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A Tank Away

A jewel in the Northeast Kingdom

‘St. J’ is rich with art, history, and outdoor activities

By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / April 27, 2011

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ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. -- Historic and cultural nooks and crannies abound in St. Johnsbury. Main Street features impressive Victorian homes, churches, and the St. Johnsbury Academy campus. But this town of about 7,500 residents, known in the area as “St. J,’’ also serves as the commercial center of the Northeast Kingdom and was named one of the nation’s best outdoor adventure towns by National Geographic Adventure in 2006. All in all, a great getaway destination about three hours north of Boston.

STAY

Off Interstate 91, the convenient Comfort Inn and Suites (703 US Route 5 South, 866-464-2408, www.vermontvacationland.com, $99-$399) features a large indoor swimming pool, fitness center, and continental breakfast. The in-town Fairbanks Inn (401 Western Ave., 802-748-5666, www.stjay.com, $99-$179) has a heated outdoor pool, refrigerators, and microwaves. Southeast Massachusetts native and former executive Maurine Hennings owns the pleasant and historic 1896 Victorian Estabrook House (1596 Main St., 802-751-8261, www.estabrookhouse.com, $95-$150). She’s restoring the B&B with its quarter-sawn oak banister and trim, shared bathroom (except for one room that comes with a private bathroom), and common room with puzzles and television. Breakfast includes quiche and frittatas.

DINE

If you’re looking for a hearty traditional diner breakfast or lunch, try Anthony’s Diner (50 Railroad St., 802-748-3613, breakfast $2.50-$12.95, lunch $3.95-$9.50). For dinner, head over to Dylan’s Cafe (139 Eastern Ave., 802-748-6748, www.dylanscafevt.com, entrees $18.95-$26), which is in a former post office next to the Catamount Arts center. Dylan’s contemporary dinner menu contains delights from creative flatbread pizzas to a soy- and ginger-glazed Asian salmon. Find the secluded table in “the cove’’ while perusing the artwork, which lines the walls. Set in a former woodworking mill, Elements (98 Mill St., 802-748-8400, www.elementsfood.com, entrees $12-$23, prix fixe three-course $26, $32 with glass of wine) tingles Northeast Kingdom diners with its changing and refreshing menu of creative comfort food, prepared with locally sourced ingredients.

DURING THE DAY

Visit the St. Johnsbury Welcome Center (51 Depot Square, 802-748-2436) for a walking tour map and a bit of local lore about platform scale inventor Thaddeus Fairbanks and his family’s local influence. Don’t miss the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium (1302 Main St., 802-748-2372, www.fairbanksmuseum.org) with its natural history focus, vast collections of bird and mammal specimens, 5-foot-tall OmniGlobe — a 60-inch sphere that illustrates changes in the planet’s natural and political landscape — bug art, and Northern New England Weather Center, home of Vermont Public Radio’s “Eye in the Sky’’ weather programs. For a brush with culture, go to The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum (1171 Main St., 802-748-8291, www.stjathenaeum.org), a library and art gallery spotlighting 18th- and 19th-century American paintings, including Albert Bierstadt’s wonderful “Domes of Yosemite.’’ The Athenaeum is worth exploring for its spiral staircases and artwork — though the gallery is closed for renovations until perhaps fall. There’s a digital display of the gallery works in the fiction room and docent-led tours. Cross the Passumpsic River and pay a visit to Maple Grove Farms (1052 Portland St., 802-748-5141 www.maplegrove.com). Check out the company’s museum and learn about the maple syrup process, then visit the gift shop and sample maple syrup, spreads, and candy. All sugared out? Head to the Stephen Huneck Gallery and Dog Chapel (143 Parks Road, 802-748-2700, www.dogmt.com). Artist Stephen Huneck’s memory lives on in the moving hillside Dog Chapel at Dog Mountain. Designed by Huneck to resemble a Vermont village church, the chapel, whose inside walls are adorned with photos and notes about pets, was intended as a tribute to man’s best friend. The gallery houses some of the works of Huneck, who was known for whimsical hand-carved furniture, sculpture, and woodcut prints. Visitors can also stretch their legs along the hiking trails on the grounds. For outdoor explorers, St. Johnsbury is a short drive to delightful mountain biking at Kingdom Trails (478 Route 114, 802-626-0737, www.kingdomtrails.com) in East Burke and tree climbing at Twin Pines (299 Maple Lane, 802-684-9795, www.newenglandtreeclimbing.com) in Danville.

AFTER DARK

Night life is generally low-key. The Catamount Arts center (115 Eastern Ave., 802-748-2600, www.catamountarts.org) shows foreign, art, and first-run movies on two screens in a renovated Masonic hall. Monthly open mikes, art gallery showings, and special events round out the offerings. Elements (see Dine entry) has late live music on Friday nights. The Wine Gate (25 Depot Square, 802-748-3288) is a comfortable restaurant with maroon accents, small bar, high seats, cozy booths, and reasonably priced wine and paninis. There’s entertainment on Fridays and outdoor seating in the summer.

Marty Basch can be reached at www.onetankaway.com.