It's an idyllic day in Vermont's Green Mountains -- sun shining high in the New England sky, wildflowers rocking gently in a valley breeze, birds sweetening the air with chirps and songs.
Emily, my 6-year-old niece, notices none of this. Lips and tongue tainted purple from a recently consumed cone of berry sorbet, she is keenly focused on one thing only: getting the color balance exactly right on her spin art.
Natalie, the 7-year-old daughter of my college roommate, skips over to show off a temporary tattoo of a shark devouring an ice cream cone. Pleased with the outcome of her design, Emily sets down a squeeze bottle of cobalt-blue paint and runs off with her new friend to pick out her own tattoo of a cow jumping over the moon.
These activities for kids are the cherry on the sundae that is the ever-evolving Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory Tour in Waterbury, Vt. With some 300,000 guests per year, the Vermont Tourism office says it is the Green Mountain State's most visited attraction.
"The Ben & Jerry's Tour is Mecca to many of our fans," says Sue Scheer, factory tour manager. "When the factory tour opened in June of 1986, no one in their wildest dreams expected it would be so popular. On opening day, the doors exploded open, and the original staff of three quickly turned into a staff of 20. It was so busy that even the plant general manager was giving tours."
In those early days, Scheer explains, the tour consisted of a multiprojector slide show in a small theater, a small gift shop and ice cream samples right off the line on the production room floor. In the height of summer, magicians, musicians and demonstrations of hand-cranked ice cream entertained the waiting crowds outside the factory's doors.
On the day of our visit, it's obvious that the tour has come of age. For a modest admission fee of $2 per adult (kids 12 and under admitted free), we are swiftly ushered into the Cow Over the Moon Theatre to watch a seven-minute "moo-vie" about Ben & Jerry's history, products and social mission.
(Anyone who knows anything about the brand is familiar with the company's fund-raising and awareness-building on behalf of global peace, rain forest preservation and helping the homeless.)
Then, it's a behind-the-scenes tour of the production room. Through full-length windows, we peer down on the people and machines that are mixing up the flavor du jour, Berry Berry Extraordinary sorbet. Large flat-screen monitors give an up-close look at the activities below. Then it's off to the Flavo Room for a sample.
Emily likes the purple sorbet so much that she orders a whole cone of it from the Scoop Shop at the end of the tour. Natalie picks Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, which Scheer says is the Waterbury Factory Scoop Shop's most popular flavor. (Cherry Garcia is a close second.)
While the youngsters burn off their "sugar buzz" playing in the Flavor Graveyard and clambering around on the factory's large playground, we adults -- our own ice cream cones still in hand -- soak up some sunshine and fret about how many calories and grams of fat we are consuming. We vow to make up for it by having "just salad" for dinner for the next three days. Then, from somewhere inside the monkey bars, comes the inevitable question:
"Auntie, can we go out for pizza tonight?"
Here are a few other taste-tempting tours to try, whether you're enjoying fall foliage in New England or traveling elsewhere in the country:
* Lake Champlain Choco-lates: About 45 minutes north of Ben & Jerry's, this producer of high-end chocolates and truffles offers educational guided tours for small groups between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. The factory store is open seven days per week (Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.).
An observation deck in the factory store enables customers to see the work being done on the production line. Free samples are always available, and factory "seconds" can be purchased for up to 40 percent off the retail price.
For more information, call 802-864-1807. There's more information and a virtual tour on the company's Web site, www.lakechamplainchocolate.com.
* Cape Cod Potato Chips: The chip maker is located in Hyannis, Mass., and the free, self-guided factory tour shows how this company, founded in 1980, cooks enough potato chips in small batches by hand each day to fill 150,000 bags. Visitors receive a free bag of chips at the end of the tour. For more information and driving directions, visit the Web site www.capecodchips.com, or call 508-775-3358.
* Celestial Seasonings Tea Factory: More than 50 different teas are available for tasting at this popular Boulder, Colo., attraction. The free, 45-minute tour includes a video, an art gallery featuring "eclectic" teapots and teacups, and original paintings used on Celestial Seasonings Tea boxes; a tea sampling room; the Celestial Herb Garden, a mint room; and the "rocking and rolling" factory where 8 million teabags are produced daily.
The Celestial Tea Shop and Emporium offers teas at substantial discounts, as well as tea-drinking accouterments and gourmet gifts.
The Celestial Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch. The factory tour, shop and cafe are closed on major holidays. Children must be at least 5 to participate in the tour. For more information, call 303-581-1202 or visit the Web site, www.celestialseasonings .com / whoweare / tour.
* Jelly Belly: The maker of gourmet jelly beans offers a tour of its warehouse in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. The tour includes a 30-minute ride on the Jelly Belly Express through the large warehouse and distribution center. Large-screen videos show the company history of candy making and how the candy is made.
Kids of all ages will love the dancing chorus line of Jelly Belly characters -- and the retail store where they can taste samples. Tours operate Monday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but are closed on some holidays. Call 866-868-7522 for more information.
* Schimpff's Confectionery: This fourth-generation, family-owned business has been making candy in Jeffersonville, Ind., for 111 years. Visitors can watch candy being made on turn-of-the-century equipment. Hard candy lozenges are made on drop rollers that are 100 years old, and fudge, peanut brittle and toffee are poured out onto an 1891 steel table from large antique copper kettles. From behind a glass partition, visitors can view workers as they hand-dip chocolates.
The candy museum features antique vending machines, tools, tins, crates, barrels and advertisements, and the retail shop is famous for its authentic 1950s soda fountain. The tour is free. For more information, call 812-283-8367.
When you go
Getting there: To get to the Ben & Jerry's factory in Vermont, from Interstate 89, take Exit 10 (Waterbury). Follow the signs for Route 100 toward Stowe. Follow Route 100 for approximately one mile. Ben & Jerry's will be on the left.
Ben & Jerry's, P.O. Box 240, Waterbury, VT 05602
* Tour hours: September-October, 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.; November-May, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.; July-August, 9 a.m. until 8 p.m.
* Admission: $2 for adults, $1.75 for senior citizens. Children 12 and younger admitted free. Reservations recommended for groups of 10 or more. For group tour information, call 802-882-1240.
* New additions to the tour this year include One Sweet Whirled, a global warming display and action station; a new video of the production line that is shown on flat-screen monitors; an updated Social Mission display, and a new movie.