Perched on Lake Champlain just south of Canada, Burlington, Vt., is the rare destination without a tourism office.
A serene playground for those who enjoy cycling, hiking, water sports and winter fun (Smugglers’ Notch, Stowe and Sugarbush are close), it’s Boulder of the East, where the dress is more Prana than Prada, the international airport has a yoga room, bike paths are plowed in the winter for hard-core cyclists, and an annual performing arts center fundraiser involves 100 climbers rappelling nine stories down the side of a hotel.
But residents are hardly surviving on gorp. There’s a sophisticated and diverse food scene: Locals pick up their CSA shares, shop for CBD confections and buy baguettes from a peddler on a bicycle.
A college town with no major professional sports and few museums, Burlington is crunchy and counterculture — unsurprising in a state that started off as an independent, slave-outlawing republic in 1777. The Queen City is the birthplace of Ben & Jerry’s and Phish, the community that called Bernie Sanders mayor for eight years and a socially conscious city, first in the nation to source all its power from renewable generation.
An outdoorsy tendency means that whether the sun is shining or flakes are falling, Burlingtonians head to Oakledge Park. Located on the Island Line Trail and Burlington Greenway, this large regional park has an accessible treehouse and playground; tennis, basketball, volleyball, bocce and pickleball courts; and SUP rentals through Paddlesurf Champlain at Blanchard Beach. Oakledge Cove (head south through the main parking area to the second parking lot) offers a secluded rocky beach; in summer, locals picnic on the beach and jump from the rocks for a swim. In the winter, parking is free and Oakledge offers small hills for sledding. The sides of the plowed Greenway are used for cross- country skiing and snowshoeing. Check enjoyburlington.com/winter-outdoors for updates on ice skating and winter trail activities.
No surprise that the e-mail address for ArtsRiot is destroyapathy. Considered the heart of the South End Arts District, this Pine Street music venue, restaurant and community hub opened in 2013 and has been a major force in the revival of the South End, which, as one local put it, was an “industrial wasteland” not long ago. The recently expanded venue hosts 130 nights of live music a year; other nights, you might catch the Moth Radio Hour, an Ethiopian food pop-up, trivia night, a drag show, a magic show or a poetry reading from the local elementary school. Every summer Friday, ArtsRiot hosts a popular free block party called Truck Stop.
Day trip! Sweet Shelburne is just 7 miles from downtown Burlington, and for a rural town, it’s packed with fun for all. Start at Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit that’s a 1,400-acre working farm, forest and National Historic Landmark. Located on Lake Champlain, the land once belonged to a Vanderbilt couple, who created a model agricultural estate with a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed landscape. In the offseason, walk your dog on the old carriage trails. In the summer, see farm animals and cheese-making, buy lunch at the farm cart and tour the historic Inn at Shelburne Farms. (Better yet, dine or stay overnight at the inn: Sit on the back porch, gaze out to the lake and channel your inner master/mistress of the universe.)
Shelburne Museum is a quirky and vast collection of Americana and folk art, where you’ll find the 220-foot side-wheel steamboat Ticonderoga. The exhibit “Creature Comfort: Animals in the House” opens in February. Stop by Shelburne Craft School and Vermont Teddy Bear Co., and fuel up at Folino’s Pizza, where you can BYOB from Fiddlehead Brewing Co. next door or Shelburne Vineyard across the street.
Who needs major professional sports in Vermont when there’s University of Vermont hockey? Every winter, students and locals pack the noisy Gut (Gutterson Fieldhouse, once home to the NHL Rangers’ preseason training camp) to watch the Catamounts heat up the ice. Tickets to men’s games, which often sell out, start at $10; women’s, $5. What’s a catamount, anyway? A legendary mountain cat found in the Green Mountains of Vermont, long extinct from the region.
Where to shop
I’m embarrassed how long I spent trying on consignment and clearance apparel at Outdoor Gear Exchange, known by locals as OGE. How refreshing to find an outdoor store that walks the green walk, featuring a colossal basement filled with secondhand and sample puffies, technical shirts and pants, snow pants, sunglasses and other goods from our favorite brands. The dog-friendly store (bustling when nearby Eddie Bauer, Athleta, L.L. Bean and Lululemon were deadsville) sells new apparel and gear upstairs. You can come to town unprepared to bike, kayak or snowboard and walk out of OGE with all the used gear and clothing a weekend warrior would want (the store also rents gear). And more: They’ll price-match competitors.
Conant Metal & Light is a feast for the eyes — dazzling lighting, decorative metalwork and art made from repurposed objects, like canning jars, wrought-iron ice tongs and utility pole insulators. All the products in this South End Arts District gallery are manufactured in the adjacent workshop.
Be sure to explore the Soda Plant, the old ginger ale bottling plant that houses Conant and recently added a collection of startup maker companies. Steve Conant, who owns the store and building, prefers “makers” over “retailers.” “I want to attract brands that actually create and make things,” he said.
Walking through the Church Street Marketplace, you might hear yet another French-speaking tourist, a friendly reminder that, en réalité, you’re just a couple of hours south of Montreal. Church Street, the city’s pedestrian-only shopping district, offers an impressive density of shops, both chains and indies, including OGE.
Any time you have the chance to bike or walk into the middle of a massive lake and ride a tiny ferry to the other side, take it. The Island Line Trail is a breathtaking 14-mile path along the water that goes right into the middle of Lake Champlain, via the narrow, three-mile Colchester Causeway. Surrounded by water and mountains, you’ll see New York’s Adirondacks to the west and Vermont’s Green Mountains to the east. In the summer, take the bike ferry across the 200-foot cut to South Hero Island, where you can bike to a community of 800 birdhouses across from White’s Beach and visit Snow Farm Vineyard for a tasting (live music in the summers). Heading south from the causeway, take the ILT across the Winooski River, past Leddy Park, North Beach, A-Dog Skatepark and the waterfront, ending at — of course — Oakledge Park.