School's out, and "Day-cations" are in. Every summer, Kids VT seeks out family-friendly destinations where you and your kids can experience the natural beauty and unique culture of the Green Mountain State. They're all places you can visit for a day, though some merit a longer stay.
Each of our three summer issues features two recommended stops, complete with tips on nearby dining, lodging and attractions. In this midsummer issue, our writers and their families explore ships and shore.
Looking for more day trip ideas? Read the rest of our award-winning Day-cations series here.
4472 Basin Harbor Rd., Vergennes, 475-2022, lcmm.org
My family's trip to Lake Champlain Maritime Museum was almost a shipwreck.
First, Vergennes Laundry — a café with strong, delicious coffee at which we had planned to stop en route — was unexpectedly closed. It was a crushing blow that only the sleep-deprived parents of young children could fully understand.
Second, about half an hour into our 40-minute drive from Shelburne, it began to rain. Not a great turn of events when your destination is an open-air museum.
As the rain grew heavier and the kids tried to convince us to go bowling instead, my husband, Jeff, and I debated turning back. But we soldiered on and, thankfully, the sun broke through right after we paid our museum admission and left the visitor's center. We abandoned our raincoats and set out to explore.
The Maritime Museum aims to preserve and share the history of Lake Champlain, a mission it carries out in 17 separate buildings on the museum grounds. Impressive, but way too many stops to visit with Theo, 3, and Mira, 6. A helpful woman in the visitor's center gave us a map and suggested we stick to the first seven sites, as they were the most kid-friendly. Finding the big numbers that marked each building became a scavenger hunt for the kids.
In the Schoolhouse Gallery and Hazelett Watercraft Center, they enjoyed guessing what materials the various canoes, rowing skiffs and kayaks were made from, though they moved through the exhibits too quickly to spend much time reading the detailed placards. They particularly liked the Storm King, a huge ice yacht from 1902; Theo even pretended he had fallen overboard. "I'm sinking," he called from the ground. "Help! Help!"
We found more opportunities for make-believe in two separate outdoor areas.
In a patch of pine trees, we discovered a veritable treasure trove for young kids: painted underwater scenes with holes cut out to stick your head through, and maneuverable cranes and pulleys, which replicated hoisting sails and lifting cargo onto ships. Sitting in an old canoe, Theo and Mira threw ropes overboard while imagining they were on an underwater diving excursion.
They really got their sea legs at the Merritime Playground, which has a two-story play space resembling a ship. It's well worn, but that didn't stop Mira and Theo from playing an in-depth game of "house" while Jeff and I relaxed on a bench.
In the Nautical Archaeology Center, Mira tried on a 1935 dive helmet. A nearby sign cautioned that wearing it may make some people feel claustrophobic, and Mira concurred. "It's pretty hard to breathe in here," she said from inside the heavy metal contraption.
After a short but scenic walk down a wooded path to the lake, we hopped aboard the Philadelphia II, a working replica of a 1776 gunboat that sank in Lake Champlain during the Revolutionary War. Jeff listened intently as the knowledgeable staffer on board talked about the history and features of the boat, but Mira and Theo were more enthralled by the elaborate spider webs on the dock.
By this point, we'd reached the two-hour mark and were ready for a lunch break. We headed to the Red Mill Restaurant, just across the street, for a tasty meal and — to my kids' delight — yet another playground. Then we set sail for home.
Smugglers' Notch Resort, 4323 Route 108, 644-9300, arbortrek.com
Both of my boys love to climb trees. They always take several dozen turns when they find mini zip lines at public playgrounds. So when my family heard about the new ArborTrek Treetop Obstacle Course opening at Smugglers' Notch Resort, we knew we had to go.
Unlike Smuggs' Zip Line Canopy Tours, which are only open to kids 8 and up, the adventure park can accommodate visitors as young as 4 — perfect for us, since my younger son, Wylie, is 7. My husband, Gabe, and I headed to Smuggs with Wylie and his older brother, Kieran, 11, on a gorgeous summer day: sunny and 75 degrees, with a light breeze.
The obstacle course is suspended in the pines, elms and maples in the property's forest. All thrill seekers who attempt it are attached to overhead ropes the entire time — to prevent a fall — so we started our family ropes adventure by weighing in. Staffers need an accurate weight for safety reasons; they don't take anybody at their word.
After signing waivers, we suited up in full-body harnesses and helmets and headed to the training area. There we learned how to clip and unclip our harnesses to the ropes at the exchange zones — wooden platforms between obstacles where two ropes meet.
ArborTrek uses a "smart-belay" system involving two-sided carabiners. In order to release from one rope, you've got to hook into another using a special key; there's one stationed at each exchange zone. It's practically impossible to accidentally unclip yourself from the system while you're on the course.
After 15 minutes of safety training, we took to the treetops.
The course has three distinct levels of difficulty: green, blue and black, ranging from easy to very challenging. Green is the closest to the ground and features eight obstacles, including a rope swing and a sweet zip line ride that goes from 15 feet in the air to the forest floor.
We started at the green level.
Kieran confidently volunteered to lead the pack; Dad followed right behind. Even the experienced staffers were impressed as our older son breezed through a log crossing and walked across a series of wobbly wooden pegs hung by two ropes. The features responded differently to the weight of an adult, though — the wooden pegs swung wildly when Gabe went through. He looked far less graceful as he struggled to keep his footing.
Wylie was unsure of himself at first. "I don't think I can do this one, Mom," he said. "This is really hard for me." With my encouragement, he completed each section by taking his time and holding onto his harness lanyard for stability. By the time he got to the rope swing, he'd gotten the hang of it. "I'm Indiana Jones!" he yelled, before gripping a hanging rope and leaping from the platform.
Each of us soared to solid ground on the final zip line. Kieran and Gabe immediately started onto the more difficult blue and black courses while Wylie and I set out to conquer the green one again.
Minutes later, I heard Kieran yell, "Hey Mom, look up here!" He stood 40 feet in the air on a skinny rope net stretched between two trees about 25 feet apart. I would have been horrified if it weren't for my absolute confidence in the safety equipment — and that great big grin on his face as he walked along the net, arms out wide.
Inspired by his big brother, Wylie wanted to try the higher blue course, too. It went well until we got to a slackline strung 35 feet high with nothing underneath. Our progress slowed; staffers were quick to spot us and offer help.
There aren't many points of exit on the higher courses — you either finish or get hooked into a rappel line and lowered to the ground. Wylie wasn't thrilled with either option, but he ultimately relented and decided to bail. The staff lowered him to the ground on a rope and into Dad's arms.
By the time I made it back to the ground — via a stomach-dropping leap from a 25-foot-high platform — Wylie had regained his confidence and was heading back to the green course for another round.
We'd barely left Smuggs when the kids started to plan our next visit — to try the Zip Line Canopy Tours. Having our feet firmly on the ground made us all braver.
ECHO Camps occupy that powerful place where passion for science and compassion for the earth meet to create an explosively-rich environment of excitement and learning. We insist that science is fun and that kids who love science, nature, and making things are the most awesome kids around. We love kids…(more)