French-Canadian boaters keep Burlington’s summer economy afloat
Burlington is almost 4000 miles from the French Riviera, but any summer night on the waterfront, you could almost mistake the Queen City for Cannes. It’s not surprising that boaters from Québec migrate south every summer on the lake “discovered” by a Frenchman — Samuel de Champlain. But 2007 is turning out to be a banner year for Canadian tourists, according to the seasonal employees and business owners who cater to and benefit from it.
Although there are no official stats on the numbers of French-speaking tourists visiting the city, in-the-know locals say waterfront patrons are coming in droves from the province of Québec. Vermont’s Department of Tourism  confirms that the state is among the top-10 destinations for Canadians. In 2005 alone, the department reports Canadians spent $234.9 million in Vermont — roughly the same figure projected for Vermont’s 2008 sales tax revenues.
Last week, Seven Days hit the docks to witness this tourist boom firsthand and to pose a few questions. Why are so many Canadians coming to town? What do they do here besides eat and drink? And how do their spending patterns affect the local economy?
On a late-July Saturday night on the waterfront, the pleasure-seekers are out in force. Just beyond the Leahy ECHO Center , high-heeled tourists congregate for a cruise on The Spirit of Ethan Allen . On an elevated porch above the boathouse, young girls groove to a parade of tired dance hits such as “Macarena” and “Funkytown.” Down below, the boathouse dock portal is flooded with French-Canadian couples trying to reserve tables at Splash , the adjacent restaurant.
From his boat parked at a nearby dock, Pierre Tremblay wants none of that scène. As the boathouse speakers pump out more top-40 maladies, his wife Luce Morin and their friend Elaine Courval open a bottle of wine on the deck of their 20-plus-foot motorboat, Captaine Haddock. With its white leather seats, the cruiser looks like the perfect setting for an offshore corporate scandal. But closer inspection reveals the cockpit is littered with playthings, snorkels and sandals. The clutter belongs to Courval’s son Erik, 8, and the boy’s friends Anthony and Emilie Tremblay, 9 and 4, respectively. The kids are playing below in the cabin. A shaggy dog named Milou waits on the docks for his young playmates to emerge.
“You’re very lucky to speak with them,” Courval says of her friends, welcoming a reporter onto the boat. “They love Burlington.” She’s sitting on a leather cushion wearing a brown T-shirt with glitter letters spelling “Tommy” — as in Hilfiger. Her English is better than her friends’, she explains, sitting in as an informal interpreter. For the first few minutes of conversation, Morin smiles and nods.
It just so happens both women are on vacation from their respective jobs at American corporations: Hallmark and Reebok. That could explain why their vibe is both familiar and vaguely exotic. Despite her excellent English, for example, Courval’s voice strikes a seductive French note. Her companion’s jean short-shorts and bleached-blond hair contrast with her wine glass — think Superbowl halftime show meets Moulin Rouge.
Morin’s husband Pierre may not speak the best English, but language barriers don’t stop him from sounding off. A chemical engineer from just outside Montréal, he sits regally in the vessel’s captain’s chair. Like the women, this guy is unusually attractive — perfectly tanned, he has jet-black hair with silver streaks. When answering questions, Pierre gestures broadly with one hand while swilling wine with the other. “I observe that here, everything is organized for the visitor,” he begins. “Montréal is also like that, but when we’re on vacation [with] kids who are turbulent, we want to feel that we are welcome.”
Tremblay and company have been coming to Burlington regularly for years, usually for a week at a time. Why? Aside from the lake views, B-town offers killer amenities. “I think everything is accessible for the tourists,” Morin affirms, adding that her family typically goes downtown to either shop or dine. Their favorite restaurant, Tremblay says, is the “Chantí” — French-Canadian for the nearby Shanty on the Shore  restaurant.
Oddly enough, these visitors also appear to be enchanted with the city’s unremarkable transportation infrastructure. Morin says her family likes to go for rides on the Champlain Valley Flyer , a train that runs four times a day between Burlington and Shelburne in the summer. Pierre adds that he enjoys the “bicycle highway” — known to locals as the waterfront bike path  — and the buses that cruise up the hill to Church Street. “It’s a good idea to have a bus with climatization,” he adds, searching for the word for “air conditioning.”
The College Street Shuttle  isn’t the only thing going uphill in Burlington. When Tremblay and his family started coming here five years ago, he got 65 American cents for his dollar. Now he gets 96. Translation? Canadian money goes a lot further in Vermont than it used to. That could explain why Shanty owner and waterfront magnate Al Gobeille — who spoke to Seven Days by cellphone from his motorboat — says the number of Canadian diners at his place seems high this year. Gobeille and his wife Kim also own Breakwater Café & Grill  and the Burlington Bay Market and Café . They have no way of knowing how many of their customers are Canadian because credit card transactions — today’s payment method of choice — don’t reveal country of origin.Still, there are more subtle ways to gauge the impact of the highly touted Canadian dollar. Gobeille notes, for one, that he sells more Muscadet — a French white wine that pairs well with seafood — during peak boating season. He says some Canadian clients ask for gravy fries, or “poutine,” a Québec specialty. The Shanty doesn’t carry it — yet. If the waterfront keeps moving in this direction, “we’re going to all be doing it,” Gobeille predicts with a chuckle. “We’re going to be a southern county of Montréal. We are a sale to them.”
How much does the exchange rate play into a Vermont vacation? Back on the deck of the Captaine Haddock, Courval scoffs and says the new rate “doesn’t matter.” Besides, she adds, tourist price-gouging happens no matter how sweet the currency deal. “Things that go for a dollar in Montréal here are like five dollars,” she quips. “A real rip-off, eh?”
