Burlington, Vermont: A Compact, Hip City

The Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.
The Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont. Andy Castillo photo.

Cruising, Bicycling, Dining and Ziplining on Lake Champlain in Burlington

By Maggie Freleng

The Church Street Marketplace
The Church Street Marketplace.

Before this trip to Burlington, I had been to Vermont once and it was to ski. What else is there to do in Vermont besides go to an overcrowded ski resort for a weekend?

Well, it turns out that Vermont is one of the most exciting places I have ever been to, and I did not step into a ski boot.

My friend Kris and I left western Massachusetts at 8 am for what we thought would be a tiresome three-hour drive up to Burlington, Vermont; little did I know the drive was anything but that.

For three hours we drove through endless miles of majestic evergreens engulfing the winding highway leading us into the rolling Green Mountains in the distance.

Burlington Waterfront Festival

We arrived at our hotel, The Essex Culinary Resort and Spa. When I first heard of the Essex, I was sure that we were in over our heads. Two tired college students showing up at a classy, high-end resort, I knew we were going to be a spectacle.

Again, I was wrong. While The Essex certainly is a beautiful, luxurious resort and catering facility with a brand-new spa and salon, there is also a rock and ropes course in the backyard as well as a working hot air balloon.

Go figure. Brides, businessmen, kids and adventurers, there is something for all at the Essex!

After settling into our gorgeous room overlooking the pool and splendid acres of gardens and tennis courts, we headed out to Burlington to see the Lake Champlain Waterfront Festival, at the historic Church Street Marketplace.

Street performer jumping through a ring of fire.
Street performer jumping through a ring of fire.

The festival celebrates the 400th year anniversary of French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s travels to the lake that now bears his name.

Despite the ominous clouds, the festival and parade went on as planned. The people of Burlington do love their lake, and why not? Lake Champlain is a striking and stimulating place. The festival proved to be the same.

There were vendors and street performers every other shop. Most, if not all, of the vendors, were local artists, sculptors, jewelers and designers selling their work.

I wound up chatting for a while with a really friendly local woman about her beautiful handmade jewelry and how she got into the business.

The marketplace was very lively and according to the locals, it was not just because of the festival. Burlington is a huge college town, with its demographics drastically changing during the school year with the addition of lots of people from the ages of 18-25. The Church Street Marketplace has a wide variety of bars, trendy shops, and restaurants, so it is a hot spot for young people.

Maggie grilling shrimp at the Chef in Training Class.
Maggie grilling shrimp at the Chef in Training Class.

Chef In Training Class

After a fun couple hours of festival festivities, we headed back to the Essex for our “Chef in Training” class. The Essex is, on top of a resort and spa, also in partnership with the New England Culinary Institute.

When I first heard of the Cook Academy Chef in Training class I thought we were going to be guests watching some of the culinary students prepare a three-course meal for us.

Again, I was wrong. We were the chefs in training! Along with three other people, we prepared a three-course “Off the Grill” menu, led by Chef Kerri Bouffard, in Essex’s impressive culinary classroom.

The class was a ton of fun. I learned very simple cooking techniques I wish I had known years ago, like ways to efficiently slice an avocado and cut an onion without releasing all the gases that make your eyes tear.

In The Essex training kitchen
In The Essex training kitchen.

For an appetizer, we prepared Cuban Mojo Shrimp and Avocado Salad. For an entrée, we had an Asian Slaw Salad and Five Spice Pork Ribs on top of jasmine rice and for dessert Lemon Ginger Pound Cake.

Chef Kerri was a great instructor and fun to work with. She has become famous in the area for her special donuts. Taking old-fashioned recipes from her grandmother’s diaries she reinvents them, adding a modern twist.

Biking Lake Champlain

The next morning, before we could even digest the tremendous amount of delicious food from the previous night, we had breakfast at The Tavern in the main lobby of the Essex.

Prepared by top chefs, the food was nothing less than fantastic! They had the best melt-in-your-mouth pancakes I have ever had.

After breakfast, we headed out early to do a full day of biking Lake Champlain on the Burlington Bike Path.

The Burlington Bike Path
The Burlington Bike Path.

The Burlington Bike Path

With the help of Local Motion, an organization promoting active transportation and recreation in northern Vermont, we found the Burlington trail and bike rental shops. We rented bikes from The Skirack, a local bike shop next to the path.

The path took us about three hours to do. It is 10 miles there and 10 miles back. The path was really something extraordinary. It went right along the lake with places to stop and rest along the way as well as beaches.

We stopped at North Beach on the way back to again participate in the waterfront celebrations. The bike path is an incredibly scenic and fun ride. I had no idea I could bike 20 miles so effortlessly!

