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An Oasis in Vermont's Barren Winterland


In Lower Waterford, Vt., there is nothing of interest except the Rabbit Hill Inn, which is the only reason people visit the village of just 80 souls.

Photography by the authors

The northern New England States sure have their stereotypes, thus tourists read that Maine locals are laconic, New Hampshire folks are frugal and Vermonters—well, Vermonters are flinty and obstruct change.

Frank Smallwood, a former Vermont State Senator feels this is a myth; when the republic of Vermont was created in 1777 “it had no indigenous experiences and all its people were previous flatlanders!”

Lower Waterbury like a Currier and Ives painting.

Paradoxically, country folk and farmers—what some have called the rural technopolity—have been ever ready to accept change and go with the concept that informed and involved Vermonters have to deal with life’s trade-offs, says Smallwood.

Vermont may be accepting change, but we don’t see that in the little village of Lower Waterford when we wander into its public library—the only remaining honor system library in the state. It’s interesting that, although the library is open without staff present, the church next door is locked!

It was cold outside, but warm in the library. What a clever way to encourage people to read books.

Want to know where Upper Waterford is?

“Gone: a village lost to progress!”

Flooded below 800 feet of water, Upper Waterford became the largest hydro-electric plant in New England. Three hundred bodies had to be exhumed from cemeteries for this, including that of Richard F. Rowell, MD, one of the first country doctors in Vermont, who died aged 85 in 1878.

Want to know what winter is like in this village?

“Weather is life here,” says local writer, David Goodman. “Blizzards, wind storms, torrential rains—all part of the rhythm of the seasons in our small towns that cling to the flanks of our northern mountains and valleys.”

So if Lower Waterford is one of those towns, why come here in winter, especially if you are warm weather wimps from San Diego? Because you can dress in layers, rent a jeep with 4WD, load Google maps on your iPhone, and take off from Boston airport for what would normally be a huge mistake in the hotel world—ignoring the importance of location.

B&Bs benefit when they are found in a fascinating and attractive part of the country. But in Lower Waterford, a village of only 80 stout souls, there is nothing of interest except the Rabbit Hill Inn, as delightful a country inn as you could ever hope to find.

Visitors are in town only because that’s where the inn is located. We’ve not quite been fair to the area by implying it’s a winter wilderness. There’s a lot to see about 8 miles to the west in St. Johnsbury, and east in Littleton, NH.

And what an inn! Weary travelers in the late 1700s found it a haven on the 18-day roundtrip by stagecoach between Montreal and Boston.

Samuel Hodby, an entrepreneur ahead of his time, saw the opportunity to provide lodgings and a store where even then you could exit by the gift shop! Hodby’s Tavern prospered and as many as 100 teams of horses passed by each day. The village kept 3 full-time blacksmiths busy. The cluster of buildings around the inn changed hands and was developed further. Jonathan Cummings added his home and a workshop and from then on, except for the years from 1912 to 1957 (when it was a privately held residence) it was an inn.

The Rabbit Hill Inn. Don’t be impressed by the Condé Nast Traveler plaque we added to the picture. There are many, many more inside.

In 1987 the inn underwent major restorations then, in 1997, it was bought by a couple who had been its assistant innkeepers for 3 years: Brian and Leslie Mulcahy. And in 1997, under their care the inn became the power it is today.

Imagine! About 120 miles from Boston airport, constant fog going through the White Mountains, icy roads and you come into a heated room like the Music Room—and it’s only a mid-priced room in the inn. How do those people do it?

In some ways, the inn is an anomaly, but it suggests Emerson was wrong when he said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” It’s as if the Mulcahys knew their success required them to be more than the destination, and, indeed, to be the very reason for the journey.

A glance at guest comments in the Music Room, where we enjoyed 2 nights of a cold Vermont winter, is revealing. We read different guests saying different things: “Second home.” “Eager to return.” “Back again.” “We think about our next visit all year long.” “Ninth visit, eight in the Music Room.” “You can find the meaning of life here!” “An oasis amidst the barren, frozen winterland.”

