Cyclists glide alongside the water on the Island Line Trail, which runs from Burlington toward the island of South Hero.Photo Credit : Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Call it alfresco, call it plein air, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to Burlington, Vermont, once the warm weather sets in. Folks seem giddy with possibilities. The largest lake in New England—490 square miles—laps at the city’s feet, with beaches carved end to end. The Island Line Trail darts alongside, kicking off a 10-mile ride to a ribbon of causeway where you can catch a bike ferry to the Champlain Islands. Did I mention it’s beautiful?
Naturally, there is an outsize emphasis on doing—with sailboats, paddleboards, and bikes for hire. There is also righteous support for just being. For sitting and watching and stretching out on the grassy lawn of Waterfront Park. Farm-to-fork is a mantra here, along with the inventive brewing and distilling that have brought national attention. Church Street’s four blocks of pedestrian-only restaurants and shops hum into the night, or play host to festivals celebrating everything from jazz to fools.
With the University of Vermont at its back, this college town of 42,239 lives outside in summer. Yes, the season is all too brief, but while it’s here, you can eat, play, and even shop in the great outdoors. The ultimate summer on a lake, with all the fresh air you could ask for.
Imagine French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s awe when he first saw the lake in 1609. Lake Champlain has been called the “Sixth Great Lake,” and it dominates Burlington, the largest city on its shores. A major waterway in the 18th and 19th centuries, it still teems with sailboats and ferries crossing to the New York side, with the Adirondack Mountains pulling them on.
The lake’s depths are rumored to harbor a sea monster, Champ; its 107-mile length ignores borders, crossing into Canada. With Montreal just two hours away, you’re as likely to hear French on the streets as read it on menus.
Since 1980, Leunig’s Bistro has been at the heart of downtown, a little piece of Paris blown onto Church Street. Over the years, I’ve warmed myself with rugged pistou and cones of frites, but on a steamy Friday night, crunchy salads and local charcuterie hit the perfect note for people-watching from an open-air café table.
It’s only the beginning of alfresco farm-to-fork. On Saturday, outdoor breakfast crepes at the Skinny Pancake constrain an unruly volume of ingredients (“Sassquash” crams together local squash, chèvre, and apples). The following morning, it’s avocado toast and a quinoa bowl with a Brooklyn vibe at August First. Saturday lunchtime rolls around, and I find myself at Spot on the Dock, with fish tacos on a sun-drenched patio where ferries pull up, and an open-air bar that feels like Hemingway might stop by.
Come Sunday, I’m at Istanbul Kebab House, eating crunchy falafels on a rooftop. And on the dinner front, I score a coveted seat at James Beard finalist Honey Road, the red-hot ticket in town, serving Mediterranean mezze dishes high on vegetables. Next night, it’s gastropub Farmhouse Tap & Grill, chopping a definitive Pitchfork Farm beet salad, as tunes spill out from Capt’n Tom’s Tiki-Bar next door. I could be in the tropics….
Somehow I’ve got four kinds of cheese. And I’m still only partway through the Burlington Farmers’ Market, a seasonal ode to abundance every Saturday. Since 1980, vendors have corralled heirloom tomatoes, stacked dewy lettuce, and cubed cheese into irresistible samples. “This is the best two-year cheddar I’ve tasted all year,” enthuses a cheese maker at the Shelburne Farms booth (who am I to refuse?).
On the liquid front, if it’s distillable, it’s in a bottle—like Elm Brook Farm’s Literary Dog Vodka (maple). There are handcrafted pretzels, live-edge wooden bowls, cupcake dog treats, bear-fat salve with balsam. I’ve admired sunflowers at Ardelia Farm’s stand, sampled spirulina shots, and watched two cable guys (T-shirt logos gave them away) debate over kimchi. It’s possible to tiny-bite your way through this market, but then you’d miss out on Green Mountain pot stickers (made “with kung fu and love”) and Pak-Afghan spinach samosas. Ultimately, I succumb to a Sisters of Anarchy “Bronx Cheer” raspberry cone. A dog grazes the ground nearby, finding traces of who-knows-what. The market is like an artisanal salad you can actually walk through.
Like the city’s former mayor, Bernie Sanders, the Burlington bike path is egalitarian, embracing everyone from hard-core cyclists to hard-pedaling parents hauling tiny spaceships. Local Motion rents bikes and makes trail suggestions; they’ll set you on the path to friendly shallow-water beaches, or Colchester’s causeway and the Island Line Bike Ferry to South Hero, gateway to the Champlain Islands.
As the setting sun casts strips of ripe plum into Lake Champlain and sailboats drift to the foot of College Street, a bartender at Splash at the Boathouse mixes a brilliant Aperol spritz. A half hour ago, I joined the trickle of hungry, thirsty, and just plain inspired who are headed to the lake to watch the nightly spectacle from this floating dock. The landing is packed now, the day about to end in a wash of color. Beauty feeds everyone.
Is being a spectator a spectator sport? If so, Burlingtonians excel, whether they’re watching street performers on Church Street, sitting in a lawn swing by the lake, or taking in a festival. From Discover Jazz, to Pride, to Vermont Brewers, to the Festival of Fools, the street scene is thriving. In the artsy South End, rich in studios and galleries, the Friday-night convergence of food trucks at ArtsRiot Truck Stop makes for an outdoor foodie scene you can dance to. Or cheer on the Vermont Lake Monsters minor league baseball team, an affiliate of the Oakland A’s, playing at UVM’s Centennial Field.
Where to Stay
Sharing an inner courtyard (and local owners), the sleek Hotel Vermont and its sister, Courtyard by Marriott Burlington Harbor, are just blocks from the lake on one side, and Church Street on the other, with dining options that include Juniper (Hotel Vermont), on an outdoor deck, or Bleu Northeast Seafood (Marriott), with fresh local fish. Added perk: Bike & Brew tours to local treasures Zero Gravity, Switchback, and Citizen Cider.
If You Could Live Here
In the spirit of outdoors, an 1899 two-bedroom condo three blocks from the bike path sells for $199,000, while a historic 1927 duplex (former saloon) with original woodwork and a south-facing yard lists at $474,500. Or go for broke with an 1896 slate-roof Victorian mansion with Tiffany windows and gardens galore: $1,995,000.
To see more photographs from our trip, go to newengland.com/burlington-2019.