When I think of Montpelier, Vt., in July or August, a specific sound comes to mind. Some people have crickets or thunder for the soundtrack of their summer memories. I have, instead, the soft but insistent noise of my grandmother's absurdly heavy push lawn mower as it chewed its way through a swath of her front yard.
For me, Montpelier is a town that has a lot to do with small lawns, geraniums in pots (my grandparents were the town's florists) and, not least, the Swiss-caliber hills that lie between wherever you are at a given moment and wherever you'd like to be.
Riding a bike here is spectacular, and not just because of the views of the Green Mountains or of the sun-flashing gold dome of the state capitol downtown. Coasting down Nelson or East State streets quickly turns dangerous, and reminds you of when you rode like a kid--before plastic helmets and special gears made a kind of drudgery out of trying to whip up a breeze on a sultry afternoon.
People are always saying that such and such a place is "nestled" in hills or valleys. Montpelierites will shy away from such a word, but they will tell you quite readily the local tale about how it cost a million dollars to blast the highway from Burlington through town because of the granite-packed high ground that guards it from every direction.
Oddly enough, although Montpelier is built on slopes and is surrounded by them, if you visit or move here you become so immersed in the geography by scaling small peaks here and there that you have to force yourself to step back and take a look at the setting as a whole. Flatter Vermont towns like Middlebury and Rutland are edged with mountain views, sort of like Denver. You can see alpine shapes along the horizon and in some of the details, but you have a drive ahead of you before you can climb into them.
Montpelier, by contrast, is already where you want to be. To pinpoint the town on a very green and bumpy landscape in this part of central Vermont, trudge up the stone tower in Hubbard Park, which rises behind the statehouse dome. From here, or from behind the National Life Insurance building on the other side of the Winooski River, you can see for miles--and suddenly some of the facts you've been told about the area begin to make sense.
Vermont claims to be the nation's most rural state. Although this seems pretty far-fetched when you think of huge, more or less empty places like South Dakota or Wyoming, when you climb up to get a view, you can only see pastures and clumps of trees, the occasional clapboard house and the slightly hazy silhouette of the horn-shaped mountain called Camel's Hump. Even the dots that connect up into Montpelier support the claim that, as advertised, it is the tiniest state capital--with fewer than 9,000 residents (according to a state visitor's brochure), an easily walkable 19th-century downtown and a couple of toy-sized colleges: the New England Culinary Institute and Vermont College (part of Norwich University).
Why travel here at a time of year when there is no snow to ski on? Think of it if you like to walk in forests, because there are more shaded trails than paved roads. And plan on it if you like lake swimming, since Groton and Elmore are minutes away with their bright, ice-cold water and sandy bottoms that appear on a sunny day even if you take a rowboat or canoe far from shore.
Maybe most interesting of all, summer in Montpelier gives you the chance to do very little in a town that is full of thriving small shops: some with racks of newspapers outside, some with used books and some with hoses, wire fences, seeds and rakes. People hurry about their errands all around you--not the pink-and-green-clothed people of resorts but families of old-time hunting Vermonters in T-shirts and caps, and their polar opposites, the never-say-die North Country vegetarians in Birkenstocks and embroidered cotton. As you might guess, it is worth a taste.
Montpelier's early history--what you can find of it--is surprisingly vague. Someone named Col. Davis apparently started the town by building a single log cabin along the north branch of the Winooski River in 1787, a time when Vermont was still an independent republic with its own postal service and coins. By the early 1800s, the republic had become a state, and the pocket-size town of Montpelier somehow beat out larger Burlington in the race to become Vermont's capital. This may have been because several of its wealthier citizens acted fast, anteing up land for the first statehouse and money for its construction.
The town is now on its third capitol, a compact, perfectly proportioned stone building that, because of its reflective hat (the dome's shiny leaf contains real gold), looks as imposing as more important monuments in more cosmopolitan towns. Summer band concerts on the spreading front lawn make you feel as if you're sitting in on some ceremony. Maybe the bandleader is a major general. And maybe Montpelier is, in fact, not a village but a small, very tidy nation.
Sitting on your blanket and looking up at this brave and honest edifice--one that stands its ground nicely against the looming hills--you get a glimpse of Montpelier's particular brand of Yankee stubbornness, as if stubbornness could have been built of stone. It's an obstinacy you can see in more than a few storefronts on the downtown streets.
