The ultimate gooey splurge: Eating in a retro ski gondola at a luxury R.I. hotel this winter

Imagine this: you’re sitting on the lawn of Ocean House, the most luxurious (and most expensive) hotel in Rhode Island. The breeze comes off the water that surrounds Watch Hill as the waves crash on the shore. You’re just taking in the scene, sipping champagne and nibbling on cheese.

Only it’s the middle of winter.

Ocean House’s Fondue Village is an exercise in decadence, but one that, once you’ve experienced it, feels like a necessary pleasure. It’s four courses of champagne, cheese, and chocolate designed to make you feel like you’ve just skied down the French Alps and into a cozy little chalet. It also just so happens to be designed for social distancing.

The Fondue Village is an outdoor dining experience that takes place inside vintage ski gondolas, one party per structure, on the lawn next to the hotel. The spot has prime views of Ocean House’s private beach and the Watch Hill marina on the other side of the peninsula, which is the southernmost point in the state. (And while you have a clear view of Taylor Swift’s house from the other side of the hotel, you will almost definitely not see her there.)

For this self-styled “apres-ski” lunch or dinner, you sit with your pod in one of three gondolas — one holds four people and two hold six — that has been outfitted to look like a tiny piece of Europe in New England. Cushions and blankets in all manner of cozy winter fabric fill the benches around the table, made to look like a chic Alpine getaway. There’s an antler chandelier hanging above you, a cuckoo clock on the wall, and joyful oom-pah Volksmusik piping out of the corners.

What’s different this year (other than everything being different this year) is that Ocean House has started the Fondue Village in the fall. Demand for the experience has increased every year, and the space is very limited, so the only way to accommodate is to start earlier in the season. Through late November, there’s a fall harvest menu, and then the winter menu will start in December and run through March.

Right now, the four-course meal is a Swiss-inspired feast that includes a Schwizer Fleischplättli (Swiss meat plate), followed by a salad or Broccolicremesuppe (Swiss broccoli cream soup). Then, either everyone shares a classic Swiss cheese fondue or — new this year — chooses entrees like Zuri-Gschnatzlets mit Rösti veal medallions in white wine mushroom sauce) or Schweineschnitzel (pork schnitzel). In past years, the cheese has been the only option for a main course. Then, Fellenberger Pflaumen mit Zimt Eis Fellenberger (a Swiss plum tart with cinnamon ice cream) and chocolates to take home.

In the winter, Ocean House starts offering raclette, the cheese that’s melted under a salamander (oven) to create a golden crust, then scraped onto a plate of potatoes and crudite, as an alternative to the fondue. Swiss Christmas cookies (Weihnachtsplätzchen) end the meal. The experience for a four-person gondola is $400 ($560 with champagne) and $600 ($840 with champagne) for a six-person, regardless of whether you fill all of the seats, plus tax and gratuity.

Fondue and champagne at Ocean House.
Fondue and champagne at Ocean House.Julie Tremaine

Each course comes with optional Veuve Clicquot Champagne pairings. Those offerings take a page from Ocean House’s summertime Secret Garden Champagne Bar, which serves Veuve cocktails with fresh fruit and herbs. This past summer, it was a private event space only, but in nonpandemic years, that little deck overlooking Ocean House’s private beach is one of the best cocktail spots in all of Rhode Island.

I’ve had a meal at the Fondue Village that tested my limits of cheese and champagne consumption (which, previously, I had never hit). It was decadent and delicious, and it felt cozy and warm inside the gondola even though there were icy winds whipping outside. What also felt good: that some proceeds from the Fondue Village go to the Ocean House Fund for Charitable Giving, which supports the disadvantaged in New England. In a season when staying inside with our closest loved ones is the most important thing, being able to do that and still treat yourself, if you can, feels truly special.

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