Inspecting Burlington, Vermont

The Thinker by Rodin

We last visited Burlington, Vermont in 2008. It was practically a drive by encounter, as we spent only one night. It was also not a proper encounter as we arrived after a long day of touring and hung out in South Burlington at a hotel along a strip. This most recent visit was not long enough either, but its length was based on the assumption that the city was likely too far north as a serious candidate for our retirement. It was more of a way station on the way to Lake Placid, New York in the Adirondacks where we are at tonight and plan to finish our vacation.

Still, if we were heading that way it made sense to see the city and check out a few potential retirement areas. Unlike Northampton, Massachusetts you can find condominiums here that are actual condominiums instead of houses remodeled and subdivided into legal entities called condominiums. It took some in-depth Google searching to find them. For the most part, Burlington is like Northampton and is overrun with single family houses. Burlington is growing, however, and it is stimulating demand for something more than apartments, so you are seeing townhouse communities here and there and even the occasional condominium community.

One of these was a place called Eastwood Commons. It sits in South Burlington off a main drag, next to a senior living center and block of apartments, all obviously part of a project by the same developer. All the units looked reasonably new: a few years old at most. Unfortunately, all you could really do was look at it from the outside and watch people going in and out of the building, which included lots of families with children. You needed an access card to actually get into the building and there was no office to go to for more information, as the condominiums had all been sold. No matter, they weren’t quite what we were looking for, although you could walk to strip malls instead of drive there, which was at least different.

There are also condominiums of the sort we saw in Ithaca at the start of our vacation: basically two single family houses stuck together along one wall. What made them condominiums was they were all virtually identical right down to the same bland vinyl siding and two car garages. They looked relatively new as well. Surprisingly, these were not unacceptable, as they had a lot of space and something of a view of Lake Champlain in the distance. Presumably the condo association worried about things like mowing the grass and plowing your driveway. You can see them on Google Maps here.

The condos that interested me from afar were The Cascades in Winooski Falls. Winooski Falls sits on the north side of Burlington, and these condos, or at least seventy percent of them, have at least some view of the falls at Winooski as well, as they are right next to them. This whole area was purchased by a developer. Like the project in South Burlington, it includes a variety of tightly coupled communities. The condos sit across the street from an upscale apartment complex, and behind them was housing designed for students at the nearby University of Vermont, also by the same developer. The street level has retail that caters to local residents. If the goal is to integrate a new more urban-like community into an old one, it’s a work still in progress. In fact, a second building of condos is going up near the first building, but nearby old Winooski Falls does not seem ready to turn make itself look historic, and seems perhaps a bit shabby. Still, Winooski Falls and Burlington in general has a certain charm. In many ways it felt a lot like Ithaca, both big college towns, but Burlington is actually the larger city.

Church Street Marketplace, Burlington VT
Church Street Marketplace, Burlington VT

Downtown Burlington seemed much larger and cosmopolitan than I expected. It is no Boston, but it has aged in a good way and now contains a street mall that looks very similar to the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. In fact, part of the mall is on Pearl Street. It’s called the Church Street Marketplace and it seems to be more of a happening a place than the nearby indoor shopping mall. Parking is problematic, as in both Northampton and Boulder, but there are plenty of restaurants and eclectic shops to enjoy if that takes your fancy. Burlington is overall quite charming, and it is not hard to find views of Lake Champlain, which acts as the bottom of a picture frame to the blue green Adirondack Mountains of New York State. The view is quite stunning compared to what we usually get in the lower forty-eight, and makes it quite unique among American cities.

Burlington itself seems to have colored up since our 2008 visit. The city is a State Department host city for refugees, so Asians and Africans are moving into this cold but lovely area of the country. The coloring up is a work in progress, but encouraging. As in Ithaca, the University of Vermont is also a large anchor, bringing in educated people that disproportionately enrich the community both financially and intellectually. Still, this is Burlington, and it is so far north that it is just ninety minutes by car from Montreal. It is in the continental United States, but just barely. It feels much further out because aside from Montreal there is no other city of appreciable size within hours of it. And it is in the Snow Belt, an asset if you are a skier, but to most of the lower forty-eight, some place to visit for a brief time but not to live. Its snow is measured in feet every winter and it can spend weeks at subzero temperatures. So the land is cheap and the cost of living is in general reasonably cheap too. Our survey of housing prices suggests overall real estate is about a third less than in Northampton. Our house in Northern Virginia could probably be purchased for about $200,000 in Burlington. One other downside for us: the state will tax my federal pension, unlike Massachusetts and New York State.

