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Insider Classics: Sweet Virginia

Choose an opulent inn where reservations are rarer than hen's teeth, a hunt-country manse that quotes the great villas of the Veneto, or a town-sized resort as patriotic as pot pie. They're as different from one another as country ham is from the processed stuff.

INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON

It comes as no surprise that Patrick O'Connell and Reinhardt Lynch were inspired by the great Michelin three-star hotel-restaurants in rural France in their creation of the Inn at Little Washington. Anyone who has been to Les Prés d'Eugénie or Boyer Les Crayères (number one in this year's World's Best Awards) will instantly recognize the look they are channeling. "The unexpectedness of so much luxury in a back-of-beyond setting," says O'Connell, "is very entertaining."

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard of the inn, built in 1895, 90 minutes southwest of Washington, D.C., in the tiny town of Washington. It's one of the most lauded hotels anywhere. People with a lifelong desire to stay at the Paris Ritz now also dream of testing the inn's feather beds and sampling O'Connell's cooking. He runs an utterly French kitchen on the same level as one of the lesser Michelin three-star chefs. O'Connell coaxes the subtle saline quality from crab, offering it as a salad with a tropical fruit coulis, and showcases such regional ingredients as black-eyed peas and huckleberries. Unfortunately, his formidable skills are occasionally undercut with food jokes that fall flat: there's nothing funny about macaroni and cheese in a lacy pastry cup. O'Connell still has a lot of people wanting to kiss the hem of his apron, but high-wire cooking like his is no longer the rarity it was in this country when he started out.

The first thing friends asked after my recent stay at the inn was, "Is it worth it?" On a Saturday night in high season a couple can conservatively expect to spend $1,000, including room, dinner, breakfast, and tea (but not wine, tax, or tips). I'm not the most reliable person in the world on the subject of value, having once paid $300 for a dried-gourd ice bucket, but I will say that service is of the whatever-you-want-whenever-you-want-it variety, and if I were feeling flush and wanted a romantic, transporting place to spend a weekend, I would book at the inn. But if I had kids, I might buy them shoes first.

Despite local opposition, O'Connell and Lynch are expanding their let-them-eat-cake style of auberge-keeping. They own 18 properties in town, and a ravishing 1890 farmhouse with two bedrooms in nearby Nethers. Also to be added this fall to the inn's 14 rooms are two suites, each with a private garden, in an annex across the street. And in March, the pair also purchased a neighboring tavern, which is earmarked for a boutique that will sell an exclusive line of Inn at Little Washington merchandise.

Central to the inn's success is the location. Laid out at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the town of Washington and the surrounding countryside are like a Blossom Dearie ode to Virginia. Also a factor are the gushing interiors of Joyce Conwy Evans, a London set designer who worked for Sir Hugh Casson, the esteemed architect known for his private commissions for the British royal family. Evans is a dab hand at the themed room—safari, say, or pagoda—and never uses one William Morris wallpaper when five will do. The chorus you hear again and again about the inn is, "Isn't it incredible how big these guys made it in the middle of nowhere?" It really is.

Middle and Main Sts., Washington; 540/675-3800, fax 540/675-3100; doubles from $350, including breakfast.

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