The Mulcahys offer peace and tranquility
in Lower Waterford
by Will Lindner
Leslie and Brian Mulcahy’s first visit to the Rabbit Hill Inn in Lower Waterford was in 1992, as guests seeking a getaway. In 1994, they moved to Vermont and went to work for the owners. They bought the business in 1997.
The image of a Vermont country inn is of a place that, in a sense, is a refuge from time. Certainly, for guests at the Rabbit Hill Inn, that image and their experience are in alignment.
The rooms themselves are period pieces — this one Victorian, that one Art Deco; 19 rooms and suites in all, each uniquely designed and furnished, many with luxury features like gas fireplaces and whirlpool tubs, but all of them purposefully devoid of TVs and telephones. Guests can access the outside world, if they wish, using one of the two telephone rooms or the Wi-Fi service in the common areas, and they can borrow a DVD player to watch movies. But what the Rabbit Hill Inn markets, and provides, is escape from all that.
“Soon,” its website promises, “you’ll remember how wonderful it is to really relax and do nothing at all.”
What’s interesting, however, is how much this contrasts with the daily experience of the proprietors and hosts, who provide such a tranquil experience. Brian and Leslie Mulcahy have managed the inn in Lower Waterford — a community some 12 miles southeast of St. Johnsbury so small it barely qualifies as a village — for almost 20 years, and have owned it for nearly 17. For them it’s a 14-hour workday, seven days a week, 48 weeks a year.
“We do close for the first two weeks of November and April,” Leslie concedes. But those breaks aren’t for vacations. “That’s primarily for renovations to the inn. Guests shouldn’t have to tolerate ‘Excuse Our Mess’ signs when they’re staying here.”
For all the intensity of their schedule, the innkeepers don’t seem to break a sweat. It’s usually Leslie or or Donn Gist, the assistant innkeeper, who greet arrivals at the door — arrivals who, by the way, have just passed under a sign above the entrance that reads, “Céad Mile Failte,” or “One Hundred Thousand Welcomes” in Gaelic. Brian might be found in the office or somewhere in the bowels of the 200-year-old buildings, of which there are two: the main house, built in 1825, provides 14 guest rooms, while the smaller building, with five rooms, dates to 1795. Despite their constant responsibilities, both Mulcahys project a certain tranquility and easy sociability. As Brian says, “I think that’s very important in this industry.”
Nor is their professional hospitality skin-deep.
“Their level of customer service is unbelievable. I’ve heard it time and time again,” says Darcie McCann, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce. McCann has served the Chamber for 17 years, and the Mulcahys have been members the entire time. Brian, in fact, will accede to the presidency next year.
In her position, McCann has heard a lot of feedback about the inn.
“In one instance I know of, one of their guests had a raspy cough as they were going out in the morning, and when they came back there was tea in their room and honey cough drops on the pillow. And they had not said a word that morning” about having a cold.
That was pretty likely Leslie’s doing. “I think we complement each other well in the duties of the inn,” says Brian. “Generally speaking, everyone’s responsible for everything, but Leslie tends to deal more with marketing and promotion, and with the social aspects of the inn, making sure the rooms are spotless and that the guests’ emotional needs are met. I’m dealing more with the management of the inn — the cash flow, finances, inventory, the physical plant.”
Yet Brian is no recluse. The small, intimate, and well-stocked Snooty Fox Pub on the first floor is also his bailiwick. “While Leslie is helping them plan their day tomorrow, I’m pouring them a drink.”
Of course, the couple doesn’t — and couldn’t — run this large, luxurious inn by themselves. Their staff size averages 28, and includes housekeepers, wait staff, and grounds workers who tend to the inn’s 15 acres, which include trails, gardens, a pond, and a gazebo. Then there’s the kitchen. The Rabbit Hill Inn offers gourmet dinners by reservation; candlelit, fairly elaborate breakfasts; and afternoon tea. It employs an executive chef, a sous chef, a pastry chef, a breakfast cook, and kitchen helpers.
Gist (10 years) and head housekeeper Patricia Longley are veterans.
