Landing at Burlington airport, I realized to my surprise that I had not set foot in Vermont for more than five years. Shortly after my last visit, in August 2011, the state suffered the onslaught of Hurricane Irene. What began as a characteristic coastal hurricane veered into New England and unleashed the worst meteorological assault since the infamous storm of 1938. Rivers overflowed, washing out bridges and roads. But, with predictable Yankee grit, Vermonters undertook repairs, and it is now impossible to tell that such devastation ever took place. Vermont may be the embodiment of an idealized New England, with its white clapboard houses, sky-piercing steeples and stately Greek Revival public buildings, but it is important to remember that the towns are so lovely because of constant preservation efforts by succeeding generations.
Having picked up a rental car, we set off on a counterclockwise route. Seventy-five percent of Vermont is densely forested, and the population of approximately 625,000 is the second lowest of the 50 states, so between the towns there are long stretches of nearly deserted road and tracts of verdant hilly countryside.
A hundred miles due south of Burlington, the town of Manchester offers a fascinating mix of classic homes, plus the historic Hildene estate, home to Robert Todd Lincoln, oldest surviving son of Abraham Lincoln and a man who served as head of the Pullman Company for many years. A wealth of retail establishments includes the Orvis flagship store and numerous high-end outlet shops as well as one-of-a-kind galleries and the splendid independent Northshire Bookstore.
On this occasion we opted to stay at the intriguingly named The Reluctant Panther. The sobriquet is attributed to the hesitation of the rare Vermont mountain lions — known locally as “catamounts” — to approach human habitations. Until 1897 the site was home to the Green Mountain Tavern, once a favorite of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, and it became The Reluctant Panther in the 1960s. In late 2005, a Texan couple purchased the inn, and almost exactly one month later, it burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. Completely restored, it reopened just in time for the Great Recession. The current owner Peter Sharp purchased the property in 2010, bringing to it three generations of hotel expertise, as members of his family have owned, at various times, The Carlyle and the Stanhope in New York City and the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles.
Set on a corner just off the main thoroughfare, the inn comprises a handsome main building, with light yellow clapboard and gabled roofs, plus two adjacent structures. Together, the three buildings house the inn’s 20 rooms. Walking into a reception area decorated with lovely custom-painted murals, we were warmly greeted by the manager, who subsequently proved to be a congenial presence and an invaluable source of information. Like all the rooms, our suite was individually decorated with a mix of antiques and contemporary furniture. A cozy lounge contained a comfortable couch that faced a gas fireplace and a small writing desk. The spacious bedroom, painted a cheerful hue of yellow, came with its own gas fireplace, sofa, chest of drawers and large closet. The bath was appointed with both a soaking tub and a walk-in shower.
Breakfast is an important part of the Panther stay, and it is served in a dining room with coffered ceilings, generously spaced tables and a view out to gardens arranged around a small pond with a fountain and wooden bridge. In addition to country-fresh eggs, daily specials make ordering an enjoyable dilemma — except for the day when irresistible blueberry pancakes appeared.
One evening, we made for the snug little bar situated just before the entrance to the dining room. There we delighted in a conversation with local couples — the restaurant enjoys a high reputation in this part of Vermont — before going in for an excellent meal. I loved the starter of fonduta with rock shrimp, artichokes, baby spinach and brioche crostini in a Chardonnay-fontina sauce. This was followed by a superb rib-eye from a butcher shop owned by proprietor Peter Sharp.
The Reluctant Panther is a truly charming inn with a fine staff, sophisticated lodgings and a terrific restaurant. As long as you don’t expect a full-service luxury hotel, you are likely to be extremely content.
The small sitting area (with fireplace) opposite the bar makes a delightful spot for morning coffee and the day’s paper.
As is true with many bed-and-breakfasts, there is no night staff.
The inn has a relationship with the Hildene estate and offers admission at a significantly reduced rate.
Bidding farewell to Manchester, we headed east for an easy 35-mile drive to Newfane, just north of the thriving town of Brattleboro, a lively place of restaurants, shops and galleries that fill its wealth of old brick buildings. Arriving in Newfane, we found a classic New England green surrounded by a cluster of white buildings that included a Greek Revival county courthouse, a church topped with a heaven-ascending spire, a meeting hall and the handsome Four Columns Inn.
In 1965, a French couple purchased the property and, without knowing it at the time, created a restaurant that prefigured the contemporary farm-to-table concept: Chickens and pigs were raised on-site, game birds were sourced from local hunters, a vegetable garden was planted and trout ponds were installed. To the regret of many, the couple sold the inn in 1981, and after a series of owners, it closed in 2013. Recently, the inn and its 138 acres of grounds caught the eye of Charles Mallory, CEO of Delamar hotels in Connecticut — a company with properties in Greenwich, Southport and, shortly, West Hartford. All 16 rooms have been fully renovated, and a new gym and spa now complement the outdoor pool.
