I squinted at the sunshine. Was there something rising out of the water near the shore?
My eyes found their focus. No, just a half sunken tree.
I was disappointed. There was no sign of “Champ,” the legendary lake creature whose popular depictions make it look like a close relative of the Loch Ness Monster. Stories of a mythical beast living in the lake’s depths stretch back to the indigenous Iroquois and Abenaki, although there have been many sightings in modern times, including by several people who captured their encounters. I had my iPhone ready, but today was not going to be the day I joined their ranks.
It was okay; I didn’t come to the islands for Champ. I came to enjoy nature and enjoy the small town charm. Accessible by driving over a highway from mainland Vermont on the Eastern Shore (just a 30-minute ride from Burlington) or via ferry from New York, the main islands (Grand Isle, North Hero and Isle La Motte) and one peninsula (Alburgh) cover more than 80 square kilometers of mainly agricultural land stretching as far north as the Canadian border. They’re bucolic slices of Vermont’s countryside, flat as a pancake and home to about 7,300 people, according to the 2020 census.
Of course, the lake itself is a big draw. In addition to kayaking, popular activities also include canoeing, sailing, paddle boarding, motor boating and fishing. Publicly accessible beaches differ from shorelines. The best stretches of sand are in Grand Isle State Park, Knight Point State Park and Alburgh Dunes State Park.
But be sure to pull away from the coast to explore the island communities: South Hero and Grand Isle (which share an island), North Hero, Alburgh and Isle La Motte. They all have a similar sensibility – blessedly quiet and charmingly rural – although there are more shops and happenings in South Hero and Grand Isle.
The islands are connected by bridges and walkways, making it easy to get between them. We stayed at a private camp in South Hero, but there are plenty of accommodations, including charming lakefront and countryside rentals, small hotels, and B&Bs.
The area is full of outdoor attractions to discover. One afternoon I made my way to what is known as the Birdhouse Forest in South Hero, the most quixotic piece of public art in the Champlain Islands. The imaginative installation began as a matter of pragmatism, a creative collaboration between two neighbors hoping to lure mosquito-eating swallows to this swampy stretch by building colorful birdhouses. Some 25 years later, approximately 1,000 lodges adorn the trees. In the middle of this whimsical forest you will find several large-scale dinosaur statues, including one Tyrannosaurus rex and a triceratops. There is no explanation for their inclusion, which makes their presence even more magical.
Another memorable expedition was to Isle La Motte’s Goodsell Ridge Fossil Preserve, home to the approximately 460-million-year-old Chazy Fossil Reef. The 85-acre conservation area has well-maintained paths that weave through flower meadows and undergrowth to exposed stretches of rock. Each of these discovery areas is marked with a sign indicating the fossils that can be seen there, as well as some related scientific facts.
Bring a store of patience on the self-guided tour; it can be challenging to spot the samples on wide stretches of rock with lichen, discolored by the elements and encroached by plant life. This detective work is good for little ones, who are naturally closer to the ground and generally have razor sharp vision. I spent about an hour meandering through the preserve looking for remains of the first known species of coral, as well as trilobites and squid, which felt like just the right amount of time.
Near the end of the trip, I woke up early to walk part of the 14-mile Island Line Trail, a mix of gravel and paved paths that stretches from the Allen Point Access Area in South Hero down to Burlington, a route popular with cyclists and pedestrians . The highlight is the 10-foot-wide highway that stretches into Lake Champlain built with blast-hewn marble blocks that look like the remains of ancient Greek monuments. It was originally constructed in the late 19th century by the Rutland Railroad to create a passage across the lake, but trains stopped using it in the 1960s and it was eventually transformed into this trail.
There is a gap of 200 feet in the highway. Fortunately, the Local Motion Bike Ferry offers what may be the shortest ferry ride across to the other side. Peddlers and pedestrians are welcome, and it’s a fun way to get a unique perspective of the highway, as well as the western sweep of the Adirondacks and the majestic Green Mountains to the east. The highway also attracts fishing enthusiasts of all ages, who climb down the rocky sides to cast their lines, as well as birders who enjoy the kaleidoscope of summer species, including swallows, songbirds, herons, ospreys and ducks. As I strolled along, I enjoyed the cheerful soundtrack of birdsong mixed with young anglers excitedly shouting, “I think I’ve got one!”
At the end of my trip, my stomach grumbled at breakfast. I knew where I had to go: Wally’s Place, South Hero’s ever-bustling bagelry-bakery-deli. No matter how early the hour or the length of the queue, all employees are smiling and a paradigm of efficiency. I loved the breakfast sandwiches, especially the Montreal Smoked Meat packed with pastrami-like beef brisket, melted Swiss, a generous slather of grainy mustard and an egg. Lunch sandwiches are just as filling, served on bagels or freshly baked bread.
If you want to go elsewhere for lunch, there are a couple of options. Up in North Hero, general store/gas station/post office/local hangout Hero’s Welcome on the waterfront serves affordable, lovingly made sandwiches. While you wait for your order, browse the extensive gift shop packed with gag gifts, kitchenware, toys, personal care items, books, souvenirs and more. If you don’t leave with at least a few random tchotchkes, you’re vacationing wrong.
