When I first visited Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders fever had just kicked off. For those who have been living in a rock over the past year or so, Sanders is a Senator for the US state of Vermont who was running against Hilary Clinton in the Democratic Presidential Primaries. His grassroots campaign almost totally uprooted Clinton’s and gave a voice to a portion of left leaning voters who had felt disillusioned by the political process.
Being in Vermont just before I knew who he was was quite exciting. People walked the streets in Sanders t-shirts and when I asked them to tell me more about the Candidate, their eyes lit up; they couldn’t wait to tell this Aussie foreigner all about their liberal senator. But this wasn’t exclusive to politics; it was an experience you had with the locals when it came to anything they could call their own.
I talked about this earlier in the year in an article about my visit to the Vermont Brewers Festival; if something is “local”, a Vermontonian would tell you all about it with vigour and glee, because they were convinced there was no better. There was no better cheese. There was no better ice cream. There was no better Presidential candidate. And whether or not any of this was true became irrelevant. Because the very experience of meeting someone with that level of enthusiasm about their home State and what it produces is an experience filled with so much enjoyment that you’re going to leave a believer as well.
This is a College town, so their love of beer is understandable – but their love of local craft beer is perhaps the most prominent I’ve ever experienced – in any destination I’ve ever visited. I never saw any of the typical American brews in any of the bars or restaurants I visited; each had their own unique selection of drinks from the region. Alchemist’s Heady Topper was one of the most popular, though proved rather illusive. So many places we visited had sold out of the popular aLe – though we finally found it at the Prohibition Pig, which you’ll find out near the Ben n Jerry’s factory.
It was indeed an impressive ale – and at 8% it certainly packed a punch. I snuck in a couple of tacos at Prohibition Pig, too, and they were divine. Of course I had to have the Pork Carnitas. The Carne Asada Burrito is also a fine choice. The beers on offer are of a wide variety no matter where you go; I just had to try the Double Down Under IPA from Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, which “showcases New Zealand hops and was fermented with Australian ale yeast“. It was a powerful IPA, and I enjoyed it at American Flatbread (115 St Paul St), which delivers some fantastic flatbread pizzas alongside a stellar selection of craft beer.
No matter where you go and where you eat, you enjoy a meal with a promise of a “farm to plate” experience. It’s not just some gimmick to charge trendy diners more; this is simply how they’ve always done it here. They make the cheese, the beer, the bread – all of it is local… and the meat could not be fresher thanks to mobile butching units that frequent the State.
Though Burlington is not the State’s capital (that honour is bestowed on Montpelier), it is its most populous city, so as much as you’ll find the city to embrace its local produce and retail, there’s plenty of notable brands who have outlets in Burlington. Though it’s worth noting that with less than 50,000 people, it is the least populous city to hold the title of most populous city in an American State. But I digress…
Central to this is Church Street, which is open to pedestrians only – think Pitt Street in Sydney or the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Snuck amongst the local establishments, you’ll find a Macy’s department store and plenty of other familiar names in the Burlington Town Center – which is an indoor mall that has sat in its current location since 1976.
Walking down the street at 5pm on a Saturday, it’s packed with people shopping and dining; be it formally in a sit down environment (more often than not with Italian inspired cuisine), or on the street from one of the many vendors who pop up along the way. You might also see someone eating a sandwich out of a foil wrapper. Chances are they got it from Kountry Kart (155 Main Street), which is not far from Church Street. They serve breakfast sandwiches all day, and food until 3am. The “Steak and Bacon Shiner” seemed particularly popular the morning we went, and we can understand why. This was a college town and it was perfect hangover food. Of course you added a good amount of hot sauce to really enjoy this breakfast sandwich, which was filled with bacon, steak, egg and an hash brown. Now that’s a breakfast of champions!
Having the University of Vermont in Burlington gives the city a vibrant night life, and you’re surrounded by idealic, old buildings. It’s a lovely place to wander around, and a stroll down to the shores of Lake Champlain is a must. But to truly take in the area you need to get in a car and drive. Head south along Champlain for about 20 minutes and you’ll eventually hit Shelburne, passing a world of green pastures and stunning scenery along the way. Our destination was Shelburne Farms, a 1400-acre working farm and National Historic Landmark that also serves as home to the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival – which happens every July.
With over 40 artisanal cheese makers, Vermont has the highest number of cheese makers per capita in the world. And almost all of them are on display at the annual event – which will be in its 9th year come July 2017. There wasn’t just cheese at the event, however. You could also try wines, ciders infused with honey, meats and more. But you were there for the cheese, and if I could have brought some back to Australia with me I would have. I learned so much about cheese making in my visit, and tried so many incredible varieties. Like the beer festival before it, this cheese event proved one thing: Vermontonians love their cheese, and they have damn good reason to.
I particularly enjoyed learning about cave ageing from Grafton Village Cheese. Their Smoked Chili Cheddar was beautiful and the Cave Aged Leyden with Cumin was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. And this find is only the tip of the iceberg for an incredibly diverse offering of cheeses from a State that prides itself on its dairy output. And when it comes to dairy products from Vermont, there is none more famous than Ben n Jerry’s, the ice cream that got its start in a renovated petrol station in Burlington. Its main factory is now in Waterbury, 30 minutes from Burlington and its airport. There are half an hour tours that run every 10 minutes, which cost $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and are free for kids 12 and under.
The tour starts with a video about the history of the brand, and then you’re taken through the factory, where you learn fun facts like “waste ice cream is converted into methane blocks for farmers” and that they produce “hundreds of thousands of pints of ice cream a day”. And you end the tour with a taste test of one of their ice creams. Today we got the Salted Caramel Blondie, which was worth the price of admission alone. And the gift shop is pretty wonderful. Ben n Jerry’s scented candles anyone? I’ll take Strawberry Cheesecake!
People come from far and wide to visit the Ben n Jerry’s Factory, but this brand seems to be the exception amongst the Vermont businesses I came across during my visit. There seems to be a distinct desire to keep everything “Vermont” local and noncommercial. They want you to travel to their State to try everything they have on offer; and though some find their way outside of Vermont, few will go beyond the New England borders of its surrounding states. They want to keep it all for themselves, but once you get there, they’re going to be more than happy than to tell you all about it. Because they’re proud of what their city and their State produces, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
To be honest, neither would I.
To get to Burlington (BTV), Air Canada offer a service from Australia via Vancouver and Chicago. Other airlines will take you via New York (you can read my review of one such service HERE). But the best way to get to Burlington is via car or bus – taking in the beautiful surrounding States. We recommend driving down from the Canadian border, as it’s a short drive from Montreal – about 150 km and under two hours (not including the process of crossing the border from Canada into the US) – or about 5 and a half hours from New York City.
Where to Stay:
While in Burlington we stayed at the wonderful Hilton Garden Inn (100 Main Street), which is still a recent addition to the city. The hotel offered affordable and comfortable rooms, bathrooms filled with Nutrogena products and excellent breakfasts. Yes, their buffet featured a chef who would make you an omelette, and I have to pay particular mention to the welcoming lobby too, which always had some drinks and snacks for its guests. Another favourite just around the corner is Hotel Vermont (41 Cherry St), an independent hotel that excels in giving its guests the true Vermont experience, right near the shores of Lake Champlain. We enjoyed a few drinks at their bar and it was a vibrant atmosphere with rooms that were filled with charm.
The author visited Burlington with the kind support of Vermont Tourism and stayed as a guest of the Hilton Garden In . The Vermont Brewers Festival and the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival kindly looked after the writer.