Unlike Northampton and vicinity, Burlington feels more like the rest of America in that strip malls and fast food are easier to find, open space is merely undeveloped space, and it is more commercialized in general. In my mind this makes Northampton more desirable overall. Still, we haven’t canceled Burlington off our list of possible locations to retire as a result of this visit. Burlington, like Ithaca and Northampton will require more thought and study as we weigh the pros and cons of each area.

Lake Champlain, near Charlotte VT
Lake Champlain, near Charlotte VT

One thing is clear about Burlington: it is a beautiful area to live, particularly during the summer months. The Queen Anne’s Lace surrounds the edges of highways and streets in these summer months. Healthy deciduous and coniferous trees abound, the grass is intensely green and the frame of Lake Champlain and the nearby Adirondack Mountains always makes you feel somewhere special and magical. And summer tends to be delightful, instead of something to endure like we have in Northern Virginia. Couple this with Burlington itself, a clean and modern small-scale city with a university anchor and a lively downtown and you have a largely unspoiled and inviting community. As a bonus, it is continuously infused with clean and healthy air streaming off the lake and filtered by the Adirondack Mountains.

Anyone interested in living in northern climates would be a fool to scratch the Burlington area off their list. It’s most definitely worth a visit.

Mount Washington and beyond

The Thinker by Rodin

It takes a different kind of railroad to push a train up a thirty-seven percent grade. Specifically, it takes a cog railroad. Aside from the normal rails on the track, a cog railroad has a third rail between the tracks with steel bars about four inches long and a few inches apart. The cogwheel attached to the locomotive’s engine fit nicely between the bars. At full steam, you make at best a couple miles an hour ascending the side of a mountain.

The railway in question is undoubtedly one of the more eclectic rail lines in the country. Some twenty years ago, we took the Cass Scenic Railroad from Cass, West Virginia to the top of Bald Knob. We thought its eleven percent grade was impressive. However, it has nothing on the Mount Washington Cog Railway. You board your railcar at a depot about six miles from Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

So in a way it is amazing that in a bit more than an hour its locomotive has pushed us and sixty or so fellow passengers from the base station some four thousand feet above sea level to the summit of Mount Washington, which is at 6,288 feet. Mount Washington happens to be the highest mountain in New England. The tree line rapidly disappears as cog by cog you ascend the mountain. With each cog, you can feel a ka-chink, which makes for a noisy journey. Our coal powered train put an impressive amount of environmentally incorrect dark smoke into the atmosphere. Progress though is coming to this railway, which started in 1869 and has locomotives going back to its beginning still in service. One of the locomotives runs on biodiesel fuel.

We were lucky with the weather. It was a partly cloudy day, however there were clouds just below the summit, which somewhat obscured our views. The Appalachian Trail cuts across Mount Washington’s summit. We saw some backpackers, but most of them appeared to be tourists only willing to hike a few miles across this rocky and largely vegetative-free part of the trail. If you do not want to pay more than sixty dollars a ticket to ascend Mount Washington on the railway, you can also drive your car up to the summit. The mountain is the home of an observatory as well as a weather station, which once registered a surreal wind gust of 231 miles an hour. In addition to the observatory and weather station, there are places to buy a meal and the compulsory gift shop. I was glad we paid for the train ride, which took close to three hours round trip. You cannot get an experience like this from a car.

Mount Washington thus was literally the high point of our trip, sandwiched about midway in our vacation. I almost feel compelled to say that our vacation was all downhill from here but that was not the case. The mountain was less than forty miles to the Connecticut River, which separates New Hampshire from Vermont.

