The last stage of our trip brought us full circle: Shelburne lies 43 miles southwest of Stowe and 7 miles south of Burlington. With the $10 million she inherited from her father in 1885, Lila Vanderbilt Webb and her husband, William Seward Webb, were able to fulfill their dream of creating an agricultural estate that employed only the most advanced techniques. Having acquired 3,800 acres of land along Shelburne Point on Lake Champlain, they engaged Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, to oversee the landscaping of the estate, as well as more than 300 workers to construct barns and begin raising crops and livestock. Today, the farm functions as a nonprofit organization dedicated to educational programs intended to promote environmentally responsible farming.
The Inn at Shelburne Farms, a National Historic Landmark, was the couple’s original home. It comprised a Shingle-style cottage (“cottage” being used in the Newport, RI, sense) built in 1887 and significantly enlarged a decade later. Traversing the grounds on our way to the inn gave us a chance to see outlying structures such as the magnificent turreted Farm Barn, which would not have looked out of place on the Hogwarts campus, and the impressive Coach Barn, now used for conferences and other gatherings. As the road skirted Lake Champlain, the inn emerged on the rise of a hill. An imposing structure of rich red bricks, it has shingled roofs punctuated by dormers and towering chimneys.
Inside, the house is very much as it was when the Webbs lived there. Reception is a book-filled office just off the Main Hall, and with the assistance of a porter, we made our way up the grand staircase to the second floor. Each of the 24 rooms (there are also four cottages on the grounds) features period décor and furniture, with no two being alike.
The “Louis XVI” room came with exquisite patterned wallpaper, a rich blue carpet, painted furniture and an ornate armoire. Large windows afforded a memorable view of Lake Champlain. Electronic devices were conspicuous by their absence, and there was no air-conditioning (which was superfluous during our stay but is a must for many Hideaway Report readers). The bath was on the small side, with a single pedestal sink and a combined bath and shower. (Rooms vary greatly in size, and five have shared baths, so only the more expensive accommodations are recommended. The “Yellow” room should be avoided, as part of it is above the kitchen.)
As I explored the inn, I discovered place after place that captivated me: the serene library, painted a lush shade of jade green; the south porch, with comfortable chairs overlooking the lawn and the lake; and the top-floor playroom, filled with giant dollhouses, stuffed animals and block sets, many of them dating to the early days of the house. Despite the elegance of the dining room, we opted to eat out on the terrace with its unforgettable vistas of the lake and beyond. The menu changes daily, and many of the ingredients are sourced from the farm. Standout dishes included a tart of pheasant’s back mushrooms with a mushroom pâté, morels and Champlain Valley Creamery Triple cheese, and Shelburne lamb with couscous, sweet potato purée, Swiss chard, local feta and a honey-garlic demi-glace.
Activities abound at the inn, with options including a dip in Lake Champlain, plus kayaking, canoeing, tennis on the Har-Tru court and hiking on the 10 miles of trails. Off the estate, this region of Vermont offers numerous attractions, including the nearby Shelburne Museum.
In a world of look-alike resorts and hotels, The Inn at Shelburne Farms offers a truly distinctive, charming experience, very much like staying at the grand home of an old family friend who has resisted the siren call of modernity.