Sarah Wright and Giles Smith haven’t gotten much sleep in the past two months. But that’s not a bad thing. When they became proprietors of Hostel Tevere, Warren’s newest lodging and dining offering, Wright and Smith didn’t expect much shut-eye. Having both spent plenty of time in hostels while living in and traveling around Europe, the pair knew what to anticipate when they opened their business — late nights, early mornings and a lot of laundry in between. All three are welcome symptoms of their success.
Hostel Tevere (pronounced TEV-er-ray) is based on a simple concept — a reasonably priced year-round dorm that serves upscale food at bargain-basement prices. Considering the popularity of hostels in Europe, especially in tourist-heavy areas, it sounds like a no-brainer. Yet Erica Housekeeper, communications director at the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, says the state has only about three other hostels, none with “hostel” in its name. She speculates that Americans may view hostels as places for broke student travelers to rest their heads, and potential guests could be turned off by the idea of bunking with a rowdy college kid. But Hostel Tevere seems to have had little trouble attracting a diverse clientele, from older couples passing through to cyclists in town for a race.
The hostel, named for the Italian moniker of the Tiber River, began as a kernel of an idea that Wright and Smith kicked around while living in Rome. Wright, 25, was working as an architect at an Italian firm, and Smith, 26, tended bar and gave tours of the city. A year ago, the couple began to think about starting their own hostel. Wright grew up in an inn on Cape Cod, and Smith was no stranger to the hospitality business.
The Mad River Valley seemed like a perfect site, they reasoned. Wright had family in Warren and had skied in the area many times during the years she spent studying at the University of Vermont before transfering. “We just thought it would be a great idea,” she says. “It’d be fun to run a hostel now, but later in life ... oh, my God, never.”
With Wright’s parents serving as their business partners, the couple began looking for property in January and bought the building on Powderhound Road at the base of the Sugarbush Access Road in May. The white clapboard farmhouse, built in the 1860s, was formerly the Powderhound Inn and Sweetwoods Grill & Bar, and seemed perfect for a hostel. The first floor has ample space for a cozy bar and sunny dining room, as well as a lounge with a wood-burning stove and a mudroom for guests’ sporting equipment. The upstairs features three generous rooms, as well as private quarters where Wright and Smith sleep when they’re not seeing to guests.
While the idea of sleeping in a room with strangers may not appeal to everyone, Hostel Tevere makes the arrangement as comfortable as possible. The two tastefully appointed rooms each have three custom-made bunk beds and can accommodate a total of 12 people. Wright says they’re working on fixing up another room that will be full of single beds.
The walls are all freshly painted in understated blues, browns and grays. Smith jokes that some of their early guests helped with the painting. The beds, which Wright designed, were made by a local welder and are much classier than your average hostel fare — those shaky children’s bunk beds with loose springs that creak in the night. These are outfitted with new mattresses and crisp pastel sheets that match the room, and each is topped with a fluffy white duvet.
Wright admits to spending a small fortune at IKEA equipping the bedrooms. Each bunk bed boasts a playful nightstand, an old wine crate flipped on its side that holds reading spectacles, water glasses and a book — an especially homey touch. “We wanted it to be nice enough to change the perception of a hostel,” Wright says.
The first floor is where all the action happens. During the day, guests are out and about, but most of them congregate in the bar before dinner. A flat-screen television and a bartender with cocktail expertise draw folks to the pub, which is right off the main dining room. It doesn’t just attract guests; on a recent Saturday night, the bar was filled with students from Yestermorrow Design/Build School, the hostel’s neighbor just down Route 100.
Unlike many hostel bars, which can feel exclusive, Hostel Tevere’s pub has a welcoming, comfortable vibe. Magazines such as Time and National Geographic cover a table between two armchairs. The tables hold fresh flowers in vases, and a dog bed and water dish are tucked in a corner. The couple’s dog, Cesare, a skinny pit bull mix with a head the size of a basketball and a waist that looks corseted, mills about under foot.
Around 7:30, guests of the hostel are invited to eat together. Jessica Wright, Sarah’s sister and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, cooks a family-style meal that may be reminiscent of your mother’s cooking — that is, if your mom really knew her way around the kitchen.
On this night, the eight guests gather at a charmingly set cedar table on the patio. While breakfast is open to the public, the three-course dinner is reserved for guests. The meal begins with a salad featuring greens from the hostel’s garden, sliced almonds, local blueberries and a light vinaigrette. Then come marinated pork roast with a mango, strawberry and red onion chutney, herb-roasted potatoes and honey-glazed carrots. The lone vegetarian at the table is treated to skewers of red and yellow bell peppers and onions, as well as pineapple and mango kebabs. For dessert, diners have a choice of chocolate mousse or blueberry crumble.
The evening meal stands out for its simplicity and for Jessica Wright’s attention to detail. That makes sense, since the chef, who is 23, holds a degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in hospitality management and has worked in fine dining in Vegas and San Diego. When her sister offered her the job as Hostel Tevere’s head chef, Wright packed up her San Diego apartment and headed back east. She figured working at the hostel would give her a chance to run her own kitchen while staying closer to her family, she says.
While Wright’s comprehensive dinners hit the spot after a day of hiking or biking in the valley, her breakfasts are an extra treat. Most hostels offer something along the lines of mini boxes of cereal and stale bagels. At Hostel Tevere, the egg-and-cheese sandwiches are dense without being rubbery, and Wright’s chocolate-chip pancakes are light and crisp. The chef mixes up standards such as omelets and breakfast burritos with offerings like homemade organic yogurt and “Tevere toast” — French toast stuffed with seasonal-fruit-flavored cream cheese and finished in a crunchy coating.
Since anyone can come to breakfast at Hostel Tevere, locals flock to take advantage of prices that well undercut any other restaurant in the valley. A short stack of gingerbread pancakes the size of a dinner plate costs $3. The omelet will put you out $5, and the breakfast sandwich is a more-than-reasonable $3.50. Wright’s three-course dinner is $12 on top of the cost of lodging — $30 per night, or $25 for students. Lunches, which the Wrights pack for guests who request them, go for between $4.50 and $9.
These prices make Hostel Tevere the best deal in the valley, or perhaps in the region. Though Wright and Smith have done little advertising, they say, word seems to have gotten around that the place is a stylish, budget alternative in an area better known for its luxury accommodations. When Seven Days visited, the guests filling the bunks included friends of Yestermorrow students and guys who were bike racing at Sugarbush.
Wright and Smith are cautiously optimistic that snowfall will bring even more business from people who want to do some big mountain skiing but aren’t willing to pay big mountain prices. Until then, they’re reluctant to call their idea a success. “We’ll have to wait until the winter,” Wright says, “to see if this hostel thing works.”