Vermont was lush, verdant and as intensely green in August as Ireland is in the spring. Vermont feels surreal, being too bucolic to feel real, yet there we were, surrounded by gently rolling hills, pastoral meadows, cows, some horses and not many people. The Queens Anne Lace is plentiful along the sides of its roads in August. Vermont is not big enough to have any place that feels like a metropolis, with Burlington (where we spent on night) coming the closest. We drove through Montpelier, its state capitol, which feels more like a village than a city. The shining golden dome of its state capitol sits within blocks of some of the most decrepit housing in the state. In many ways, Vermont reminds me of Utah. It is mostly rural and overwhelmingly white. No doubt, there are people of color here somewhere, but you have to look hard. As with Utah, its citizens proved to be welcoming and hospitable.

Vermont is more recently known as the state that made Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream famous. Since it was on our way, we stopped in Waterbury and spent $3 a ticket for a tour of its factory. The factory is a surprisingly big draw in Vermont, pulling in hundreds of tourists, many of them children. We could not have picked a better summer day to visit. Cheerful summer help directed us to parking spots on the lawn. Ben & Jerry sold the business years ago, but it still feels very much like they own it. Believing that a business should give back to the community, seven percent of its pretax profits still go to charity. There were long lines to get to their ice cream cone counter where you could order any of their exotic flavors including oddities like Chunky Monkey. The tour itself included a few short videos and an observation booth that looks down onto their production floor. Other than the free samples given out at the end of the tour, the tour itself was not very memorable but nonetheless fun in a quirky sort of way. The casual and fun attitude of its employees was quite evident and welcome.

Our stay in Vermont included a fabulous suite at a Mainstay Inn overlooking Lake Champlain. We could see sailboats anchored in a nearby bay and the blue green Adirondack Mountains ascending in the west. It would be hard to pick any location with a more impressive view. We also turned out to be only a couple blocks from Pauline’s Café where you can dine on exceptional food at the cost of $15 to $25 an entrée.

Friday morning we left Burlington and drove south along U.S. 7, stopping for a while in Bennington, Vermont. We stopped to see the impressive Bennington Battle Monument, a 306-foot high stone monument to the militias that fought the British in 1777. It looks something like a slightly scaled down Washington Monument, only much more accessible. Tickets to the observation tower are only two dollars each and are available at the gift shop. Inside the base of the monument, there is a mini museum that you can tour at no charge.

Our Friday evening plans included a concert at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts deep in the Berkshires. Tanglewood is the official summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, to save some money during the overpriced summer season, I picked a hotel about thirty miles away in East Greenbush, New York. This made commuting to Tanglewood, not to mention finding the place, challenging. It was worth the hassle. Wolf Trap Farm Park near Washington D.C. is clearly modeled on Tanglewood. Our concert was in “The Shed”, actually a very large open-air pavilion where lawn seats were available for less than $10. There we heard two pieces of 19th century French classical music.

The first was Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor featuring the soloist Janine Jansen. She turned out to be worth the price of admission and then some, giving a spirited and full body interpretation of this work. It was followed by a symphony I have listened to many times but never heard performed live, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Our conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos had his work cut out for him because this is exceptionally challenging music to conduct with its wide breadth and frequent discordant portions of the score. The Boston Symphony Orchestra proved they were worthy of their reputation as a first class orchestra. The weather was cool but comfortable. This was our daughter’s first live classical music concert.

Our final vacation event today required us to head back to the Berkshires to a town called Stockbridge, just a few miles from Tanglewood. The town hosts an annual theater festival, similar in some ways to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival held annually in Stratford, Ontario. We attended two plays there in 2005. Like Lenox, which hosts Tanglewood, Stockbridge is a too perfect example of a New England town. To live there it helps to be independently wealthy. We saw Samuel Beckett’s classic 1953 play Waiting for Godot, still as befuddling and existential as it was in 1953, at the Unicorn Theater, a small venue that probably seats no more than one hundred fifty. The director tried to liven it up with a bit of humor for American audiences, which helped to make endurable what is really a very bleak play. This play was a stretch for all of us and worth seeing once for the experience. Once is probably enough for a lifetime.

Tonight we are holed up at a Microtel Inn in Middleburg, New York. The hotel is hosting a large group of Hassidic Jews, which is making for an interesting cultural experience. Hassidic Jews have children who behave very much like everyone else, judging from their screaming as they run up and down the hallway. We return to our home and our cat tomorrow afternoon.