Separating the west coast of Vermont and the east coast of New York, Lake Champlain is scenic, deep—400′ in places—and capacious, a 500-square-mile playground for water lovers of all stripes. Roughly 120 miles long and 14 miles at its widest, America’s “sixth Great Lake” is a freshwater jewel ringed by craggy ledges, rolling fields and sandy beaches, offering myriad calm bays and coves in which to swim, fish and just enjoy the beauty of western Vermont.
The epicenter of Champlain boating is Burlington, the state’s largest city, with some 40,000 residents and home to the University of Vermont. The bustling and beautiful waterfront is a national model for lakeside renewal, offering a fine stopover for visiting boaters and a secure homeport for local mariners.
The harbor is protected by a half-mile breakwall built between 1854 and 1890. Boats can enter through either the north or south cuts, marked by a set of
replica lighthouses built in 2004. There is good depth inside the harbor right up to the breakwall, but don’t venture too close to the mainland shore, as it shallows up quickly.
Hub of the Harbor
At the heart of the harbor is the city’s Community Boathouse, which oversees moorings on a first-come, first-served basis. The moorings are free until 5:00 p.m., with overnight stays costing $1 per foot. A popular on-site restaurant, the Splash Café, offers harborside seating and a prime spot for sipping margaritas or mojitos as the sun goes down.
You can also anchor inside the harbor, along the southern end of the breakwater, where depth ranges from 19′ to 30′.
Note that there is no launch service in the harbor, so you’ll need to use your own dinghy or skiff to access the boathouse’s dinghy dock.
Transient slips are also available at the boathouse, although it’s recommended that you make a reservation 2 to 3 weeks in advance, especially during the busy summer months. Overnight dockage runs $2 per foot, and includes 30 or 50 amp service and water.
If you only want to tie up for a few hours while you grab a bite to eat or explore the area, there are 6 short-term slips at the boathouse.
Ramp it Up
A second marina can be found at nearby Perkins Pier, just south of the Community Boathouse, although the slips and moorings here are reserved for seasonal boaters only. Perkins is home to the popular Breakwater Cafe & Grill, and also features a launch ramp with parking for 25 vehicle-and-trailer rigs. Seasonal, daily and overnight passes can be purchased at the Perkins Pier gate.
Another well-maintained boat launch is found north of the boathouse off Lake Street, but daily passes must be purchased at Perkins Pier. You can launch a pretty good-sized boat here, although the narrow streets leading to the ramp can present a tight fit. The facility is also home to the local dragonboat fleet, which trains and races on the lake throughout summer. Give them a wide berth and watch your wake if you encounter them on the water.
Adjacent to the ramp is Coast Guard Station Burlington, the only freshwater-based station in New England and testament to the fact that the lake can see some significant seas (6-footers are common during fierce storms). Indeed, mariners in small boats should keep a wary eye to the west, especially in summer. The mountains are notorious for making their own weather, and sudden thunderstorms can roar across the lake, turning the once-peaceful seas into a maelstrom.
Fun, Lively Atmosphere
Back on land, Burlington’s list of shoreside attractions includes the manicured park on the waterfront that invites Frisbee throwers, bikers, picnickers, sunset watchers and book readers, and serves as a site for summer festivals featuring music, food and craft brews. Nearby, the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center, adjacent to the boathouse, explores the lake’s ecosystem, culture and geologic history.
If you’re looking for some exercise, a perfect way to explore the waterfront and stretch your sea legs is the 7 ½-mile bike path that meanders past ice cream stands, swimming spots, parks and eateries.
The first hour is free, after which the charge is $5 per hour. Payment for all transient services can be made in the boathouse office.
And speaking of eating, you’ll find an abundance of restaurants just a short walk uphill from the waterfront, along the pedestrian-friendly, brick-and-cobblestone Church Street Marketplace. There are more than 160 shops in the bustling city center, along with dozens of restaurants and cafes whose outdoor seating
is reminiscent of European boulevards. Adding to the general hubbub are street performers ranging from fiddlers to magicians. A highlight is the Saturday farmer’s market, with food carts serving everything from Asian and Indian cuisine to barbecue.
For those who want to take in the city’s vibrant night scene, Burlington lures international stars and regional acts to venues across the city, from the Flynn Center to clubs such as Nectars and Ri Ra’s Irish Pub. But the biggest show of the year is always the Fourth of July celebration on the harbor. Hundreds of boats gather inside the breakwater, forming a fleet of every craft imaginable, all hands on deck sharing festivities with the thousands on shore as fireworks erupt directly overhead.
It’s a bang-up affair, entirely in keeping with a lake that played a key role in gaining American independence.
New England Boating TV: Lake Champlain