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Hidden wonders

Good things — and good coffee! — come in small-town packages


(Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
April 18, 2007
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BY KATHY SHORR | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT Montpelier's population barely tops 8,000, but it's not a typical small town. It has the foreign films, independent bookstores, and good coffee shops and restaurants you would expect to find in a place 10 times its size. Since it is the state capital, lots of people come here for work, and its numerous colleges guarantee a vibrant night life. The city is surrounded by hills and a river runs through it -- two, in fact -- where the Winooski and North Branch rivers meet in town. Downtown also has the largest single National Register of Historic Places District in Vermont, which only adds to its abundant charms.

Tour the Greek Revival-style Capitol and its gold leaf dome. January to late May, you can watch the Legislature in action. In summer and fall a guide gives free tours every half hour (115 State St., 802-828-2228 ).

The season's just opening for the Lost Nation Theater, Montpelier's local professional theater company. Shows take place upstairs in City Hall from mid-April through October. (39 Main St., 802-229-0492, lostnationtheater.org, $20-$25). Downtown has six movie screens , including the single-screen Savoy Theater for independent and foreign films (26 Main St., 802-229-0509, savoytheater.com, $7.50, $6.50 seniors, $5 under 12). The Savoy also has a great selection of the same in its basement rental shop.

Five miles east of town is the Bragg Farm Sugarhouse. It's been a family operation for eight generations, and the farm still uses traditional methods, with galvanized metal buckets to gather sap and wood fires to boil it down. They serve maple sugar on snow through late April; after that you can still try a maple milk shake or soft-serve cone in the ice cream parlor (Route 14 North, East Montpelier, 802-223-5757, 800-376-5757, braggfarm.com).

The grandest accommodations are at The Inn at Montpelier (147 Main St., 802-223-2727, innatmontpelier.com, $120-$210). The two Federal-style houses were built in the early 1800s, with a large wraparound porch added later. Most of the deluxe rooms have working fireplaces, and all guests can enjoy fireplaces in three common areas. There's also a small bar (for guests only) on the premises.

If you want someplace that feels like home (albeit with bigger, better breakfasts), there's Betsy's Bed and Breakfast (74 East State St., 802-229-0466, betsysbnb.com, doubles $70-$140). Several rooms in the two side-by-side Victorian houses are arranged with adjoining kitchen and living room, so there's plenty of space to stretch out; or, if you're traveling with a family or others, you can create a suite.

Those looking for a traditional hotel can head for the Capitol Plaza Hotel & Conference Center (100 State St., 802-223-5252, capitolplaza.com, $110-$200), with a restaurant, bank, shops, and a hairdresser on the premises. Stop by their restaurant, J. Morgan's Steakhouse , if only to watch the model train that runs around the room.

The city is home to the New England Culinary Institute . Not only has many a graduate gone on to cook in the area, but also the institute operates several restaurants downtown that are staffed by its students. For dinner-only fine dining, there's The Chef's Table (118 Main St., 802-229-9202, necidining.com/chefs-table, entrees $16-$25).

Downstairs in the same building is the more casual Main Street Grill for lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch (802-223-3188, necidining.com/main-street-grill, entrees $7-$12 lunch, $12-$19 dinner). They even have a $5 children's menu.

For a cappuccino and something sweet, head to the institute's La Brioche Bakery & Cafe (89 Main St., 802-229-0443, necidining.com/la-brioche).

In September, local favorite Conoscenti became Restaurant Phoebe. New owner-chef Aaron Millon changed the name and menu (to modern American seasonal cuisine), but kept much of the decor, staff, and reputation for great food intact (52 State St., 802-262-3500, restaurantphoebe.com, entrees $13-$25). The institute can be proud: Millon's a 1997 graduate.

At the Black Door Bar and Bistro (44 Main St., 802-223-7070, blackdoorvt.com, cover charge $3-$5), catch an eclectic range of live music in the tiny third-floor lounge. There's Vermont country rock, old-school R&B, Latin dance music, gypsy jazz, and more amid the plush decor of red velveteen drapes, Tiffany glass and beaded lamps, black wrought iron, dark woodwork, and brick.

For something totally different, head to the collectively owned Langdon Street Cafe, where you can hear live music pretty much every night, from honky tonk to rap to singer-songwriters. The atmosphere is closer to 1967 than 2007: Walls are covered with hearts, rainbows, daisies, and posters of yoga positions; patrons are playing chess, discussing how to build an anarchist movement, or hawking the wonders of Goji juice ; and for your $3, the cigarette machine dispenses knit toys and other healthful fare (4 Langdon St., 802-223-8667, langdonstreetcafe.com, $5 donation).

A new trail behind the State House takes you to Hubbard Park with 185 acres and miles of trails to walk, run, or ski, depending on the season. Dogs can be off leash here, too. There's also a sledding hill, picnic spots, a ball field, and a 54-foot-tall stone observation tower you can climb for a great view of town and the surrounding mountains (access from Winter Street, 802-223-7335, free).

Ice fishing is over, but open water fishing has just opened for the season. Head upstream for access to several rivers, including Dog River, one of the best for experienced fly-fishermen in search of wild trout. Whether experienced or beginner, remember a Vermont fishing license is required. Look to the Vermont Outdoor Guide Association's website (voga.org/fishing_hunting.htm ) to buy licenses online, find a guide, and more.

You may have seen Zutano children's clothes in shops around Boston, but Montpelier boasts the only all-Zutano store in the country (79 Main St., 802-223-2229, zutano.com), thanks to the fact that the owner-designers are in nearby Cabot. The clothes are adorable and hip at the same time. You'll want them for yourself, but sorry, there's nothing bigger than kids' size 6. They also have a new line for newborns and preemies.

There are plenty of boutiques for grown-ups, including the Vermont Trading Co. , with its natural-fabrics-only policy (50 State St., 802-223-2142). The store carries primarily clothes and accessories, but there's an India-influenced home decor section in back.

The Artisans Hand Craft Gallery is a great spot to pick up work by more than 120 regional craftspeople (89 Main St. in the CityCenter, 802-229-9492, artisanshand.com).

Small bookstores may be a dying breed, but the number of independent bookstores in town actually seems to be proliferating. King among them is Bear Pond Books, with regular readings by local and visiting authors and a big room upstairs for children's books (77 Main St., 802-229-0774, bearpondbooks.com). For used and rare books, its sister store, Rivendell Books, is right across the street (100 Main St., 802-223-3928, rivendellbooksvt.com).

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