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Staking out the High End in Manchester Village, Vermont at the Reluctant Panther Inn

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

One of the most enchanting inns in the State of Vermont has the most perplexing name. “Everyone asks where ‘Reluctant Panther’ comes from, and everyone has a different story,” says Peter Sharpe who, together with his partner Jeff Ferrar, owns the 20-room property in Manchester Village. “According to one version, the panther refers to the rarely seen catamount (a kind of mountain lion) who is indigenous to Vermont.

But what makes  the panther reluctant? Peter didn’t know. A couple we had dinner with offered a story they’d heard about a dispute over the border of Vermont and New York during colonial times and the panther-like creature up in the mountains of Vermont who was reluctant to give up his home when the New York boundary was extended. Or something like that. Who cares?  The Reluctant Panther makes for  a memorable name.

The site is memorable too. Until 1897, it was the locale of the historic Green Mountain Tavern where Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys planned their campaigns against intrusive New Yorkers seeking land grants and afterwards the British enemy during the American Revolution. It was not until the 1960’s that the Reluctant Panther came on the scene. At that time, its owners, in keeping with the tenor of the times, painted the exterior a shade of dazzling purple. If some locals looked askance at such an outrageous violation of New England tradition , the oddly colored inn made for a useful landmark especially for visitors needing directions around the quintessential New England village. 

Today, a stylized figure of a purple panther set into the signpost outside what is now a pristine-white exterior along West Street and little panther icons serving as decorative designs on menus, stationery and such are the sole remaining referents to a colorful past.

But when we came down for breakfast on a beautiful June morning, looked out the window to the garden behind the dining room, and saw clumps of irises beside a stream at the height of their “deep purple” bloom along with an abundance of  lace-like lilacs in shades ranging from pale lavender to blue-violet hanging from heavily leaved branches, the color purple – for the moment, at least -- was still very much a part of the Reluctant Panther experience.

Turning from the view -- a difficult task given the floral display, the spray of water shooting up from the center of a sizeable pond, a little white bridge crossing the stream, and a backdrop of the Green Mountains in the distance topped by imposing Mount Equinox --  we were enjoying a full American breakfast (a welcome rarity in this day of the standard breakfast buffet) served on delicate Villeroy and Boch china  when Peter Sharpe joined us for coffee.

This is Peter’s second year at the Reluctant Panther  which he acquired in March 2010. “There is a phenomenon that occurs in Vermont which we call the Bob Newhart syndrome,” he told us (an allusion to a popular television series that depicted the misadventures of a sophisticated New Yorker who takes over a New England inn), “where people from New York or Dallas or any cosmopolitan area say ‘Let’s chuck the corporate life and open an inn in Vermont.’  They don’t realize it’s a whole different world from staying in great places to actually running them.

“The previous owners bought this property at the height of the market in 2005.  They had done well in the corporate life, and now wanted to run a country inn. They looked all over before settling on the Reluctant Panther which had a lot of charm and character although it was hopelessly outdated. Then, within 30 days of buying it, they had a stroke of extraordinary bad luck – the main building burned to the ground. They decided to go ahead and rebuild. By the time they brought it back on line, it was late 2007,  just when the market crashed.” 

Peter paused, took a sip of coffee, then continued, “I’m the third generation of hoteliers in my family. We had the Carlyle, the Stanhope, the Gotham and the Roger Williams in New York. My grandmother had owned the Beverly Wilshire in L.A.  So I knew the business. I live nearby, in Weston  and had been looking all over Vermont for a country inn.

Peter Sharpe, co-owner of the Reluctant Panther

“When I saw this place, I felt it could easily stake out the high ground in the tourist market. Jeff came on board, and we worked it out with the previous owners.  As soon as we closed the deal, we began renovation, starting slowly by upgrading the bathrooms. It was our intent to keep the historic ambience while adding all the improvements a contemporary property requires.”

Judging by our accommodations, their goal has been met. We slept in a room with antique cupboards standing against walls painted hunter green. A free-standing gas-fired fireplace, open on both sides and offering atmosphere as much as warmth, divided the sleeping from sitting areas. The king-sized bed was deep, outfitted with fine linens, piled high with luxuriant pillows and covered with a paisley spread that mixed autumnal shades of dark green, sienna, persimmon, and burnt orange. In the sitting area comfortable chairs and ottomans upholstered in a soft fabric were the color of cinnamon. The up-to-date bathroom combined black marble surfaces with wood trim and pewter fixtures in a colonial design. If the ambience was 19th century, the comfort level was 21st .

Small touches throughout the inn: beamed ceilings, art reflective of historic themes (we were fascinated by the collection of David Roberts drawings based on his 19th century trips to Egypt and Palestine that hung along a public hallway), motifs from the world of hunting, fly-fishing, and New England woodlands  all contributed to a sense of time and place. On the other hand, the dining room was streamlined with sand-colored walls, simple high-back chairs of black leather, unadorned white table linens.

“When we took over, the dining room was in trouble,” said Peter. “We had to improve the dining experience and, at the same time, reach out to the community. So we installed a price-fixe menu during the week which is more affordable and attracts local traffic. Then we introduced a raw bar – there’s nothing else like it in Manchester. It’s set up on the patio (accessed through the dining room) and opens at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. People come in, order a bottle of champagne to go with the oysters, and chances are 80% they’ll stay for dinner. The patio’s floor is Danby marble, the seating is comfortable, the scenery beautiful. And should there be a chill in the air, we take out the fire pit.”

Our plans precluded our staying around for dinner, but apparently the restaurant has proved a lure. Focusing on locally grown products when in season and American cuisine, it offers such preparations as wild mushroom risotto that makes use of local trumpet mushrooms and black autumn truffles, cornmeal-dusted soft-shell crabs, roasted beets and house-made ricotta, dill-scented grilled salmon, and sesame crusted seared ahi tuna – all eminently appealing choices.

“We don’t view the Reluctant Panther as a country inn, a bed and breakfast. Instead we see it as a small boutique luxury hotel,” Peter said. “From the start, we decided to stake out the top end of the market.”  Mission accomplished!

The Reluctant Panther39 West Road
Manchester Village, VT 05254
Phone: 800-822-2331

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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