This is one in a series of New England winter travel articles.
WOODSTOCK, Vt. — When several of my friends were alerted that Woodstock, Vt. has an annual tradition, the "Wassail Weekend," most scratched their heads, and said, "What’s wassailing?" Understandable. In fact, I hardly knew what wassailing was myself, so I went to find out.
Woodstock is an adorable town about an hour shy of the capital, Montpelier, and about a four-hour drive from New York City. The drive itself was beautiful. As you head into the mountains, the scenery is forest and field, with the integrity of farmland and early-settler-village-styled towns very much intact. Woodstock lays in a valley, surrounded by ski country, dairy farms, and still has addresses on “The Green” — a circular park which the town’s roads wrap around. It was here that the "Wassail Parade" was to commence.
For my parade weekend stomping grounds, I chose the Woodstock Inn and Resort, which was founded by Laurance S. Rockefeller, grandson of John D. Rockefeller. As we all know, those Rockefellers were smart, forward-thinking men, and Laurance was no different. Herenovated the Inn in the early 1960s, envisioning a property that could bring sustainability to the area, not just a singular facility in the town. His family had owned property and farmland in the town for decades, and he converted the Billings Farm into a museum, and preserved 550 more acres of land to ensure that Woodstock would remain as it always had. Because of his efforts, Laurance received a Congressional Gold Medal, the first ever awarded for conservation and historic preservation. His focus is still apparent in the Woodstock Inn today; the proceeds from the Inn and the still-working Billings dairy farm go to the Woodstock Foundation in order to continue conservation efforts.
There is a purposeful connection to history, nature and tradition at the Inn and this consciousness is carried well by the courteous staff. The d©cor is rustic, but modern, with clean lines and a soft color palette, which is a nice atmosphere after spending the day out in winter’s playground. Upon entering the reception area, a grand 10-foot hearth with roaring fire warms the toes, while in the library next door, cookies, hot cider and coffee are offered to warm the soul. The extremely family-friendly facility offers Wii games, and a variety of off-site activities. The Inn boasts its own golf course, ski slope, recreation facility and a new spa, which is set to open late summer of 2010. The Inn also incorporates on-site award-winning restaurants, The Red Rooster and Richardson’s Tavern. The former carries a large variety of native foods, artisanal breads, cheeses, wines and the latter offers lighter fare and live music on the weekends in a casual-overstuffed-chair environment.
The Billings Farm and Museum is a delightful visit, offering an educational center and tours of the dairy farm, where guests can view the nursery and adorable baby Jersey calves and the remarkable farmhouse, built in 1890. Again, as with the Inn, proceeds are funneled back into the Woodstock Foundation, so as to guarantee future generations can experience the joy of generations past.
Across the street from the farm is where the Rockefeller Mansion sits, in what is now the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, and is run by the Parks Dept. I had a chance to tour this amazing home, consisting of 4 floors, 10 bedrooms, and a fallout shelter in the basement. This was included as part of a Home Tour offered in celebration of Wassail Weekend. This was the first time the home was included on the tour, and although most of the mansion was closed to visitors, the peak into the life of the Rockefellers was inspiring. Another neat home on the tour was the DAR Mansion, on The Green near the Woodstock Inn, which originally housed Vermont’s traveling legislature, and is currently up for sale for just under $1.1 million. Homes on The Green pride themselves on having the title of "Woodstock’s most beautiful addresses,” in what has been coined as "the prettiest small town in America.”
The Wassail Parade is the main attraction during Wassail Weekend. Asking locals what their take on Wassailing was, the bulk of the answers consist of "spreading merriment and drinking grog” (Grog is any warm libation, aiding of course in the distribution of seasonal cheer.). The temps in Woodstock during this past Wassail Weekend were as low as 4’F at night, with light flurries and rose only to the 20s in the day. The he parade is an amazing spectacle of horsemanship, with the owners dressing themselves and their horses in holiday wears, some antique or antique-replicas. Carriages, imported horses from Ireland, and the man who follows behind on rollerblades scoopin’ the poop complete the lineup for the parade.
The Wassail Parade isn’t the only activity for Wassail Weekend, but is certainly the highlight. Aside from visiting the farm, the homes, the Vienna Boys Choir sang a concert at the Town Hall, which also serves as the town’s movie theatre. Many of the local farmers joined in The Green for a bake sale, offering chili, pies and all sorts of Christmas treats. Ice skating was offered at the local rink, and a bonfire and luminary lighting followed the parade.
Woodstock is a charming dip into American history, and a shining example of preservation of American culture and tradition, made available through forethought towards a sustainability and conservation of the area’s natural resources. So get up off the couch, and head to Vermont. Dive into hot cider, red wine and local foods to comfort the nip from Jack Frost.
Additional photos: Candace Nirvana, CNirvana.com