Couples only at this luxury Stowe getaway

by Leon J. Thompson and Virginia Lindauer Simmon

stone_hillOn Halloween 2011, George and Linda Fulton bought the Stone Hill Inn, a luxury retreat on nine acres in Stowe. They cater to elopements and small receptions year-round.

Brian Ignatowicz grew up camping in Stowe with his family, but he was not familiar with any romantic getaways in the area when he decided to propose to his future wife, Michelle, in 2012.

Through TripAdvisor, he found Stone Hill Inn.

“Stone Hill Inn seemed unique in terms of the couples-only focus and the B&B format, which I knew my wife would love,” Brian says.

The inn’s owners, Linda and George Fulton, had operated it since Oct. 31, 2011, but Ignatowicz says he had no idea of this while they helped him organize his surprise proposal for Michelle. He says that leading up to the big day — Jan. 18 — “the Fultons were so professional and caring.”

Then Mother Nature tried to interrupt, when blizzard-like conditions slowed the couple on the trip from their Connecticut home. They didn’t arrive at Stone Hill until 9 p.m., way past check-in. Still, the Fultons had ensured that flowers, a card, and a stuffed moose awaited their arrival — along with rose petals that surrounded their bed.

“Already they felt like family,” Ignatowicz says of the Fultons. He and Michelle took their third trip to Stone Hill on Jan. 1 of this year. “They are always eager to hear about what we have been up to and share their own stories of how they got into the B&B business, and what they did before,” he says. “Every time we visit, we leave feeling refreshed.”

The Fultons bought Stone Hill from Amy Jordan, who, in 1997, along with her then husband, Hap, started construction for an inn on former farmland, tucked into a quiet, forest- and mountain-surrounded pocket of Stowe, up a long driveway off Houston Farm Road. It opened in 1998.

According to George, Jordan moved in 2008 and entrusted the property to “inn sitters,” maintaining off-site ownership until he and Linda purchased it on Halloween 2011. They were in their 60s at the time.

“It’s been an incredible voyage,” he says, guiding a tour of the inn during a bitterly cold morning in January — a 20-below day in Stowe. The Fultons have met winter’s worst, though. From 1970 to 1996, most of their 43-year marriage, they lived in Minneapolis, Minn., but before moving to Vermont, they had returned to Linda’s home territory near Reading, Pa., to be closer to their aging parents — her father in Reading and his mother in Silver Spring, Md.

A native of Silver Spring, George was a graduate of Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After a few years in the U.S. Army, he entered the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, and earned his master of business administration in 1970.

Linda attended Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. She met George in 1969 at the Dartmouth College Winter Carnival, which she attended with a friend who was dating one of George’s classmates at the Tuck School. “Basically,” quips George, “we were set up. She was in a psychology class being taught by a fraternity brother of mine back at McDaniel.” They married in August 1971.

They moved to Minneapolis, where George worked for nearly 10 years, first for The Toro Co., and later for General Mills. He was then hired as director of marketing for Eddie Bauer in Seattle, a subsidiary of General Mills at the time. After three years, they returned to Minnesota, where he took a position as vice president of services for a small ad agency.

In 1985, he launched his own consulting business with a focus on helping small-business clients home in on what was truly necessary to sell their products. “He’s really a researcher at heart,” says Linda.

The Fultons moved to Reading in 1996 and he continued consulting until 2001, when he joined Executive Forums. Eventually, one of his longtime clients persuaded him to work full time for his budding company, Image Tree. In 2005, George started as senior vice president. When the economy tanked in 2009, the business did not receive a third round of funding, and it closed.

“We were so close to it,” he says. “We were at the 20-yard line. We just couldn’t bring it in for the touchdown.”

Linda had transferred to the University of Minnesota during her senior year, and after graduating in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, started fostering her internal passions for cooking and interior design with additional coursework. During their time in Minneapolis, she worked in interior design at local stores. Her interest in inns and bed and breakfasts was sparked, and she eventually learned to evaluate them for purchase.

