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Paddlers’ paradise

A little city looks out on what the Abenaki called ‘big waters,’ in a setting as favored by campers, hikers, and others at the water’s edge

By Dirk Van Susteren
Globe Correspondent / August 21, 2011

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NEWPORT, Vt. - It’s 8 on a Saturday night, and plates are clattering as servers deliver big portions of pork and veal chops and dishes featuring the likes of risotto and gnocchi to diners in the three rooms of Lago Trattoria. The chef and owner of the Main Street restaurant, Frank Richardi, is an acrobat in the open kitchen as he shakes a skillet, flames lapping its sides; reaches for a ringing phone; and nods hellos to customers.

It’s busy, but by 9, Lago has seated its last diner. By 10, except for a few patrons at the bar, the place is quiet. So, in fact, is all of Main Street on this night in the height of the summer tourist season.

A few strollers step along the boardwalk on the city’s elegant little waterfront. Some chattering, in French, echoes from a moored sailboat. But mostly, at this hour, in this city of 5,000, on this southern end of Lake Memphremagog, near the Quebec border, things are hushed.

Newport, Vt., is not to be confused with Newport, R.I.

“Yes, Newport is sleepy,’’ confirms Ruth Sproull, owner of Little Gnesta, an inviting bed-and-breakfast in a 19th-century house, a short walk from both Lago and the waterfront. Sproull, a Midwest transplant, moved to Newport last year because she liked the city’s location in the rural and wooded North Country.

“Most visitors I see are in bed early, so they can be on the water or bike trail early,’’ she says. “My guess is no one visits Newport for a night life.’’

Paddlers, sailors, motor boaters, and anglers have many choices here. The area is replete with lakes, ponds, rivers, and fast-moving streams. The prize, though, is Memphremagog. The lake, 30 miles long, 25 of them jutting into Canada, got its name from an Abenaki Indian word suggesting “big waters.’’

Among those visiting Newport are the scores of intrepid paddlers who use segments of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail that runs through the city on its 740-mile-long string of lakes and rivers from the Adirondacks in Old Forge, N.Y., to Fort Kent in Maine.

Those canoeing east, end-to-end along the trail, find in Newport a welcome dose of civilization after a 6-mile portage into Memphremagog. Other paddlers with less time for long trips use the city as a base for day trips.

But what the city really sees is anglers. Thousands of them visit each year to fish Memphremagog and its tributaries for trout, salmon, pike, and bass. In winter the lake is dotted with shanties.

And Newport each July celebrates its lake heritage in still another way: with an “Aquafest,’’ a week of swimming, log-rolling, sailing, and other events.

“This is a big outdoor area, with fishing, hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing, and snowmobiling,’’ says Richardi, whose trattoria addresses the appetites of the sporting crowd. But he also says, laughing: “Here, a traffic jam is 10 cars.’’

Newport has the lake on its marquee, but over the years it has suffered the image of an economic backwater. The area’s jobless rate is often tops in Vermont. Like other cities in New England, Newport decades ago saw the commercial giants of the day, a Grants, a Montgomery Wards, a JCPenney, move out. Today, commercial enthusiasm is tempered by the glare of some empty storefronts on Main Street.

Newport has had a heyday. It was during the first half of the 20th century while the passenger trains from Montreal and Boston were still stopping in town, says Scott Wheeler, local historian. The city once had hotels, tour boats, even an International Club that attracted big bands.

During Prohibition, Newport displayed a rebellious streak: It became an entry point for booze smuggled from Canada, says Wheeler.

“Newport has been a tourist town, but we also were a hard-working, and sometimes a hard-drinking and hard-fighting community, and I don’t mean that in the negative, but that is what we were,’’ he says. “We get lots of colorful stories from our past.’’

With its past in mind, Newport has been working hard on its image.

A private Newport City Renaissance Corporation, formed a few years ago to spruce up the city, has begun pushing for construction, by 2015, of an upscale resort and conference center with stores along the lake. The group recently gave the city a catchy new slogan: “Newport: Genuine by Nature.’’

The city took a significant gentrifying step 15 years ago when it replaced a neighborhood of dilapidated boat houses with its spiffy waterfront, which is now most popular with visitors. It comprises docks, moorings, bike trail, picnic tables, benches, shade trees, gardens, and plaques describing Newport’s history. A building, the community Gateway Center, is home to a cafe, Woof on the Wharf, known for its hot dogs.

A few years after the waterfront was built, Lago, with Italianate trappings, opened for business. It now shares the culinary spotlight with other eateries, each with distinctive flavors. At Big Joe’s, a bar and restaurant, I happily devoured a burger with hot peppers, roasted peppers, sautéed sweet onions, and provolone. Across the street is Baan Thai Cuisine, where the drunken noodles proved a good choice, and then just a few doors down there is the Newport Natural Market and Café, a good place to start a day with a smoothie or muffin and robust coffee.