You notice, for example, that there are minor landmarks in a town that should have long ago waved the white flag to the influx of granola bins and coffee out of high-pressure machines. F.T. Somers & Sons hardware on Main Street offers very little that plugs into an outlet, but has Baby Ben windup alarm clocks in several styles, quarts of lamp oil and "Super Bib Aprons for Workmen and Carpenters." Somers's hand tools are displayed, sky-high, on battered pegboards set up in cramped wood-smelling aisles. Customers and sales clerks blend easily in that Vermont way, talking about fishing, with everyone essentially equal in the realm of low-powered do-it-yourself.
On the other side of the street is Coffee Corner, a 75-year-old not-so-greasy spoon dominated by a long, low counter and hand-lettered messages customers have tacked up. "I especially enjoyed the Tuna Melt," reads one note. "Please fix the waffle iron," urges another, and when I ask the waitress if it was ever done, she says no. "And it makes me mad, too," she adds. "We should have one in a place like this."
A similar New England-style diner is the Wayside Restaurant and Bakery on the Barre-Montpelier Road heading out of town. You'll know you're almost there when you see the big sign for the Twin City Motel, which, with its prominent Coke machine and bright red metal chairs on the deck in front every room, is one of Vermont's most scrupulously preserved early 1960s-style lodges.
At the Wayside, which opened in 1918, platters are still accompanied by authentic Parker House rolls, the kind with the little slits on top intended for pats of butter. Other house specialties--not all of which I can vouch for--include salt pork with milk gravy, pork liver and bacon, fried strips of chicken breast and "fried tripe--pickled." A breakfast special called "The Vermonter" was more or less sausage gravy on toast, and this turned out to be the choice of two elderly ladies who arrived at the restaurant by taxi, only to be called for by the same cabbie about a half-hour later.
On the northern edge of Montpelier is the family-owned Morse Farm and its "Sugar Shack," which does its own maple sugar tapping, boiling and candy-making. Vermonters from these parts have been known to cook their eggs and hot dogs in kettles of bubbling maple sap, and the rough-hewn Morse Farm store alongside County Road caters to the local fixation by selling household condiments mixed with syrup. Balanced on top of one of the rafters inside is a homemade display pitting "Pure Vermont Maple Syrup" against supermarket syrups, such as Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth's. Lo and behold, you discover that most of the mass-market brands contain no actual maple syrup or, at best, just a smidgen for flavoring. In the Morse store, you can buy maple cream for spreading on bread, maple mustard--dark, sharp and grainy, much tastier than it sounds--and four distinct grades of maple syrup. Better for hot days are maple "creemies," a not-too-sweet vanilla-based soft ice cream, and according to a notice that seems to have cropped up since the last time I was here, "Maple Creemie Filled Whoopie Pies."
Although many people associate Vermont with maple syrup, few pay much attention to the other natural commodity that is common enough here to be represented by a little symbol on the area's economic map. Nearby Barre, Montpelier's dowdier twin town, bills itself as the "Granite Capital of the World" because of its world-class quarries. The Rock of Ages quarry is the biggest in the world and is replicated on a miniature scale in the Rocks Gallery of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
I resisted visiting the quarries for years, but that was a mistake. At the Rock of Ages company you can tour the 50-acre, 500-foot-deep excavation; pat the riveted, steel flanks of "Hercules," the mighty steam engine that used to haul blocks of stone on the railroad branch line that ends here; or simply stare into the abyss. For once, instead of craning your neck to look up hillsides, you're peering down into a surprisingly picturesque gorge, with small pine trees growing in crevices in and around the stone. If the weather is warm, you can actually feel the coolness of stone and water (there's a lake at the quarry bottom) rising like an invisible fog.
Once you've walked away from the edge and gone to the gift shop full of polished stone, you wonder why you never picked up one of the gray-flecked granite chips lying around outside. And even more, you wonder why you didn't toss one of these heavy rocks as far as you could into the quarry--just to hear the faraway splash.
But leaving the scattered chips for later is not a bad thing. Much like biking down a particular Montpelier hill, swimming at a lake someone's told you about or admiring another front porch crowded with flower pots, you can keep them in mind as you lean into the September wind on some city street.
Next summer might be something to plan on. Or come to think of it, in Vermont there are red leaves and apples in the fall.
Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel about taking the train to Cincinnati.
DETAILS: Montpelier, Vt.
