Vermont is world famous for its fall foliage colors, aka “Mother Nature’s Fireworks Show,” and justifiably so. There are some other great places to see fall foliage, but no place outside northern New England that has the perfect mix of all the features needed to make it the very best: leaves in every available shade and variety of color change, from yellow to gold to orange to red to purple, with just the right amount of evergreens needed for contrast and the sharp elevation changes that create visual relief and a sense of depth. Add in the quintessential white steepled churches, red covered bridges, quaint town greens and pastoral farms and you have quite the tourist experience – one that people annually travel thousands of miles to see.
But what is far less well known as a reason to travel to Vermont is golf, and the state does not have any Top 100 courses or former Major venues, or even a PGA, LPGA or Champions Tour stop (not even LIV). So, I understand why Vermont flies under the radar of travel golfers, but it should not. There are several standout resorts with notable golf courses, and this can be combined in summertime with all the things that make visiting Vermont great, including the craft beer and artisan cheese scenes, both among the very best on earth. But the golf courses are at their peak in fall, and there are few places better to see the foliage show from, as most are surrounded by colorful pristine mountainsides, and you don’t have to battle the foliage auto traffic. To get this added bonus on top of a sport you already love is an extra special treat.
As someone who lives in Vermont but golfs all over the world, I have to note that this has been a very difficult year, with climate change bringing extreme and catastrophic rain events, one after another, that have resulted in destructive flooding across the state, so bad that it made headlines all around the world, and caused me to get emails and texts from people as far away as Tokyo asking if everything was okay. For many in the state, things are not okay, but what exacerbates the actual damage caused by the storms is travelers cancelling or postponing trips due to incorrect perceptions about what they are going to find when they arrive. This just further hurts the local economy and residents.
What travelers will find right now, and going through the end of summer and peak fall foliage season, is that the top Vermont golf resorts are open for business as usual, and in some cases, are better than ever.
I have recently been checking this out in person and am happy to report that the resorts I would normally recommend most anyway are all in good shape. The alternating unusually hot weather and tremendous rains have made things difficult in many regards, but it has been an exceptional summer for growing grass, and the fairways and greens are in the best shape I’ve seen in years. Some courses were badly damaged, and there is a private club near me with two eighteens, one of which is now closed for the rest of the year, while the other has nine holes closed. That’s a big loss, and other courses got damaged as well, but the state’s top three destination golf resorts escaped the brunt of it.
Skiing is the backbone of Vermont’s outdoor recreation economy, and not surprisingly, most of the major ski resorts have golf courses. Unfortunately, ski resort golf courses are often subpar, built across slopes that would never have been chosen as sites had not the resorts needed summer business, with quirky off kilter holes. I’ve played just about all of the top ski resort golf courses, and the best – by a big margin – is the one at Jay Peak. It is not on the mountain itself, and while it has notable elevation changes, they are from tee to green not left to right, and the design, by acclaimed Canadian architect Graham Cooke, is a real deal golf course that would be a fun and solid choice anywhere. There are four sets of tees, it stretches all the way to 6908-yards, and plays longer, keeping it challenging for even the very best golfers. It also has no real estate, and there are only two holes where you see buildings, and no holes where you see other holes. This gives it a much more wilderness, set in nature aesthetic, but also a bit of a private club feel, because no matter how busy it gets you feel a sense of having a private course to yourself. There are also some great views of the ski trails and the resort’s iconic tram – the only one in Vermont – which runs for sightseeing in the summer.
The Jay Peak golf facility also offers a full range of instruction and clinics, plus custom clubfitting with a Master Club Fitter and builder on staff.
Many consider Jay Peak the state’s best ski resort, and it certainly gets by far the most snow, in part because it’s located further north, close to the Canadian border. It takes a little more effort to get here, but that’s much easier in summer and fall, when you don’t have to worry about snow tires. The resort is self-contained with a lot to offer, including the largest – again by far – indoor waterpark in Vermont, a huge hit with kids and an addition that makes it a great choice for golf trips with the family. There’s a full NHL sized indoor hockey rink, another amenity you won’t find at other ski resorts. Ther are three hotels, two of them within steps of the golf shop, plus cottages and condos. There are several restaurants, from casual family fare to gourmet, the tram runs in the summer, and there is an ongoing slate of concerts and events. All of this is centrally located, and it would be possible to have great weekend stay here without ever getting in your car.
