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Summer Vacation Guide: Manchester & Bennington 

You may know Manchester as the land of shop-till-you-drop, but its charms extend beyond the destination outlet mall. Yes, you can do J. Crew and Ralph Lauren, but you can also take in Hildene. The summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln - son of Abraham - is a lovely spot to spend a day. The grounds are glorious; the formal gardens were designed to resemble a stained-glass Gothic cathedral window. In winter, the extensive walking paths are transformed into a network of cross-country ski trails. The place is also popular with birders, picnickers and bridal parties.

Like most places, Manchester's got a wild side. The Battenkill River, which runs through town, is reputed to be one of the great trout rivers in the East. Don't have a boat? Battenkill Canoe, based in nearby Arlington, can outfit you. The place has been in business for years and offers regular trips for all levels of experience. Want fishing instruction with that? Check out the Orvis Fly-Fishing School. Operating out of a facility in Manchester across from the Orvis flagship store, it promises that after two days, "You'll be casting like a seasoned angler."

There's plenty of great hiking in the Manchester area. Merck Forest & Farmland Center in Rupert offers everything from "discovery" trails to a five-mile round-trip hike up and over Mount Antone. The Lye Brook Wilderness, a 14,000-acre preserve south of Manchester, hosts a two-plus-mile trail that leads to the Lye Brook Waterfalls. The Long Trail runs along the spine of the Green Mountains here.

Mount Equinox offers more than good views. At one time, windmills graced the top of the mountain. Now, the only permanent residents are the Carthusian monks, who reside near the top in cloistered silence. No visitors are allowed - we checked. You can drive to the summit, though, on the Mountain Equinox Skyline Drive, the longest privately owned, paved toll road in the country. It costs $12 for car and driver; $2 for each additional adult passenger. If you'd rather walk, the hiking trails are beautiful - and free.

Don't feel like walking or driving to get the big picture? Stratton Mountain runs its gondolas up to the top nearly every day in summer and fall. But be forewarned: Your kids may want to stay below. With a skate park and basketball courts, the resort's The Wreck has their number.

There's nothing like a refreshing swim at the end of a long, sweaty hike - preferably al fresco. Manchester's 75-acre Dana L. Thompson Recreation Area has an outdoor pool, plus tennis and basketball courts, soccer and baseball fields and a dog run. Closer to nature, Hapgood Pond in nearby Peru is sandy with a shallow drop-off, and there's a lovely, clear swimming lake at Emerald Lake State Park on Route 7 in North Dorset.

You'll be hungry after all that activity, which is good, because Manchester has more restaurants per square mile than any other place in the state. It's one of Vermont's tourist-friendliest stretches. Foodie-sanctioned choices range from the very fancy Equinox and West Mountain Inn to the fancy Bistro Henry and Perfect Wife, to an authentic Italian deli that makes its own mozzarella called Al Ducci's Italian Pantry. Good coffee, flaky pastries - Manchester makes it all.

Where there's good food, quality cultural offerings are usually nearby. Summer theater is abundant in the Manchester area, with the Dorset Theatre Festival, Weston Playhouse and Bennington's Old Castle Theatre all competing for thespian attention. All three attract professional actors for the summer season, and the offerings tend to be varied and interesting.

Museums, too, distinguish the "Banana Belt" - as some describe this leafy region of southern Vermont. The Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester is small but well worth visiting. The regional Bennington Museum boasts a good collection of pottery, furniture, and military memorabilia, plus the largest collection of Grandma Moses paintings in the country. Through October, to commemorate the 150th year of her birth, the museum is presenting "Grandma Moses and the 'Primitive' Tradition."

Bennington is known for its artsy college. Its dance department - which graduated choreographers Jose Limon and Martha Graham - no doubt benefits from being so close to Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. But there are plenty of reasons to stay a while in Bennington. In addition to the aforementioned museum, there is the 306-foot Bennington Monument obelisk, which commemorates a battle actually fought in New York, the Robert Frost Stone House Museum - and grave - in South Shaftsbury, Bennington Potters and its retail outlet, plus a cool collection of muscle cars at the Hemmings Motor News gas station.

For all its sophistication, Bennington has a good sense of humor. The annual Southern Vermont Garlic & Herb Festival - appropriately titled "Vermont Stinks!" - is the first weekend of September. The odiferous clove ends up in everything from jelly to ice cream.

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