Late last year I started planning a weekend getaway to somewhere in Canada or the US in late January or early February. I was tossing up between three or four cities within an affordable travelling distance from Toronto, when I chanced upon this tweet in my timeline:
Montpeiler, Vermont is the only US state capital without a McDonald's.
— OMGFacts (@OMGFacts) December 31, 2012
Montpelier, eh? I’d never even heard of it before. A quick spot of research led me to find that not only was it the sole US capital without a McDonalds, but it was also the smallest American capital city, with a population of around 7,800. What’s more, it was only 500km from Toronto, and Porter Airlines had some decent prices on flights to the nearby city of Burlington, about 45 minutes north-west of the capital.
If there’s no McDonalds in Montpelier, I wondered, then what on earth do the locals do for food & entertainment?
That familiar sense of intrigue sparked within me and I knew my next weekend getaway would be to the New England state of Vermont. And so it was that on Friday last week I set upon my first of three days in Montpelier: an absolutely delightful little town that would ultimately take the #1 spot on my list of favourite cities in the United States.
In case you were also wondering what there is to do in and around Montpelier sans-Mickey D’s, I’ve compiled here a list of the beautiful sights, delicious food and inspiring attractions that I was lucky enough to see, eat and visit during my trip!
The Three Penny Taproom
I arrived in the early evening and the first thing I did after checking into the lovely room I booked through AirBnB was to drop by the Three Penny Taproom at 108 Main Street. Known to locals as one of the top spots in town for authentic Vermont fare, the bar was recommended by my friend Johanna, who met with me at the venue for a couple of drinks and a bite to eat.
The first thing that struck me was the impressive list of craft beers on tap – around 25 of them all up, with a decent sample of local brews from around the state. I loved the deep fruity tastes of the Zero Gravity Ourbier, but looking back over the tap list at the website I wish I’d noticed the Honeymaker Tea Mead from Maine… honey wine with black tea, lemon & mint… it sounds incredible!
And then came the food. What more can I say, but the Daily Burger was quite possibly the best burger I’ve ever eaten in my life. Perfectly portioned beef, pickles, jalapeño, cheese, lettuce & peanut butter on the freshest brioche bun. Burgers don’t come around like that very often.
I’d made plans the next morning to have breakfast at an eatery called the Skinny Pancake, but I ended up popping into a diner across the road called Coffee Corner at 83 Main Street. My AirBnB host, Karin, spoke very highly of the service and homestyle food available here. I was originally only going to have a coffee, but I couldn’t resist sticking around for my morning meal after a quick look at the menu, ultimately settling for the O’Bryan breakfast specialty (house-made corned beef hash with sautéed green peppers, served with eggs and toast). Wow. Two exquisite American-style meals in a row – I was in food heaven.
It was around about this time that I noticed a recurring theme to the cafes & restaurants around Vermont: they pride themselves on sourcing as much local food direct from the farm as possible, with maximum community involvement at the point of consumption. At the Coffee Corner I sat at what’s known as the ‘community table’, which is essentially a square bar positioned around the barista’s counter with seating for 10-12 people. The idea at the community table was to interact with the people who sat around you – and indeed I struck up a good couple of conversations with the locals around me while munching away on my corned beef.
The Vermont State House
Located on the aptly-named State Street and adjacent to the woody hills of Hubbard Park, the grandest piece of architecture in Montpelier has to be the Vermont State House, serving as the capitol of the state since the mid-1800’s. The State House is open to visitors during the week but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see its interior as it’s closed on weekends during the winter. I was quite disappointed about not getting a glimpse inside – I was told it’s just as beautiful internally as it is externally, and a whopping 95% of its reviews on TripAdvisor are ranked as very good or excellent.
It’s interesting to note that members of the public are welcome to sit in on parliamentary sessions whenever the legislators are at work. Apparently it’s also not uncommon to see the governor and legislators line up at Pinky’s sandwich shop for lunch, mingling and chatting with fellow Vermonters.
Reason enough to visit Montpelier again in the summertime, I think?
After my visit to the State House I made my way around the nearby backstreets in search of the path leading into Hubbard Park. Set on a hill to the north of the city, my map suggested there were some good hiking trails within its grounds, culminating with a century-old stone tower at the summit. The map wasn’t wrong. With a layer of fresh snow covering the track and the towering woods above me, it was one of the most beautiful and peaceful short hikes I’ve taken since arriving on continental North America.
