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Home » TRAVEL AND LODGING in VT » VERMONT (all topics) » Burlington on the Rocks
City Hall Park, Burlington, Vermont
Burlington on the Rocks

Burlington, Vermont

By Mike Dunphy | December 28, 2011

There is a moment in the night when traveling north up Interstate 89, after hours of nothing but the darkness of a dis-electrified landscape, that you reach a hilltop and see the lights of Burlington glittering on the horizon.

City Hall

It’s a feeling of relief that’s a distant, diluted cousin to the early explorers returning to “civilization” after months in the wild.   Vermont’s largest city begins symbolically at the two whale tales plunging into a roadside tuft at mile 85. Growing up there, Burlington represented the apex of Vermont civilization, with all indoor toilets, paved roads and lawns free of car skeletons and rusty propane tanks.

The ’90s were especially kind to Burlington, even earning it a modicum of fame thanks to the success of the rock group Phish and a series of awards for the high quality of life. The notoriety help attract large numbers of waspy “trustafarians” with dreadlocks and bongos and well-to-do middle-aged flatlanders who tucked secret ponytails under white collars.

The “money folk,” as one old Vermont codger called them, have done a lot for Vermont beyond the now statewide indoor toilets.   They’ve invested no small amount of money building and maintaining the quaint New England image in their heads. They’ve also added significant power to progressive politics much to the vexation of the traditionally libertarian base, (making me a “liberaltarian”).

You’ll find the city at its busiest when the fall tourist season overlaps with the annual arrival of the new crop of students attending the nearby University of Vermont, St. Michael’s College and Champlain. The influx adds about 15,000 to the regular population of 40,000, and nearly all the city’s frenetic energy.

The semester starts rowdy but it mostly settles down midway through as homework lengthens and the thermometer drops. By the end of finals in mid December, the students are exhausted and head home for a well-deserved holiday break. It also gives Burlington a breather of its own; a welcome intermission for the mellower permanent residents of the city but still a time of celebration as many exiles (self-imposed or otherwise) return to recharge their roots in native soil, well, the soil frozen-solid under a foot of compressed ice and snow.

Lake Champlain

There are three faces of winter in Vermont. The first is pure Norman Rockwell with a shining white winter sun reflecting brightly off every sheen of ice (even causing sunburns). The second is the heavy cloak of grey that is either the harbinger or residue of the third type, the one that brings the full force of nature’s destructive power and takes no prisoners. Only then, when physical pain stabs the extremities of the body, will Vermonters claim to be cold.

Much of the winter freeze of Burlington is determined by Lake Champlain. As the only New England state without an ocean front, it's been embraced and deified since the beginning. In fact, just off Shelburne Point, you'll find the Abenaki god and creator of the lake, Odzihozo, who pleased with his handiwork, transformed himself into a rocky outcrop to forever enjoy the spectacle. The lake has set the tone and rhythm of life since the city’s founding in 1763 and been fundamental to its fortune.

As the nation’s sixth largest lake, it has served as the main inland shipping highway between Canada and the North East. Timber industry fortunes account for the sumptuous Queen Anne and Victorian manor houses gracing the hills overlooking the downtown area. Unfortunately, the industry eventually left the waterfront full of empty factories, wrecked train yards, and heavily polluted soil.

After years of intense renovations and clean up, it is now an informal summertime resort, complete with skate park, Mexican restaurant, boathouse, lake tours, a gorgeous bike path, and the new Lake Champlain Echo Center - an aquarium and science center. In winter, the chilly winds make it a ghost town. It’s when the lake freezes over that we lose our best geological bulwark and the worst of winter begins.

Vermonters have learned that resistance is futile and hiding inside all season will only leave you more bitter than the air outside. Other than long underwear, nothing warms the cockles more than community cheer and the many local theaters, concert halls, and art galleries work even harder.

Burlingtonians also savor their granola on the rocks (and often inhaled), and it’s no surprise that Vermont has the most breweries per capita in the entire country.   A major portion of it is drunk in and around Church Street, the red-bricked, pedestrian-only zone that begins with Peter Banner’s Unitarian Church (1816) at the north end and runs south through four blocks of boutiques, tea houses, gift stores, restaurants, head shops, and bars.

Lowell Thompson at Nectar's

The final block is the epicenter of the night-life and home of the city’s most famous bar, Nectar’s, whose gravy fries have been sung about for decades.   On any given night, you’ll find the Bohemians at Red Square and ½ Bar, hippies at Three Needs, townies at Finnigan’s and Esox, and the J. Crew at Ri Ra’s and the Vermont Pub and Brewery. For live shows, Nectar’s rules the roost in the winter.

December 23, 2010 saw an especially good show by local rock star Lowell Thompson who led his band through a complete cover (sans “Desolation Row”) of the live Bob Dylan and the Band album Before the Flood.

But it’s “Honkey Tonk Tuesdays” up at the Radio Bean bar where he sounds best, playing a rootsy, alternative mix of beloved cover tunes. If you know who Graham Parsons is, you’ll love it.

But no amount of cold seems to penetrate the karmatic cocoon of Burlington, wrapped in snow instead of silk. “Every day here is Sunday,” a friend once remarked on a visit and I’ve never heard the city’s essence defined better. Ironically, it’s both the reason it drives away its more ambitious youth and later calls them back. As the internal fires cool, the memory burns warmer.

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