Friday, October 27, 2017

Cocktails and carved slopes at New England’s only private ski club

Outside the lodge, the wind carried a bitter winter chill. Inside, the bartender carried over a chilled glass filled with house-infused bacon bourbon. Each smoky-smooth sip thawed my fingers and soothed my sore feet still cramped inside ski boots.

I lounged back and watched out the window as some skiers whistled by, while others came to a crunching halt and clomped into the mid-mountain lodge to join me at the bar for a well-deserved mid-morning breather.
The scene was appropriately reminiscent of a sign I saw earlier hanging in the base lodge that read: “Ice belongs in cocktails, not on the slopes.”

A short while later, after my glass was drained, I geared back up and returned to the trails relaxed and refreshed. As my ski tips fell over a rise, I thought of the sign again and realized it was more than just a cheeky marketing slogan. It was a communal motto and a precise description of life at New England’s only private ski resort – The Hermitage Club at Haystack Mountain.

Located in Vermont’s Deerfield Valley, adjacent to Mount Snow, The Hermitage Club is the ambitious venture of Connecticut businessman Jim Barnes, who began purchasing area property in 2007. He ultimately combined a faltering ski resort, Haystack Mountain, with inns and other properties to create The Hermitage Club, a four-season private club community that is the only establishment of its kind in the East. 

Modeled after the Yellowstone Club in Montana, Hermitage brings the feel of the high-end mountain community getaways that abound in the American West, over to this side of the country.

“He [Jim Barnes] wanted to create a unique, hassle-free luxury ski experience for families,” said Meridith Dennes, Senior Director of Marketing, Advertising and PR for The Hermitage Club.
The Hermitage caters to high-end fantasies, but not only in the sense of luxuries, service and extras. The club also expertly straddles the line between a family and an adult destination, offering guilt-free vacationing that provides something for everyone.

“It works really well having that balance; the time you spend together as a family and the time you spend individually,” said Dennes.

During my weekend visit, it all amounted to a noticeable sense of contented freedom, an unwinding of tension and an elusive level of relaxation.

The Offerings

Like any high-end private club, be it country club or yacht club, luxury is the norm for Hermitage members. And with an $85,000 initial membership fee (plus annual dues), that should be expected. But they offer members numerous guest passes, and the infrastructure and amenities are lavish and high-end without being overly ostentatious or gaudy. The rustic atmosphere, while gilded, manages to be as welcoming as it is impressive.

The main base lodge offered valet parking and ski valet services, along with member locker rooms and other conveniences. But the real attraction there was the lodge itself – a soaring, stunning wood and glass chalet, complete with an outdoor stone fireplace just as grand as the centralized one indoors. Besides the multiple bars, food options and stage where weekend acts the likes Huey Lewis and the News come to play, the main lodge also featured a relaxing spa, modern fitness center, pools, game rooms and more.

“The lodge was very impressive,” said Jaclyn Pare, a Reading, Massachusetts native who now lives in Connecticut. Pare and her husband were visiting Hermitage as guests. “Sitting at the bar, looking up at the mountain and the fireplace in the background was a great way to spend the afternoon.”  

Members and their guests can opt to stay at condos near the base of the mountain, or at one of the partner inns owned by Hermitage a short drive away. I stayed at the Snow Goose Inn, which embodied a quaint country B&B. But the rooms were sleek, with the same balance of updated and bucolic that is exhibited across the Hermitage properties.

The options will only be growing, as Hermitage recently received the green light for its long-term expansion plan. Over the next ten years, they plan to add 550 units over the face of the mountain, in the form of townhouses, single-family homes, condos and a hotel slated for opening in 2019.

Although the Hermitage properties have an exclusive feel, the resort’s location within the small mountain enclave of Wilmington, Vermont, and adjacent to the larger and more bustling Mount Snow ski resort, ensures guests have options. One downtown eatery, the Cask & Kiln restaurant, drew us in immediately with its mix of sheik décor and rustic, casual charm. The dishes and drinks were expertly prepared, to the level of most big city fine dining.

The Mountain

For all its other offerings, the mountain is the center of Hermitage’s appeal.

Throughout my weekend visit, the snow conditions were superb, especially in the morning when we were among the first skiers, cutting through virgin corduroy on several trails.

Quality conditions lasted for the duration of the day, despite bitter cold and strong winds that kept part of the mountain closed part of the day. The wind had little impact on the main lift, though, with its bubble cover and seat warmers to ensure you got to the top in utmost comfort.

Around midday the more expert section of the mountain, called The Witches, opened up and provided a more diverse array of trails. And it shortened the already short lift lines, which is a boasting point for Hermitage.

“Our terrain is versatile and can accommodate both expert and novice skiers,” said Dennes. “Furthermore, no lift lines means more daily vertical.”

There was also a snow tubing park, outdoor skating rink and snow mobile rental center on site, all surrounding a bonfire pit.

“All ages are entertained,” said Pare. “The atmosphere is friendly towards the whole family and offers something different for everyone.”

When the snow melts, Hermitage presents an abundance of reasons for members to remain engaged.
Their 18-hole championship golf course recently underwent a facelift, resulting in updated rolling greens. They also sport a private lake with paddle boats and paddle boards, as well as access to a larger lake with speed boats for water skiing and tubing.

But the mountain again is the main draw, especially for outdoor enthusiasts. Haystack is crisscrossed by a variety of hiking trails, including a ridgeline trail that runs from the summit of Haystack over to the adjacent Mount Snow.

The Cocktails

During our initial tour of the main lodge, I first noticed the poster with the slogan: “Ice belongs in cocktails, not on the slopes.” Shortly thereafter, we were told that the mountain opens from 9:00am to 4:00pm, but most people ski more like 10:00am to 2:00pm, with a few Bloody Mary breaks in between.

The embracing of cocktail culture was admittedly surprising at first, but soon enough we found ourselves planning our day around a stop at the mid-mountain lodge (as it was suggested to us by numerous employees and patrons).

The mid-mountain lodge was hard to ignore. It sat looming on an outcrop, in full view halfway up the main chairlift, luring skiers in like a timbered siren. The bartenders here crafted expert cocktails, like my bacon-infused bourbon beverage. A small bar menu offered filling fare, like cheese fondue with soft pretzels and juicy grilled steak tip bites. The atmosphere inside was warm from the fireplace, from the libations and from the friendly conversation erupting amongst strangers. New skiers consistently streamed in, tore away their layers and took a break. Because it was halfway down the mountain, you had to earn that craft beer or spiked hot cocoa, which made it all the more satisfying.

Ascending the mountain all the way affords slightly smaller and more curious bar options. At the Haystack summit, a small lodge houses a large table, a waffle chef that sends fresh-baked aromas wafting out the door every time someone enters, and of course, a small bar. With kids joyfully piling whipped cream onto fresh made waffles, and parents sipping cocktails off to the side, this scene was Hermitage in microcosm.

If you’re in the market for a pricey private club membership, Hermitage offers you something unique in our region; but it also offers something for everyone. If you want to melt away under the soothing hands of an expert masseuse, tune out in the spa. If the ski conditions are at the top of your list, then get out there to the short lift lines. If you’re an avid hiker, explore their loosely travailed mountain paths. If the kids want to tube in the snow or the lake, bring them up any season.

Or if, like me, you crave a finely crafted cocktail, they have that well covered too – just make sure the ice is in your glass and not on the slopes.   


(Note: A version of this story ran in the November 2017 issue of Northshore Magazine)

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