After descending from the Hubbard Park trail via Cliff St, I met with my host Karin again who very kindly offered to drive me a few miles north of Montpelier to Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks. In operation for over 200 years, the farm claims to produce the best maple syrup in the whole of the state. We spent quite some time browsing through the huge store, full of every type of maple-related food item and souvenir you can imagine. They had a tasting bar where you could sample the different grades of syrup from lightest to darkest – Vermont Fancy Grade, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B. I picked up half a pint of the delicious Grade A Medium, as well as some maple candy and an apple cider donut!
Also on-site was a theatre with a multimedia display and an outdoor museum, but there wasn’t much on show when we visited, presumably due to it still being a month or two away from this year’s sugar season. However, there were some great woodwork displays, and I got to see a tapped maple tree in the woods at the rear of the shop.
Unfortunately I forgot how strict the TSA are at the airport when it comes to liquids, and as such I had to throw away my half-pint of syrup when I left Vermont 🙁 But not to worry: I ordered some more online and am looking very forward to it arriving soon.
Thanks also to Kumlu for suggesting Morse Farm as a great local attraction to visit.
The Vermont Countryside
Instead of heading straight back to Montpelier, Karin took me on a detour through the Vermont countryside. We travelled about 8 miles out of town along some gorgeous meandering dirt roads, where we eventually stopped at the North Montpelier Pond. So far over this side of the world I’d walked along the banks of a half-frozen river in Oakville and I’d seen the icy surface of Lake Ontario extending out a hundred metres before meeting water, but the North Montpelier Pond was the first time I’d experienced an entirely frozen body of water.
Our ears were met with an eerie creaking noise as we stepped onto the snowy surface, but we were reassured to see the fresh marks of car tires stretching well into the centre of the lake. The ice can’t have been that unstable. It was quite a moment to know I was standing on a thin solid meniscus only a few inches above the aquatic life trapped below.
We continued south along a few more secluded roads, past elaborate homesteads & farms and into the nearby township of Barre. The Vermont countryside is a truly wondrous area of the world to explore by car and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see a small portion of it with Karin.
Just outside the township of Barre lies the very unique 65-acre Hope Cemetery. First used as a burial ground in the late 1800’s, it’s famous for its 10,000+ tombstones being carved entirely out of Vermont granite, many of which are the works of post-revolutionary Italian migrants. We crawled slowly along the necropolis laneways marvelling at the efforts surviving family members went to in order to memorialise their deceased loved ones, with designs ranging from a soccer ball to an airplane to a racecar.
It’s an ironic fact that the sculptors who worked on the tombstones suffered a higher-than-average death rate due to the inhalation of silica materials from the granite dust. Having said that, with knowledge that death was impending, the sculptors had the chance to design their own elaborate tombs before their time came up.
Ben & Jerry’s Factory
Karin & I returned to Montpelier after a delightful couple of hours touring the countryside. By this stage my friend Johanna had finished work for the day so we met again, and she was kind enough to take me on yet another drive west of Montpelier to visit the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury (another local attraction recommended to me by Kumlu).
I can count on half a hand the number of times I’d consumed Ben & Jerry’s in the past, and it was recent news to me that it was a Vermont institute, having been founded in Burlington in 1978. What better way to familiarise myself with the brand than to go on a tour of their ice cream plant?
The tour was quite fascinating and took us around half an hour to complete, culminating with a tasting session in the Flavour Lab (more of that in a second). We weren’t allowed to take photos of the actual factory in case we were spies from Häagen-Dazs, but I can tell you there are miles and miles of steel pipes that transport milk, cream, sugar and all kinds of delicious fruity/chocolatey/marshmallowy/swirly ingredients from massive storage barrels into mixing tubs and finally into the pint buckets that get dispatched out to the shops.
So there was a tasting session at the end of our tour where we all got to sample an experimental new ice cream recipe that hadn’t yet made its way into the shops. The idea is that the tour group is invited to give feedback on the sample; the more positive comments it receives, the more likely the recipe is to be manufactured on a larger scale.
What sample did we get?
Yep. Broccoli ice cream with kidney bean chunks and a cheddar swirl.
Now I’m a moderately adventurous guy when it comes to food, but there are some ingredients that just aren’t suitable for use with dairy products. I know from experience that mushrooms are one of them, but broccoli and kidney beans can also be added to that list.
I did try a cup of the Phish Food a few days later at the Ben & Jerry’s store in Burlington though! That’s more like it.