Today, the main building lies just behind the original four-columned structure. At the front desk, an attentive young woman greeted us and then helped us with our luggage. “I think you’ll like this room,” she said, as she opened the door to our suite. We agreed. The spacious bedroom, with a high ceiling beneath a peaked roof, led to an alcove sitting area furnished with a mix of antique and modern furniture, which in turn extended onto a private deck overlooking the pool and gardens. The gentle blue of the walls made for a restful atmosphere. In the large adjoining bath, a Jacuzzi tub proved welcome at the end of the day, while the walk-in shower got the morning off to an invigorating start.
The inn’s public areas have been attractively decorated with the work of local artists. In the reception area, I was particularly taken with a whimsical mural by Lisa Adams depicting the Newfane area. Another mural by the same artist appears in the cozy bar, which attracts numerous local folk with its large selection of craft beers and ciders. People throughout the area also flock to the in-house Artisan Restaurant, with its large brick fireplace, beamed ceilings, wide-planked floors and Windsor chairs. Honoring the inn’s heritage, chef Frederic Kieffer sources as many of the ingredients as he can locally. I especially enjoyed a starter of asparagus and spring pea soup, followed by a Berkshire pork chop grilled with smoked bacon, prunes, mushrooms and fingerling potatoes, all with a just-sweet cider glaze.
The Four Columns pulls off the trick of updating the traditional with skill and style. My only reservation is that the service can be uneven. A couple of the staff members might usefully add a little starch to their performance, and someone should point out to one otherwise charming young man that the richness of the English language permits substitutes for the word “awesome.”
The service in the dining room was friendly but uneven.
As is true with many bed-and-breakfasts, there is no night staff.
The adjacent West Brook cottage sleeps four and has a full kitchen making it ideal for families.
From Newfane, our route took us 104 miles north to the little town of Waitsfield, which is adjacent to the Mad River Glen ski area. Everything my research turned up on The Inn at the Round Barn Farm had tantalized me, especially the distinctive architecture. Driving up the hill from town, we could see the impressive round barn itself. Built in 1910, this served as the centerpiece of a dairy farm, which ceased operations in 1969. In 1986, new owners bought the property, slowly transforming it into a bed-and-breakfast. Today, the 12-room inn incorporates the barn, former stables and the original farmhouse, all set amid 245 rolling acres.
Our room in the former stables exuded charm, with a slanted wooden ceiling, ornate period wallpaper and terrific views of the meadows beyond. The bath was small, however. All was well until a couple arrived in the neighboring room. Within moments we had learned more about their private lives than we would ever have wished, and the next afternoon we shared in significant parts of a movie that the couple in the other adjoining room found raucously amusing. It’s a shame, because we liked the inn and the staff. We are always glad to get to know fellow guests when we travel, but not to the extent that the lack of soundproofing here made possible.
The splendid rural setting.
The lack of adequate soundproofing. Service for the fine breakfast ends promptly at 9:30 a.m.
Despite the property’s drawbacks, the innkeepers are pleasant and knowledgeable.
The next leg of our trip took us as far north in Vermont as we would go — to the renowned Stowe ski area. I have long searched for a place in Vermont snow country that I could recommend to Hideaway Report readers, but until now it has proved elusive. Edson Hill began in 1941 as the private getaway for a Newport, RI, man whose family had made its fortune in Colorado mining. Fast-forward to 2014, when four people who knew Edson Hill from Stowe vacations — Susan Stacy; her husband, Tom Shanahan; and brothers Jim and Bill Goldenberg — purchased the property with the goal of making it into an updated New England inn. Stacy’s Boston design firm, Stacy Gauthier, did the interior work.
Passing through the main gate and following the long approach road, we passed a red barn and horses grazing in paddocks beside a shimmering pond. The 23 rooms of Edson Hill are divided between the so-called Manor House — with brick walls, gray clapboard siding, white trim and gabled roofs — and four guesthouses situated farther up the hill. We were allocated to a guesthouse, and I felt a pang of disappointment at not being in the Manor House with its paneled walls and imposing staircase. The guesthouses have pleasant but undistinguished exteriors. Inside, however, our large room was beautifully done with paneled walls, dark wood floors, a white carpet and beamed ceiling. An alcove came with an ample desk and a woodburning fireplace (17 of the rooms have them), and a large bay window granted an impressive view of the mountains. The spacious bath provided double vanities, a walk-in shower and heated floors.
