The chill-out capital of the Northeast has fresh air and fresh beer: If you went to school there, you wouldn't leave, either
After Birkenstock sandals, the most common accessory in Burlington is the coffee cup. Every third store on Church Street, the four-block pedestrian area up the hill from Lake Champlain, seems to be a coffee shop. If people aren't sitting and sipping, they're walking, riding extra-long skateboards, or even pedaling bicycles with java in hand.
The thing about Burlington is, all that caffeine apparently never kicks in. No one ever seems in a hurry. Droopy-eyed shopkeepers, artists, and college kids always have the time to chat, play Hacky Sack, pet somebody's dog--or grab another coffee.
The most popular coffee comes from Speeder & Earl's. The tiny Church Street branch offers around 10 brews that change daily, often with three or four from Central America alone. The roasting takes place at a bigger location a few blocks away. As with Bartles & Jaymes, there's no real Speeder or Earl; the name derives from a 1950s song by the Cadillacs. But the company's logo is a sort of metaphor for Burlington's split personality. On every cup is a cartoon of two men: a thin dude with slick black hair and a leather jacket, and a David Crosby type with a mustache and long hair. The mountain-man beard is alive and well in Burlington, but the town also has its edgier side--perhaps the result of the five area colleges, which attract tons of out-of-state students. You'll spot a fair share of tattoos and black clothing.
Good music and good food are priorities, and big reasons why so many students stick around for years after graduation. On any given night, a handful of bands will take stages within a few blocks of Church Street, playing anything from Allman Brothers covers to hip-hop originals that are more hippie than gangsta. Red Square, a labyrinth of a place with multiple interconnected rooms, and Nectar's, stomping grounds for the jam band Phish, score points for reliably talented musicians who experiment to keep things interesting. For lunch, the Red Onion Cafe's signature sandwich--hot turkey, thin apple slices, tomato mayo, smoked Gruyère, and red onion on your choice of homemade bread--is legendary. Or create an instant picnic with readymade pastas and salads at Cheese Outlet Fresh Market, which also has more than a dozen kinds of olives and too many cheeses to name. Vermont Pub & Brewery serves excellent bar food and the best pints in town. There's even homemade root beer.
It seems like a waste to visit Vermont and not take in fresh air, green mountains, and lakes. Knock out all three by renting a bike at non-profit Local Motion, and go for a ride on the converted rail path that borders the lake. To really escape into the country, bring your bicycle on the scenic hour-long ferry and explore the winding mountain roads across the lake in Port Kent, N.Y. The country vibe continues back on the Vermont side at Willard Street Inn, despite the fact that the converted mansion is just four blocks from Church Street. Guests wake to breakfast in a handsome room with a piano and checkered marble floors, overlooking evergreens and a huge garden dotted with Adirondack chairs.