Cold Hollow Cider Mill
Thanks to Johanna’s keen interest in local food & beverage, she knew of a few more must-see foodie locations in the general vicinity of the Ben & Jerry’s factory, so we headed north toward Stowe to drop by the Cold Hollow Cider Mill. Similarly to Morse Farm, there was a large country-style bakery & store full of all kinds of local food items and souvenirs, including the sweetest apple cider imaginable and my second cider donut for the day, all produced on-site. Adjacent to the store was an exhibition on the cider-making process with free tastings available, which you could pour yourself out of a huge cider barrel. It wasn’t to be our last free tasting of the day either 🙂
Cabot Cheese Annex
Returning south along Route 100, we made another pitstop at the Cabot Cheese Annex. A cooperative of 1,200 dairy farms across New England and New York, Cabot Creamery has two retail outlets in Vermont dedicated to the co-op’s produce and other Vermont specialties. It was a fantastic discovery for a cheese-lover like myself, with well over 30 different cheeses available for sampling, and scores more on the shelves for purchase. I left with a highly-recommended block of Tarentaise, a semi-hard Alpine cheese from Spring Brook Farm in Reading, VT.
Green Mountain Coffee
We snuck in one final stop before returning to Montpelier – the Green Mountain Coffee Visitor’s Centre, located alongside the Waterbury train station. Although it was too late in the evening for a caffeinated beverage, the snowfall made for a perfect backdrop to photograph the gorgeous old building.
New England Culinary Institute
After bidding farewell to Johanna, I made my way up to an eatery she recommended called Salt Cafe, a small restaurant that specialises on local food and changes their menu every few weeks depending on the available produce. Unfortunately they were booked out for the night, so I fell back on plan B and had my dinner instead at the New England Culinary Institute.
The NECI operates a number of restaurants in Montpelier that act as a classroom for students, who learn the hospitality trade by cooking for & serving actual paying customers. As with seemingly every other eatery in Vermont, the NECI places a large emphasis on the farm-to-table concept, with students encouraged to develop relationships with farmers and to formulate their menu in accordance with the seasons. I dined at the NECI on Main outlet, and had the pan-seared Arctic char with a spectacular batch of dessert sushi to finish off.
The Skinny Pancake
I finally made it to the Skinny Pancake for breakfast on my final day in Montpelier. Located across the road from Coffee Corner at 89 Main St, the menu is comprised of an impressive selection of sweet & savoury crêpes & pancakes, as well as a few non-crêpe options for good measure. I had the rather compelling Frumple cake: a sweet crêpe cooked briefly, then twisted into a light pile and dusted with cinnamon sugar.
It was so good I couldn’t resist a second Skinny Pancake at their location in Burlington Airport the next day.
Buch Spieler Music
I try to make a point of visiting an independently-owned record store in each city I travel through. Buch Spieler Music was the perfect example in Montpelier, at 27 Langdon Street. They don’t just sell CDs & records; they also have a large vintage clothing section, audio accessories and a DJ hire service.
I had a chat to a guy called Jeff at the counter and asked if he could recommend some local indie music to check out. It turned out he plays in a Montpelier blues/rock band himself called Lake Superior, so I gladly bought a copy of their recently-released album Steam Engine which has a great raw Black Keys kinda sound to it. Check it out!
The streets of downtown Montpelier
I had just as much fun randomly wandering the streets of downtown Montpelier over the weekend as I did visiting its many sights & attractions. The architecture, parklands and positive spin on its street art were all very satisfying facets to discover.
Get yourself to Montpelier!
I was altogether very pleasantly surprised at how, within the space of a few weeks, I went from not knowing a thing about Vermont’s capital to securing its place at the top of my favourite US cities list. Granted I haven’t visited very many US cities yet, but it’s going to take a lot to top the serenity, friendliness and community spirit of Montpelier.
So now we all know: there is an abundance of awesome stuff to see, eat and visit in and around Montpelier despite there being no McDonalds!
If you’re ever in the area, do yourself a favour and spend some time in this beautiful little city.
But what are you supposed to do in Montpelier if you REALLY crave a fix of Maccas?
Well then you just drive a couple of miles south to the town of Berlin!
Oh, and by the way…
I was just kidding about the broccoli cheddar chunk at Ben & Jerry’s.
They actually gave us Salty Triple Caramel Chunk: salty caramel ice cream with gobs of salty caramel and milk chocolate salty caramel truffles 🙂