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Welcome to One Great College Town

BurlingtonFarmersMarketFiddlers (2)

Musicians at the Burlington Farmers Market. Photo by Ed Wetschler

by Ed Wetschler


The People’s Republic of Vermont is a state of mind — and culture — that I’ve often
relished in southern Vermont.
But six or seven years ago, JetBlue Airways started flying to Burlington, in the north, and I sometimes wondered how this
easy access might be affecting the far end of the state. So in June I packed my
Birkenstocks and headed north.

        Sure, it’s Vermont's largest city, yet Burlington only has 40,000 people. Perched on the east shore of Lake Champlain, the town is home to the University of Vermont, and its mayor is a bona fide member of the Progressive Party.

         The mayor is hardly the first progressive in Vermont. Samuel de Champlain, for starters, befriended the
local Abenaki Indians when he “discovered” the lake in 1609. Today, Mr.
Champlain’s name is attached to the lake, cheeses, chocolates, a college, the
mannequin at the library’s Returns counter…. However, Burlington wasn’t founded until almost 170 years after Sam’s visit. But who’s
counting when you’re having cheese?

         When Burlington was settled in the 1780s, it grew into a center for shipping,
manufacturing, and lumber. By 1791 the village had its university, and
by 1812 the good citizens of Vermont were participating in the anti-war movement.


Native American Pesto?

“What part of the state
are you from?” I asked a student on UV’s main campus, about a mile east of the

actually from Kansas,” she replied. “I pay higher tuition than
residents to attend this school. But I like it here.”

Billingsuofvt3 (2)         

The Billings Center. Photo by Ed Westchler.

    Me, too. I walk across sprawling quads with heroic trees; I
admire 19th-century buildings like Williams Hall, a terra-cotta pile
with Gothic windows and gargoyles. The Billings Center, a stone castle with turrets and soaring interiors, has National
Landmark status.

         The European art at the university’s Fleming Museum
won’t make you forget New York’s Frick Museum, but the African collection is a shortlist of greatest hits: a
perfectly arced Bambara antelope headdress, a flawless copper Benin head. And the Pre-Columbian, Native American, and
American works are real eye-openers, from the 6,000-year-old mortar and pestle
(I heard one woman whisper, “Do you think they made pesto?”) to exquisite
baskets to Charles Louis Heyde’s landscapes of 19th-century Vermont.

         You can take the Shuttle from the waterfront area to the
university. But it’s fun to return by foot, weaving downhill through streets
lined with mine’s-bigger-than-yours Victorians.


Gone to the Dogs      

The children’s room at the
Fletcher Free Library on College Street features couches and play spaces where parents
hang out with their kids for hours. The History Room, with its antique
telephone switchboard and old tomes, is a silent time capsule. FYI, this
library doesn’t just stock books and electronic media; it also lends out tools. Welcome to Vermont.    


Church Street cafe scene. Photo by Ed Wetschler.

    Burlington's boosters have turned Church Street, which runs parallel to the lakeshore, into a honey of a pedestrian mall. Benches and cafes welcome people and their golden retrievers, labs, and Bernese mountain dogs. The town has placed boulders along the street, too, so 10- and 50-year-old kids can clamor up and catch some rays while street musicians are playin' real good for free.

     Despite JetBlue having brought Burlington closer to the
outside world, most of the stores are still mom-‘n’-pop shops of, by, and for
the people. Church Street Wine Cellars (2 Church St.; ) offers $10 values,
luscious small-vineyard bottlings, and bracing New England righteousness: “CSWC will not feature any wine
with a label that prominently features an animal,” proclaims the website. “No
ducks, no swans…no kangaroos…. That’s not for wine, that’s for cereal, and we'd
rather be water-boarded with Two Buck Chuck than drink or stock such offenses
to your senses.”

 Churchstreetdog (2) A Church Street dog. Photo by Ed Wetschler.       

    Walk out of Crow Bookshop at 14 Church St.
with less than 20 pounds of used novels, art books, cookbooks, etc., and you’ve
shown better self-control than I. Earth Prime Comics (154 Church St.) sells
collectible Incredible Hulk comics for as little as $2.50. At Burlington
, just off Church St. (170 Bank St.),
you can lose yourself amid used CDs and rare LPs, posters of young Eric
Clapton, vintage issues of Rolling
, and earnest college kids exclaiming, “Wow–I’d forgotten how
great Abbey Road is!”

