Welcome to One Great College Town
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
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 mayor is hardly the first progressive in
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
counting when you’re having cheese?
manufacturing, and lumber. By 1791 the village had its university, and
by 1812 the good citizens of Vermont
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
residents to attend this school. But I like it here.”
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
The European art at the university’s Fleming Museum
won’t make you forget
perfectly arced Bambara antelope headdress, a flawless copper Benin
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
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 (
luscious small-vineyard bottlings, and bracing New England
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.”
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
Records, 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
Stone, and earnest college kids exclaiming, “Wow–I’d forgotten how
great Abbey Road is!”
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 (
musical instruments, etc.
But back to sustainable merchandising: On weekends a dog
named Fannie greets customers at Dirt Chic Resale Clothing (
Fannie,” admits owner Anya Huneke. “It's a Vermont
Another animal, the mythical lake monster Champ, is such a
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
Motion, 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
Cycle or just walk around
Bruegger’s for a bagel and cream cheese–a deli classic except
for a third ingredient that was not quite a Lower East Side
farmer’s market for a bite, but ended up staying for hours. Terrific fiddlers, GreenMountain
(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?
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!”
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
York in a New England
What?! Red Sox and Yankees fans sharing beers, a bar, an
entire town? Now, that is
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
a longer stay in Burlington
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
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.