Given the quality of the course, the prices are almost too-good-to-be-true, with “rack rate” 18-hole greens fees $69 on weekdays and $89 on weekends, with discounts for early and twilight play – like $69 with cart for 18 on weekend mornings before 8AM, tee times that are the most desirable at many other places. I’ve paid two to three times as much for courses that are not nearly as good. But there are even steeper discounts if you book a stay and play golf package – remember that summer and even fall foliage is off-season at a ski resort with nearly a thousand beds to fill.
Jay Peak is not just the best of Vermont’s ski resort golf courses, I’d say it’s the best of the golf resort courses period, but there are a couple of other great options to consider or to combine into a road trip.
The Woodstock Inn & Resort has an unbeatable location smack in the middle of one of the state’s premier tourist towns, Woodstock. That puts it steps from galleries, bars, restaurants, shops and the state’s only National Park unit, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park. It is very much a full-service resort, with a large sports and fitness club including tennis and croquet, a large spa, multiple restaurants and even its own alpine ski resort a few miles away, which has an extensive mountain biking park in summer. There is also an extensive network of free mountain biking and hiking trails in the woods immediately next to and above the golf course, another great amenity for Inn guests.
The Woodstock Inn has the oldest public golf course in Vermont, opened as a 9-holer in 1896. It was then moved to its current location where a new course was built in 1906. It was redesigned and rebuilt as eighteen in 1923, and then in 1961, resort owner Laurance Rockefeller brought in the leading designer of the era, Robert Trent Jones, Sr. to do yet another remake, the current layout. The Inn was part of Rockefeller’s RockResorts brand, and he used Jones Sr., for his courses, including Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and Puerto Rico’s Dorado Beach. Rockefeller had personal ties to the town, so when he sold the other RockResorts, he put the Woodstock Inn in a non-profit trust, which continues to run it to this day, a unique lodging situation. Prior to this season, the course got a mini-renovation, with some tree removal and the reinstallation of long vanished bunkers on the 4th and 6th holes, bringing the course back to the way Jones intended it to be played. It has excellent fall foliage viewing, with no homes or buildings, and is surrounded by the lush Kedron Valley with views of Mount Peg, a town park with even more hiking trails.
As a result of the renovations, the Woodstock Inn golf course is better than ever. It’s a full eighteen but its flattish site and compact size, with no real estate and short green to tee distances associated with the pre-golf cart era, make it a great walking course (they do have carts), which is a fantastic way to take in the foliage.
The state’s other standout would be the Equinox Resort in Manchester, in the southwest corner of the state near the New York and Massachusetts borders. The Equinox is a grand hotel that was once owned by Guinness Brewing and was made into the sister resort to Scotland’s famed Gleneagles, also owned by the beer company at the time. This is how some of the unusual amenities like an off-road driving school and falconry ended up here. Manchester is also home to Orvis, the world-famous sporting goods and fly-fishing company, and America’s oldest mail order retailer. The Orvis flagship store near the Equinox is a must-visit, but it also adds extensive fly-fishing schools and outings as recreational options. This is another lovely full-service resort with multiple restaurants, bars and a full spa, and Manchester is a wonderful village to visit, with many good eateries and the best shopping in the state.
The Equinox golf course is a 1927 classic by famed designer Walter Travis (Sea Island, Westchester Country Club, Garden City) that was renovated by “U.S. Open Doctor” Rees Jones. I’d put it as the second-best resort course in the state after Jay, and the surrounding mountains make it an exceptional spot for fall foliage viewing. It is also very affordable, from $89, and being located in the southernmost part of the state, typically has one of the longest playing seasons in Vermont.
Any of these three golf resorts would make for a fabulous weekend road trip, but as they sit in three very different parts the small state, the southwest, center and northeast, this makes it fun to link them into a multi-town trip. I’ve stayed at all three resorts, and they are all charming. Jay is closest to Vermont’s largest airport, Burlington International, served by carriers including Delta and United, just over an hour away.
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