On a recent Saturday morning, José Fernandez of Essex scrapped his work plans, telling his wife, Astrid, "It's too beautiful. We have to ski." So the couple hopped in the car with friends George and Sandy Keener of Westford and headed 60 miles east to the Highland Lodge. There they would enjoy what George calls "the most spectacular cross-country skiing in Vermont."
A Seven Days reporter encountered both couples just after their four-hour ski on the lodge's groomed trails. It was the fourth trip to the iconic Greensboro inn and touring center for José and Astrid, while the Keeners said they've been skiing there for 20 years. "The trails are a beautiful mix of rolling hills and woods, and you hardly ever run into any people," George enthused.
The lodge's vintage look was also part of the draw. "It's a throwback," George said approvingly of the 10-room inn with its 10 small cottages. "It's as if you've entered the '50s."
For more than half a century, the historic Highland Lodge was owned and operated by the Smith family. But in 2011, David and Wilhelmina Smith stopped advertising the inn and closed its restaurant. Although the pair continued to rent rooms and host skiers on their trails — groomed by the nearby Craftsbury Outdoor Center — locals and longtime guests worried that the end of an era was at hand.
In fact, they were witnessing the dawn of a new one. On December 10, 2016, a group of seven investors purchased the lodge. According to Peter Milliken, one of the new owners — most of them from the Norwich-Thetford area — they want to preserve the inn's unfussy charm and nature-based amenities while capitalizing on the area's growing arts and food attractions.
The family-friendly lodge started its history as a farmhouse, then became a boarding house. In 1926, a developer bought it and planned to turn the site into a cottage colony. When the stock market crashed in 1929, however, so did those intentions. In 1954, the Smiths purchased the lodge; over the following six decades, they cultivated a loyal summer clientele.
Guests returned year after year to enjoy the cottages and the two-story white-clapboard main house, which is encircled by a porch with a sweeping view of Caspian Lake. They swam and borrowed canoes from the boathouse on the lodge's private beach. They played tennis on the clay court. They hiked hillside trails. On rainy days, they amused themselves with puzzles and paperbacks, or on the Steinway & Sons grand piano in the main house's parlor. And, with their meals, they ate "ishkabibble" — a signature brownie sundae prepared in the lodge kitchen — on tables covered with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths.
When David and Wilhelmina Smith took over management of the lodge in the 1970s, they turned it into a year-round destination by adding some 35 kilometers of cross-country ski trails. But in 2010, as the couple neared retirement age and the lodge's occupancy waned, they put up the 136-acre property for sale.
"I think we are just an old-fashioned place that is dying with the times," Wilhelmina Smith told WCAX-TV in 2011.
Supporting her observation, the years between 2009 and 2011 saw other local inns close or scale back. The nearby Lakeview Inn ceased serving meals and offered only basic accommodations. In Craftsbury, the Inn On the Common went up for sale, and the Craftsbury Inn & Restaurant was put up for auction.
Ironically, it was the dearth of local accommodations — combined with the Kingdom's robust winters — that led Peter and Ashley Milliken to discover and eventually purchase the Highland Lodge. A cofounder and partner of Tuckerman Capital in Hanover, N.H., Milliken visited the Northeast Kingdom with his wife in January 2015 when their daughter's Nordic ski race was moved to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center. Scrambling to find a place to stay, the Millikens came across the lodge.
The two were enchanted with both the lodge and the area, and when they returned the following summer for further exploration, they liked what they found. In a phone interview, Milliken said that this part of the Kingdom has "got a lot of positive momentum ... There's enough of a network to make this a destination."
He was referring to nearby attractions such as Jasper Hill Farm, whose cheesemaking facility won a super gold at the 2015 World Championship Cheese Contest; and Hill Farmstead Brewery, named best brewery in the world by RateBeer in 2016. Milliken also noted local arts organizations such as Circus Smirkus and the Greensboro Arts Alliance & Residency, which presents theater, music and literary events all summer. Nearby organic farm Pete's Greens offers a warm-weather farmstand, while in the winter, the Highland Lodge benefits from the Craftsbury Outdoor Center's trails and snowmaking capacity.
