The car was perched precariously over a cliff. I could see trees all around me and mountains in the distance, but ahead of me, where I should have seen road, there was nothing but sky.
“When you’re ready,” he said, “let it go.”
I took my foot off the brake—the only thing between me and careening down the side of a mountain—and trusted that my vehicle would get me where I needed to be.
Since I’m writing this story today and not splattered amongst the Green Mountains, I think it’s pretty clear what happened after that.
I let go of the brake, and a car more powerful than I’ve ever driven safely got me down a steep, pitted, rocky drop. I turned the wheel left, and headed directly for the next challenge.
Scaling that mountain wasn’t the first time during the Land Rover Experience in Manchester, Vermont, that I would be simultaneously terrified to my bones, and also in total awe of the power of the machinery I was operating. It also wouldn’t be the last.
During two hours of driving a Land Rover Discovery that day, my instructor took me through many different kinds of challenges: traversing water and mud hazards, over giant boulders, across huge holes in the ground, and, yes, over drops so steep it seemed like I would fall straight off a cliff. There were many times when my instinct was to avoid a crater in the course, but my instructor told me that no, in fact, he wanted me to put one wheel up on a sharp-looking rock, and one wheel in the large divot below, so that the car was tilting horizontally at at least a 30-degree angle. Or, to put two wheels on the edge of an outcropping, and trust that the car would do the work to find the path.
I’m not a professional driver, but I’m not exactly new to challenging driving, either. I often drive canyon and cliffside roads in California, with nothing between me and a few thousand foot drop, just for fun. Growing up in New England, I got very comfortable with driving in snow. A couple of years ago, I even went to the Jaguar Ice Driving Academy in Sweden, where professional racecar drivers took me out on frozen lakes at the Arctic Circle in Jaguar F-TYPEs, teaching me how to drift and power slide on the ice. (Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve spun out on purpose and crashed a car you can’t afford into a snowbank.)
But off-roading is a different animal. You’re not in a sports car, and you can’t go quickly. In fact, on the whole course, I never got the speedometer above 5 mph. It’s about looking at what’s ahead of you, adjusting the car’s extremely intricate Terrain Response System, and trusting that the product of 75 years of British engineering is going to take you for a ride you’ll remember forever.
Up until that day, I had never seen a Land Rover in its natural habitat. I’d only seen them on highways and in parking lots at Whole Foods. It had always seemed like a wealthy suburban car to me, not a rugged off-roading vehicle—but that’s exactly what the car was designed for. That Terrain Response System gives you real-time tracking of exactly where your wheels are, not just through a camera under the car to show you hazards, but through a touch-screen display of axle and wheel alignment. See some giant boulders ahead of you? No problem. Use the 34-degree approach angle and the car’s ability to lift or lower itself 4” to make more space between you and the ground. See a small pond that looks like fun? Trust the car’s wading depth of 35 inches and plow straight through.
Originally created in 1947, the Land Rover was in use by the British Army by 1949, and has been trusted to drive the British Royal Family since 1953. (Granted, if the Queen was going off-roading on something, it was probably a horse and not a Land Rover Defender.)
Though the vehicles have come a long way from their roots as military transport, some are as rugged as they’ve ever been. Some, on the other hand, now come from the Jaguar-Land Rover Special Vehicle Operations, the facility at JLR’s base in the British Midlands that customizes vehicles with everything from fully-reclining rear seats to a built-in champagne cooler complete with special Land Rover champagne flutes inside.
(I drove the 2023 Range Rover SV earlier this year, which comes in at a cool $250,000, and it was more luxurious than any other vehicle I have ever laid eyes on. Despite the price tag, there’s a multi-year waiting list.)
Demand across the board, it seems, is the same. As of press, the next several weeks are almost totally sold out at the Vermont Experience Center, which is based at the Equinox Resort, a more-than 250-year-old hotel in the perfectly New England town of Manchester that manages to feel luxurious and modern in the midst of all that history.
After an hour of off-roading, the second half of the experience was on the road: the Skyline Drive, which is a private toll road to the summit of Mt. Equinox. It was winding, and there were more than a few times there would be a car speeding down the mountain at me as I pulled through a hairpin turn, but that’s the kind of driving I live for. I was sad when we got to the top. But then taking in the view of the Taconic Range, looking at Vermont and New York in the distance, an ocean of vibrant green trees and blue sky beyond—that was worth the pit stop.
Julie Tremaine is an award-winning food and travel writer who’s road tripping—and tasting—her way across the country. Her work appears in outlets like Vulture, Travel + Leisure, CNN Travel and Glamour, and she’s the Disneyland editor for SFGATE, covering California theme parks. Read her work at Travel-Sip-Repeat.com.