GETTING THERE: Montpelier is about 45 minutes from Burlington, Vt., whose airport is served from the Washington area by Continental, US Airways and United; round-trip fares start at about $270, with restrictions. Amtrak offers service between Washington's Union Station and Montpelier on the Vermonter; the round-trip fare is $172.
WHERE TO STAY: Although it's a bit overpriced (this is Montpelier, not Zurich), the Inn at Montpelier (147 Main St., 802-223-2727) is quartered in two stately, Federal-style houses and has a wraparound columned porch that makes it all worthwhile. Rates: $99-$169.
A brief uphill climb from downtown is Betsy's Bed & Breakfast (74 E. State St., 802-229-0466, $55-$95). If you like Victorian furnishings you'll love Betsy's, and breakfast is a superb home-cooked meal, not just a muffin.
If you don't mind sharing a bath, a charming and very affordable place to stay is the Montpelier Guest Home (22 North St., 802-229-0878, $45-$55). Perfect for summer, since guests are invited to relax in the garden.
WHERE TO EAT: Students serve and help prepare the excellent dishes at the New England Culinary Institute's two restaurants at 118 Main St., the Chef's Table upstairs (802-229-9202) and Main Street Grill & Bar downstairs, with outdoor seating (802-223-3188). My wife and I like the latter because of its bright artistic setting, and because it doesn't try to serve haute cuisine. Entrees at the Chef's Table start at $14; main dishes at Main Street Grill & Bar begin at $9.50.
Fiddleheads (54 State St., 802-229-2244) is an unpretentious, high-quality bistro with pressed-tin ceilings, a friendly staff and nicely spiced fish dishes--surprising since Vermonters tend to prefer their food bland. Entrees start at $10.25.
The flagship of vegetarian Montpelier since 1977 and a fine little eatery in its own right is the Horn of the Moon Cafe (8 Langdon St., 802-223-2895). Who needs meat when you can get a fresh chef's salad with tempeh and sprouts, veggie quesadilla or stir-fry with sauce du jour? Birkenstocks and dreadlocks encouraged, but not required. Entrees start at $4.95.
WHAT TO SEE: During a day spent in downtown Montpelier, it's worth touring the inside of the State Capitol (802-828-2228), with its spiral staircase and intricately carved wood trim. Next door on State Street is the Pavilion Building, constructed in 1876 and rebuilt in 1970. It houses the Vermont Historical Society Museum and a stuffed mountain lion, and boasts frontier-style porches in front that give it the air of a bordello in a spaghetti western. Past the gas station on State Street is the Capitol Theater (802-229-0343), a fine, downtown cinema with a grand marquee, first-run movies and old-fashioned flair.
The Rock of Ages quarry (802-476-3119) offers self-guided tours of the massive granite site May through October and a 30-minute narrated shuttle ride ($4) inside an active quarry, complete with skilled cutters splitting the granite.
Camel's Hump (4083 feet), that sometimes hazy, distinctively shaped mountain northwest of Montpelier, can be climbed in about three hours, and the Long Trail connects it with the region's only higher peak, Mount Mansfield (4393 feet), about a dozen miles farther north. At Stowe ski area (802-253-3000) you can ride a gondola to the top if you're not up to climbing. The aptly named Mad River squiggles alongside Route 100 to Montpelier's west, offering pleasant swimming holes as well as good fishing, kayaking and canoeing. When you tire of maple-flavored foods, there's the chance to watch cheddar cheese being made at Cabot Creamery (802-563-2231 or 1-800-837-4261) on Route 215 to the east. You can also see apple cider in process at the Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center (1-800-3-APPLES or 802-244-8771) and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream (802-244-8687) in-the-making at its manufacturing plant just north of Waterbury.
If you're still hungry after tasting free samples at these places, pull in at the nutty, star-spangled Snack Shack (802-479-5508), a pint-size drive-in restaurant run from a jaunty trailer at 515 N. Main St. in Barre. As they say, you can't miss it.
INFORMATION: Check out the Capital Region Visitor's Center at 134 State St. (1-800-VERMONT) or Montpelier's Web site at montpelier-vt.org, or call the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce at 802-229-4619.
CAPTION: Main Street U.S.A.: The premier thoroughfare in downtown Montpelier, right, is shadowed by the Green Mountains. Left, the gold dome of the statehouse in the country's tiniest state capital.
CAPTION: A youngster checks out the fare at a Montpelier farmer's market.
CAPTION: Nestled among the Green Mountains, Montpelier Vt., offers an appealing mix of old-time charm and present-day attitude.