Heavenly Haven on the Slopes
by DEBORAH BERRY / photography courtesy of The Hermitage Club
To ring in the New Year, Amy and Leigh Small, of Branford, drove to the Hermitage Club at Haystack Mountain, a 1,400-acre private resort in Southern Vermont’s Deerfield Valley. Though it was a holiday weekend, the couple, parents of six children ages 22 to 30, skied multiple runs on fresh “corduroy “ without waiting in a long lift line. Later, they snowmobiled over the mountain for dinner at the 1842-era Hermitage Inn, pausing at the peak to marvel at the diamond-bright stars. In late August, their son wed his sweetheart on that very 3,200-foot mountaintop. The bride and groom, in a traditional wedding gown and tux, ascended to the peak on a chair lift, exchanged vows alongside family and friends, then descended, champagne glasses in hand, for a reception at the Clubhouse.
For the Smalls, the Hermitage Club is something to celebrate. As a child growing up in the ‘60s, Leigh, who works in construction, spent most every winter weekend skiing with his brothers on Haystack Mountain. He and Amy, who own a vacation home about 10 minutes from the club, taught their kids to ski there. The Hermitage Club opened in 2011, and the Smalls signed on, eager to try the private skiing experience with family and friends.
“Now that the kids are grown, it’s like we’re on a second honeymoon,” says Amy, owner of three Alphabet Academy early learning centers, two in Hamden, one in New Haven. She and Leigh spend most winter weekends at the club, enjoying outdoor adventures, gourmet meals and spa treatments.
Six years ago, Jim Barnes, CEO and founder of the Hermitage Club, introduced a vacation escape like no other in the Northeast; a private, four-season enclave where members could savor premium experiences typically found at exclusive resorts out West. At the Hermitage Club, about a 2.5-hour drive from New Haven, members have the entire mountain to themselves. They don’t need to lug equipment, as valets deliver and retrieve skis. They average 25 to 40 runs daily because there are no crowds. After a day on the slopes, they can dine on farm-to-table fare at the Hermitage Inn, or one of the club’s other premium restaurants, and tuck into deluxe sheets in a guest room with a fireplace overlooking a pasture where Percherons graze.
The Yellowstone Club, a membership-based resort in the Rocky Mountains with an entry fee in the six figures, inspired Barnes to try the private skiing concept in New England. “It was our hunch that people didn’t like the crowds and didn’t feel safe at public resorts,” says Barnes, adding that several members hail from Greater New Haven. “We said, ‘Maybe there’s a better way.’ Clearly, there is, and people are spending the money to have that experience.” In summer, members of the four-season resort can golf on an 18-hole course designed by Desmond Muirhead, architect of courses in Rancho Mirage, California, Scottsdale, Arizona, and West Palm Beach, Florida.
The Hermitage Club offers several membership types; Family Legacy Memberships are $85,000 (annual dues of $9,500 are waived through November 30, 2018). The club currently has 600 members; memberships are available until the club reaches capacity at 1,000, which Barnes expects to occur in 2021.
While private skiing is available elsewhere in the Northeast, the Hermitage Club offers a lux package. Cross the truss-and-lattice covered bridge to the Hermitage Inn and opt for private dining in the 5,000-bottle wine cellar. Board a snowcat dubbed the Haystack Cadillac for a mountaintop party at the Haystack Summit Cabin. After a Swedish massage, relax in the tranquility room, soothed by the sounds of a waterfall bathed in blue light. Every touch, from a guest room fireplace expertly crafted from locally-sourced stones to the arrangement of Vermont cheese and charcuterie presented at dinner, defines the brand, embodied by the graceful, long-horned stag that serves as the club’s logo.
There is a practical aspect to the Hermitage Club, too. Members say private skiing saves time and energy: schlepping gear, cramming onto crowded lifts, and sharing the mountain with speed demons are non-factors at the Hermitage Club. “I don’t feel like I have to rush to the mountain first thing in the morning to get the most value out of a pricey day pass,” says Amy Small, a veteran skier. “We ski on our schedule.” Recent megamergers – the acquisition of Stowe, for example, by Vail Resorts, a group that includes Park City (UT), Vail (CO), Whistler (Canada), and others – could lead to increased traffic in that popular Vermont town, as the company’s “Epic Pass” entitles skiers to admission at all Vail properties. “The more the merrier is the public ski model,” says Barnes, adding that club members ski on fresh corduroy all day long. “We’re just the opposite.”
Barnes’s previous companies, OAKLEAF and FM FACILITY Maintenance, have combined annual revenues exceeding $1 billion. In 2007 he acquired the Hermitage Inn, built in an era when Vermont’s cow population outnumbered humans. When an opportunity arose to purchase adjacent Haystack Mountain, which had undergone several management changes, Barnes did just that and launched the private skiing concept. Over time, the Hermitage Club has grown to include an 90,000-square-foot Clubhouse with 14 spa rooms, a movie theater and an editing suite for GoPro helmet cams so skiers can post their runs on social media, several upscale area restaurants and lodges (including the White House Inn in Wilmington and the Snow Goose Inn in Dover), and dozens of real estate options. Vacation home buyers can find properties ranging from 3,400-square-foot town homes ($1,250,000) to 7,000-square-foot luxury homes at Stag’s Leap ($2.9 million to $3.5 million), where Barnes himself resides. The Hotel Hermitage on Haystack Mountain, reserved for members, breaks ground in 2019.
“We built, a one of a kind private ski resort here, and now everything that’s around it is infinitely more valuable,” says Barnes, of Deerfield Valley real estate. “Once, for two million dollars, you might have gotten a thousand-acre farm with a full farmhouse. Now, that’s what a mountain side villa costs here.” Houses near the Hermitage Inn that sold for $750,000 five years ago are now worth $1,750,000, says Barnes. And though that’s meant higher property taxes, Barnes says the revenue has improved community services and infrastructure.
The social hub of the Hermitage Club is the Clubhouse, distinguished by a massive stone fireplace. The Doobie Brothers, Train, and Natalie Merchant have performed in the 1,500-person venue exclusively for members and friends. With its panoramic views of the Green Mountains and intimate setting, word is spreading among musicians that the Clubhouse rocks. “Jackson Browne played here and then told other artists,” says Barnes. To commemorate their appearances, some Haystack Mountain ski trails are named after the performers’ iconic songs: “Smooth” for Rob Thomas, “Danger Zone” and “Footloose” for Kenny Loggins, and “Running on Empty” for Browne.
Barnes knows the Hermitage Club is not only a campus, but a community. “It was never my dream to own a ski area or a golf course,” Barnes told Seasons Magazines in 2011, “but Haystack has a lot of personal significance for me. I skied here in college. I took my wife out on a date up the mountain before we got married. It’s a particular thrill to see families make so many memories here.”
Families, like the Smalls and their six children, plan on gathering at the Hermitage Club for years to come. Andrew Small, the oldest child, who got married on Haystack Mountain, continues the legacy. He and his wife, Alissa, are members, too.