It’s a wonder the town elders of St. Johnsbury didn’t rename their community Fairbanks given the contributions of brothers Thaddeus and Erastus Fairbanks. On the banks of the Passumpsic River in 1830, they established E&T Fairbanks & Co., a platform-scale manufacturer that grew, by the standards of the time, into an international behemoth, once employing some 1,000 Vermonters. The family served its community well: Erastus did a stint as governor as did a son, Horace. The Fairbanks were generous. Their beneficence resulted in the construction of churches; the St. Johnsbury Academy, a school still thriving today; the Fairbanks Museum & Observatory; and the Athenaeum, the library and art museum now on the National Register of Historic Places. The small town has slipped since its industrial heyday. Yet it’s lively enough to draw an ample share of visitors with art galleries, an art-house cinema, eateries, and roads that lead to mountains and forested trails for alpine and Nordic skiing.
Located in Vermont’s rural northeast, St. Johnsbury and its environs are replete with historic inns that serve as getaways. For a bustle-free experience in an 1896 Queen Anne Victorian home on Main Street, consider Estabrook House Bed and Breakfast (1596 Main St., 802-751-8261, www.estabrookhouse.com, rates $95-150, full breakfast included). Ten miles south, in Waterford, is an even older establishment, Rabbit Hill Inn (48 Lower Waterford Road, 802-748-5168, www.rabbithillinn.com, rates $170-$365, full breakfast and afternoon sweets included), where one of its buildings dates to 1795. The inn, on 15 acres, offers luxury accommodations and mountain views. Visitors wishing to downhill or cross-country ski at or near Burke Mountain can stay at the Village Inn of East Burke (606 Vermont Route 114, 802-626-3161, www.villageinnofeastburke.com, rates $99.95, full breakfast included), a relaxed and quaint B&B, roughly 20 minutes from St. Johnsbury.
St. Jay, as it’s called locally, has innovative eating spots, and chief among them may be the Hilltopper (1216 Main St., 802-748-8964, open for lunch only, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, reservations recommended, entrees $6.95-$10.95), a casual restaurant specializing in Mediterranean fare and run by culinary students from St. Johnsbury Academy. If dining in a former 1927 US Post Office sounds tempting, try Dylan’s Café (139 Eastern Ave., 802-748-6748, lunches only, entrees $7.75-$13.). Try the turkey sandwich ($9.95), which is quite the combo with turkey, bacon, gouda, sun-dried tomato, onion and apple, all oven-toasted between slices of sourdough bread. Lovers of a complex nose and good legs should check out the Wine Gate (25 Depot St., 802-748-3288, open Monday-Saturday, 11-3, glass of wine $6-$10; glass of beer $4-$7, and desserts $4-$7), which, as its name suggests, is a place to sample wines, but also Vermont brews and homemade desserts. Trying to please both a carnivore and an herbivore? For a menu that embraces both rib eye steaks and vegan fare, head to Bailiwicks on Mill (98 Mill St., 802-424-1215, entrees $10-$32), located on the banks of the Passumpsic. For formal dining consider Rabbit Hill Inn (802-748-5168 for reservations, multicourse dinner $53 plus 18 percent gratuity). The winter menu includes a beef tenderloin with smashed turnips, black beluga lentils and charred onion and farm-raised halibut, with black rice and flying fish caviar.
DURING THE DAY
Visitors can take a walking tour of historic homes and other buildings using a guide map available at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum (1171 Main St., 802-748-8291, hours Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. www.stjathenaeum.org). Once, you get there, though, take your time and look around. The French Second Empire style structure, built by Horace Fairbanks in 1871, includes a gallery with Hudson River School paintings, among them Albert Bierstadt’s 10-by-15-foot “Domes of Yosemite.” Nearby is the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium (1302 Main St., 802-748-2372, www.fairbanksmuseum.org, open Tuesday-Saturday 9-5, Sunday 1-5, adults $8, seniors and children under 17 years $6, children under 5 free), located in a stone 1891 Romanesque structure, a gift from Franklin Fairbanks, another son of Erastus. The museum is chock full of natural and man-made wonders: stuffed bears and birds, Civil War mementos, antique Asian dolls. Dogs lovers, with or without their pets, should consider a visit to the Stephen Huneck Gallery at Dog Mountain (143 Parks Road, 802-748-2700, www.dogmt.com). The place features trails for hiking (snowshoes available) and a gallery and gift shop where one can buy reproductions of the late artist’s work, plus dog-themed mugs and T-shirts. For those who downhill ski there’s Burke Mountain Resort (223 Sherburne Lodge Road, East Burke, 802-626-7300, www.skiburke.com), and for those who cross-country ski there’s Kingdom Trails (office at 478 Vermont 114, East Burke, 802-626-0737, www.kingdomtrails.com), with more than 35 miles of trails.
Options are limited in this R&R town. However, there is the Catamount Arts Center (115 Eastern Ave., 802-748-2600, www.catamountarts.org) for viewing a foreign or independent film. The Center, located in a former Masonic Temple, has an art gallery worth visiting as well, featuring the works of regional artists. Check the center’s website for other Catamount-sponsored community programs in dance, music, and theater. After a film try Bailiwicks again for a glass of wine or even a martini, with vodka or gin infused with anything from habanero to basil to lavender.
Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais, Vt., freelance reporter and editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.