Thanks to the Wilburton Inn for hosting us during Spring Break! This post is part of our series highlighting family travel in Manchester, Vermont. Also see our post on the Town of Manchester and our review of historic Hildene.
By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
“We’ll make you feel right at home.” Some inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and even some hotels may like to make that claim, but it’s a hard feat to completely pull off. When you are traveling, it’s hard for any lodging to actually give you that cozy, warm, at-home feeling. But when that place is a family-run inn, as in the case of the Wilburton Inn, something happens… your visit comes with the feeling that it’s not so much a hotel stay as it is visiting relatives…Never mind that you’ve actually just met. Located on a hilltop the Battenkill Valley and Equinox and all the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Wilburton Inn – in Manchester Village in the southwestern part of the state – is rich in history, inspiration, and charm.
Your first sign that this is no ordinary place comes as you make your way along the curving, tree-lined driveway that leads you to the Wilburton Mansion. The majestic home, built in 1902, competes only with its surrounding natural beauty. If you arrive in the day, you may be tempted to delay your check-in as you start to take in the architecture, surrounding landscapes, sculptures and art, and awe-inspiring mountain views.
When you do check-in, don’t look for a “registration counter.” Look to your right instead and you’ll likely see Michele, the front desk coordinator, seated at a grand desk, ready to greet you with a warm smile – and probably chocolates, too. To your left you can find a table with flavored water and treats (cookies, nuts, and fruits), freshly stocked at all times.
Don’t be surprised if you find some people just “hanging out” – this mansion is inviting, with large, lavishly decorated and lived-in rooms that stress this is no ordinary hotel. From the board games and books in the library to the piano and family photos in the living room, you can just find a comfortable spot and make yourself at home.
Innkeeper Melissa Levis, once a renowned children’s entertainer in New York, sings in the theme song she created for the Wilburton that they “didn’t buy it to run it like a Hyatt” and indeed they don’t. No offense to the hotel chain, of course – it’s just that you can’t run a family inn without the family, and here is where the Wilburton’s unique history and personality put it in a different category.
Run by family, open to all
The modern history is this: Melissa’s father, Dr. Albert J. Levis, a psychiatrist in Connecticut, visited the inn in 1987 with his wife Georgette. During their nice dinner for his 50th birthday, they learned the inn was for sale, and just life that – and much to his wife’s surprise – Dr. Levis spontaneously decided to buy it.
Though it seemed like a wild idea at the time, it worked, and with the family’s involvement, the Levises added an a warm, fun, eclectic element. Georgette Wasserstein Levis – who served as the real-life inspiration for the character Gorgeous in “The Sisters Rosensweig,” a play by her sister Wendy Wasserstein (a role for which Madeline Khan received the Tony Award in 1993) – relished in her role as hostess. Until her death in 2014, she managed the inn, greeted guests, and helped host numerous events.
The idea of the inn as not just overnight accommodations or but also a gathering place for retreats, family reunions, corporate events, and special events lives on through the work of the family. Melissa, the singer and songwriter – along with sister Tajlei, a playwright; brother Oliver, who runs the nearby Earth Sky Time Farm; brother Max, a psychologist; and of course Dr. Levis – use their creativity to come up with special events.
Throughout the year, the inn is the home to murder mystery weekends, Farm Nights with music and special menus, holiday celebrations (such as Christmas and Mother’s Day) and more, all open to the public. The Wilburton Inn also is the site for private yoga retreats, corporate getaways, and of course, with its beautiful vistas and historic charm, many weddings. You may see some of the Levis grandchildren during your visit and the “extended family” of guests who return year after year, some for extended stays.
And no mention of the Wilburton Inn is complete without a nod to the four-legged friends and the famous Jetson. That would be the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who serves as the inn’s unofficial ambassador. If you’re not lucky enough to see Jetson during your visit to the Wilburton (look for his cozy bed by the entrance) you may still benefit from his paw-licies: the Wilburton is always pet-friendly (extra fees apply), dog fees are waived on special weekends such as Thanksgiving, and fellow Cavalier King Charles Spaniels always stay free. Each year the inn hosts Howl’oween with a Canine Costume Ball and a pre-Christmas doggie slumber party.
A home with history
You will see photos of Jetson and family members throughout the home, another sign that this is no ordinary inn. The photos, the large poster for The Sisters Rosensweig, the numerous books by Dr. Levis throughout, and other personal touches add to the feeling that you are not a hotel customer but a guest at the home of a friend or even a relative.
Long before the Levises owned the place, though, the estate had served as a private home, resort, corporate retreat, and even school. Manchester Village was a popular summer getaway for the Gilded Age society set when Albert Gilbert, a Chicago industrialist, began his search for a property. His friend Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son and president of the Pullman Company, recommended the current Wilburton Inn site as a perfect spot for a gentleman’s farm.
James Wilbur, a self-made millionaire from Chicago, eventually bought the property, which over time was leased as a school for the arts and eventually sold to RKO pictures. According to the Wilburton Inn’s site, which provides a detailed history of the inn, “the Wilburton Inn became their new country getaway for discrete business meetings and movie star affairs.”
Rooms for 1, 2, 3… or 125
Today, anyone can enjoy a stay at the Wilburton. The Wilburton Inn actually is two mansions plus seven other properties – homes, villas, and cottages – each with its own amenities and styles. You can rent, for example, the 6-bedroom, 6.5-bath Strawberry Hill Villa as individual guest rooms or as a private vacation house.
Or rent the 9,000-square-foot Battenkill Mansion, whose 15 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms accommodate up to 34 guests. Its size, private setting a half-mile from the Wilburton Mansion, and multipurpose ballroom make this building a popular choice for weddings and wellness retreats, Melissa says.
