It's the perfect time of year to check in
Minh + Wass

Fall foliage is New England's most colorful and best-priced asset. To sweeten the deal, we've raked the countryside, from Connecticut to Maine, for three time-tested inns that are as American as pot roast. No place like home?After a day of wide-eyed leaf gazing, you'll agree that there's no place like a New England inn.

mayflower inn Washington, Connecticut

Tell me an inn is fully booked and I become insanely determined to stay there. "Sorry, Mr. Petkanas, the Mayflower is sold out." "The Mayflower would love to accommodate you, Mr. Petkanas, but the 28th is just not possible." "Oh, Mr. Petkanas, you again! Thanks for calling, but all of the Mayflower's rooms are reserved for the date you requested." And so on.

I am not easily defeated in this type of struggle. The only way to complete my assignment before it became so moldy that my editor revoked it was to go in a month (January!) and on a day of the week (Sunday!!) when I would rather have been perfecting my bread-making than test-driving a feather bed. Still, snagging a room at the Mayflower had become a matter of professional pride. And the truth is my curiosity was beyond piqued. No way was I going to pass up the chance to learn what makes the inn so special you have to beg to get in.Like placement at a French dinner party, location in the inn game is everything. Get it right and you're halfway there. The Mayflower gets it right. It's no secret that city dwellers are starved for places to escape to, places that are not too far, yet give you the feeling you've been somewhere. You could leave your Park Avenue apartment at six o'clock and two hours later be sipping single-malt scotch in the Mayflower's parlor, surrounded by guests wearing the same Ballantyne cashmere crewneck, reading the same Dominick Dunne roman à clef, and looking forward to the same pear and Stilton salad at dinner.

Designed by Mariette Himes Gomez, who cut her teeth with the dean of American decorating, Albert Hadley, the parlor sets the patrician tone for the entire 25-room inn. That tone is another reason the Mayflower is so well loved. Ever stayed in a Ritz-Carlton?It's a lot like that, only more personal, more varied: beds with sunburst canopies, piecrust and poufy-skirted tables, upholstery in dueling florals. It's a very late-eighties, Bush-père kind of look, but no less pretty or comfortable for it.

The Mayflower describes itself as a restoration—not true. The main house and two satellite structures were purpose-built in 1992 on a 28-acre plot, which is threaded by a brook and adorned with a Shakespeare garden and poet's maze. The inn's burnished paneling and wide, polished floorboards trick you into thinking they might be old. But otherwise the Mayflower feels as new as it is.

As my attempts to secure a reservation demonstrate, somebody at the inn has been to a client-recognition seminar. As for the service, it's not exactly the kind where you say, "Jump," and they say, "How high?" But almost.

Mayflower Inn, Rte. 47, Washington, Conn.; 860/868-9466, fax 860/868-1497; doubles from $400.

white barn inn Kennebunkport, Maine

Forced intimacy is nobody's idea of heaven, and yet at many inns that's exactly what you're paying for. The Hovering Quotient is so high in some places that I have literally fled, forfeiting deposits—anything to escape.Such places could learn from the White Barn Inn, which strikes one of the tetchiest balances in the hospitality industry. In an ideal world, inn-goers would feel that they are being scrupulously looked after on the one hand and left exquisitely alone on the other. The 25-room property manages this with the same matter-of-factness that it displays a Simon Pearce bowl of Granny Smith apples. Personnel are skillful measurers of need, making up for what they sometimes lack in grace.

Travelers rewarded such sensitivity last year by obliging the inn to hang out the no vacancy sign every weekend it was open (all but two). They love the location: it's a 10-minute walk to a wide, crescent-shaped beach that spells Down East, and to the twee town where you can still run into Dubya's daddy. (It's not just that I voted for Gore, but Kennebunkport really is Hyannis minus the charisma.) People also find it reassuring that the White Barn, which dates from the 1820's, has always accepted paying guests, because it means a built-in tradition of hospitality.Accommodations are dispersed among a cluster of all-American structures that includes the main house (mustard-colored clapboard, crisp white trim) and several outbuildings. The six junior suites in May's Annex, all with wood-burning fireplaces, are, for my Yankee dollar, the most desirable.Sketchily decorated in what might indulgently be called English country-house style, my room had a mahogany four-poster with a mattress so far above the floor I had to hoist myself onto it backward, which is how I imagine British grandees call it a night in their stately homes. It proved that there is nothing like a high bed to elevate the act of sleeping. A Queen Anne secretary was filled with porcelain and Stevenson's New Arabian Nights. The bathroom wasn't big but big. Wallpaper strewn with magnolia flowers had a hand-painted look, and a loofah mitt made bath time that much more enticing. The only unreasonably quaint touches were a heart-shaped soap dish and a pin cushion. It may sound stupid, but what I liked most were the three-way bulbs in the bedside lamps. Basic, you say?Then why doesn't every hotel have them?

