Lake Champlain turns 400

The sweet life along the shores of Burlington, home of Ben & Jerry's.

burlingon at night 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
burlingon at night 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Not many things in the United States can officially celebrate a 400th birthday, but the 100-mile Lake Champlain is about to embark on an official quadricentennial celebration in July. And because the lake, which stretches from the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada past Vermont to northern New York is so vast, the milestone is being celebrated this summer and fall by Montreal, upstate New York, and Burlington, Vermont. The lake was "discovered" in July of 1609 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain whose arrival, along with other Europeans, triggered significant changes in culture, economy, and environment of the region. Ever since that fateful encounter, Lake Champlain has been rediscovered by legions of people drawn to its mysterious beauty, the depths of which are said to include the legendary "Champ," an elusive Loch Ness-like creature that is reported to have been spotted by dozens of swimmers and boaters over the centuries. Among the many smitten with the shores of Lake Champlain are Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. If the names don't ring a bell, simply lop off the surnames and it all becomes crystal clear. It was 30 years ago when the duo first began selling their recipe for homemade ice cream out of a rickety former gas station in Burlington and went on to rise to a global fame with an enterprise that made the words "Cherry Garcia" and "Chunky Monkey" part of the vernacular. Though Cohen and Greenfield sold the company in 2000 to Unilever, they remain employed by Ben & Jerry's, Inc., imbuing new projects with their fun-loving personalities and serving as chief alchemists for new flavors of ice cream. They also devote their time to Sensible Priorities, a project of the Center for American Progress located in Washington, DC, dedicated to reforming the country's budget by cutting Cold War-era weapons spending and channeling it into education and job training. Cohen is also in the planning stages for a documentary film that illustrates the spending habits of the US government. "I want it to be entertaining and also show the disconnect between the values of the American people and the government's budget," he said. "How we spend our money shows what's important to us. Talk is cheap; politicians say they love kids and hate poverty, but how they spend money shows the truth." "We've always tried to deal with issues in a light-hearted way," explained Greenfield. Cohen and Greenfield's decreased corporate workload also allows the Long Island, NY natives to spend more quality time with their beloved adopted city. "It's a unique combination of a small city that is very approachable and friendly, and yet it is by far largest city in Vermont, so it has anything you could possibly desire," said Greenfield. "It's a great walking city, there's a nice mix of culture, and the restaurants are very innovative; there's a real emphasis on wholesome and natural foods here." Cohen also praises the abundance of Burlington's outdoor activities, including boating, fishing, a scenic 15-km. bike trail, and a boardwalk along the lake's shore, which is only a 10-minute walk from their downtown headquarters. "I love getting out on the lake," he said. "There's an excellent community boathouse that has sailboats for rent at the foot of College Street. And along College, there's free shuttle bus that runs to the city's major downtown marketplace, and also continues up the hill to the University of Vermont, which is a beautiful old campus to walk around." On sunny days, Cohen enjoys riding along the bike trail across the newly constructed bike bridge that connects to a jetty that goes out onto the lake. "On certain weekends there's a bike ferry that takes riders to the islands to a trail that was once used by the train that delivered milk to Burlington," he said. Because Burlington summers are so short, Greenfield said there's always a packed schedule of concerts, art exhibitions, and other events, this year even more so because of the quadricentennial. Both Cohen and Greenfield adore the city's dining scene and can rapidly fire off a short list of favorites. For Greenfield, it's American Flatbread because of their artisan, wood-fired pizza, and Al's French Fries, a local hangout famous for its "perfectly cooked" French fries. Cohen's current favorite is Trattoria Delia, located near the waterfront, and known for signature dishes such as vegetable antipasto and wild boar with pasta. "Their food is just incredibly well-prepared," he said. "It's high-quality Italian cuisine. Another really good one is Mirabel's, the first certified organic restaurant in Vermont." Greenfield and Cohen love Vermont, but they also regularly travel the globe for pleasure and business, including visits to Israel to meet with Avi Zinger, who runs the Israeli headquarters of Ben & Jerry's in Tel Aviv. "Ice cream is big in Israel. Avi's a great guy, he makes it kosher," said Greenfield. "Oddly enough, whenever we go to Israel, we end up doing a lot of eating. The last time we were there we went on a humous tour." For more information on activities and events related to the Quadricentennial of Lake Champlain, visit Stacey Morris is a travel writer based in Lake George, NY. Her Web site is