LOWER WATERFORD, Vt. — The stretch of Vermont abutting the Connecticut River, the White Mountains, and the border of New Hampshire resembles a backdrop from a Douglas Sirk film on a sunny day. Maybe it’s the rural setting, but the colors are VistaVision deep and the dog-day cicadas sound a tad more melodic.
It’s easy to see how this setting would relax travelers. It could also explain how an inn located in a remote Vermont village could place so high in Travel + Leisure magazine’s annual list of top hotels and resorts. The Rabbit Hill Inn was recently named the top resort in the Northeast for the second year in a row. It was also named the number 3 resort hotel in the continental US, and the number 39 top hotel in the world. The Rabbit Hill Inn outranked the St. Regis Florence in Italy, the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, India, and Le Barthélemy Hotel & Spa in St. Bart’s. It’s an astounding feat.
Which is why my immediate reaction when I walked into the Rabbit Hill Inn was “What in the name of Newhart is this?” The decor was quintessential New England B&B. Plaid chairs, wood beams, rabbit wallpaper, shelves of rabbit tchotchkes, and a fireplace with a picture over it that read “Some Bunny to Love.” So many rabbits. I’ll confess that I checked the address to make sure I was at the correct Rabbit Hill Inn. In case you’re wondering, there’s only one Rabbit Hill Inn in Lower Waterford.
I have yet to stay in any of Travel + Leisure’s top 10 hotels in the world, but I have stayed at several of the top New England resorts named in the magazine’s poll, and Rabbit Hill was, well, different. I could understand why the opulent Twin Farms in Barnard, Vt., was on the list of top resorts in the Northeast, ditto for the seaside chic of the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in Harwich, and the stately Wauwinet on Nantucket. But Rabbit Hill Inn had rooms with canopy beds draped with lace, and another room that looked as if it was lifted from a log cabin. When I think of Travel + Leisure-ranked resorts, my brain usually doesn’t head in the direction of needlepoint pillows and puzzles. Puzzles seem to be big at Rabbit Hill.
What I needed to do was keep an open mind. This was a challenge. I’m not a B&B kind of guy and the decor wasn’t my taste, but I’m sure that plenty of people might enjoy a homey atmosphere — and a hot tub just a few feet from their bed. If I arrived from Los Angeles or Miami, this is how I would want a Vermont bed and breakfast to look. Although I wasn’t entirely sure about the braided throw rugs.
“Open mind,” I chanted quietly as I looked at the braided rugs. “Open mind.”
I knew I had to be missing something because readers of Travel + Leisure gave the inn remarkably high scores. The magazine doesn’t allow more than one vote per person (it has a secure website), so I knew the innkeepers couldn’t be buttering their own bread by somehow cheating.
My room was one of the more modern-looking rooms, and it had a slight Art Deco feel about it, meaning the bunny tchotchkes were silver-plated. But, from a more practical standpoint, it had a deliciously soft bed, a fireplace, and a porch that was shared with one other room. That other room was empty, so I had the porch, and the scenery, to myself.
The inn serves afternoon tea. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, tea is now a private affair, and I took mine on the porch. I wasn’t expecting too much. Maybe a dry scone or a slightly stale macaron. But out came a tray of remarkable, beautiful little cakes. Could I overlook one too many rabbit figurines if the trade off was a tray full of treats? Indeed I could.
And this is where my fussbudget and feline attitude toward Rabbit Hill began to relax. It isn’t just a B&B with a small kitchen and lots of bunny bric-a-brac. Rabbit Hill Inn has an executive chef, a pastry chef, and a breakfast chef. It offers fine dining. Before I start gushing over the food, this seems as good a place as any to mention that the owners did not know a writer from the Globe was staying with them, nor did the Globe receive any freebies, comps, or discounts.
For dinner I had perfect gnocchi with pesto sauce. Breakfast the following morning was quiche with caramelized onions. I normally dread B&B dining experiences, but there was no communal table (especially with COVID-19), and the staff was charming.
Here’s the part of the story where I found myself in a real pickle, I’m talking full dill in a barrel kind of pickle. I felt conflicted between my reaction to the aesthetic of Rabbit Hill Inn, and the overall experience. Complicating it further were the owners, Brian and Leslie Mulcahy, who were personable and helpful. So halfway into writing this review, I decided to call them. First, I fessed up to staying there, then I fessed up to not being a fan of B&Bs and bunny figurines. I think I was looking for pre-publication forgiveness. Also, Leslie Mulcahy looks a bit like my mom, so I was already feeling guilty about the review.
“All of those rabbits you saw, we didn’t purchase any of them,” Brian Mulcahy said. “They were gifts to the inn. When we took over, we actually had to de-rabbit quite a bit.”
Even the “Some Bunny to Love” sign over the fireplace?
“Yes, that was a gift as well,” Mulcahy said. “The market’s changed and the traveler has changed. It used to be an older crowd. That’s changing considerably. You represent an age group that doesn’t want doilies and you don’t want heavy, lacy things. You want to have a bit more contemporary feel and we’re blending that into a 1795 house. We have rooms that are more modern in addition to more traditional.”
It took a while, but my shallow brain finally began to comprehend that perhaps one of the reasons Rabbit Hill Inn has been winning awards over its larger, fancier counterparts is that people don’t always want an impersonal experience, and they don’t always want contemporary and sleek surroundings. We’ll just have to agree to disagree over the bunny figurines and those braided throw rugs.
Rates range from $200 to $400 per night depending on season and room class. 48 Lower Waterford Road, Lower Waterford, Vt., 802-748-5168, rabbithillinn.com.