Although I found the food mercilessly long-winded—the White Barn has the Fine Dining thing down pat—the restaurant is rated one of the best in the country. If Grilled Maine Salmon Fillet Glazed with Lobster Hollandaise on a Bed of Corn Succotash and Champagne Foam sounds like something you want to swallow, this is the place for you. Lights are turned way down sexy-low in the dining room, a post-and-beam barn stuffed with rustic antiques. Beyond a huge window is a magnificent tiered vegetal display with the theatrical quality of a diorama. Expect chrysanthemums in peat baskets, ornamental kale—and 500-pound pumpkins.

White Barn Inn, 37 Beach St., Kennebunkport, Maine; 207/967-2321, fax 207/967-1100; doubles from $285, including breakfast.

inn at sawmill farm West Dover, Vermont

No one who has stayed at the Inn at Sawmill Farm trumpets its homey atmosphere before mentioning the outrageous pricing policy. A 15 percent service charge is added to the cost of the room, a practice unknown to me in a lifetime of inn-going but one that a travel-professional friend insists is, while rare, not unique. My bill for a single night at Sawmill, including dinner and breakfast for two and a $61 bar tab, was $659.05.

That figure bought one of the inn's most bucolic guest rooms, the Wood Shed, a lofty cedar cottage genteelly decorated by someone who has read a lot of Jane Austen. Snuggly armchairs were pulled up to a wood-burning fireplace (not as common as you'd think in upmarket New England inns—most fireplaces, depressingly, are gas). Among the good antiques was a bombé mahogany chest, and the sash windows had swagged pelmets in a fabric printed with garden scenes. The sheets, blankets, and towels were pink.

In the foothills of the Green Mountains five minutes down-valley from Mount Snow, Sawmill is made up of six buildings clustered on five of the property's 20 acres. Hay bales nuzzling the foundations are meant to cut drafts—a touch I found charming but that a staffer begged me not to note, fearing that it somehow reflected badly on the inn. (Memo to management: Learn what races the motors of city pokes and play it for all it's worth.) The hand of man is seen in two artificial ponds.

Command central is a 1787 barn that is heart-tugging enough for a maple-syrup farm to put on its Christmas card. The barn holds the restaurant and nine of the 21 guest rooms. Anglophilia takes a juiced-up turn here, with chintz and florals shaken together in one eye-bending cocktail. Except for breakfast, the defining quality of the inn's food is amateurish. But the wines—1,285 drawn from a 36,000- bottle inventory—are amazing, even if there is no sommelier to help you choose one.

Sawmill is run on a tight leash by two generations of the Williams family. I made two service requests during my stay, for drinks and breakfast to be brought to my room, and both were rejected. (With room service offered—bizarrely—only in summer, what does the 15 percent service charge actually buy?) But I had not driven 213 miles from Manhattan to cross a cold parking lot in my dressing gown to fetch my own gimlets and pancakes. I refused to back down, and my orders were delivered. There are no phones in the rooms; luckily, I had a cell phone. Which raises the question: Can a hotel claim to offer room service if it doesn't furnish guests with the instrument for ordering it?

Not all of the personnel were ungiving. The reservationist displayed a cheeky willingness to spar that did not go unappreciated. "Will that be Mr. and Mrs.?" she asked when I called to book. "No, that will be Mr. and Mr.," I shot back. At check-in she had her return thrust all ready. "I'm going to put you two naughty boys in the Wood Shed." Touché!

Inn at Sawmill Farm, Rte. 100 and Crosstown Rd., West Dover, Vt.; 802/464-8131, fax 802/464-1130; doubles from $350, including breakfast and dinner.