By Rachel Spensieri
Less than one hour’s drive from the Capital District, Bennington County in southwestern Vermont is revered for its year-round bucolic scenery. It’s an area gently cradled between the Green Mountains and the Taconic Range, punctuated by the clear, cold waters of the Battenkill and Walloomsac rivers that wind their paths from the mountains toward the Hudson.
A popular destination for leafers, foodies, outdoorsmen, and shoppers alike, this breathtaking area has come to be known as “The Shires.” Vermont has long-maintained its use of this old English term for a county seat, but Bennington County holds the unique distinction of having two seats: Manchester (“The Northshire”) and Bennington (“The Southshire”). Connecting the two is historic Route 7A, a scenic drive offering views of the rivers and mountains, as well as quaint towns along the way.
Nestled at the foot of 3,816-foot Mount Equinox, Manchester is a town that truly offers something for everyone!
For the shopaholic, downtown Manchester is known for its factory outlets–including Ann Taylor, Armani, Brooks Brothers, Coach, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, and many more–as well as its local shops and restaurants.
After a day of shopping, you will need sustenance. Though many of the town’s restaurants are housed in its local inns, foodies will delight in the growing number of options in the Manchester vicinity, many of which focus on using local meats, cheeses, and produce. One notable choice is The Silver Fork (thesilverforkvt.com), which features American favorites with a Caribbean flair. Up For Breakfast (look for them on Facebook), with is unusual twists on classic morning fare, is a must to get your day started right. For a quick bite during your shopping excursion, Cilantro Taco (cilantrorestaurantvt.com) uses locally grown ingredients to produce its out-of-this-world Southwestern cuisine.
The history buff will not want to pass up the opportunity to visit Hildene (1005 Hildene Road, Manchester), the 412-acre summer estate of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln. Built in 1905 after Lincoln became the chairman of the Pullman Company, then the largest manufacturing corporation in the country, this gorgeous Georgian Revival-style mansion features lush decor, an agricultural center, formal gardens, and 12 miles of walking trails. Visit www.hildene.org/ or call 802.362.1788 for more information and admission details.
If the arts are your passion, you will find numerous artisans and galleries in the Manchester area, as well as several art and music festivals during the year. Be sure to check out the Southern Vermont Arts Center (www.svac.org), a museum for the visual as well as the performing arts. The center includes galleries for classical and modern art exhibits, a sculpture garden, and a theater for performances; it also offers classes for artists of all ages.
The Manchester Fall Art and Craft Festival (September 30-October 2) is a popular annual show for artisans from around the region. In addition to 200 fine art and craft exhibitors, attendees will also enjoy specialty foods, live music, and children’s activities. Visit craftproducers.com to learn more.
The crown jewel of Manchester may well be The Equinox Resort. Founded in 1853 by Franklin Orvis (brother of Charles Orvis of fly-fishing fame), The Equinox has evolved over its 260-year history from humble tavern and inn to a world-class hotel, spa, and golf course. (www.equinoxresort.com).
Just 25 miles to the south of Manchester down Historic Route 7A, Bennington is revered for its artisans, creative economy, and five institutions of higher learning. But the history geek won’t be left disappointed either!
For the studio art-lover, The Bennington Museum (benningtonmuseum.org) houses an array of classical and modern pieces, but it is best known as home to the largest collection of folk art by Anna Mary Robertson, better known as Grandma Moses. The museum also features an expansive 19th-century Vermont pottery collection, a craft that continues to be practiced by Bennington’s many talented modern-day potters.
The Bennington Center for the Arts (often referred to as simply “The Bennington”; thebennington.org) includes an art center, galleries, and a 300-person theater. Permanent exhibits are comprised largely of paintings, bronzes, pottery, and rugs of and by Native Americans, as well as art featuring animals, but temporary shows run the gamut of style, subject, and medium. From September 23 through November 13, The Bennington will host the American Women Artists 2016 Annual Member Show & National Juried Exhibition, which showcases the work of women in the visual fine arts in North America. Learn more about the show by visiting americanwomenartists.org.
If the language arts are your passion, be sure to visit the Stone House Museum (www.frostfriends.org) just three miles up the road in South Shaftsbury. This building was home to 19th and 20th-century American poet and playwright Robert Frost from 1920 until 1929. It was here that Frost penned “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in June of 1922. Frost, who died in Boston in 1963, is buried at The Old First Church in Bennington.
You won’t find many chain stores in downtown Bennington–just quaint mom n’ pop shops, restaurants, pubs, and cafes, plus a bustling farmers’ market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Beer aficionados will want to be sure to visit the Madison Brewing Company (madisonbrewingco.com), a local favorite that crafts six regular brews plus one seasonal beer. Try its homemade chips, too!
Love garlic? The Southern Vermont Garlic and Herb Festival (www.lovegarlic.com) is held in Bennington each year during Labor Day Weekend. Garlic ice cream, garlic jelly, pickled garlic, roasted garlic, garlic braids, and every variety of garlic bulb will be showcased, along with planting and cooking demonstrations. Don’t forget your mints!
For the historian, Bennington is home to several can’t-miss points of interest. The Park-McCullough House (1 Park Street, Bennington), completed in 1865, is one of New England’s most beautiful and best preserved Victorian mansions. Tours are offered between May and September on Fridays between 10am and 4pm. Visit www.parkmccullough.org or call 802.442.5441 for more information.
The Bennington Battle Monument (15 Monument Circle, Bennington) is a 306-foot obelisk (the tallest structure in the state), commemorating a crucial battle that turned the tide of the American Revolution in favor of the Patriots. Take an elevator to the top observation deck and enjoy scenic views of Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts. Open daily mid-April through October 31 from 9am to 5pm. Visit www.benningtonbattlemonument.com or call 802-447-0550 for additional information and admission details.
You can’t visit The Shires without paying homage to the quintessential Vermont covered bridges, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. Built between 1830 and 1840, The Silk Road Covered Bridge, Paper Mill Village Covered Bridge, and Burt Henry Covered Bridge all cross the Walloomsac River at points near downtown Bennington.
Exploring The Shires
The embodiment of all-things-Vermont, The Shires of Manchester and Bennington are an easy day-trip from the Capital District. Whether you like to take in a museum or soak up the history or you love to explore the outdoors or the stores, this area of southwestern Vermont will have you coming back for more! Visit www.theshiresofvermont.com for a full list of events and attractions in the area.