White River Junction
Across the river from Hanover and Dartmouth, turn-of-the-20th-century White River Junction (pop. 2,286) used to echo with the sounds of some 50 trains a day traveling over five separate rail lines. The demise of the railroads and the arrival of the interstate cloverleaf on the outskirts of town effectively mothballed the downtown area, but like good vintage clothing, the photogenic historic center has been rediscovered by an art-smart crowd that doesn’t mind the holes and missing buttons.
Freight trains still rumble through White River Junction a few times a day (and night!), and Amtrak stops here on its main Vermonter route. Apart from the trains, the main signs of life here are at breakfast and lunch. The classic 1940s Tip Top Café has found new life as the stylish Thyme (85 N. Main St., 802/295-3312, Tues.-Sat.), serving delicious soups, sandwiches, and an ever-changing menu.
If you’re looking for lodging with more character than the chain motels along the interstates, consider downtown’s Hotel Coolidge (39 S. Main St., 802/295-3118 or 800/622-1124, $99 and up). In business since the 1920s, it has a nice café next to the lobby. It is clean, friendly, and definitely a good value. The hotel also offers bare-bones HI-hostel rooms (around $55 and up per person).
In three miles west from White River Junction and the I-91/I-89 freeways, US-4 climbs upstream into the valley of the Ottauquechee (AWT-ah-KWEE-chee) River. You cross Quechee Gorge almost without warning, but adjacent parking on both sides of the gorge gives you a chance to take a longer look at the dramatic little canyon or to stretch your legs along the rim-side hiking trails.
On the east side of the gorge, Quechee State Park (802/295-2990) provides access to the Ottauquechee River and also has camping with hot showers. Next to the park is the nature center of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (802/359-5000, daily, $16.50 adults), an outdoor education and animal rehabilitation center dedicated to local wildlife, especially raptors. Enclosures let you get up close and personal with hawks, eagles, owls, and falcons.
West of the gorge, you can turn north off US-4 into old Quechee, a quaint town famed as the home of renowned glassblower Simon Pearce’s woolen mill-cum-art gallery. Norman Rockwell-esque Quechee is a fine example of how pleasant life can be once you turn away from the fast lane. Soak up the ambience with a stay (or just a memorable meal) at the Quechee Inn (1119 Quechee Main St., 802/295-3133, $120 and up), a half mile from town.