January 2, 2011

Castle Hill gives taste of luxury in Vermont


---- — Late last summer, my wife, Marty, and I opted to treat ourselves to a night in a castle.

Summer happens to be off-season for Castle Hill, an impressive inn near Okemo Mountain Resort in Cavendish, Vt. But there's no suboptimal time for staying at such an impressive place.

The castle dates to 1905, when Vermont native Allan M. Fletcher (1853-1922) built it as a retirement home. He'd prospered in banking and as a member of the New York Stock exchange. Idleness didn't suit him, it turned out. By 1902, he had been elected to the state legislature. A decade later he ran a successful campaign to become Vermont's governor.

His accomplishments as governor include establishment of a commission to evaluate schools and colleges in the state, and naming the first woman to the Vermont Board of Education.


Now, back to the castle.

Modeled after English Cotswold cottages by Boston architectural firm Fehmer and Page, the mansion boasts California redwood and gneiss stone quarried on site for its construction. Perched on a hill outside the village, it offers commanding views of the region. The mid-19th-century carriage house alongside features a spa and fitness center.

Landscaping owes its design to Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., whose firm gained acclaim for developing New York City's Central Park and Montreal's Mount Royal. Gardens on the grounds are scattered amidst rocky outcrops.

European craftsmen brought their skills to bear on the elegant interior. Fine woodworking and ornate molded plaster are apparent in every room. Oak serves as the dominant wood for public spaces, but the impressive oval dining room owes its impact to liberal use of mahogany. Many lighting fixtures are original; Castle Hill claims to have been the first fully electrified home in Vermont. Some of the glasswork came from the Tiffany studios.

We quickly adopted the library as a space for relaxation. Its fireplace and walls of books combine to offer a comfortable contrast to the more formal dining areas.

Our bedroom suite (one of 10 rooms open to travelers) could easily be described as sumptuous. A sitting room and sleeping area flank the old-fashioned (claw-foot tub, anyone?) but smoothly functioning bathroom. D├ęcor includes a four-poster bed and other antique furnishings, tasteful draperies and a functioning fireplace with sconces atop the mantle.

I'm sure that, in his day, Gov. Fletcher would have had his breakfast brought up to his chambers. We found it no great inconvenience, however, to descend the stairs for a continental breakfast heavy on fresh fruits, juices and scones.


It's likely most winter visitors will spend their time on the ski slopes or perhaps snowshoeing backcountry trails. Those who choose to go during summer or fall months can choose from other pursuits.

We spent an afternoon perusing the Black River Academy Museum in nearby Ludlow. A prominent brick Richardsonian building built in 1888, the former school (closed in 1938) listed future President Calvin Coolidge, a United States attorney general and Rotary International founder Paul Harris among its students. Now turned into a community history resource, it includes a number of well-conceived exhibits.

We were very impressed with how efforts of local students are integrated into the facility. The Victorian Home section, including a parlor, bedroom, dining room and kitchen, was researched and curated by senior Advanced Placement History students in 1996. All furnishings came from area sources. Locally made crock ware and a hand-operated vacuum cleaner invented by a Ludlow native are highlights.

Other students, this time juniors and eighth-graders, helped create a representation of Ludlow's Main Street in the early 1900s. Along with offices for a doctor and dentist, and a general store, are depictions of a blacksmith shop, the local newspaper and a barber shop.

Sixth-graders completed a display on regional barns in 2009. Another corner includes short oral histories transcribed by elementary-school students.

We're always pleased to see tributes to early industry. The history of Ludlow's mills is presented. So is the area's involvement in furniture making, spotlighting rockers made by the Fullam and Sons Chair Company. A doll carriage was a product of the Ludlow Toy Manufacturing Company.

Homemade skis and a scale-model sauna are part of a section on Finnish heritage in Vermont. Memorabilia of Calvin Coolidge (including his 1890 diploma) and Paul Harris are on display. Plus, one can pull the long rope and ring the original 1889 bell atop the tall tower.


There are more options close to Castle Hill as well.

Buttermilk Falls tumbles over its rocky bed barely a five-minute drive away. It's a very scenic spot, made more popular by its several deep pools for swimming. Trails up or around Okemo Mountain offer a more challenging outdoor activity.

Another side jaunt brought us to Springfield and Gallery at the Vault, housed in a 1907 bank building. We found an especially nice assortment of regionally made items, including art glass, quilts, marquetry and Nantucket baskets. The vault mechanism is a work of art in its own right.

Back at Castle Hill, we lounged in our suite a few hours before heading down to dinner.

The three-course prix-fixe menu offered a broad selection of offerings. Marty chose tri-color ravioli for an appetizer, while I enjoyed an unusually tall and flavorful crab cake. She followed with lobster bisque; I selected the Oval Salad laden with granola, pear, Vermont cheese and dried cranberries. My main course, the pork chop, came well seasoned. Marty's beef Wellington was the most tender cut of meat imaginable. We had no room left for any of the nicely presented desserts.

Service was efficient without being formal. Background music by a pianist added to our enjoyment. The meal fulfilled all its promise as a true gourmet experience.

Most of us can only dream of having our own castle. But at least we can find ways to make one ours for a day.

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