The market side of Newport Natural is stocked with Vermont wines, local produce, breads, dried fruit, sandwiches, salads, in short, anything for an outing.

So, with a hefty bag of trail mix from Newport Natural, on a Saturday at noon, I began driving down the highway, 12 miles to West Charleston, to a spot on the Clyde River, a Memphremagog tributary, where I met Chris McFarland, owner of Clyde River Recreation. For $10, he trucked me and my canoe farther up river, 6 miles, to a launch site.

The Clyde, like the Nulhegan, a river farther east on the canoe trail, is shallow and tortuous. But while the Nulhegan challenges with sweepers and beaver dams, the Clyde is free-flowing thanks to McFarland’s work with a saw.

The Clyde moves slowly but freely, perfect for solo canoeing or for beginners or a family with children. It has pools for swimming and fishing, and a few small sandy beaches for picnics. With luck, a paddler might glimpse moose, heron, osprey, maybe an eagle, even a bear. For me it was damselflies, alighting on gunwales and paddle, glistening in the sunshine then taking off like some experimental military aircraft.

On this trip, absent a human companion or a chance encounter with any larger fauna, they provided reasonably good company.

My weekend trip to Newport featured two non-canoeing brushes with Canada: a three-hour, round-trip bike ride on a steamy morning along the shoreline trail to the border at Beebe Plain and a visit to nearby Derby Line for a concert.

The bike trail, with lake views, passes under shade streets, behind cottages, through fields and woods. My reward after the sweaty trip was iced tea on a deck at The East Side Restaurant & Pub, a dining landmark of sorts, a sprawling establishment with a bakery and gift shop. Up the lake on a bend, The East Side offers panoramic views of Newport. The twin spires of St. Mary Star of the Sea, a granite church built mostly by French-Canadians a century ago, towers high above the cityscape. Close or afar, it’s a visual gem.

The concert, featuring Banjo Dan & the Mid-Nite Plowboys, a renowned Vermont bluegrass group, was in Derby Line’s Haskell Free Library and Opera House, another 100-year-old structure. It, too, is worth a visit, if only for this reason: the US-Canadian border runs directly through it, marked by tape on the floor. One can sit in Vermont and hear tunes in Quebec. The building’s quirky history was happily recounted between songs by a library aide.

My weekend visit to Newport was capped by a second canoe ride, this one a late-night paddle along the waterfront. With a full orange moon rising, I saw my way along the wharf, then between moored boats and along rocks close to shore. There were sounds, of course, but only an occasional clanking of halyards against mast and some splashing from waves pushed by a warm southern breeze.

On Memphremagog, in such peaceful surroundings, I applauded Newport for its diurnal leanings.

Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at dirkpatrick@aol.com.

If You Go

What to do
Goodrich Memorial Library
202 Main St.
802-334-7902
www.goodrichlibrary.org.
Library museum features photos, art, and memorabilia of the region’s past. Century-old building is on National Register of Historic Places.
Haskell Free Library andOpera House
93 Caswell Ave.
Derby Line, Vt.
802-873-3022
www.haskellopera.org
Musical and theatrical productions in upstairs “opera house’’ of historic building straddling the US-Canadian border.
Clyde River Recreation
West Charleston
and Gardner Memorial Park, Newport
www.clyderiverrecreation.com
802-895-4333
River trips, boat rentals, transportation to launch sites. Boat rentals $6-$10 per hour.
Where to stay
Little Gnesta Bed & Breakfast
115 Prospect St.
802-334-3438
www.littlegnesta.com
Cheerful accommodations in 19th-century home, within walking distance of downtown restaurants and waterfront. Four bedrooms, $85-$135.
Prouty Beach Campground
386 Prouty Drive
802-334-7951
proutybeach@gmail.com
Camping sites (mostly RV), sandy beach, pavilion, pet walk, tennis and basketball courts, access to lakeside bike path to Canada. Most RV sites $34 per day, $191 per week. Tent sites, $28 per day, $159 per week. Open through Oct. 10.
Where to eat
Lago Trattoria
95 Main St.
802-334-8222
www.lagotrattoria.com
Italian meals, including chops, seafood, pizzas; wide selection of wines. Dinner only Mon-Sat; closed Sun. Entrees, $16-$25.
East Side Restaurant & Pub
47 Landing St.
802-334-2340
Dining on decks and inside with great views of the lake, mountains, and city of Newport in the distance. Seasonal, monthly, weekly, and overnight docking opportunities for boaters. Lunch, dinner (evening entrees $12.95-$24.95) daily; breakfast Sat-Sun.