 The Monster of Lake

Amid all this recycling,
there are some shops that actually sell new stuff. Lake Champlain Chocolates
makes deadly good truffles and offers sweet factory tours. Naturally, this
college town also has a store called Peace & Justice (21 Church St.), which stocks crafts, fair trade clothing,
musical instruments, etc.

         But back to sustainable merchandising: On weekends a dog
named Fannie greets customers at Dirt Chic Resale Clothing (7779 Main St.). “I think many people wander in because they see
Fannie,” admits owner Anya Huneke. “It's a Vermont thing.”

         Another animal, the mythical lake monster Champ, is such a
VIP around Lake Champlain that Echo, the Lake Aquarium and Science Center, devotes an entire exhibit to questioning its
existence. I like the boy in the video who says of Champ, “He’s got to be a
really nice person. [pause] Well, reptile.”

         Children get engrossed in Echo’s hands-on exhibits,
especially the ones that deal with wind (rather an important issue on large
lakes), and so do adults. I was mesmerized by the sturgeon, muskellunge,
freshwater drum, and ancient bowfin in the aquarium; these lake fish are huge.

Do the Local Motion

It was too early in the
season to rent a kayak or canoe, but not too early to rent a bike at Local
, a nonprofit storefront 500 feet south of Echo.
Not only are its rentals reasonably priced, but manager Kevin Rose’s enthusiasm
for alternative transportation is irresistible. The maps he gave me included
county bike routes, the lovely Island Line Trail along Lake Champlain’s east shore, and a New York City bike map to use back home.

 BurlingtonMarket (2) Burlington Farmer's Market. Photo by Ed Wetschler.      

    Cycle or just walk around Burlington, and you will get hungry. One day I stopped at
Bruegger’s for a bagel and cream cheese–a deli classic except
for a third ingredient that was not quite a Lower East Side staple: bacon. On Saturday I dropped by the
farmer’s market for a bite, but ended up staying for hours. Terrific fiddlers, GreenMountain granola, Boucher Family cheese, Anethusa Collective Farms produce
(there are still collectives?), Dragonfly maple syrup, Beehappy honey,
paintings, pottery…. I asked the woman selling Black Creek preserves if she
does this full time. “No,” she grinned. “I’m a state senator.”


Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Dining in Burlington, even at foodie havens like A Single Pebble,
is as casual as it was ten years ago. Many restaurants offer outdoor seating,
too; Vermonters savor every minute of summer. 

         When I requested the last free table outside Tilley’'s, the
hostess said, “Sure, right this way.”

         “I didn’t really think you’d let me sit here because I’m
dining alone,” I confided to her.

         She smiled. “But this is the table you want!”

         Above all, Burlington is full of unpretentious eateries, as a college
town should be. Ri Ra Irish Pub, for example, is part of a small chain, yet its
historic bank exterior and the furnishings salvaged from Irish pubs give it
character—and so do the locals. This is a place where students and townies,
professionals and salt-o’-the-earth workers enjoy ribs and microbrews together.

more, these citizens of the People’s Republic have overcome an even tougher
barrier than social class. Watching a Red Sox game on Ri Ra’s TV, a guy at the
next table cheered when the Yankees scored a run. “Doesn’t it feel weird to
root for New
York in a New England town?” I asked him.

         “Not in Burlington,” he said. “All my friends at this table are Red Sox fans.”

         What?! Red Sox and Yankees fans sharing beers, a bar, an
entire town? Now, that is


Booking Burlington  

I flew in on JetBlue and stayed at the Courtyard Burlington Harbor Hotel,
which is not exactly quaint, but the old photos and local art in the hallways
give it a Vermont-ish ambience. Besides, the view of Lake Champlain from my room was stunning. If you want to arrange
a longer stay in Burlington, Nicki or Jesse at Larkin Realty (802-864-7444)
may have studio apartments available for less than $1,000 a month.

         I didn’t rent a car. The town is walkable, the
aforementioned shuttle to the university is free, and there are a zillion bike
paths. When I wanted to visit the Shelburne Museum, a marvelous complex of historic
buildings, art and artifacts that’s in another town, I took a county bus, which
runs every half hour and only set me back $1.25. P.S. Buses here have bike

         For more information call 877-… or visit Vermont Vacation

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