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Most aspects of Vermont life are on a smaller scale and-with the exception of bump runs and fall foliage-less intense than in the rest of the country. The same can be said for Montpelier (population 8,160), the nation’s smallest state capital. What isn’t well appreciated, except by an enlightened few, is that Montpelier is also a capital ski town.
“Montpelier’s a great ski town because it’s accessible to the major ski areas and it’s a lot cheaper to live here,” says former Gov. Howard Dean, who’s a dark-horse candidate for President, but a dedicated powder hound at heart. During his tenure in the State House, the Governor was known to keep skis atop his state-issue Lincoln in case of “pressing business” in the mountains. “There were three places I’d sneak out to,” the straight-shooting Democrat confides with a grin. “So you might draw the proper conclusion that I cut out more than once on a powder day!”
Playing hooky on the slopes isn’t just an executive privilege. It’s a liberty any local resident can exercise. Three of the East’s best areas-Mad River Glen, Sugarbush and Stowe-plus family-friendly Bolton Valley, are all within 25 miles of town. Another impressive trio-Smugglers’ Notch, Burke Mountain and Killington-can be reached in about an hour.
Within city limits, the wonders of Vermont’s capitol building enchant. Beneath a 24-carat golden dome, an ornate interior recently restored to its 19th-century grandeur (including the original gaslight chandeliers to illuminate the ruminations of Vermont’s citizen legislators), captivates visitors and lobbyists alike. In summer, locals turn the State House lawn into a communal backyard, picnicking at Wednesday evening band concerts or joining in pickup games of ultimate Frisbee.
While the ship of state deservedly captures the most attention, insurance carrier National Life looms large from its berth on a rolling hillside to the south. Many of downtown’s Federal-style mansions and lovely neighborhood Victorians stand as testament to the beauty of premiums paid. The firm remains the town’s second largest employer, though the days when young skiers ran slalom gates on company property are long gone.
Four rivers converge in town, creating an incongruously Venetian pa-lette and a tidy shopping district for a passeggia. Alas, no Bridge of Sighs, but there is a Rialto among the 21 spans within city limits. Despite its French surname, Mont-pelier’s Italian connections-in construction and cuisine-are stronger, dating back to the wave of immigrant masons and stonecutters who helped build the city in nascent years.
Today, the local populace is a healthy mix of old-stock Vermonters, leavened by political junkies and spiced with earthy hipsters. A strange brew, perhaps, but one that goes down with surprising ease within the harmonious confines of central Vermont.
“It’s really a very eclectic town,” affirms Bill Shouldice, a government relations advisor and patriarch of a three-generation skiing family. “The Co-op is gradually becoming our supermarket,” he says of the landmark counterculture outpost. “So you go in there and you have all these bankers and lawyers and candlestick makers. It’s hilarious.”
But Montpelierites also take diversity seriously. In 1996, activists staved off a proposed McDonalds, keeping their city the only state capital without the Golden Arches. Barnes & Noble execs take note: Bear Pond Books and Buch Spieler Music remain sacrosanct.
Despite the small business-friendly atmosphere and one of the best preserved downtowns north of Savannah, all is not golden in the shadow of the dome. Dominated by state government offices and the constellation of non-profits that orbit them, over a quarter of the downtown commercial space goes untaxed. As a result, residents are left holding the tab on one of the highest property tax bills in Vermont.
But, as on the slopes, in Montpelier whining won’t win you any friends. After all, it’s a city tthat’s survived not one, but two “Floods of the Century.” During the most recent, in March 1992, an ice jam backed up the Winooski River sending its icy waters coursing waist-deep through downtown. Not far from the Capitol, the current was so fierce, emergency workers threw an anchor around a parking meter to keep their boat from being swept downstream. A decade later, Montpelier’s stock is on the rise and it’s only a matter of time before it catches on with the scores of urban refugees making tracks to Vermont.
One draw: the town remains small-town safe. “You read the police log and it’s ‘Raccoon acting suspicious on Barre Street,'” deadpans Warren Kitzmiller, one of Montpelier’s two Democratic state representatives. But the city is becoming increasingly sophisticated, too.
Much credit goes to the New England Culinary Institute (NECI), which operates two local restaurants and a bakery as training grounds for its 400 chef/students. The institute has helped establish the city as a regional dining destination with more than a dozen worthy restaurants staffed-more often than not-by NECI grads.
Montpelier also offers an extensive menu of visual and performing arts. The triumvirate of the T.W. Wood art gallery, the Lost Nation Theatre company, and world-class chamber music are standard capital fare. Meanwhile, The Savoy, a classic arts movie house, has long been the envy of more urbane Burlington residents. Gradually, the cat’s slipping out of the bag: Montpelier recently garnered accolades in John Valenti’s book detailing the One Hundred Best Small Arts Towns in America.
Prospective Montpelierites needn’t panic yet. This town is still a far cry from becoming Aspen-or even Stowe. “If you want the glitz, Montpelier will bore the hell out of you,” warns one local barrister, who makes tracks every weekend to Burke Mountain in Vermont’s bucolic Northeast Kingdom.
But as in the state’s more popular resort towns, affordable housing is getting tight. A Leave it to Beaver Cape or Colonial near the cross-country trails in Hubbard Park, a quick schuss from the State House, now runs $200,000 compared to $125,000 or less just five years ago. Still modest? Sure, but with so much great skiing nearby, you’re bound to follow Gov. Dean’s lead and spend less time in the office. Or as one dedicated Mad River tele-skier put it, “It’s a trade-off living here. You make less, but ski more. Honestly, Montpelier’s got it all. Do me a favor: Don’t tell anyone.”