ST. ALBANS, VERMONT — Amazing what a makeover can do.
Just a few years ago, St. Albans was a community struggling to hold on to its identity. After a long fight to keep the giant out, a Walmart store was set to open on the fringe of town. Many downtown storefronts were empty. Was the historic town doomed, people wondered?
Quite the opposite: downtown St. Albans has never looked so good. An ambitious $3-million Main St. overhaul — a project that brought together city hall, residents and businesses — has re-energized this 253-year-old city of 7,000 people. All summer and fall, sidewalk garden boxes cascade with flowers, and people linger at street-side restaurant terrasses. There’s a Wednesday evening summer concert series, a lively Saturday-morning farmer’s market, public art exhibits and a new crop of businesses housed in the grand, historic red-brick buildings lining Main St.
St. Albans is a perfect destination for a day trip from Montreal, an hour and a half’s drive, 25 kilometres south of the Canada-U.S. border. It’s closer than Burlington, which is a perennial favourite among Quebecers. St. Albans is friendly, easy to navigate. Most of what there is to see and do is clustered along Main St. facing Taylor Park, the green space that features one of the prettiest fountains in New England. Stroll, browse in the shops, picnic in the park, have lunch. Nature-lovers might also want to head to the waterfront. St. Albans is set among rolling green pastures. But it also happens to sit right on the shores of Lake Champlain, with a beach and state park within city limits.
What to do on a day trip to St. Albans? Here’s a sampling.
An ambitious overhaul of Main St. has re-energized St. Albans, a 253-year-old city of 7,000 people.
Just wandering the streets is a treat. St. Albans is a compact city covering no more than 2 square miles. Many of its beautiful and well-preserved Victorian and Craftsman-style buildings date back to the city’s heyday as a railway hub in the 1800s.
The historic downtown district is clustered along Main St., and around Taylor Park, with its benches, lawns and flower gardens. The park’s centrepiece is one of the most beautiful fountains in all of New England — a 129-year-old, three-tiered cast iron and zinc sculpture (nicknamed “The Ladies” ), which was recently restored.
Owner Nancy Hudak stocks a great selection of organic teas, dried fruits and other foods at her dog-friendly Rail City Market.
There’s a TJ Maxx on the outskirts of town (in the Highgate Shopping Plaza, 255 Swanton Rd., 802-524-7212) for those who need their discount fix. But meandering along Main St. in St. Albans downtown commercial district is more pleasant. There are no chain stores here. Instead, Main St. is lined with small, independent restaurants, cafés and shops like The Eloquent Page (70 North Main St., 802-527-7243), a used and new bookstore where you might pull a $3 book of Basho haikus out of a bin. A few doors down, there’s a world-class kitchen shop called As The Crow Flies (58 North Main St., 802-524-2800), which has locally made cutting boards and textiles and a brilliant and useful collection of kitchen essentials — from table linens and glassware to utensils and pots and pans.
At the other end of Main St., Rail City Market (8 South Main St., 802-524-3769) is a natural-foods store housed in a most extraordinary old building. Owner Nancy Hudak stocks a great selection of organic bulk teas, dried fruits and other foods, as well as local Vermont maple products plus a section of locally made jewelry and crafts. This might also be the most dog-friendly place on Earth!
Elaine Jones’s antique shop Vintage Vibe features furniture, glassware and several rooms of clothes and collectibles.
One of my favourite shops is Vintage Vibe (44 South Main St., 802-752-9464), an antique shop filled with stuff from the 1920s to the ’80s at reasonable prices (even for Canadians factoring in the exchange rate.) Owner Elaine Jones is a lifelong collector of all things quirky, cool and colourful who quit her job to open this shop. (She’s the woman behind the counter wearing the fabulous vintage clothes.) Rugs, table linens, glassware, art, barware, vinyl. Also several rooms of clothes and collectibles on consignment from other vendors. Open Wednesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and by appointment.
Twiggs American Gastropub, which faces Taylor Park, has a lively atmosphere and good pub food. CHRISTINNE MUSCHI / MONTREAL GAZETTE
There are quite a few restaurants to choose from along Main St., most of them boasting a sidewalk terrasse. Try Twiggs American Gastropub (24 North Main St., 802-524-1405), with a lively atmosphere and good pub food like burgers, nachos, burgers, mac ‘n’ cheese and fish and chips. The funky interior boasts a rotating exhibit of local art and great music.
