Burlington, Vermont: Greener Pastures

  • Article by: KERRI WESTENBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2007 - 9:00 PM

Fortified by a friendly farmers' market and sense of place, Burlington, Vt., lives up to its hippie reputation in delightful ways.

In a weathered barn strung with twinkle lights, I stood chatting with a farmer who topped his slick hair with a baseball cap. Under the beamed roof, children ate cookies on bales of hay while their parents two-stepped across the creaky floor.

Outside, gaggles of people drank beer and ate slices of wood-fired pizza topped with beets and goat cheese, both local products. Banners flapped in the breeze near the brick oven, declaring "Thank you, farmers" and "Good food helps." Other people ambled through a garden crowded with hollyhocks, black-eyed Susans and daylilies, where the swell of cricket songs drowned out laughter spilling from the barn. Tents filled with long tables for the party glowed as darkness fell.

I was nearly glowing, too. I had been in Burlington, Vt., for less than 24 hours, and already I felt like an insider.

Lucky travelers happen on a place they like so much that they dream about living there. Burlington -- a city of 40,000 set between Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains, with an outdoorsy vibe -- pulled on me that way. Except that its residents are so welcoming, I got to pretend that I actually did live there during my weekend visit.

No fewer than four people had invited me to the party -- a fundraiser, really, for some growers who had been flooded out that spring. One of them had been the farmer. I'd met him earlier in the day -- not at a farm, mind you, but at the art museum where he is a curator.

In the barn, he explained the situation before the auction of donated goods, from a handmade cabinet to a session with a writing coach. The parcel of land we stood on, a 354-acre swath in the heart of the city along the Winooski River, was prone to flooding. No one dared to build homes there, despite its prime location. Instead, it became Intervale Center, a place for start-up farmers to work the land, provided they do it in an environmentally sustainable way -- and can endure occasional high water.

The party honored the many who have answered the call. And while I mingled with artists with tattoos, tanned and fit parents of young kids, bearded students from the University of Vermont and my farmer friend, it occured to me: In Burlington, it's hip to be a farmer -- or at least a friend of one.

A bounty of friends and fruit

I was introduced to that bit of local wisdom in the morning, when I went to the farmers' market, held every Saturday from May through October in the classic New England-style town square. The event had the feel of a community celebration. Dogs played on the grass, friends chatted on the courthouse steps and children splashed in the fountain behind the stalls that lined the square.

Many vendors hung signs that said "Vermont Farm to Family Program," indicating they accept food stamps. Collectively they sold all manner of gustatory delights: shiitake mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes, purple potatoes.

Without a kitchen, I couldn't indulge in the culinary free-for-all, though I nibbled fresh blueberries for breakfast and, not much later, savored an organic beef burger for lunch.

Fortified, I set off on foot to see the rest of the town, which is perched on a hillside next to Lake Champlain. I headed uphill to the campus of the University of Vermont, founded in 1791, where steeples top red brick buildings. As I made my way back downhill, I walked past well-tended, stately Victorian and Georgian homes and caught glimpses of the vast lake and New York's Adirondack Mountains on the distant side.

Before I got to the waterfront, though, I veered off to the Church Street Marketplace, a brick-paved, open-air pedestrian mall. That's when I began to understand that Burlington deserves its outdoorsy, hippie reputation, even beyond the love-fest farmers' market.

I sat on a bench to take in the scene. A street musician favored Pete Seeger tunes. Bikes overflowed a bike rack. A diner at a outdoor table told his companions, "Organic food is the only stuff with any flavor."

Fresh off the farmers' market, I saw his point. Still, I thought I might find something else with flavor, like a Ben & Jerry's. The do-good ice cream company got its start when the duo opened their first store in downtown Burlington, and an oversized storefront with a bright yellow interior awaited just down the way. For the record, Heath Bar Crunch packs in the flavor.

Embracing the outdoors

I ate my cone on my way to the waterfront to check out an area that, in recent years, the city has worked to reclaim. There is a science museum and parks. Boats offer sightseeing tours and rides to New York. A biking and walking trail stretches for miles in either direction.

I hopped on a bike and rode north, past rambling h omes and wooded peninsulas and serious joggers. Rain began to fall. Drenched, I turned around.

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