We were hosted for a weekend at the Wilburton Mansion, which serves like a bed and breakfast. Many of the guest rooms at the Wilburton are named for the inn’s history and guests. Our room, number 4, is “Wilburton Hall,” with a king-sized four-poster bed and a chaise longue along the bay windows overlooking a stunning valley.
The room has a desk, large closet, and private bath. This is a historic home, built more than 100 years ago, so while the rooms are spacious the bathroom will be small, and certainly not the most modern you will see. That said, the bed was very comfortable and you will find modern amenities such as a flat-screen TV and free wifi.
Basic supplies such as a hair dryer and toiletries are provided, and these were great. I have never written about toiletries at a hotel, but the soap they provide is divine! Other rooms have different configurations. A popular room is the bridal suite, pictured above.
The best perk of staying at the Wilburton Inn, though, is breakfast: guests staying at the mansion get breakfast for free, and this is something you do NOT want to miss.
Stunning and sustaining breakfasts
The Wilburton features three elegant dining rooms in the mansion and an outdoor dining terrace. Bed and breakfast rates include a morning meal in a sun-filled room overlooking the Green Mountains. It is a real treat to start your day with such a feast for the eyes and your tummy.
I can honestly say that the Wilburton breakfasts just blew me away: fresh, tasty, and beautifully presented, the entrees were fulfilling. We were so full from breakfast we sometimes skipped lunch altogether or just had a light snack mid-day.
Each morning, in an adjacent room there was Greek yogurt with granola and other toppings, coffee and tea, juice, fruit, and fresh breads from Earth Sky Time Farm with local jams. From a limited menu (which varied daily) we could order plain or berry pancakes, waffles, omelets, bacon, and the like.
While the entrees were traditional fare, they certainly were not standard: the omelets in particular were outstanding. We especially enjoyed the vegetable omelets. Veggie omelets here mean not just onions, tomatoes, and peppers, but large chunks of fresh broccoli, zucchini, and asparagus. In keeping with its support of local foods, the omelets are made with famous Vermont cheddar and accompanying the pancakes is rich, real, 100% maple syrup, of course.
An all-season resort and town
Fueled by a big and filling breakfast, we spent most of our days exploring the town of Manchester. This quiet community has a small-town feel because of its population (less than 5,000 per the 2010 U.S. Census) but isn’t lacking in sophistication.
Here you’ll find shopping including factory outlet stores and boutiques, galleries and museums, historic sites such as Hildene (the Lincoln family home), plenty of independent restaurants, and outdoor fun including hiking and skiing. Don’t miss our feature on Manchester to learn about the many things you can experience even if you have just a few days in town, as we did.
Even if you don’t get out and explore the town much, the Wilburton Inn provides you with opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. The estate sits on 30 rolling acres beautifully maintained and just walking around is both peaceful and invigorating.
Families with young children will appreciate the expansive grounds for kids to explore. In between the sculptures of the museum (see below) are vast open grassy fields that children will love to run around in — or, in the case of a gently sloped area, roll around in (or was that just my kid?). The Wilburton Inn also has a tennis court, basketball hoop, biking paths, tether ball, and outdoor swimming pool.
Because we visited during spring, the pool was not yet open, but our nine-year-old son enjoyed touring the grounds. (During our visit, another family with younger boys also was staying at the inn; see their Wandering Wagars site for their review on the Wilburton).
A unique museum
The Wilburton also is home to the The Museum of the Creative Process, the physical realization of Dr. Levis’s vision. The museum pays tribute to his theories on “moral science” or the integration of art, psychology, morality, and science. It serves to identify how the mind works as a scientific mechanism.
This “museum” is not your typical building with artifacts and exhibits but consists mostly of a sculpture trail. These sculptures – modern, classic, or one-of-a-kind – pay homage to love and the art of Greece, Japan, Mexico, India, and Mesopotamia. Most of the sculpture areas have wood stumps that serve as seats so you can reflect on the art or meditate.
Behind a replica of an Easter Island head is an open-air structure called the Sanctuary. Here, several large, two-sided panels take metaphors from the Wizard of Oz and connect them to personality types and personal transformation, all as part of Dr. Levis’s work on conflict resolution.
The detailed panels explain in rich detail the theories behind Dr. Levis’s work. It’s all very interesting although admittedly text-heavy a bit hard for the layman to grasp on your own – but you can understand more thanks to audio tours or even schedule site walking tours led by Dr. Levis himself.
If you plan to visit the museum, I strongly recommend listening to the audio tours ahead of time to get a better perspective for the significance of each sculpture on the trail. These short recordings (five minutes or less each) describe each sculpture and what it represents. Dr. Levis weaves concepts of literature, psychology, history, matriarchal vs. patriarchal family models, religion, and more in interesting ways and gives you a better appreciation for what you will see.
There are many sculptures throughout and while most are very large and easily seen from a distance, you will want to get up close to see the details. For example, it was not until we got closer to these statues that we noticed they were made of recycled materials.
Of course, when you visit the Wilburton, you also have the choice to do nothing at all. Because we live in Virginia and only visit Vermont once a year or so (and not usually in this area) we wanted to see as much as possible during our time there. We therefore spent our days exploring the Inn, the grounds, and the town.
I could easily see why someone would want to spend their time there doing nothing but taking advantage of one of the many outdoor sitting areas, doing nothing but being. If all you wanted to do at the Wilburton was to rise early for a sunrise, gaze at the beautiful scenery, or just sit and do nothing at all, no one could, or would, fault you for that.
Disclosure: We were guests of the Wilburton Inn, which provided us with accommodations for three nights, breakfasts, and complimentary tickets to Hildene. This article is my original writing based on personal experience and, as always, expresses my personal and honest opinion.