“Patricia’s been here longer than we have,” says Leslie. “We’re fortunate that we don’t have a lot of turnover, because it’s difficult to find good staff. Number one, there aren’t a lot of people around Lower Waterford. And there’s a level of quality we need. For instance, it takes an hour or more for our housekeepers to do a room because of the detail involved, whereas at a normal hotel they’re doing a dozen rooms in that time.”
The Mulcahys’ first experience with the Rabbit Hill Inn was as guests, weekend fugitives from their native Rhode Island, when they were in their early 30s. They had met through a mutual friend when both were in college, and had stayed friends for several years, until Brian started suggesting they date.
“Leslie graduated from college, and after three attempts to make her my own I said, ‘Are you ready now?’ and she said, ‘Yes, I am.”
In 1992, Brian was director of operations for a toy importer, and Leslie worked for a small company that computerized doctors’ offices. Looking for a convenient getaway, they found the Rabbit Hill Inn in Elizabeth Squiers’ authoritative Recommended Country Inns [of] New England. (The inn is, in fact, situated on a hillside, purportedly riven with rabbit warrens in times past. It has had previous names, but has been the Rabbit Hill Inn as long as the Mulcahys have known it.) Brian and Leslie had never visited an inn before; actually, Brian hadn’t even been to Vermont.
They were smitten.
“It was quaint and very personal, comfortable without being intrusive,” Brian remembers. “Not the kind of thing you’d normally experience.”
They returned a few times, and in 1994 were chatting with the owners, John and Maureen Magee, and mentioned that they were interested in finding an inn to run.
“Leslie and I had always thought about doing something together,” Brian explains. “We didn’t really know what, but we realized that this might be right for us.”
It was serendipitous. The Magees were looking for someone to help them run the inn, so in 1994 the Mulcahys left urban Rhode Island for Lower Waterford, Vermont. They worked there for three years and, in 1997, when the Magees wished to sell, they purchased the business. The Magees had operated the inn for 10 years, which Brian says is typical in the industry. The Mulcahys are now nearing 20 years.
“So many people get into it for the wrong reasons,” says Leslie; “It appears romantic, or it’s about baking muffins or gardening. But the reality is that you’re here to please people and they’re in your home 24/7.”
“We came into it with our eyes wide open,” adds Brian. “I try to be realistic and look for reasons why things don’t succeed. We did a good-hearted investigation, and as a result we knew what we were getting into.”
But it’s not only the getting into it; it’s the keeping into it that has secured Rabbit Hill’s place in the industry. “Nothing stays the same,” says Brian. “There’s always going to be change. Especially since the Internet became a popular tool for people planning their travel, which has been while we’ve been here. You have to keep track of what people are looking for, and be forward-looking: What’s the next thing coming down the road? It puts you on your game.”
Inn guests, as a species, have evolved. When Brian and Leslie took over, formality (coat and tie) for dinner was still in vogue, and dinner was part of the package for guests. People now prefer more casual dining — though the inn does maintain certain standards of dress — and they want to come and go as they please, without commitments to the inn’s schedule.
Standards also govern guest policy. Rabbit Hill is not a family getaway — not a place to bring children younger than 14, or pets (Reese the Cat brooks no exceptions to this).
Yet although the inn advertises the beauty and activities available in the Northeast Kingdom and across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Brian makes an interesting point: “The reason people come here is different from their reasons for going to an inn on Lake Champlain. When people come to Rabbit Hill, it’s not that they’re looking to stay in Lower Waterford; it’s the inn that’s their destination.”
For beyond trends and demographics and the next best thing, there remains one constant for quiet, remote yet refined inns like Rabbit Hill: their guests’ quest for a retreat. Leslie has learned that people travel for a variety of reasons, and not all are festive.
“We get the 28-year-old honeymooners from Boston, and people celebrating their anniversaries,” she says. “But you also see people who are taking take a break from chemotherapy, or who come after the loss of a child. It’s an honor when they choose to come to you, and we don’t take that lightly.”
Running the inn, she says, is demanding, challenging, and in its way, relentless.
“But it’s an amazing lifestyle,” says Leslie. “And if you give your whole self to it, it gives back a hundredfold.” •