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It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s summer on the East Coast. For many boat owners, this is the time of year to head to New England, where the air is cool, the water is even cooler and the coastal towns are charming. New England is the go-to destination for many cruisers during the lazy days of summer. But before you pull out your charts to plan that voyage, consider an alternative to New England’s fog, fields of lobster pots, large tidal shifts and strong currents. This year, consider a summer cruise to Lake Champlain, where the air is clear, the water is fresh, line-of-sight piloting is the norm, and the waterfront towns in Upstate New York and Vermont are mostly free of crushing crowds.

Lying between New York’s Adirondack Mountains to the west and Vermont’s Green Mountains to the east, Lake Champlain is the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the United States. Running north and south for 120 miles, it stretches 10 miles across at its widest point. Overall, it’s divided into five areas: the South, Broad, Malletts Bay, Inland Sea and Missisquoi Bay, with Broad and Malletts being the most popular. Burlington, Vermont, its most popular waterfront town, shares roughly the same latitude as Bar Harbor, Maine, ensuring days of pleasant temperatures and cool evenings.

Lake Champlain is mostly within U.S. borders, but part of it crosses into Canada’s Quebec province.

Lake Champlain is mostly within U.S. borders, but part of it crosses into Canada’s Quebec province.

From New York Harbor, the river voyage to Lake Champlain is a delightful change from the offshore trek up the Atlantic Coast. The first leg takes you on a picturesque, 160-mile adventure up the Hudson River to Troy, New York. Without offshore weather to worry about, this is a fascinating, relatively easy trip with plenty of attractive places to stop along the way. Many, such as the castlelike buildings of the U.S. Military Academy and the old ruins of the Scottish Castle on Bannerman’s Island, are rich in history. About halfway up the Hudson, Kingston, New York, is a good stopover with restaurants, shops, marinas and a municipal dock. The town is rich in history, and a visit to the Hudson River Maritime Museum will be entertaining for the entire family.

At Troy, you’ll transit the Federal Lock before entering the 64-mile Champlain Canal to begin a 96-foot ascent to Lake Champlain. Because of the canal’s 10-mph speed limit and 12 locks, it’s best to allow a day and a half to travel these 64 miles. Located 27 miles from Troy, the Schuyler Yacht Basin is a charming place to stop for a night or two. Here, you can rent a car and visit nearby Saratoga Springs with its famous horse-racing track, museums, Victorian homes and fine restaurants.

Historical buildings and streets are all part of the Lake Champlain cruising experience.

Historical buildings and streets are all part of the Lake Champlain cruising experience.

Before reaching the pristine waters of Lake Champlain, be sure that your vessel’s black-water discharge system has been disabled or locked. Most marinas provide pump-out facilities. From the canal, you’ll enter Lake Champlain at its narrowest point and head north. The lake waters run deep, and navigational hazards are well-marked. While the summer winds can blow and wave height can reach 4 feet or more, protected anchorages dot the New York and Vermont shores.

As you travel the length of the Lake, you can make stops in New York and Vermont, with each port offering its own character. To make things even more interesting, there are more than 70 islands on the lake. Many are uninhabited and offer snug anchorages, hiking trails and, above all, peace and quiet. A great place to start island-hopping is at tiny Cole Island on the New York side. For a restful evening, first set your bow anchor and then secure a stern line to a tree or boulder. This setup will keep your vessel pointed out to the main channel and reduce any rock and roll from passing boats. While the island is tiny, you can stretch your legs with a short hike or two.

By now, “salties” will begin to appreciate the advantages of cruising in fresh water. There are no salt deposits to wash off the boat, and your saltwater washdown becomes a freshwater pump that you can use to hose off your entire boat. When the crew is ready for a shower, they can just dive in with a bar of soap and shampoo. With virtually no tidal currents to deal with, the anchored boat will swing only to the wind. You’ll also never have to worry about waking up grounded because of a drop in tide. Daily depths remain the same, and most anchorages carry deep water close to shore, so it’s easy to find protection from the occasional storm.

Classic working waterfront

Classic working waterfront

When you’re in the mood for onshore activities, you can get a slip at the Westport Marina in Westport, New York. It’s a full-service, family-operated facility with a fuel dock and a casual restaurant. You can walk to town for groceries and supplies, and, with an Amtrak station not far away, it’s a good place to pick up visiting friends or change crew members. Westport’s beautiful town green hosts public concerts, and the view of the lake from this elevated spot is spectacular.

North of Westport are a number of popular anchorages (Partridge and Barn Rock Harbors) that get busy on weekends. You might have better luck heading northeast to the Vermont side, where Porter and Kingsland Bays offer good protection. Just a couple miles north, you’ll come to the Point Bay Marina, which is set back in Town Farm Bay and surrounded by the beautiful Vermont countryside. This full-service marina offers floating docks, fuel, a Travelift, marine supplies and groceries.

Recreational spaces are part of the Lake Champlain cruising experience.

Recreational spaces are part of the Lake Champlain cruising experience.

If you have your heart set on visiting a quintessential Vermont town, head up to the Shelburne Shipyard on the west shore of Shelburne Bay. This location has been the site of a working shipyard since 1826. Today, it’s a modern, full-service yard. After settling into your slip, take the shuttle to the charming town of Shelburne. It’s home to Shelburne Farms, the Shelburne Museum and the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, so you can spend the entire day exploring this destination. For families with children, Shelburne Farms is a special treat. This 1,400-acre dairy farm offers guided tours where you can milk a cow and learn how cheese and butter are made. Its farm store sells fresh eggs, meats, bread, greens, cheeses and prepared foods.

From Shelburne Shipyard, it’s a short hop north to Burlington, where you’ll find a taste of city life, Vermont style. With a population of 45,000 and home to the University of Vermont, Burlington exudes a youthful energy. If you get a slip at the Community Boathouse Marina or the new Burlington Harbor Marina, you can easily walk to Church Street—an all-pedestrian corridor of shops, restaurants, bakeries and pubs. There are a number of special events staged here throughout the summer, including the Vermont Brewer’s Festival and the Lake Champlain Maritime Festival.

What’s especially attractive to families cruising Lake Champlain is the ease with which you can change gears. After a couple of days and nights in the city, you can run to Valcour Island, where there are many protected anchorages, some with shores punctuated by rocky outcroppings, others with sandy beaches. Sloop Cove is a favorite spot with enough room for several boats. Again, drop a bow anchor and run an aft line to shore. Well-marked hiking trails will take you around the perimeter—a four- to five-hour hike. Shorter trails crisscross the width of the island. The famous Battle of Valcour Island between the British and the U.S. naval forces under Benedict Arnold took place here in 1776. Today, the island is part of New York’s Adirondack Park, which thankfully protects it from development.

If you have time, there’s much more to see, including the well-protected Mallets Bay area and the Inland Sea. And if you really have time, you can keep heading north past Rouses Point, New York, into Canada (don’t forget your passports), where you’ll travel along the Chambly Canal and up the Richelieu River for a total of 72 miles before you reach the St. Lawrence River. Take a left and head to Montreal, or take a right and visit Quebec City.

Whether you spend a week or a month on Lake Champlain, you’ll undoubtedly want to return. So, this summer consider taking a scenic river cruise up the Hudson to experience the many joys of lake cruising. Remember: No fog, no lobster pots, no tidal swings. Line-of-sight navigating. And fresh water. Sound good? 

This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue.

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