns of North Hero, Grand Isle and South Hero, it’s like I’m Doctor Who showing my new companion a pristine universal secret: blue peaks and glistening water on both sides, as well as cozy New England homes surrounded by nature barely disturbed.

For years, I’ve been insistent on stopping back at McKee’s Island Pub & Pizza for some grub. While I refuse to consume pizza outside New York state after several unfortunate happenings, McKee’s holds up as a wing master. Out of 51 different flavors, I’ve munched up the “VT Maple Nectar” wing with much blasphemous delight.

Check it out at 513 Route 2, South Hero, Vt., or visit www.mckeespubsvt.com.

More from A Summer to Remember: 2020 Big Edition

Like a ‘Vergennes’

Some of my best car rides have included no planned destination in mind. My family, hungry and interested in local fare, decided to stop by a small town north of Addison, Vermont. I don’t remember where we ate because my mind was captivated by the scene. 

We weren’t expecting to walk around for nearly an hour after we ate, looking through rustic storefronts and gazing at Otter Creek, which runs through the middle of the city like New England-meets-Venice.

Vergennes, the smallest of Vermont’s nine cities, is a cozy home-away-from-home chock full of art, taste and charm. Whether catching an event at the opera house once the COVID-19 outbreak is over, gawking at the stained-glass Bixby Memorial Free Library dome, or having a picnic near the creek’s scenic falls, it’s worth a visit.

Ausable Chasm

I discovered the Ausable Chasm with my family during a four-day trip to Alexandria Bay in 2003. No ordinary tourist attraction, it’s not called the “Grand Canyon of the Adirondacks” for nothing.

I was a child at the time. It was at a point in my life that everything looked massive. However, at the Ausable Chasm, my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Picture this: a two-mile-long gorge; 500- year-old sandstone walls ranging from 40 to 100 feet; waterfalls and rapids aplenty.

Whitewater rafting through the treacherous chasm was like a clip out of an Indiana Jones film. I remember barreling through rumbling waters with my brother and father while my mother watched from above in terror. That’s my ideal family experience.

Check it out here at 2144 U.S. Route 9, Ausable Chasm, NY, or visit www.ausablechasm.com.

Biking? I’m up for that

One of my deepest regrets — probably deeper than necessary — was experiencing Lake Champlain without pedals. The international Lake Champlain Bikeway encompasses the entire body via paved and unpaved paths.

I discovered the bikeway years after my first trip to Crown Point. At the time, my mother was unlikely to grant me permission to follow a more than 350-mile loop around the lake. Perhaps, at 25 years old, I’ll ask her kindly.

If that day comes, I will bring my enhanced driver’s license. Part of the bikeway goes through Quebec.

 

Can such journeys be replicated?

While COVID-19 has made vacation hubs harder to access, with hotels, restaurants and other attractions closed, it concurrently opened new opportunities to explore Lake Champlain through different means. I’ve done it before.

About three years back, I looped through Burlington, the Pastoral Isles, Plattsburgh and the Adirondacks with my fiancée. While we entered a few stores in Burlington, most of the adventure came from each other’s energy in the car or on the street, not at shops or eateries. Screaming in the car to kitschy music, poking fun at each other and absorbing nature’s beauty can stil be enjoyed during a pandemic.

More from A Summer to Remember: 2020 Big Edition

After spotting the perfect backdrop of snow-covered slopes and ice under a bright blue sky, I asked her to pull over for a picture while passing through a narrow chunk of land in North Hero, Vermont. With the temperature below zero, we were both freezing outside the car.

When I remember that moment, I only feel warmth.

Those are the memories Lake Champlain makes year-round — with or without COVID-19 restrictions.

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