In New England, maple is a staple, not only drizzled over a plate of warm, buttery pancakes, but also as an ingredient in waffles, chicken and waffles, barbecue sauce, bacon, ice cream, even cocktails. If you’re as much a fan of the velvety, sweet, amber nectar of the tree spirits, and you’re planning to travel to the region this spring, you’re in luck: It’s sugaring season.
The classic experience involves a stop at some small, roadside farm in Vermont, hiking through a hillside maple forest where the trees are spiked with small syrup taps draining into small metal buckets, and then wandering back down to a small barn where a farm is stirring up a kettle of the sweet stuff. Undoubtedly, when you leave, your shoes will be a bit muddy (maple-sugar season is simultaneous with "mud season"), and you'll have a couple of bottles of straight-from-the-source syrup to take home.
Today, New England, with its wide swath of sugar maples, produces 20 percent of the world's supply of maple syrup. And all of those trees means there are plenty of places to explore and experience the local sugaring traditions. Here's where to start:
A stop at Old Sturbridge Village, in Sturbridge, Mass., is a step back in time. Each year during sugaring season, the Village celebrates Maple Days during March weekends. Old Sturbridge Village definitely plays the colonial-era card. You'll find costumed historians demonstrating maple-sugaring processes from start to finish, and explaining not only the traditional Native American methods but also the modern tubing systems.
In between the sugaring and cooking demos, there are historic buildings to explore and hands-on, period-style activities to experience. The Village is all about family—kids can check out the 19th-century wardrobes common to New England and even have a chance to dress like a resident from long ago.
The Village has teamed up with some of the local lodging companies to create package trips. Book a family or a couples package to stay at the nearby Old Sturbridge Inn and Reeder Family Lodges and receive two-day admission to the Village, plus a tour of maple sugaring at nearby K.E. Farm. You'll also take home a quart of fresh maple syrup and enjoy a delicious Sunday brunch at the Oliver Wight Tavern. As part of the Winter Weekends promotion, children ages 17 and under will receive free admission when accompanied by a paying adult.
Without a doubt, Vermont is the nation's maple-syrup capital, producing nearly 40 percent of the U.S. supply. The state embraces this sticky fact, and the local farms have jumped on the maple-syrup, agritourism bandwagon. With a wealth of delicious special packages to choose from, a sugaring-season visit to Vermont is a must.
Not all of the packages involve watching a cauldron cook up a traditional syrup batch. Case in point: The elegant Lake Morey Resort and Stowe Mountain Lodge offer maple body scrubs at each location's in-house spa.
But if you'd prefer a more active and traditional trip, getting a behind-the-scenes look at maple-sugar farming and production, Vermont has you covered. Vermont Maple Open House Weekend, March 22-23, features more than 80 local sugar makers who open their doors to the public with opportunities for free tastings and wagon rides for the kids. There's an online guide that will help map your roadtrip to the participating sugarhouses acrsoss the state.
Stay-and-play packages can be found across Vermont. Travelers booking a two-night stay at The Sugar House in the town of Brattleboro—a refurbished sugarhouse just the right size for a romantic couple's getaway—can add a tour of the Scott Farm orchard and its working sugarhouse and take home a half-gallon of fresh maple syrup.
For a warmer-weather visit in late spring, the town of St. Albans is host to the Vermont Maple Festival April 25-27, showcasing crafts and locally made foods, a parade and cooking demonstrations.
Had your fill of syrup and ready for an apertif? Stop by Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge, where you can sample the delectable Maple Creme Liquer, a cream liqueur blending Vermont apple brandy and Vermont maple syrup.
Across the border in New Hampshire, maple sugaring is also in full swing. The Granite State's Maple Sugaring Weekend is also scheduled March 22-23, during the peak of sugaring season. Like its neighboring Vermont, many of the New Hampshire B&Bs and charming rural inns build stay-and-play packages to get you into the sugar experience. At The Rocks Estate, just outside the small town of Bethlehem, N.H., the "Maple Experience" gives guests a chance to watch the estate's sugarmaker Brad Presby at work and learn about each step of the maple-sugaring process—followed by a horse-drawn wagon tour through the estate while a guide shares local history. Tastings and daily cooking demonstrations round out this classic New England trip.
In New Hampshire's White Mountain region, a group of inns and bed-and-breakfasts in the Mount Washington Valley has teamed up to create a maple-sugar and food-tastings tour on March 22. A stay at any of the participating lodges over that weekend includes access to a self-guided driving tour to other involved inns for tastings and demonstrations, plus a recipe book to accompany those tastings. Tickets can also be purchased separately for travelers who lodge elsewhere.