Back in South Hero, the Hive Café at Allenholm Farm is a standout. The busy little eatery is justifiably known for its grilled cheeses – including one prepared with a tangy homemade rhubarb sauce – as well as a hearty smash burger and taco. After you’re done, head to the farm market to pick up a cone or cup of maple cremee (essentially syrup-sweetened soft serve), which is even better with a shower of crunchy maple sprinkles on top.
If you’re cooking your own meals, skip the grocery store and stock up on local produce, protein and dairy at the Champlain Islands Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays in South Hero or Saturdays in Grand Isle, or stop at one of the many farm stands that dot the island. (Sandy Bottom Farm on Isle La Motte was my favorite.)
You don’t come to the islands to shop, but there are a few places worth exploring, namely in South Hero. Viva Marketplace is where I headed for carefully selected souvenirs, as well as freshly made cider donuts and vibrant fruit pies in flaky, buttery crusts. I was equally drawn to the solid selection of Champ-related merchandise. When I asked the owner, Heidi Tappan, why there was so much emphasis on these products, she told me that her family saw the famous monster back in 1988. Her father filmed the creature, and later appeared on “Unsolved Mysteries” to discuss the spooky encounter.
I felt an electric tingle run down my spine. I might not have seen the beast myself, but it was exciting to talk to someone who had. Firsthand evidence that it was out there.
I went back to the car with a Champ T-shirt, a gift for my son. As I crunched across the gravel parking lot, I crossed my fingers. Maybe next time I was out on the lake, I’d have better luck.
Martell is a writer based in Silver Spring, Md. Find him at Twitter and Instagram: @nevinmartell.
Shore Acres Inn & Restaurant
237 Shore Acres Dr., North Hero
Located on the coast, the dog-friendly inn offers guests the opportunity to relax, swim, boat, bike, hike, fish and play tennis on 46 acres. Enjoy seasonal cuisine at the restaurant, Lake Champlain Room. Rooms from $150 per night.
260 Route 2, Suite 102, South Hero
An always cheerful staff puts out bagel sandwiches perfect for breakfast or lunch, as well as indulgent pastries, strong coffee and hearty bread. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; closed Monday. Breakfast sandwiches from about $5.
111 South St., South Hero
This quaint farm stand offers a one-of-a-kind rendition of Vermont Maple Creemee, as well as its signature Brain Freeze, which swirls the ice cream into a cup of sweet and tart cider.
111 South St., South Hero
Set up at Allenholm Farm, the food truck with a small, covered seating area that makes grilled cheeses, hamburgers, tacos and other satisfying food on the next level. Open Thursday to Tuesday, 11am to 6pm; closed Wednesday. Dishes from about $4.
The cheerful kitchen team make fantastic sandwiches, which can be complemented with a range of snacks, treats, drinks and coffee. There is also a gift emporium to explore. Deli open daily, 10:30am to 4pm Sandwiches from $6.99.
Island Line Trail, South Hero
Bike or walk the leisurely Island Line Trail to the end of a picturesque highway to pick up this charming ferry that travels across a 200-foot gap to the other side, where you can head to Burlington for a meal or some shopping. The ferry’s daily route up to and including 5 September is at 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. on weekdays and until 18.00 at weekends. Free with a suggested donation of $10 for a tour.
102 W. Shore Rd., South Hero
About 1,000 colorful birdhouses dot the trees, which stand tall alongside several giant dinosaur sculptures that exist without explanation. Across the street from White’s Beach. Open daily, all year round. Free.
Goodsell Ridge Fossil Preserve
69 Pine St., Isle La Motte
Take a self-guided tour to Chazy Fossil Reef, where you can see fossilized corals, trilobites and squid. Open daily, dawn to dusk. Free.
Based in jewelry designer Tish Chamberlain’s pretty New England home, her jam-packed, artfully organized store has something for everyone and every budget. Open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, 10am to 5pm. Call ahead to confirm opening times for Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.
This curated shop sells carved tourist tchotchkes, t-shirts, whimsical housewares, local maple products, homemade cinnamon sugared cider shakes and fresh fruit pies. Open every day, 11am to 6pm
Highlights from this shop that sells works by local artists include Heidi Chamberlain’s folk linoleum cards and Ben Thurber’s pen-and-ink sketches of rural Vermont life. Open daily until October, at 10 a.m. to 4 p.m
Champlain Islands Farmers’ Market
St. Joseph’s Church, Route 2, Grand Isle
St. Rose of Lima Church, Route 2, South Hero
These markets are worth a visit for the abundance of freshly harvested produce, freshly laid eggs, local spirits and homemade food. The weekend is bigger, but both places are worth a visit. Hours vary seasonally; check the website for details. Summer market open in St. Rose of Lima Church until September 14 on Wednesdays at 15.00 to 18.00, and in St. Joseph’s church until 29 October on Saturdays at 10 a.m. to 2 p.m
Prospective travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel advisories by destination and the CDC’s travel health advisory website.