As if to substantiate her claim, the children burst out of the sleeping compartment in bathing suits, clutching all manner of cheap trinkets. Tremblay’s kids and their friend Erik Courval plop down on the bench beside her and dump a bag of candy onto the floor.
“What do you like about Burlington?” she asks them.
“Swimming!” says Erik the spokesman.
“Shopping!” adds Anthony.
Young Emilie looks on apprehensively. Then the boys dive into the water off the boat’s rear, and she frolics with the dog.
If these Canadian tourists have any complaints about Burlington, they’re minimal, and sometimes a bit silly. Courval gripes, for instance, that her car — she drove down to meet her friends — has been towed twice in the last two days. Pierre Tremblay suggests the Champlain Valley Flyer should be “15 or 20 minutes longer.” More importantly, he wishes the Burlington Bay Market and Café still sold beer. “It’s a problem for me,” jokes the visitor. (When questioned about the booze shortage, Gobeille says it’s a complicated licensing dilemma that can’t be helped. He still serves beer for in-house consumption.)
With or without take-out Coronas, Tremblay and his sun-soaked entourage appear to be greatly impressed with Burlington and the local folk they’ve met along the way. Last year, Morin recalls, they arrived in Shelburne on the Flyer without realizing that there was no public transit to take them to Shelburne Farms . Fortunately, a librarian gave them a lift. “The city people are all friendly,” she reflects, polishing off her wine. “They’re used to talking with visitors.”
At lunchtime on Monday afternoon, the waterfront is still hopping. Over by Breakwater Café & Grill, marina manager Kirk Polhemus chats with a dockworker as a tanker pumps gasoline into one massive, concrete storage tank. Stocky and mustachioed, Polhemus is a stark contrast to the Canadian tourists aboard the plush Captaine Haddock. Nevertheless, he knows Canadian tourists well, in part because he’s been dealing with them for a good while — since 1976, to be exact.
Even while chatting with a reporter, Polhemus keeps busy. Every few minutes, a sporty Canadian in a Zodiac dingy sidles up to the dock for a fill-up or service request. Each time, he greets the new visitor as if he or she were royalty. “Très bon, monsieur,” he says deferentially at one point, hoisting a boater up onto the planks.
Once the tourist is out of range, Polhemus loosens up. “I try to learn some French, and it makes ’em happy,” he confides with a knowing smirk. Sure, he continues, there are occasional language barriers with visitors from Québec City. But in the end, “You just listen to ’em and take your time, and it’s amazing how you can figure out what they need.”
Like Gobeille and Josh Rooney, the general manager of Breakwater, Polhemus confirms that Canadian business is booming. He reports, for instance, selling roughly four times more gas these days than he did just a few weeks ago. On rainy days, the waterfront regularly turns away about 70 or 80 boats. “Downtown is making out like a monster,” he asserts. “I’m not much of a shopper . . . but the Canadians are very into the brand-name stuff.”
Judging by Polhemus’ initial comments, you’d think Burlington’s waterfront was experiencing an aquatic gilded age. But according to this veteran dock director, it’s not the first time Canadians have flocked to these shores in droves. “When I started doing this, we used to see a phenomenal amount of [Canadian] tourists,” he notes. Now, he stresses, the challenge is to make Burlington a regular destination for a new demographic — the coveted “thirtysomething generation.” He adds, “They need to have a reason to come back. Like anything, you get into a habit.”
Al Gobeille, who also serves on Mayor Bob Kiss’ Moran Plant advisory committee , says Canadians consistently complain about the lack of dock space and showers. He suggests an expansion of Perkins Pier  and a new boater-friendly facility at the Moran Plant would bring in more revenue. But he acknowledges that the waterfront, which was revitalized by then-Mayor Bernie Sanders in the 1980s, remains a “political issue.” City administrators, he speculates, are hesitant to divert resources into projects that would only produce revenue in fair weather.
Tim Shea, vice president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce , says his organization has no “formal position” on waterfront development. The chamber, however, just completed a branding study related to Canadian spending habits. Shea points out he’s mainly concerned about a burgeoning federal program — the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative  legislation — that could require Canadian travelers to show passports at the border as early as next summer. If Canadians have to jump through more hoops, the thinking goes, they might think twice about going for a transnational jaunt. The program was enacted in 2004 based on recommendations in the 9/11 Commission Report. Last month, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) co-sponsored an amendment  asking the feds to hold off implementation until June 2009.
Marina manager Polhemus, who likens the Canadian tourist market to a “cherry that’s waiting to be picked,” thinks the chamber needs to do more, suggesting it should “get back in the game” of aggressive marketing. “Give ’em a reason to come here,” he persists. “We’re not putting as much emphasis as we should to get them down here.”
Political squabbles aside, there’s no shortage of Canadian tourists on the water today. As the sun scorches Polhemus’ cheeks, boats pass from the harbor into the middle of Lake Champlain. He exchanges greetings — in French — with almost every vessel that drifts by.
What’s his impression of our northern neighbors after so many years of serving them? According to Polhemus, Canadians can be a little “aggressive,” but not always in a rude way. Since many come from metropolitan areas such as Montréal and Québec City, they have a different set of expectations regarding service, he suggests.
If his Zen attitude is any indication, a snooty sailor or two wouldn’t faze this boat pro. Polhemus presides proudly over the planks — more like a museum curator than a seasonal dockworker — and, as the most recent boat wakes subside, muses about cultural priorities. “What’s wrong with our holidays?” he says, noting days off in America tend to fall in January or February. Polhemus, for one, might be willing to trade Presidents’ Day for Canada or Bastille Day. “They’re doing things right,” he concludes. “They know how to live.”