A travel writer friend, who told us about the Rabbit Hill Inn, called it a “fascinating place to hide.” We checked it out on the recommendation of a family member who felt it met all the standards we need for our physician readers.

Another bedroom sign in the inn’s pub. Example of the Staves puzzles. A cup of hot tea always available. Rabbit friends, all donated by past guests.

In reality it exceeded them even to not having phones or television sets in rooms. The inn had a telephone for guests to use in an open office upstairs. But it has glamorous and beautiful rooms, some with fireplaces, all selected for charm and comfort, public rooms with intriguing corners including a bar not unlike the one in Cheers, and an award-winning restaurant that even attracts locals from nearby cities.

The inn also stages a type of afternoon tea that makes return visitors hurry to get to check-in in time to enjoy it. Mindful that it is, as a guest writes “an oasis,” it has boxes of game puzzles (like very expensive and difficult jigsaws) made by the company Staves, that keeps many of its guests engaged for hours.

But the inn’s strength, as is true of all upscale accommodations, is its staff. And not surprisingly the stars are the owners, the Mulcahys.

Brian ran small—and branches of large—companies as an administrative manager. Leslie was a social worker in a medical setting for a computer company dealing with doctors’ offices. They were thus a couple destined to run an efficient but caring company: the inn they own and love.

In a small inn, guests are very social.

“We want to be part of that,” says Leslie. “For us it’s a lifestyle, first, before it is a business.”

She sits with her husband surrounded by several hundred rabbit gifts from former guests. Each gift has the name and date of the donor. Those ceramic and stuffed bunnies are all over the inn in every nook and cranny; they show a certain bonding between guests and innkeepers that is quite moving. The inn actually has a 35% return rate.

“People do get it!” says Leslie with understandable pride.

The innkeepers get compliments, of course. One comment was interesting: “We couldn’t have picked a better place for emergency surgery,” wrote 2 guests who were emergency room doctors. The wife had emergency GYN surgery. The post-op convalescence was handled by the inn even to the extent of looking after the worried husband!

We ask if the social media accolades mean the inn doesn’t need to advertise.

“We feel social media doesn’t put you in business but it helps to keep you there,” says Brian.

The breakfast choices are splendid, as they are at most B&Bs. But the Rabbit Hill Inn has a famous dinner restaurant and the quality spills over into breakfast, too. The restaurant is so well established that locals come from neighboring cities with reservations, but inn guests always get preference. Our photographs are of breakfasts; we were so hungry we ate the marvelous dinner before we realized we hadn’t photographed it! The rabbit motif shows in the butter patties, too.

The Rabbit Hill Inn may not need to advertise much. Plaques honoring the inn face diners in the restaurant as guests enter. Noticed by those who are in business themselves, the inn is in their mind when, for example, TV producers are looking for something different. The inn has twice been a prize in Wheel of Fortune and, similarly, twice on the Today Show as One of Five Affordable Romantic Destinations.

“We are on the radar of travel corporations,” says Brian, trying to hide a smile.

“How do you avoid being smug about your success?” we ask.

“We’re working people,” Brian answers. “How can you be pretentious when sometimes you have to plunge a toilet.”

A glimpse out the front shows the weather has improved. We go back to study the outdoor options the inn has painstakingly put together for its guests.

So we ask our hosts if they believe Brian’s previous business background has helped them succeed in an industry that often has startup failures and if, perhaps, Leslie’s prior experience as a social worker has created an inn that really cares about its guests. They look at each other, smile and offer their slogan, “The Rabbit Hill is a Paradise for the Senses. A Vacation for the Soul.”

For this series of articles the Andersons, resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest, drove 1,300 miles in 14 days across northern New England to review 7 bed and breakfasts for Physician's Money Digest. The Andersons live in San Diego. Nancy is a former nursing educator and 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 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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