Early winter in Vermont was warm, wet and windy, more Seattle than snowshoe. Searching for decent snow in those trying days of early December meant seeking out the high spots, and even there, the pickings were slim.
Slogging through a downpour in Rutland, I turned off Route 7 and pointed my truck uphill, toward lofty Chittenden, where The Mountain Top Inn and Resort is perched. Ok, it wasn’t exactly a winter wonderland up there, either, but at least the place was frozen, not wet. A ton of wind-flung sleet cascaded across the parking lot like so much bird shot. It didn’t matter. The Mountain Top Inn takes the sting out of everything from gale-driven ice pellets to the stress of the daily grind. The Inn is all about heart rate adjustment. The resort is relaxing enough to slow down the world’s most Type A heart, and speed it up again through a hilly ski or snowshoe workout on the inn’s 85 kilometers of trails. Failing that, the inn offers horse-drawn sleigh ride for all the romantics out there.
The place is plush, but not in the fussy, aren’t-we-special high-end kind of way. Think post and beam, lots of wood, earth tones. Plus big windows to gaze out at the mountains and the Chittenden Reservoir in the valley below. The trails, too, seemed designed to offer a view at every turn. Not bad for a former turnip farm. The Inn’s marketing director, Diane Dickerman led me to my room as I shook the last of the sleet from my hair. She assured me winter in its snowy glory would arrive at the Inn soon, it always does.
This was going to be an easy night, judging from the room. Pillows piled high on a huge canopy bed. The quilt was heavy, soft and warm. Comfortable chairs sat ready for mountain viewing in the morning. A CD called “Classics for Relaxation” stood ready. So did a selection of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters coffee and elegant blue bottles of Saratoga Sparkling Spring Water. The inn started as the aforementioned turnip farm in the 1870s and became an inn during the 1940s, attracting the likes of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. It was rebuilt after a nasty 1977 fire, became popular again but declined into listlessness in the late 1990s and the start of the millennium after the original owners sold the property.
It’s now blossoming again since current owners Steve and Lauren Bryant bought Mountain Top in April 2002. The Inn has 39 guest rooms, all carefully decorated by Lauren Bryant. Steve Bryant busied himself renovating the place, beefing up the staff and putting out the welcome mat to both well-heeled vacationers and locals who want to embrace the Vermont outdoors in an afternoon of skiing, snowshoeing or skating.
A bit hungry, a tore myself away from my room and got some dinner. In an informal mood, I opted for a huge and delicious Angus burger in the Highlands Tavern.
The tavern, and especially the dining room features foods with a serious Vermont slant, using locally grown food. Chef Shawn Casey himself is a local boy who grew up in Chittenden, went to the Culinary Institute of American and came back home. He now presides over the inn’s casually elegant, relaxed restaurant.
The menu changes from time to time, but Casey consistently finds new twists on dishes like rack of lamb and filet of beef. Filled by the Angus burger and a local microbrew, I was sleepy and retired early for the night.
Overnight, the sleet mixed with snow, so by dawn, at least it looked like winter, with three inches of dense snow and slush on the ground. The fog lifted briefly, revealing the view of Chittenden Reservoir and the undeveloped hills behind it. Karen Cox, Mountain Top’s energetic Nordic Ski and Snowshoe Center director, greeted the precipitation warmly. The trails now had a base. All she needed was a little powder, and the skiers and snowshoers would rejoice. Even if no new snow was forthcoming, Mountain Top is a rare Nordic center with snowmaking. It only covers a couple kilometers, but at least you could ski or snowshoe a bit through a January thaw.
Skiers still overwhelmingly dominate the trails, Cox said, but snowshoers are popping up more and more. “The more mature crowd may not be able to ski because of their knees, but they snowshoe,” Cox said. Some younger people like to dash about on shoes, too, she noted.
There was not enough snow to ski or snowshoe, so Cox led me on a hike along some of the trails. They’re wide. Many of them could easily accommodate a full-sized pickup truck. That way, Cox explained, the cross-country skiers can have their groomed paths, while the snowshoers can enjoy themselves too.
Under the Bryants, Mountain Top has been more aggressive at clearing away “ankle grabbers,” as Cox put it, those pesky bushes that grow over the summer, or windblow, fallen branches. A Thanksgiving weekend gale had undone some of the trail clearing work, so as Cox talked and hiked she flung branches that had fallen on the trails back into the woods.
We passed beech trees, some scarred with bear claw marks, marched by an overgrown apple grove crisscrossed by deer tracks and emerged at a level spot near a picnic table just below the inn property’s 2,100-foot maximum elevation.
Guides bring skiers and snowshoers to this point at night, to stargaze, to warm themselves by a bonfire, or energize on s’mores. Cox turned to point out the property’s best view, but a thick wall of fog and drizzle abruptly closed in.
Water dripped from the frozen hemlocks, which looked ghostly in the thick mist. View or no view, it was beautiful. “It’s just one of the many faces of the woods,” Cox said. We gazed at the trees for a while, then hiked back to ski center’s warming hut, which smelled of wood smoke and hot chocolate. Toward evening that Saturday, the drizzle turned to snow. For the next week, snow fell almost daily. Skiers and snowshoers drifted in. Winter had finally arrived at the Mountain Top Inn.
The Quick Facts:
WHAT: The Mountain Top Inn and & Resort
ADDRESS: 195 Mountain Top Road, Chittenden, Vt., 05737
WEB SITE: http://www.mountaintopinn.com
OFFERINGS: 39 guest rooms, including luxury rooms, traditional inn rooms, five rustic cabins. Price per person ranges from $79 per night per person in standard lodge rooms to $189 per night per person for a luxury lodge room. The inn has a wide variety of packages for vacation stays, all listed on the Web site.
OUTDOORS: 85 kilometers of ski/snowshoe trails. The inn also has ice skating and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Summer brings hiking, swimming in Chittenden Reservoir, and weddings.
NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: If you can tear yourself away from the inn (no small feat) Killington Ski Area is 11 miles away. Downtown Rutland, Vt., a 20-minute drive to the southwest, has a beautiful, small Victorian downtown. It is worth the trip, but you have to drive through a few miles of dispiriting strip development to get there. Middlebury and Burlington, Vt., also worth visiting, are about 45 minutes and an hour and a half, respectively, north of Mountain Top along Route 7.