After we got off the path I was craving was some sort of seafood and/or a sandwich. Thankfully right off the path is the Burlington Bay Market where, to my luck, I found exactly what I was looking for: crab cake sandwiches.

The next morning, we woke up early again and set out for our last day of exploring and adventures.

Tired bikers at the end of the path
Tired bikers at the end of the path.

Cruising Lake Champlain

At 9:45 am,  we met Rachel Connor, our tour guide, at the Burlington Waterfront dock for a 10 am departure on the Spirit of Ethan Allen, for a cruise of Lake Champlain.

The cruise was only an hour and a half long and exactly what I wanted to do the morning after biking 20 miles: sit in the sun and try to wake up, with the fresh Vermont air blowing across my face.

The Spirit is a nice boat with three decks, each having its own charm. Evening cruises offer seven different themes and live entertainment while enjoying the sunset over the lake.

We were an hour early for the Sunday brunch, but it looked great. All the food is fresh and prepared that day.

The day cruises are narrated tours of the lake describing the history and the unique geographic formations of the lake. While it was interesting, we had more fun chatting with Rachel. We learned lots of little-known facts about Lake Champlain.

View of Burlington from The Spirit
View of Burlington from The Spirit.

A really interesting fact is that the largest recorded mass sighting of Champ, the local lake monster, was onboard The Spirit. Passengers and crew all confirmed it; there’s even a video.

The Shelburne Museum

After the relaxing cruise (mildly disappointed I didn’t see Champ), we grabbed crepes at The Skinny Pancake and drove our rejuvenated selves to the Shelburne Museum.

I know, you hear ‘museum’ and it doesn’t sound as exciting as ropes courses and bike paths, but let me assure you, visiting the Shelburne is not your average museum day trip.

The Shelburne is on 45 acres of land and is known as one of the nations most diverse and unconventional museums of art, design, and Americana. There are 39 exhibition buildings on the property, 25 of which are historic and were relocated to the Museum grounds.

One of the 39 buildings at The Shelburne Museum
One of the 39 buildings at The Shelburne Museum.

Being an artist I was really impressed and excited to know that the museum housed masterpieces by Impressionists Monet, Cassatt, Manet, and Degas as well as more than 400 18th to 20th-century artifacts.

Shelburne Museum has one of the largest textile collections in the country, including some 800 quilts, coverlets, blankets and rugs.

Also really remarkable is the Full Throttle exhibit featuring vintage motorcycles, custom choppers and racing bikes and the Louis Comfort Tiffany exhibit exploring Tiffany’s use of natural motifs in furniture, ceramics, metalwork and jewelry. Both exhibits are open until October 25, 2009.

To see the whole Shelburne Museum takes a good five hours or more if you want to be thorough. The museum recognizes its size and thus tickets are valid for two consecutive days.

Overcoming Mental Limits

Vintage motorcycle at The Shelburne Museum
Vintage motorcycle at The Shelburne Museum.

After being blown away by the incredible exhibits at the Shelburne, we headed back to The Essex for a quick playtime before dinner on the 450-foot zip wires at the Northern Lights Adventure Center.

Northern Lights is a really cool hidden treasure right in the backyard of The Essex. The grounds include two rock climbing walls, a winter ice climbing wall on a 17,000-gallon frozen waterfall, dual 450-foot zip wires, two 40’ rappelling/abseiling faces, a 24’ observation deck, a 12’ climbing wall, a bouldering cube suitable for younger climbers, and a portable 24’ climbing tower.

Before I climbed up the rope ladder, the course did not look scary. I was so wrong. Halfway up the ladder I was frozen with terror behind our fearless instructor, but I pushed myself to the top knowing I would be really disappointed later if I went down.

Reaching the top of the platform I realized how high up I actually was. Our instructor asked if we knew how high we were; I refused to have him tell me until after we made it down.

Maggie on the suspension bridge
Maggie on the suspension bridge.

On the platform, we had a choice of two bridges: a cable tightrope bridge and a regular suspension bridge. We picked the safer of the two options and quickly walked across the suspension bridge to the zip line platform before the rain clouds rolled in.

At the zip lines, I felt much more relaxed. I was harnessed in with three sturdy lobster claw clips, counted to three and took the plunge down the 450-foot cable.

I can honestly say the whole process took about 15 minutes and was the highlight of the trip. It is a really satisfying feeling to push yourself to overcome mental limits.

At the end of my trip, I realized what a great place Burlington and Vermont are. Burlington is a big city, but everyone seemed to know everyone. All the locals were friendly, approachable and loved their tightly-knit community.

Someday I hope to spend an extended period of time in Vermont, where the air is clean, people are green, and there are no billboards cluttering up the stunning landscape.
Maggie Freleng

Maggie Freleng is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She now works in New York City at NPR.

Find out more about Burlington Vt on Vermont.com

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