- Rabbit Hill Inn on a winter evening
Rabbit Hill Inn is perched on a rise just off Route 18 in Lower Waterford. It's a sleepy village where the town clerk's office shares a building with a U.S. post office and the Davies Memorial Library, the state's last remaining outpost to lend books on the honor system. Locals are treated to an occasional moose sighting.
Massive white Doric columns make for an impressive façade on the main inn, which dates back to 1825. Inside, it's an unassuming, charming old manse with original wide-plank wood floors and old-farmhouse atmosphere, including plaid wingback chairs and antique furniture. The Connecticut River, which marks the New Hampshire state line, runs right across the street from Rabbit Hill, and the sound of the flowing water reaches the inn's front porch.
- A common area with a view of the tavern
Rabbit Hill isn't the fanciest place to stay in Vermont, and it's just one of the state's many remarkable historic properties. And yet, it has won accolades from the likes of Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure, which have ranked the inn among New England's — and even the world's — best lodgings for multiple years running. When Rabbit Hill topped Travel + Leisure's list of best resort hotels in the Northeast in 2019, the magazine noted that "the property is both homey and luxe, with a sense of refinement that gets to the heart of the New England experience."
In late November, I arrived at Rabbit Hill for a one-night stay to experience the inn's appeal. Donn Gist, who has worked there for 20 years, greeted me at the door to brief me on breakfast hours, outside door access and afternoon treats before showing me to my room. I had booked the Rose, one of Rabbit Hill's "classic" rooms. It was smaller than other rooms, though it seemed not the least bit cramped and was equally well appointed.
- File: Brent Harrewyn
- Dinner at the restaurant
Instead, Gist steered me to Cedar Glen, a "luxury" room that looked like an airy log cabin, equal parts rustic and posh. Light-stained wooden logs framed the top of the king-size bed and a large whirlpool tub. Light jazz tunes wafted from a CD player as Gist explained that innkeepers Brian and Leslie Mulcahy typically upgrade guests when a higher-category room is available and otherwise would stand empty. The good-service gesture warmed me as much as the flickering gas fireplace.
Thoughtful touches continue throughout the cozy inn. In Rabbit Hill's main house, guests often settle at the wooden tables of the sitting room with Stave jigsaw puzzles made in Norwich. The intricate, hand-cut wooden pieces and unusual designs — with no pictures for guidance — are "simply addictive and maddening at the same time," Gist said. I understood when I began a puzzle later that evening.
- The Cedar Glen room
Just off the sitting room, a bookshelf holds stacks of board games, and a full bar fronts an Old English-style tavern. Before dinner, Brian Mulcahy mixed me a mean Manhattan using Mad River Distillers' Burnt Rock Bourbon.
A small nook by Rabbit Hill's front entrance holds not only brochures for the region's attractions but also Leslie Mulcahy's thorough itineraries for nearly every interest: an antiques guide, a "taster's tour," a list of ice cream shops, and rundowns of nearby towns' highlights. Gist, a Waterford local and the "hike concierge" of Rabbit Hill, helps match guests with the right nearby trek, based on their skill level, time frame and footwear.
- Decorative accents on the porch
In the winter, Rabbit Hill offers a snowmobile package, and the innkeepers can procure passes for cross-country skiing — extra charges that are billed to a guest's room. The inn doesn't see too many Alpine skiers, Leslie said, because Rabbit Hill guests often have different interests and don't necessarily want to spend the whole day on the slopes. For those who do, Burke Mountain and the White Mountains of New Hampshire are within easy reach.
"He wants to do breweries and she needs to go to the yarn shop, and I'm like, 'I can help you get to a brewery where there's a yarn shop 15 minutes away,'" Leslie explained when we chatted in the tavern during my stay. "Every day, we custom day plan for our guests."
The Mulcahys, both Rhode Island natives, had never stayed at inns before booking a getaway at Rabbit Hill about 30 years ago. They liked it so much that they returned multiple times and befriended the owners, John and Maureen Magee. In 1994, the Magees invited the Mulcahys to manage the inn while they gradually disengaged from the business.
- File: Brent Harrewyn
- Owners Brian and Leslie Mulcahy in front of the inn
Three years later, the Mulcahys bought Rabbit Hill, including the owners' home up the road. Today, Brian runs the back end of the business, crunches the numbers and tends bar. Leslie is the heart and soul of the inn. Her sharp eyes for atmospheric perfection sparkle as she talks with guests over their meals.
"We pride ourselves on just genuine, heartfelt hospitality, personally being with our guests," Leslie said.
Rabbit Hill is the go-to getaway for fellow proprietors Dave Briggs and Peggy Adams, who own Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. They like to celebrate Peggy's birthday with the Mulcahys.
"These guys are the model," Briggs said. "They are the whole package. Meticulous. Every detail is there. We know because we see it."
- A puzzle in the common room at Rabbit Hill Inn
Rabbit Hill suggests evening reservations at its restaurant, where it also serves sumptuous, multicourse breakfasts in the mornings. The dinner menu runs pricey, with entrées reaching $44 for Wagyu beef sirloin.
During my stay, I tried a savory sweet potato bisque ($9) with hints of lemon and tarragon, as well as a halibut entrée ($38) with a salty miso glaze, balanced with a creamy orange-soy butter and a side of mushroom risotto. For dessert, the apple pâte à choux ($9), like a deconstructed apple crisp, paired a vanilla cream-filled puff pastry with a fan of sliced poached apples.
Breakfast the next day, included in the room rate, began with an ample pastry-and-fruit plate. My entrée of eggs Benedict came with a citrus-dressed arugula salad that accented the hollandaise sauce.
Rabbit Hill encompasses 19 guest rooms in the main house, the attached carriage house and the adjacent 1795 House, which was the original tavern and inn that Samuel Hodby opened for weary travelers along the trade routes from Boston to Canada.
Each room boasts distinct décor: The Sterling is art deco with mirrored side tables; the Colonial-style Music room features the original 1857 pump organ from the church across the street.
"This place is like an ice cream shop," Leslie said. "There is a flavor for everybody."
- The Jonathan Cummings Suite
The inn even has a hidden door that leads to the upstairs Loft bedroom with exposed beams, slanted ceilings, a four-poster bed and an expansive bathroom. "Superior" and "luxury" rooms have gas fireplaces. All rooms have en suite bathrooms, many with whirlpool tubs in addition to large, tiled standing showers. A few rooms have private porches. Prices, which cover gratuities, range from $219 per night for a classic room to $359 for a luxury.
Rabbits pop up in the garden, on fireplace mantels and in the corner of bathtubs, but the décor isn't cutesy or in your face. Everything at Rabbit Hill is understated but carefully considered.
- The plating of a dessert
Towels are plush. Courtesy robes are heavy, wine-colored satin with fleece lining. Afternoon treats recently included a succulent macaroon, luscious chocolate brownie, rich butterscotch cookie and creamy cheesecake bar made by Phyllis Grech, the inn's Culinary Institute of America-trained pastry chef. No longer on a help-yourself tray, the sweets come on individual, cocoa-dusted plates — each plastic-wrapped since the pandemic began.
The national recognition does draw visitors to Rabbit Hill, but the Mulcahys are hardly resting on that reputation, Leslie said.
As she put it, "You're only as good as you were for the guests of that day, and we just feel like we always have to re-earn it."