The acquisition of Stone Hill Inn was bringing a 30-year vision to fruition. “How does it feel to fulfill a dream?” she says, while ironing curtains in one of the inn’s nine rooms. “It feels good.”

“I didn’t want to do it,” George adds.

“He didn’t want to do it,” Linda confirms. “But the journey led us here.”

After Image Tree closed, Linda contacted “the gurus” of the B&B industry, Bill Oates and Heide Bredfeldt of Brattleboro, whom she had met at a seminar in 1981.

“I’m looking for an inn,” she told Bredfeldt, who said, “Well, it’s about time you get your way. It’s your turn now!”

They were invited to a weekend seminar in Pennsylvania on how to buy and run an inn. “From that time, they were offering suggestions, but I think we found Stone Hill on our own.”

He and Linda say they are happy at Stone Hill Inn, but Linda quips that they are “too old to be innkeepers.” That hasn’t kept them from garnering glowing reviews on TripAdvisor. A 2014 TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice award hangs in their office at the inn, along with other accolades from the popular travel review website.

“Linda and George are the perfect hosts and make you feel right at home,” says Bob Butler, who lives in Tampa, Fla., with his wife, Sue. The Butlers seek their “snow fix” with a trip north each winter. Stowe has become their favorite place, Bob says.

In February 2014, the Butlers stayed at Stone Hill for the first time. They are returning this month and consider the Fultons close friends. “We enjoy our winter trips so much,” says Bob. “Linda’s gourmet breakfasts are just delicious, and the decor is so warm and welcoming.”

Linda says she loves creating with food, fabrics, and furniture, while George focuses on marketing, maintenance, and gardening. They have two part-time employees: Tony Hardy, director of guest comfort, who has worked in the hospitality industry since 1994 (and at Stone Hill since 2009), and Samantha Royer of Eden, a kitchen assistant for three years.

Some may interpret “kitchen assistant” as cooking, says George, “and she does make the occasional batch of cookies.” Her main job, however, is seeing to cleanup — cleaning and resetting tables, cleaning and ironing napkins and tablecloths, and making sure the kitchen and dining room are pristine. Royer’s hours have become much more regular, he says. “It’s because we’re busier, and growing.”

The inn’s aesthetic centerpiece and natural conversation-starter is the 14-foot, ceiling-high stone fireplace in the heart of the reception area. It’s just one of the inn’s fireplaces. There’s one in every one of the guest rooms and bathrooms (where there are also Jacuzzi tubs) and a fireplace is featured in the “great room,” a lodge-style recreation room with a TV, games, and a red velvet billiards table.

They call the great room “Fred’s Room,” referring to the life-size, Muppet-looking mannequin that stands in a corner wearing shorts, a gold vest, and a black bow tie, and holding a gold tray of chocolates and candy for guests.

The dining room, which has nine tables (one for each room), but can seat 40 to 50 for a meeting if needed, features 14-foot-high windows that provide nearly 180-degree views of Stowe’s spectacular scenery. And each guest room has a separate door that opens to the gardens. It sits on nine and a half acres.

In the off season, they enjoy traveling. “We have lots of friends in Florida,” says Linda, “and we both love golf.” She also paints, and George, who became a Master Gardener during their time in Reading, Pa., enjoys tending the inn’s gardens with the occasional outside help.

Stone Hill Inn has a specialty as a four-season site for elopements and small receptions that follow. After creating an elopement package in 2012, the Fultons hosted 15 couples in the first year; they have revamped the package this year for promotion on more websites, says George.

Last September, they offered the entire facility to George’s former college fraternity brothers and their families. The success of that three-day, no-vacancy period has led to discussions about marketing the inn for small conferences and retreats at group rates.

“We don’t see ourselves as becoming a factory for weddings,” says George. “We want to become one of the best places for eloping in the Stowe area. It’s very private and secure, surrounded by trees, and gorgeous.” •