Lake Champlain, situated in the northwest corner of Vermont, and also bordering New York and a bit of Canada, is often referred to as the “sixth Great Lake”, due to its physical size and geographic location close to the other five Great Lakes. The Frenchman Samuel de Champlain was the first European to discover Lake Champlain – in 1609 – so if you visit in 2009 there will be plenty of quad centennial celebrations being held in and around the area.
Several sizeable islands fill the lake, making it a perfect family travel destination for lovers of the outdoors.
The three largest islands in Lake Champlain are Grand Isle, North Hero, and Isle la Motte. The island of North Hero, which contains the town of the same name, is a good place to set up a base of operations for exploring the area. There are two inns in North Hero town. The Shore Acres Inn and Restaurant, which is located directly on Lake Champlain, has a nice restaurant offering fine dining for the evening meal (not included in the price of a stay). The North Hero House Inn, also located on the lake, includes breakfast for two in the room price, and also serves up an excellent dinner, which is extra. Both offer swimming in the summer, and easy access to nearby boat and bicycle rentals.
Another option is to stay in the town of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, at one of the numerous hotels and motels throughout town. Burlington, the home of the University of Vermont, is situated on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, and offers fishing, boat rentals, and lake cruises. The traveler can also find interesting shopping here, and a great deal of restaurants to choose from.
If camping is your preferred mode of stay, there are many well-maintained and scenic state parks in the region. North Hero State Park, the largest state park on the islands and accessible by car, offers a boat launch and hot showers. Burton Island State Park is located on remote Burton Island, and can only be reached by ferry. Once in the park, however, you have access to boat and canoe rentals, as well as running water, hot showers, a park store, and even a restaurant. If you are looking for something more rustic, try Knight Island State Park, which is reachable by ferry (by reservation only) from Burton Island State Park, and which allows only primitive camping. Even more remote is Woods Island State Park, which has just five primitive campsites, and is accessible only by canoe or kayak.
Once you have settled in to your accommodations, you need to start enjoying the natural wonders of the islands and surrounding area. Lake Champlain offers many options for swimming, boating and fishing. The lake has numerous beaches, both public and private. Sand Bar State Park offers a long, sandy beach and shallow, sandy water, which is ideal for young children. Boat rentals are easily found. The North Hero Marina, for example, rents fishing boats with a motor as well as canoes and kayaks. Once you have a boat, you can fish the deeper waters of the lake. Lake Champlain offers a wide variety of fish, from lake trout and salmon, to large- and smallmouth bass, not to mention bluegills and perch for the younger fishermen.
A good way to explore the main islands, which are all connected by roadway, is to rent a bicycle. If you are staying in North Hero, Hero’s Welcome, the town’s general store, rents bicycles. There are many other bike rental agencies to be found in the area. The Champlain islands, unlike mainland Vermont, are relatively flat, so biking is easy for the whole family, and offers splendid views of the lake and island greenery. For families that enjoy hiking, the Island Farm Nature Trail in Burton Island State Park offers an easy hike and a chance to explore this island state park.
In addition to biking, fishing and other outdoor activities, the family will also find excellent museums in the Lake Champlain area. The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, on Basin Harbor Road on the outskirts of the picturesque town of Vergennes, is comprised of numerous buildings that together tell the story of Lake Champlain’s rich history. The main exhibit, entitled “The Key to Liberty”, shows the importance that Lake Champlain played during the Revolutionary War, and helps rehabilitate the reputation of Benedict Arnold, who was a hero of the naval battles fought during this period. The museum also houses a replica of the Revolutionary War gunboat “Philadelphia II”, as well as a fascinating exhibit on the over 200 shipwrecks that sit at the bottom of Lake Champlain.
The town of Shelburne, just south of Burlington, is home to the Shelburne Museum. Spread over 39 different buildings, of which 25 are of historic importance, the museum has an excellent collection of Americana, folk art, quilts, fine art paintings, and much more. The museum’s historic structures, moved from elsewhere to the museum grounds, are grouped in a village setting, and represent classic New England architecture and history. There is a blacksmith shop, a general store and apothecary shop, and even a 220 foot side-wheel steamboat, the “Ticonderoga”, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Also located in Shelburne, Shelburne Farms is a working farm situated on the shores of Lake Champlain. The farm seeks to use ecologically sound agricultural techniques, and teach conservation and sustainable farming concepts to its visitors. Young children will love the Children’s Farmyard, where they can pet various farm animals, as well as milk a cow or collect eggs. Visitors of all ages will enjoy watching the cheese making process in the Farm Barn, where traditional “farmhouse” cheddar is made using all natural ingredients.
Finally, Shelburne offers the Vermont Teddy Bear factory, which gives daily tours and has a gift shop where you can buy the company’s famous stuffed bears.
Whether your family likes wilderness camping with a minimum of comforts, or prefers to spend the summer days sunning at a private beach or lounging on the grounds of a country inn, the Lake Champlain region of Vermont offers all this and more. And all options are surrounded by Vermont’s wonderful natural beauty. Don’t forget to set aside time in the evening to watch the beautiful sunsets over Lake Champlain. With the clear water of the lake and the sky above turning to orange and gold from the setting sun, and the mountains in the background fading to black, you will be hard pressed to want to leave this beautiful state when your vacation is done, after becoming accustomed to such daily beauty.
By Michael Norris
The Shore Acres Inn and Restaurant:
237 Shore Acres Drive, North Hero, VT 05474. Tel: (802) 372-8722
North Hero House Inn and Restaurant:
3643 US Route 2, North Hero, VT 05474. Tel: (802) 372-4732
North Hero State Park:
3803 Lakeview Drive, North Hero, VT 05474 Tel: (802) 372-8727
Burton Island State Park:
P.O. Box 123, St. Albans Bay, VT 05481 Tel: (802) 524-6353
Knight Island State Park:
St. Albans Bay, VT 05481 Telephone at Burtons State Park: (802) 524-6353
Woods Island State Park:
St. Albans Bay, VT 05481 Telephone at Burtons State Park: (802) 524-6353
Sand Bar State Park:
1215 US RT 2, Milton,VT 05468 Tel: (802) 893-2825
North Hero Marina:
2253 Pelots Point Road, North Hero, VT 05474 Tel: (802) 372-5953
Hero’s Welcome General Store:
3537 US Route 2, North Hero, VT 05474 Tel: (802) 372-4161
Lake Champlain Maritime Museum:
4472 Basin Harbor Road, Vergennes VT 05491 Tel: (802) 475-2022
5555 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, VT 05482 Tel: (802) 985-3346
1611 Harbor Road, Shelburne, VT 05482 Tel: (802) 985-8686
Vermont Teddy Bear Factory & Bear Shop:
6655 Shelburne Road, Shelburne VT 05482 Tel: (802) 985-3001