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CHRISTOPHER MUTHER

With no hotel experience, they quit their jobs and bought a Vermont inn

Entering the hospitality world as newcomers during a pandemic — what could go wrong?

Mary Lou Ricci and Tim Hall, owners of the Hermitage Inn, taste test fondue in one of the gondolas the couple has converted into a dining space.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

WEST DOVER, Vt. — Eating fondue and sipping champagne in a refurbished ski gondola may sound like the height of opulent merriment, but on a recent chilly Monday night, it was serious business.

Mary Lou Ricci and Tim Hall, owners of the Hermitage Inn, were giving their gondola fondue service a trial run, hoping to work out kinks before ski season began. There were a few notes for the kitchen — the venison meatballs should be smaller, the fondue cheese a bit firmer, and cubed bread should be served along with the hearty platter of local mushrooms, mini Rubens, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables.

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With a final champagne toast, they deemed the fondue test a success. It was hard not to get caught up in their gruyère-coated enthusiasm that night. Hall generally wears a sly smile, and Ricci has a hearty laugh that frequently punctuates conversations. She’s the storyteller. He interjects when clarification is needed. As it turns out, they have quite a story to tell.

When COVID shuttered the world in early 2020, Ricci, 59, and Hall, 61, left their Scituate home and decamped to their 40-acre farm in Vermont. They starting running their insurance business remotely. Like many of us, they had a COVID life-changing moment. Theirs was deciding to sell their insurance agency.

“The business sold in December 2020, and now it was the beginning of January 2021,” Ricci said. “We were sitting in the living room next to the fireplace with our friends, and they asked, ‘Well, what are you going to do now?’ I said to Tim, ‘Maybe we should buy an inn. I’ve always wanted to have a little bed and breakfast.’ It was something I’d never done, but I knew I had a knack for it.”

Four months later, April Fool’s Day to be exact, they bought a bed and breakfast for $1.8 million in West Dover. However, the Hermitage Inn cannot be classified as little, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a bed and breakfast. It sits on 112 acres at the base of Haystack Mountain. The 14 guest rooms are spread across three buildings. There’s also a tavern, a restaurant, and a large wine cellar. And now there are two refurbished ski gondolas behind the dining room serving fondue.

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Hermitage Inn co-owner Mary Lou Ricci inspects the color of wines in the wine cellar at the Hermitage Inn.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

Call it “Newhart” syndrome. Even though the pair had never owned or operated an inn, hotel, or restaurant, they couldn’t resist the romantic allure of owning a Vermont property. Ricci has a taste for the finer things, and shortly after purchasing it, they launched what has become a multimillion-dollar makeover of the property. Some of the changes were necessary. The inn, which was built in the early 1800s, had sat empty for three years before the couple purchased it. The ambitious goal of the makeover is turning the Hermitage Inn into an elegant escape.

“Was what we did insane?” Ricci asked. “Oh, definitely. At the time we sold our business and started looking for an inn, we never thought COVID would last this long. But that extra time allowed us to start renovations and really look at what we wanted to do with the space.”

Rooms have been completely renovated. The tree branch headboards, burgundy paint, and heavy leather furniture is gone. The color palette is now light. The rooms no longer scream “rustic ski lodge.” They purr “boutique.” The large dining room has also been completely renovated. Walls were moved, the carpet was replaced with hardwood, and massive sliding glass doors to the patio were added.

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A guest room at the Hermitage Inn, West Dover Vermont.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

Have there been cost overruns to bring all this luxury to Southern Vermont?

“You don’t know how Mary Lou operates,” Hall said. “We talk about a budget, and I know it’s going to be three times higher than the figure we discuss.”

Room rates start at $350 a night off-season. That price increases during the height of ski season.

They may not have experience running an inn, but they are familiar with the region. Their farmhouse, which they’ve owned for more than a decade and where they raise goats, grow Christmas trees, and make maple syrup, is about 7 minutes away from the inn. The couple even got engaged at the Hermitage Inn when it was under previous ownership (they have been together for 13 years, and married for the past seven).

They are also members of the Hermitage Club, a private ski club that is a 5-minute drive from the inn. The club, and several properties in town, were owned by a developer who defaulted on $17 million in loans. When he filed for bankruptcy, his properties were auctioned and purchased by a group of club members. It was then that Hall and Ricci were able to buy the inn.

A bear sculpture keeps watch over the pond at the Hermitage Inn.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

They’ve been particularly focused on the inn’s food and wine program. Michael Schlow, executive chef and co-owner of Via Matta, Alta Strada, and Tico, was brought in as the chef-in-residence at Hermitage Inn. He works with local farmers to develop a menu that includes butternut squash risotto, and filet mignon with broccolini, and blue cheese potato croquette.

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The collaboration with Schlow, like many other things at the Hermitage, was entirely serendipitous.

“When we bought the inn, we had friends ask ‘What’s your plan for the restaurant?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. The plan is we need a plan,’” Ricci said. “We knew what we wanted the food to be like, and we knew what the experience should be like. Then we were introduced to Michael through mutual friends.”

After a series of Zoom calls, they hit it off and the James Beard Award-winning chef signed on. Their focus on wine has been just as sharp. A previous owner of the inn created a large, award-winning wine cellar below the dining room. Hall and Ricci are now trying to bring back that ambitious wine program by hosting wine makers for dinners and holding tastings with their sommelier. Their efforts are paying off. They recently won the 2022 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.

A sitting room (which will be transformed into a champagne lounge) at the Hermitage Inn.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

Despite all the changes, there are still more to come. There are plans in the works to install a pickle ball court and a tennis court, a pool, and eventually construct a new building for hosting events, such as weddings. They have thought about all details, down to the toothpaste and toothbrushes in the room, which were created by a member of the town’s private ski club.

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“I like luxury and all of that, but I’m also very hands-on,” Ricci said. “I guess my best attribute is my ability to dream.”

Hall grinned at his wife and shook his head.

“The problem is when she starts dreaming, it gets very expensive,” he said.

Ski gondolas were transformed into dining spaces at the Hermitage Inn.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.