The lounge in the Manor House displayed a sophisticated blend of traditional and contemporary design, with honey-hued paneled walls, white carpeting, large canvases of contemporary art and both modern and antique furniture. Big windows flood the colorful room with light. Just off the lounge, the dining room has windows on three sides and a stylish chandelier made of white branches and glass fixtures. There, I enjoyed a hanger steak au poivre with wild mushrooms, bacon, arugula, baby fingerling potatoes, Bayley Hazen blue cheese (one of my Vermont favorites) and grain mustard. The cheese board was unusually appealing and accompanied by pickled pears, Marcona almonds and house-made focaccia. Downstairs, a tavern draws a lively evening crowd.
A lovely outdoor pool makes an ideal spot for lounging or a refreshing dip, and numerous trails on the property give both hikers and mountain bikers a wealth of options. In winter, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding and ice skating are available. And for downhill skiing, the slopes of Stowe are just minutes away.
I tend to approach places like Edson Hill — a traditional property given a contemporary makeover — with apprehension: I’ve seen too many fine hotels desecrated by insensitive and inappropriate modernization. But Edson Hill is an exception.
The atmosphere of a private retreat in the busy Stowe area.
Precious design elements, such as “Live in the Moment” delineated in wire script on the wall of the bath.
Stowe is full of good restaurants. The innkeepers can make reliable recommendations and reservations.
The last stage of our trip brought us full circle: Shelburne lies 43 miles southwest of Stowe and 7 miles south of Burlington. With the $10 million she inherited from her father in 1885, Lila Vanderbilt Webb and her husband, William Seward Webb, were able to fulfill their dream of creating an agricultural estate that employed only the most advanced techniques. Having acquired 3,800 acres of land along Shelburne Point on Lake Champlain, they engaged Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, to oversee the landscaping of the estate, as well as more than 300 workers to construct barns and begin raising crops and livestock. Today, the farm functions as a nonprofit organization dedicated to educational programs intended to promote environmentally responsible farming.
The Inn at Shelburne Farms, a National Historic Landmark, was the couple’s original home. It comprised a Shingle-style cottage (“cottage” being used in the Newport, RI, sense) built in 1887 and significantly enlarged a decade later. Traversing the grounds on our way to the inn gave us a chance to see outlying structures such as the magnificent turreted Farm Barn, which would not have looked out of place on the Hogwarts campus, and the impressive Coach Barn, now used for conferences and other gatherings. As the road skirted Lake Champlain, the inn emerged on the rise of a hill. An imposing structure of rich red bricks, it has shingled roofs punctuated by dormers and towering chimneys.
Inside, the house is very much as it was when the Webbs lived there. Reception is a book-filled office just off the Main Hall, and with the assistance of a porter, we made our way up the grand staircase to the second floor. Each of the 24 rooms (there are also four cottages on the grounds) features period décor and furniture, with no two being alike.
The “Louis XVI” room came with exquisite patterned wallpaper, a rich blue carpet, painted furniture and an ornate armoire. Large windows afforded a memorable view of Lake Champlain. Electronic devices were conspicuous by their absence, and there was no air-conditioning (which was superfluous during our stay but is a must for many Hideaway Report readers). The bath was on the small side, with a single pedestal sink and a combined bath and shower. (Rooms vary greatly in size, and five have shared baths, so only the more expensive accommodations are recommended. The “Yellow” room should be avoided, as part of it is above the kitchen.)
As I explored the inn, I discovered place after place that captivated me: the serene library, painted a lush shade of jade green; the south porch, with comfortable chairs overlooking the lawn and the lake; and the top-floor playroom, filled with giant dollhouses, stuffed animals and block sets, many of them dating to the early days of the house. Despite the elegance of the dining room, we opted to eat out on the terrace with its unforgettable vistas of the lake and beyond. The menu changes daily, and many of the ingredients are sourced from the farm. Standout dishes included a tart of pheasant’s back mushrooms with a mushroom pâté, morels and Champlain Valley Creamery Triple cheese, and Shelburne lamb with couscous, sweet potato purée, Swiss chard, local feta and a honey-garlic demi-glace.
Activities abound at the inn, with options including a dip in Lake Champlain, plus kayaking, canoeing, tennis on the Har-Tru court and hiking on the 10 miles of trails. Off the estate, this region of Vermont offers numerous attractions, including the nearby Shelburne Museum.
In a world of look-alike resorts and hotels, The Inn at Shelburne Farms offers a truly distinctive, charming experience, very much like staying at the grand home of an old family friend who has resisted the siren call of modernity.
The beautiful formal gardens on the lake side of the inn make for a delightful stroll.
Parking for the inn is a short walk away, and the way is slightly uphill going to the house.
The inn is only open from May to October. Farm products, notably cheeses and meats, are available for sale at the shop at the entrance to the property; reception can hold those items requiring refrigeration until your departure.