“Philo means love,” says Dave Garbose, who purchased the sprawling white and green-trimmed building at the base of Mt. Philo with his wife Jane the year after they got married. The outstanding charm of the history, view of Lake Champlain to the west, and the proximity to the state park—literally right out the back door—made the property a dream come true. “We never looked at another.”
It doesn’t take long, once you set foot on the Mt. Philo Inn, about a 25-minute drive south of Burlington, that Dave and Jane’s passion for the place becomes plain. It starts with the attention even to the sign, stretched between two poles on a strip of burnished metal and punctuated by red and yellow bullseye. Just behind, a glass phone box adds yet more quirk and color against the thick greenery, as well as subtle tribute to Dave’s love of Doctor Who.
The inn’s slogan—“It’s bigger on the inside”—is more direct. Although it’s partly tongue in cheek, you’ll find it’s also surprisingly true once you step inside. Space was clearly a goal when the inn was built in 1896 by Frank Lewis for travelers going up and down Lake Champlain. Unfolding across the sloping land around in modular fashion, the building forms self-contained sub-sections and wings, along with a carriage house and ballroom.
The ballroom, the social center of the estate, does indeed elicit a gasp or two at the size. Covering 2000 square feet from the open kitchen at one end to grand piano at the other, there’s more than enough room to host a major event. In fact, it’s during the salon-style evenings of music, readings, and dining that Dave hosts that the ballroom reaches its full potential.
The only reason it doesn’t get more use by guests is that the units are just as generous with space. In fact, accommodation doesn’t come by the room here, but by the wing (starting at $280 a night), each with 2-3 bedrooms, a full kitchen, multiple sitting rooms, several bathrooms (full and half), and porches both indoor and out—far more space than any one person or couple could ever need. If anything, it’s a good reflection of the inn during the 1970s, when it was taken over by a hippie commune.
Considering the Mt. Philo Inn is somewhat in the country (or totally if you come from New York, Boston, or Montreal) and there are no facilities in walking distance, the kitchen becomes vitally important. But don’t worry about breakfast, as Dave stocks the fridge with perhaps the best breakfast basked I’ve ever seen in about five years of hotel reviewing, with eggs, cheddar, bacon, coffee, cream, pancake mix, butter, and maple syrup—all Vermont made.
Other highlights of the wings include the original artwork, like the metalwork of Homer Wells, oil paintings of Tad Spurgeon, pastels of Erin Gafill, and photography of Dave Desmit. Even the materiel of the wings comes with flair, including yellow birch staircases salvaged from the 19th-century Vermont Hotel in Rutland, and huge slabs of local black coral and marble in the kitchen and bathrooms. However, it’s the west-facing porches at sundown that may be the wings’ best feature, as the sun slipping behind the Adirondack Mountains colors both sky and lake in unforgettable shades of purple, pink, orange, and red.
The only place the view is better is on the mountain itself, which essentially forms the backyard. Indeed, it was part of the original property purchased by Lewis in the late 1800s and donated by his family to the state of Vermont in 1924 to make the first state park. To this day, it’s a particularly favorite of locals, particularly school groups and less mobile folks, as a paved road winds around to the top. By foot, it’s a relatively easy climb for those with even modest fitness and only reaches 968 feet.
From the inn, a path links to the paved road and other trails, and as a morning wake up walk, there are few better. Most likely you’ll only be sharing the park with a handful of locals giving themselves and dogs a workout. Plus, after you’ve enjoyed the view at the top and return down, you’ll be able to linger longer in the shower than propriety allows (and lather extensively with the lovely Vermont-made Flourish bath products) before diving into the breakfast basket guilt free.
When the inn opened more than 100 years ago, the original brochure advertised “a delightful retreat from the heat and turmoil of the city.” And although that’s still true, Dave and Jane have taken it one step further. A stay at Mt. Philo Inn is not just an escape from one world, but an entry into a another, created in part by Vermont spirit but also the couple’s quirky yet classy vision. The blend works perfectly, and this is one of those rare occasions when there’s nothing to recommend for improvement of service, materiel, or ambiance. In short, it’s a bullseye—dead center.
Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of the Mt. Philo Inn
Main, kitchen, and basket photo by Mt. Philo Inn. All others by Mike Dunphy