Mimmo’s Pizza (22 South Main St., 802-524-2244) is a family-run Italian restaurant with great old-school Italian-American pasta, heroes and calzones, plus what is widely recognized to be the best New York-style thin-crust pizza outside of the 212 area code. Or if it’s a nice day, consider a picnic lunch. Head over to Evelyne’s Fine Foods (15 Center St., 802-782-1852). Evelyn Martin is the baker and pastry chef behind this tiny shop serving salads, sandwiches on freshly made baguettes and pies, tarts and cakes (cream puffs, maple latte cakes and pineapple cheesecakes are among the popular draws.)
The Traveled Cup Coffee House is a popular place to hang out.
There are two great cafés downtown The Traveled Cup Coffee House (94 North Main St., 802-524-2037) is a popular hangout, with comfy sofas and armchairs, serving coffee and fresh-baked sweet and savoury goods. Down the street, Catalyst Coffee(22 North Main St., 802-393-9808) is a newer venture serving fair-trade coffee roasted in Vermont. Espresso and lattes, of course, but also siphon coffee and maple milk and maple limeade (St. Albans is after all, the maple capital of Vermont and host of the spring Maple Festival.)
Craft beer fans should stop at 14th Star Brewery Co. (133 North Main St #7, 802 528 5988), located in a former bowling alley. Try the flagship Valor Ale, a hoppy red ale, or one of the other award-winning brews. (Open from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.)
If you are visiting on the weekend, go to the Northwest Farmer’s Market, which sprawls out in Taylor Park every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., from mid-May until the end of October. It hosts 45 vendors selling fresh seasonal produce, jams and jellies, wine, meat, poultry and eggs from nearby farms, as well as jewelry, soaps and gift items — all of it grown, baked, foraged or handcrafted by the vendors themselves. There’s plenty of opportunity for snacking, too: sweet and salty kettle corn, Maple City Smoke’s slow-cooked brisket and pulled pork sandwiches, tacos. Buy a dozen blue-shelled eggs from Mary Gagné’s Araucana hens for $3.50 a dozen. Or choose a sharp, sturdy and environmentally friendly tote bag made from recycled animal-feed sacks, handmade by Abenaki Craftworks ($7).
There’s also Hudak Farm Stand and Greenhouse (599 St. Albans Rd., Swanton, 802-527-1147). Three miles north of downtown St. Albans, Hudak’s is a 150-acre family farm that follows organic practices and sells its seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as local honey, jam, cider, maple syrup, baked goods, cheese and pottery, out of a beautiful barn. Open every day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. (until 6 p.m. on Sunday) until Nov. 1.
Art-lovers will want to check out Artist in Residence (10 South Main St., 802-528-5222), a co-operative art gallery featuring the paintings, drawings, jewelry, sculpture and woodworking of 40 member artists, all from Vermont. Each month the gallery showcases the works of several featured artists.
St. Albans Museum (9 Church St., 802-527-7933) is a fun place to visit, chock full of curious and interesting toys, artifacts and other bits of local history. There’s a military room, medical room and even a railroad room in which visitors are transported to a century-old waiting room complete with a ticket seller’s booth and telegraph equipment. It’s housed in a handsome Renaissance Revival-style building flanking Taylor Park. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for 5 and up. Open Wednesday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday, 10 to 2. The museum closes for winter in the first week of October and reopens in early June.
Outdoorsy types and families with children who need to burn off energy will want to set aside a little time to get up close to Lake Champlain. Drive down Lake St. toward St. Albans Bay to get to Kill Kare State Park (2714 Hathaway Point Rd. 802-524-6021). The park’s official summer season ends on Labour Day weekend. But the grounds are open year-round (though without facilities). There’s a small-cove beach with incredible views of the lake and the Adirondack Mountains in the distance, plus broad lawns for Frisbee throwing and running around. During summer, kayaks and canoes are available for rent and there’s the Island Runner passenger ferry, which crosses seven times daily to Burton Island State Park, with campsites, walking and biking trails.
AT A GLANCE
To drive to St. Albans from Montreal, cross the Champlain Bridge and take Highway 10E. Get off at Exit 22, and merge onto Highway 35 S toward Highway 89. At St-Sébastien, turn left onto Highway 133S, cross the border into the United States and follow I-89 S to Exit 20.
If you decide to stay overnight, check out antique-collector Elaine Jones’s new downtown St. Albans short-term rental apartment, outfitted with midcentury furniture and equipped with vintage vinyl. It will be available on AirBnB (under the heading “vintage therapy in Vermont”) as of Sept. 25. Before then, call Jones at 802-752-9464 for information or to reserve.
Or you could try the “unfussy” Cadillac Motel, (213 South Main St., 802-370-3082), which is walking distance from downtown.