Insider Classics: Sweet Virginia

Insider Classics: Sweet Virginia

There's a lot more to Virginia than stud farms, apple blossoms, and dead presidents. How about three well-loved luxury hotels?

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.


KESWICK HALL

Many people need no more incentive to stay at Keswick Hall than its proximity to Monticello: Thomas Jefferson's home is five miles away. But Keswick is also a genteel, heroically scaled country-house hotel. The double whammy of rolling out of a king-sized canopy bed and visiting one of the nation's great architectural prizes is unmatched anywhere.

Opened in 1993 by Sir Bernard Ashley, husband of the late English fabric doyenne Laura, the 48-room hotel subsumed an existing country club, a grand Italianate villa with a buttery stucco façade, crisp white trim, and terra-cotta roof tiles. Pulling up to Keswick, you don't feel merely important. You feel important.

Ashley hired Arnold Palmer to redesign the 18-hole golf course, making it the best in the state, and built a new club that today includes a spa, a fitness center, two swimming pools, and five tennis courts. The club is open to hotel guests and local members. I'd never considered living south of the Mason-Dixon line until I started hanging with the mink-and-manure set at Keswick. Certainly I could learn to love handling a riding crop. Shopping for a North American flagship, Orient-Express Hotels acquired Keswick and its sister property, the Inn at Perry Cabin on Chesapeake Bay, in 1999. Fans of the hotel—who treasured the characteristic homeyness of the accommodations, with their profusion of cozily sprigged Laura Ashley designs—were jittery about the changes. They needn't have been. The dressier and more worldly look recently introduced by South African designer Graham Viney—Knole sofas, red lacquer screens, crystal chandeliers—is limited to the public spaces. For refurbishments elsewhere, the company draws on attic stock of reassuringly familiar Ashley wallpapers and fabrics.

The beefy loin of lamb from Virginia's own Summerfield Farms, a mainstay of the restaurant menu, isn't going anywhere either. This is one hotel that promises never to forget what made it special in the first place. 701 Club Dr., Keswick; 800/274-5391 or 434/923-4372, fax 434/977-4171; www.keswick.com; doubles from $330.


THE HOMESTEAD

The first time I fell in love with a butter pat stamped with the image of a hotel was in the Poconos in the early sixties. How elegant, my seven-year-old self thought in precocious amazement. Imagine going to all that trouble for a decorative nicety most people wouldn't notice and that doesn't even make the butter taste better!

Forty years later, I'm happy to report that there is an American resort that still cares enough to emboss its likeness on your breakfast pats. When they appeared on my room-service cart at the Homestead, alongside baked trout with scrambled eggs, the corners of my mouth lifted. Many things during my stay produced this effect: the jigsaw puzzle in progress that everyone is invited to work on (the puzzle is of the Homestead, no less), the cherries jubilee flamed tableside, the ballroom dance classes.

With 15,000 acres, a whopping 506 guest rooms, miles of corridors, countless outbuildings, and hulking wings jutting out in nearly every direction from the handsome Georgian-style Tower building, the Homestead has the august look and feel of a college campus. The first hotel was built in 1766 as a rustic lodge for people who traveled to this pocket of the Allegheny Mountains for the curative waters, now a big feature of the Homestead's 34,000-square-foot world-class spa. (The Sportsman Soak was designed for players on the hotel's three championship golf courses.) Five minutes away by shuttle bus, on a road so bucolic you could shoot car ads on it, are the hotel's astonishing, fully functioning 1761 clapboard bathhouses, attributed to Thomas Jefferson. If it weren't for the electric-colored foam flotation noodles that bathers use in the 98-degree, mineral-rich waters, you'd swear it was the 18th century.

Nothing remains of the original Homestead: a fire swallowed the property whole in 1901. A year later it was back up and running, catering to Virginia swells who installed themselves for the summer to escape the heat of the cities and lowlands. Then, as now, no one ever grew bored. A partial list of available activities includes hiking, biking, horseback riding, tennis, fly-fishing, bowling, swimming in the new spring-fed Olympic-sized pool, skiing, ice skating, and snow-tubing. And for feeling like a sheikh, there's nothing like a bit of falconry.

While the decoration won't win any awards, if it was good enough for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, it's good enough for you. The mix of mahogany furniture and checked, floral, and striped fabrics is fresh, happy, and so American it practically waves the flag. Guest rooms recently came off a heroic nine-year renovation program, and they all shine. Snag one ending in 74 or 98: they have huge private porches.

Packages can bring rates down to as low as $99 per person per night. Incredibly, the price includes meals, tips, and greens fees or ski passes. Service is speedy, crisp, and blessedly unpretentious. When was the last time you called in your breakfast order and were asked if the Manhattans delivered the night before were to your liking?

Hot Springs; 800/838-1766 or 540/839-1766, fax 540/839-7656; www.thehomestead.com; doubles from $384, including breakfast and dinner.

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