In anticipation of a purchase, the Millikens formed a partnership with two other couples: Vermont Rep. Tim Briglin (D-Windsor-Orange 2), also a partner at Tuckerman Capital, and his wife, Laurel Mackin; and James Bandler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and his wife, Rebecca Holcombe, the Vermont secretary of education. But the group hesitated to move forward, Milliken said, for lack of "someone who had the passion and inclination to devote to the day-to-day operations."
Then they found Heidi Lauren Duke, a singer and opera director based in Brooklyn. She's now a partner, the CEO and event curator of Highland Lodge.
In an interview by the lodge's hearth over a plate of cookies and mugs of tea, Duke, 37, described starting her new job and discovering the beguiling differences between mounting an opera and running an inn.
Born in Colorado and raised in the Chicago area, Duke has directed and performed at France's Opéra Grand Avignon and Washington D.C.'s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among other positions. In recent years, she said, her search for a permanent position in the arts had grown frustrating. She was taking a hospitality management seminar when her boyfriend, state Rep. Sam Young (D-Orleans-Caledonia-1), introduced her to Milliken and his associates.
Now charged with the long-running production that is the Highland Lodge, Duke said, "I'm sure people are wondering, Who is this girl from God-knows-where coming in and running our community icon?"
To answer that question, she's updating traditions while adding her own touches. For example, Duke has revived the periodic Ski-In Lunch, which the Smiths instituted 25 years ago. Recently, when guests finished their cross-country loop, they sat down to lunch — complete with ishkabibble for dessert. They also ordered drinks from the custom cocktail list at a new 12-stool bar installed just off the dining room.
In a phone interview from her home adjacent to the lodge property, Wilhelmina Smith said she recognized Duke's talents immediately and praised the new innkeeper. "Heidi Lauren's a very good worker and very smart," she said. "She knows this is a stage. She knows how to put on a show."
Other locals have noted the changes at Highland Lodge, too. Mary Metcalf, the head librarian at Greensboro Free Library, told Seven Days, "We went up there and had a glass of wine. There were a number of people; it was a very friendly atmosphere."
Greensboro Land Trust chair Clive Gray said he was "delighted" with the lodge's new ownership when he attended a Ski-In Lunch.
Valdine Hall, Greensboro's town clerk and treasurer, remembers working at the lodge as a chambermaid and kitchen staff in the 1970s and '80s. "It's good there's new life coming in," she said.
For all the local enthusiasm, operating a business in a town with a winter population of 771 can be daunting. As Peter Milliken noted, "The Kingdom is a little off the beaten path — you have to seek it out."
Smith confirmed that conundrum. "We had to cater to all the people — summer and winter crowds are different," she said. "We did quilting things and knitting things, anything just to get people in the door."
For his part, Milliken sees in the area a burgeoning cultural infrastructure that will lure more visitors. Judy Geer, co-owner of the four-season Craftsbury Outdoor Center, agrees with him. "There's a nice critical mass of businesses and organizations in the Craftsbury-Greensboro area related to things like local food, sport and healthy lifestyles ... all of which seem to fit the area well," she wrote in an email. "And if we all work together, we will do even better at attracting people to come enjoy what we have to offer."
Longtime guests and new ones will find that the lodge still feels like a "throwback," even as Duke crafts her own interpretation of a classic.
"I think the difference people [will] notice is the creative energy and enthusiasm for new events and activities, much like [the] lodge was 20 years ago," Duke mentioned. "In the next few weeks, we will have moonlit ski trips that meet back at the bar; a ballet class in the ski hut; a Mardi Gras party with catered barbecue [and] live music; and folks playing bridge and Ping Pong on a regular basis."
Duke noted, too, that dogs are now welcome in the cabins, and the lodge has added on-site massage therapy for the humans. "We are providing new amenities all the time and open to arranging new ones," she wrote.
As the Highland Lodge enters a new era, it's on with the show.