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Vermont a la Vanderbilt

Bucolic Barony Awaits
Photo: Marshall Webb
If you want to leaf peep in New England this season while knocking around the house like a Vanderbilt, there is unfortunately only one way.

Luckily, it works equally well if you go as a couple or with the entire family. Best of all, intrepid correspondent that I am, I sampled -- for the sake of good journalism only, of course -- a weekend both ways.

The Vanderbilt house in question is on the grounds of northern Vermont's Shelburne Farms, a 1,400 acre expanse perched alongside Lake Champlain and, as if one weren't scenic enough, nested between two mountain ranges: the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains.

The estate was started as a summer getaway and experimental farm by the Vanderbilt family in the late 1800s. Dr. William Seward Webb, who made his big money the old fashioned way -- he married it -- used Lila Vanderbilt's riches to build a rambling 25-room mansion. He also started a state-of-the-art farm, which was designed, along with several big-ticket barns and other buildings, to discover, refine and showcase the very best in modern farming methods.

As is sometimes the case when men with grand plans use someone else's money to implement them, it did not take too many years for the property to start running into financial trouble.

By the early 1970s, the Vanderbilt family came up with a plan to transform the estate into an educational farm, and their palatial home eventually became an inn.

That means, to all you wise financial sorts, that at Shelburne Farms, you will effectively be staying in one of the world's most beautiful tax shelters. So enjoy both sides of the beauty -- the tax shelter aspect (Vanderbilt family members still live around the properties' edges) and the natural and manmade beauty of the place itself.

Staying in Style

The inn is the former home, still very much as it was when the Vanderbilts were ambling about, having cocktails on the veranda.

The rooms range from about $135-$400 a night, depending on the size, lake view and the season. Unoccupied rooms are even left open, so you can see for yourself how each room is unique -- and perhaps be enticed into an upgrade the next time you come.

Although the rooms have been adapted a bit, much of the furniture is authentic, and the feel is, too -- which means, among other things, it's cold. The family gave the heating equipment to the nation's World War II effort and it was never replaced.

That also means the inn closes by the end of October; even before then, you don't need a weatherman's to tell you that it can get chilly at night.

Fireplaces are constantly stoked in the common rooms, but you're on your own to find ways to get warm in the bedrooms. Their fireplaces, though ornate and interesting to look at, are not functioning.

As far as the leaves go, you can not do much better.

The grounds have miles of trails that run through woods and fields, overlooking Lake Champlain and both mountain ranges. There are formal gardens, hammocks near the water and plenty of Adirondack chairs, for good measure.

To fortify yourself, the restaurant at the inn won't disappoint.

The outstanding menu is always timed to the seasons, but you can't go wrong staying local -- whether it's a Champlain Valley rabbit or a local lamb. For breakfast, the almond scones are a can't-miss, as are the scrambled eggs, a simple dish that passes into the divine with the sprinkling of the housemade cheddar cheese.

With all this food, beautiful grounds and even a game room complete with pool table, chess and the heads of hunted animals, there's no need to leave the property once you get there.

Don't Be Chicken

Ramble On

But if you do want to explore further, the Shelburne Museum is nearby, as is Middlebury, about a half hour's drive. Although it would be a cliche to call it a picture-perfect college town, tell me if you can come up with better.

Nearby as well, for those looking for an urban setting, Vermont style, is Burlington. It's a larger college town than Middlebury, but equally walkable and enjoyable: envision Manhattan's Washington Square Park's crunchy street scene meets an emerging A-list mall, all with fresh Lake Champlain breezes.

Burlington is a bastion of capitalist-hippie history, from the site of the first Ben & Jerry's store (still good for a cone) to the socialist mayor, Bernie Sanders, who was elected in 1991 and later went on to become the state's only congressional representative.

And a visit to the nearby Vermont Teddy Bear Factory (I was a holder of the stock until it was taken over) is recommended for those with children, who may quickly tire of the quiet rewards of leaf peeping.

Farm Hands

As for those children, though, few will tire of the giant playroom at the inn -- which includes oversized doll houses -- and the very accessible educational farm, where they can collect chicken eggs, milk cows and groom the sheep. There's even the cheese-making operation for them to observe up close.

Say Cheese

From its herd of Brown Swiss cows' milk, the farm produces Shelburne Farms Cheddar, truly a top cheese.

Knock yourself silly with the free samples and buy some of the aged varieties. And keep in mind, the longer it's aged, the sharper it is -- unless you're a seasoned expert, do not pass go and head straight for the three-year-old cheddar.

And save room for the outrageous smoked variety, the process is done by the Monks of New Skate in Cambridge, N.Y. You'll want to get some extra to take back with you.

Though the inn's restaurant does not serve lunch, you can order picnic lunches and eat them out of baskets right on that veranda or in front of one of the roaring fireplaces.

You, knocking around a house like a Vanderbilt, appreciating all the beauty surrounding you and that rare higher form of beauty: a tax shelter well done.



Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children.

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