The von Trapp family name may be synonymous with a famous musical, but as the second and third generation of the family tell Bryce Hubner, their passion now is building a luxury property in the American wilderness.
I grew up here running around the woods as a little boy," says 71-year-old Johannes von Trapp, owner and president of the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont. "My mother always said, 'Johannes, this place is too beautiful to keep to ourselves.' So we set up with a hotel that we've expanded over the years."
Johannes's mother, Maria von Trapp, knew a thing or two about beauty – and if the name sounds familiar it's because she famously authored the now infamous memoir about a family of Austrian singers that inspired the iconic stage and film versions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. Maria's legacy is inextricably tied to images of filmic counterpart Julie Andrews singing in the Alps above Salzburg, but her life's passion was this exquisite New England property that bears the family name.
The Trapp Family Lodge sits high on a ridge amid the Green Mountains in northern Vermont, surrounded by several hundred acres of meadows and several thousand acres of forest. Presently, the rustic-agrarian setting is blanketed by several feet of snow – a beautiful, wintry landscape occasionally checked by a passing cross-country skier. The accommodations are comprised of a large but unobtrusive Tyrol lodge and standalone villas, all of which are seamlessly integrated into the spectacular natural setting.
The earliest incarnation of the Trapp Family Lodge opened for business in 1950. The family landed in Vermont by way of Philadelphia after fleeing Salzburg's Nazi powers in the autumn of 1938 and they settled in Stowe because of its mountains and distinct seasons, which reminded them of home. Maria owned and operated the lodge for the majority of the ensuing decades until she passed away in 1987 at the age of 82.
Now, Johannes owns and runs the property with his 37-year-old son, Sam, who joined the family business just a few years ago. "Since I was a kid, I've been preparing to get involved in one form or another," Sam says. "I started hourly jobs here when I was just eight years old, cleaning up in the cross-country skiing centre. Now, my father and I are sharing the role of running the place in a way that sees me as the eyes and ears and boots on the ground, if you will, while he provides wisdom, guidance and experience with the business. He's got decades of knowledge and an institutional memory that's invaluable."
Before returning to the business in his 30s, Sam spent 12 years working and travelling around the world, serving as a ski instructor in places like Portillo, Chile and Aspen, Colorado.
"After worrying about him skiing, surfing and working in so many exotic and dangerous places, it's been a pleasure for me to finally work with Sam," Johannes says with a touch of sarcasm concerning "dangerous" places like Aspen. "We like to joke that Sam took his retirement before he started working."
"It was great," Sam says, adding that though he was in fact working hard, he doesn't have wanderlust because of his time away. He returned ready to put his nose to the grindstone – with a few helpful lessons in tow. "In places like Portillo and Aspen, I saw an incredible level of service, and in many ways it prepared me to come back and work here. I must concede, though that I've also had a tremendous amount to learn, especially about managing people. In that way, this place will always be exciting and engaging for me because there's always a new challenge."
Sam's passion for the outdoors serves as a fine complement to his work. With 2,400 acres of prize rural real estate, he says, there are always new projects to embark upon. Three years ago, Sam installed snowmaking on the lodge's cross-country skiing trails, a year later he brought private mountain biking trails onto the property and he's currently in the early stages of enhancing the property's fly fishing opportunities by stocking its waters with 20-inch trout.
"We've got about 65km worth of groomed trails and the snowmaking really helps us on the rare occasion when weather's not cooperating. It's an added layer of consistency to the product we offer," Sam says. "We've also got 1,700 feet of vertical drop on the property, so we increasingly have people using the cross-country trails for ascents, then dropping into the trees for some phenomenal powder skiing on their downhill skis. Unlike alpine resorts, you can find fresh tracks here two weeks after a storm."
Johannes is quick to point out that not all things at Trapp Family Lodge are related to the outdoors; the views look just as spectacular from the luxurious interior of their villas too. "I don't know if you understand gemütlich, but it's a word that basically means cosy and comfortable," Johannes says.
"That's what we've done with our villas, and regardless of which season you're visiting in, you'll find it's very easy to stay put." There are two villas per standalone building, and each one is a very well appointed 2,600 square feet. Two master bedrooms, two fireplaces, a screened in porch and decks with views to die for are just the start. In the event you visit during winter, there's also a carport so guests don't have to dig automobiles out from under new fallen snow.
Several restaurants grace the property, too. "In the lodge itself, guests may eat in the lounge, the bar or the main dining room," Johannes says. "Our menu is international with a strong Austrian flavour, but not so Austrian that it puts the American palate off. We also serve lunch four miles off in the woods at our cross-country ski touring cabin – which is a tremendously popular destination in winter. To come in from the cold and sit by a warm fire with hot pots of soup and delicious sausages is really a nice way to break up your day skiing. It can be a hard place to leave."
Down the road from the accommodations, there's also a brand-new brewery, where the Trapps are in the process of refining their first edition of Trapp Lager. This will of course be featured on the property but also sold within the rest of the region.
Sam says all that's gone into the new brewery reflects the family's business philosophy in many ways. "We've hired an exceptional, passionate brewmaster," Sam says. "And one of the things I often come back to is integrity and a core commitment to certain ideals, which comes out in our beer. Most microbreweries make ales that they turn over in a week, but which makes it easier to hide mistakes. In a lager, though, you're brewing for five to eight weeks so it's a lot more difficult to hide mistakes. You really need to do everything perfectly. It's just another example of my dad's commitment to getting it right."
Johannes's "commitment to getting it right" is indeed legendary in the family and beyond, nurtured and tempered by a perspective that's always pragmatic and long-term.
"I tend to have a 50 to 100 year outlook on things – my bankers think it's nuts," Johannes says. "Perhaps it is. But we pride ourselves on taking a very long-term look at what we're doing here.
"A lot of what we do really wouldn't make sense unless the property was going to stay in the family for a very long time."
"When I was a kid," Sam says, "dad used to tell me that we could build up another inch of topsoil in 1,000 years and that we could build up one sixteenth of an inch in his lifetime. I didn't really understand that way of thinking then, but it makes a lot of sense to me now."
In the meantime, guests shouldn't expect to find an altar that pays homage to The Sound of Music. "We very consciously avoid being a museum for fans of the film," Johannes says. "What I've tried to emphasise is the family's real story, which of course includes the fact that a film was made based on my mother's book."
"The real key," Sam adds, "is that we're constantly making ourselves available for our customers. A good part of my day is just being hands-on with our guests, especially if there's someone who really wants to meet us."
Perhaps it's fitting that Maria von Trapp's youngest son says his favourite time of year at the Trapp Family Lodge is summer, when they host concerts on a ridge-top meadow overlooking Vermont's green mountains.
"We have the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Vermont Mozart Festival, country western music, traditional music from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia – you name it. People bring elaborate picnics and you can hear champagne corks popping throughout the shows. Those evenings are truly magical," concludes Sam.