By Andrew Nemethy
The islands of northern Lake Champlain are Vermont’s version of the Bahamas—an emerald archipelago boasting well-protected harbors, stellar fishing, rural landscapes and a laidback vibe. They even have a famous reef, though it’s no risk to mariners; the Chazy Fossil Reef on Isle LaMotte is a reminder of the shallow sea that once covered much of Vermont and New York.
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While a visit to the 27-mile-long Inland Sea is a treat at any time of year, fall is extraordinary—a fireworks display of reds, oranges and yellows set against the distant heights of the Green Mountains and Adirondacks. Better still for boaters, they can have the waters all to themselves.
“Beauty-wise, it’s a spectacular area and kind of a sleeper in terms of development,” says Bruce Batchelder, a longtime boater, fishing guide and lodge owner who has lived in the region most of his life.
The shoreline remains largely pristine, he points out, and the area is popular among sailors because of its deep, clear water and good holding ground. Anglers from hardcore to not-so-serious appreciate the Inland Sea for its world-class bass and pike fishing, while watersports enthusiasts can find plenty of protected spots for tubing, wakeboarding and waterskiing. There’s plenty of water to go around for all comers.
The Inland Sea is bounded by the eastern shore of the islands and the western shore of Vermont. The epicenter of the 3 main islands—South Hero/Grand Isle, North Hero and Isle LaMotte—is the picturesque village of North Hero in City Bay. (North and South Hero were named in honor of Vermont’s revolutionary war heroes, Ira and Ethan Allen.)
Hero’s Welcome, a sprawling, century-old general store, humorously reflects its central status with four wall clocks that show the time for each of the islands. Its docks and picnic tables bustle with boaters and even seaplane pilots who tie up to visit the bakery or deli, which serves salads and a variety of delicious gourmet sandwiches (we recommend the “Laker”). The well-stocked store also sells soda, wine and beer, ice cream, children’s toys, kayaks, water toys, gifts, clothing, souvenirs, kitchen items, candy by the pound and just about anything else you can imagine. There’s a launch ramp across the street, and you can fuel up at the dock. Talk about a boater’s “convenience store.”
City Bay is also home to the elegant, 26-room North Hero House, a historic inn known for its fine dining and cozy pub (try the fish and chips with ale-battered haddock and hand-cut fries). Many locals come here just for the breakfast buffet. The inn also maintains boat slips for its guests and a grassy picnic area on the water.
Another major attraction is the trio of state parks on Knight Island, Woods Island and Burton Island, the latter home to a large, ranger-staffed campground with a swimming beach, hiking trails, snack bar, canoe and rowboat rentals and a 100-slip marina. Knight and Woods islands offer a more rustic camping experience, with wilderness sites and no rangers. While all 3 campgrounds officially close on Labor Day, they continue to draw many daytrippers in the fall.
Boaters looking for a higher level of creature comforts will find them at the Shore Acres Inn, which has 23 rooms on an east-facing bluff overlooking the lake. Guests also have free use of the inn’s fleet of kayaks. The food is good, too, but many locals simply like to tie up along the inn’s long pier in the afternoon to enjoy a cocktail at the bar, a tradition dating back more than 50 years.
Speaking of libations, what group of exotic islands would be complete without a Tiki bar? You’ll find one at the North Hero Marina at Pelot’s Point on Carry Bay. Owner Jim Blandino claims one of the best protected harbors on the lake and a full-service marina that draws mariners from Quebec and the city of Burlington, just 10 miles to the south.
Two other full-service marinas bracket the northern and southern ends of the Inland Sea. Ladd’s Landing (open through September) occupies a protected cove just above the Grand Isle drawbridge and maintains 6 transient slips. New England Powerboat Service (open through October), by the causeway to Alburgh, also has transient slips, along with a snack bar next door. You’ll find overnight accommodations around the corner at West Shore Cabins, whose quaint lodgings include porches and decks that are perfect for taking in the spectacular sunsets.
A bit farther south, on the west-facing Alburg Passage of North Hero, is Batchelder’s Holiday Harbor Lodge, which has downhome lakeside efficiencies, motel units and protected dock space for its boating guests. It’s frequented by avid fishermen, who come from all over the country to fish for Champlain’s salmon, trout, bass and pike.
While no one makes rum on these islands, there’s plenty of wine to keep the crew happy. Snow Farm Vineyard offers tours, music and wine at its tasting room in South Hero.
Fresh local provisions, sparkling waters, friendly folk and protected waters: It all adds up to a boater’s paradise, right here in New England.