Verdant Vermont Part I: Where to Stay

From New England Colonial inns to the Von Trapp Lodge (yes, those von Trapps of The Sound of Music) a stay in little Vermont is idyllic.

Photography by the author

You may picture a languid drive around little Vermont as idyllic. It is, but you should consider booking at least the first night and the very last night in advance. That way you can stop on impulse if you desire.

Looking at the last minute for a place to stay in green-as-Ireland Vermont can be a problem. It’s a small state and the innkeepers have a short summer season. Wise travelers learn to make reservations early, especially when schools are out. Canny Yankee hoteliers have succeeded, nevertheless, in extending the season. Mother Nature helps not just with her magnificent colors in the fall but with all the snow she drops every winter.

In my 21 years in New England I have stayed at all the hotels or inns I mention. They are my favorites. They all have additional characteristics that add something.

The Echo Lake Inn is all you’d expect of a New England Colonial inn. It’s unpretentious, laid back, genuine, friendly. In 1872, just a few miles north of the inn, Calvin Coolidge was born. His former home is an attraction for hotel guests. The original Coolidge Home furniture includes the bed he was born in. “Silent Cal” loved his bed. He took naps. He is reputed to have asked once when he woke up, “Is the country still here?” He attended a live showing of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, and Groucho noticed his president in the audience and shouted, “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?”

History judges him now to have been an austere, incorruptible politician — and one with a sense of humor. However, he might not have appreciated The New Yorker’s writer Dorothy Parker who, when told Coolidge had died, asked, “How can they tell?”

The Echo Lake Inn’s history includes hosting President Coolidge, of course, as well as President McKinley and celebrities like Andrew Mellon, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. The inn was built in 1840, but clearly all those buildings were created to last by frugal and careful Yankees. It has an Old World porch (the red chairs in my photograph in the next article were shot at this inn). It also has a swimming pool and canoes and boats on its dock on Echo Lake. It is open year round and some of the rooms have fireplaces. Romantic!

For a more chic country inn I like the Old Tavern in Grafton. It has been around since 1801 although it has gradually changed its name to the Grafton Inn. Gradually, because, delightfully, nothing moves fast in sleepy Vermont. The inn was once an important and prosperous staging stop for the coaches that crossed southern Vermont until it was bypassed by the rail system and finally the Interstate highway system.

The last time I was there the inn still had its magnificent antiques out on display on counters and mantelpieces, all exposed to guests at night, but the innkeeper implied he was having second thoughts because guests, like the times, were a-changing. In its day the inn had company like Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Rudyard Kipling brought his bride here for their honeymoon.

The first time I visited the receptionist took pains to tell us how small Grafton was.

“A guest from Manhattan asked for directions to downtown this morning,” she murmured. “I said ‘Go out our front door and keep making rights.’ He came back in a few minutes and said, ‘All that did was take me around the block!’ I said ‘That’s it. You‘ve seen downtown!’”

Marvelous! What a great place in a great state to have a great (and quiet) vacation.

The Equinox, up in the top left corner of the state, is busier — and more elegant. It has hosted four U.S. presidents. It offers many activities including Orvis fishing and shooting schools, British falconry, Land Rover off-road driving and, of course, golf. It’s a former RockResort (see below) and now it’s a Starwood hotel. For spouses who don’t care for the wild outdoors a bonus is that a huge discount mall is an easy drive from this resort in Manchester.

The Woodstock Inn over on the east side of the state is even more upscale but, similarly, right in town — a very attractive town at that. The inn started as a Rockefeller Resort, one of the luxury resorts founded in 1956 by Laurence Rockefeller — the conservationist in the family — whose vision was that exquisite lodges could be built without spoiling the environment and could become self-supporting.

Private interests bought him out in 1986 but have preserved the spirit of his vision. Woodstock, Vt. has become popular in winter because it offers skiing. It was the first to offer a ski tow in the United States to make life easier for those Americans who had been spoiled by the facilities in other parts of the world.

Cross country skiers and fans of The Sound of Music (the movie version won six Academy Awards) would enjoy the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vt. It is still run by family members, although the original children have, of course, passed on.

In 1968 it became the first resort in the United States to offer cross country skiing. The inn was destroyed by fire five days before Christmas in 1980 then rebuilt better than ever. It has long been managed by Johannes, the GM born in 1939, the tenth and youngest child of the family, although now his son Sam is part of management.

I was photographing Maria von Trapp in 1980 for the cover of Physician East, now defunct like a lot of the magazines I wrote for (perhaps due to my writing). It was the former Massachusetts Physician and boy did Maria give me a hard time. I was using color slide film. The final cover shot was taken inside in front of a large window. The light was terrible and she wouldn’t let me use fill-in flash. (“It would show my wrinkles.”)

As I fiddled with my tripod and kept changing my exposure she continued a barrage of “Young man, I hope you have another job because you are very slow at photography!” Her son, Rupert, wearing a plaid shirt in my photograph, an internist in Hadley, Mass. from 1980 until he died in 1992, grinned at me when I was done and, knowing I was a family physician in New Hampshire, said, “Let’s go to the house and I’ll play something on the piano to relax both of us.”

As we left Maria, a fellow guest whispered in my ear, “That’s ‘une formidable dame’ woman. I bet Hitler was glad to get her out of Austria!”

Rupert was a character. Maria had her 80th birthday a year later, and I was invited back for the party. The Norwegian government had sent her a very special, rare antique cross country ski to be used as a wall decoration in tribute to the fact that the von Trapps had introduced the sport to America. It had taken Norway months to find one so rare.

A government official unwrapped it with great ceremony and held it up for all to see. And Rupert cried out, “Hey! Maria has two legs!”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.