Turning back the clock to another century is what this Sunday's lecture is all about, a flashback to a period of 19th-Century gentleness and joy.
The territory is southern Vermont, where a lengthy and gratifying search across miles of country back roads has resulted in the discovery of inns of unusual character.
To begin with, each shares a similarity in that they sell coziness and charm and the opportunity to shed irritating stresses associated with life across so much of America today.
Our first discovery was The Inn at Sawmill Farm in West Dover. For years I'd heard it praised. I wasn't disappointed. Even the name seems to evoke a sense of peace and fulfillment and visions of a gentle landscape. Birch and spruce and maples spread their shade across country paths and ponds that reflect the flawless sky.
The Inn at Sawmill Farm, I suspect, fulfills the dream of every traveler who has ever given serious consideration to guesting at a New England inn of nostalgic 19th-Century character.
The little village of West Dover itself reflects all those charms associated with Vermont: church socials, arts-and-crafts fairs, flea markets and covered bridges that span rivers only a few miles away. West Dover appears more like a country watercolor than a village that evolved naturally with the passing years. It is no disappointment, this small settlement where a white-steepled church pokes out of a grove of trees.
Such is the setting for The Inn at Sawmill Farm. Its proprietors are the Williams family: Rod (an architect), his wife Ione (an interior decorator) and son Brill, who turns out memorable meals.
Guests are greeted in a converted barn that smacks of country flavor. The old building was resurrected by the Williamses, who'd been coming to Vermont for years from their home in New Jersey. They became innkeepers more by accident than intent.
On a snowy afternoon they stopped to visit a realtor. Before nightfall they'd bought the farm. They tore down walls and shored up beams. After this, guests began pouring in from dozens of states. As a result, rooms in the warm old barn-like main building and guest cottages are booked months in advance, particularly during the fall leaf season.
Brass and copper utensils hang from beams stretching across the lounge. The setting is pure Vermont homeyness. Guests are greeted not at a reception desk, but by Williams or one of his staff at an antique table just inside the door. At Sawmill credit cards are out, cash is in. Guests must also tote their own bags. This isn't, after all, some snooty city hotel, but a genuine old-fashioned inn of immense charm.
At the same time, Sawmill holds the distinction of being Vermont's only member of the prestigious French Relais & Chateaux chain. With a wine cellar containing 20,000 bottles, Sawmill's inventory is reputed to be one of the 100 finest in the United States.
The old barn-like parlor features chintz sofas and chairs where guests settle to read or snooze to the lazy ticking of a huge grandfather clock. Candles and fresh flowers grace tables with their Chippendale chairs, fresh linens, china and crystal. Nearby, drinks are served in a shadowy bar that seems the perfect choice for lovers wishing to hold hands. Or there's the alcove with but a single table for couples with stars in their eyes.
Besides the wine cellar, the inn wins accolades for its cuisine. The lineup of choices include pork topped with a cognac cream sauce and walnuts, chicken stuffed with shallots and mushrooms, veal loin with morels and a Calvados sauce, braised duck and au Cerises, coquille of lobster, steak au poivre and endless other entrees.
On this search for unusual inns I came across another remarkable choice a few miles away in Simonsville. Its proprietors are Lee and Beth Davis, who took leave of a ready-to-wear business in Ohio to take over Rowells Inn, a former 1820 stagecoach stop with pressed-tin ceilings, cherry and maple floors and a porch with rockers for watching the world go by.
Quilted spreads and comforters complement brass beds in five guest rooms with country wallpaper, mahogany empire dressers and an old claw-foot tub where Mary Todd Lincoln once took a dip.
Tea and cookies are served daylong in the parlor. Logs crackle in a fireplace. And because of its historic background, Rowells is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Displayed at the entrance is a 1900s wedding dress, a lace bonnet, a clergyman's frock coat and a top hat. Says Beth: "We put out everything we treasure for our guests to enjoy."
It makes for a special warmth that bids the guests to relax and soak up the inn's 19th-Century atmosphere. Kerosene lanterns glow in an intimate dining room, and in the inn's pub-like bar the Davises stock a dozen brands of English and Irish suds, Guinness included. John Courage is on tap and bowls of unshelled peanuts are on the house.
Guests gather in a game room with a wood-burning stove, a piano and a fireplace framed by dried cornstalks. There's the singsong melody of a brook outside, while inside the notes of Vivaldi and Bach set the mood.
From Simonsville it is only a short drive to Andover, where recently young Trish and Dick Sherwood became the proprietors of a charming inn with the fetching name of The Quilted Cat. Stuffed and porcelain felines occupy perches in the rambling old 1810 mansion that faces a peaceful pasture, a red barn and a quiet country road only a nod from Weston.
Oriental rugs cover pegged floors and guests gather for Trish's breakfasts in a wood-paneled dining room with a beamed ceiling. Coffeetable books by Rockwell and Rembrandt are matched by other volumes occupying shelves near a fireplace with a wraparound sofa, baskets of flowers and a vintage spinning wheel. The Quilted Cat is a country cottage with a window on cattle that graze outside and lamps that give off a yellow glow.
On this odyssey I looked in on the Old Tavern at Grafton, a 19th-Century gem with canopied and four-poster beds and rare antiques. Long evenings are spent in a wonderful old barn behind the inn, complete with a bar and fireplace. The Old Tavern is filled with prints, pewter and charm.
Indeed it is without flaw, a rare discovery in a state renowned for its excellent inns. The Old Tavern has played host to Daniel Webster, Theodore Roosevelt, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Woodrow Wilson, Henry David Thoreau, Ulysses S. Grant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rudyard Kipling.
It is Grafton itself, though, that begs attention. Drawing visitors from around the world, it is the picture-book village that comes to mind whenever one envisions the typical New England town. Giant elms line its quiet streets, towering over Grafton's ancient homes, blacksmith shop, antique stores and factories. Arriving in Grafton is like turning back the calendar to horse-and-buggy days a century ago.
Vermont is a land that was loved by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and it was at Deacon Cephas Kent's Tavern in Dorset that Vermont drafted its own Declaration of Independence.
Dorset is the setting for Sally and Tim Brown's 31-room Barrows House (circa 1784) that rises on six acres of flowering gardens. This is not your dyed-in-the-wool, old-fashioned inn. Barrows is a trifle too sophisticated for that, what with a swimming pool and tennis courts and the subtle suggestion that gentlemen don jackets at the dinner hour.
Eric Sevareid is a neighbor. A CIA agent once found solace at Barrows House, as have film stars. Ten rooms are available at the inn; other guests seek shelter in cottages spread across the grounds.
In the same neighborhood, Hugh Miller and Edward Firenc welcome the wayfarer at their tasteful Marble West Inn that occupies a neighborhood of "quiet wealth." At Marble West a glassed-in alcove is reserved for lovers and the porch is supported by marble columns.
There's also a resident ghost that rattles about at night, and to avoid disturbing the ghost, guests pad across hooked rugs. Crocheted coverlets grace the beds in 16 rooms, each with its own bath. Marble West is a place to hang out the nerves to unravel. It seems perfectly suitable for book and nature types with an appreciation for the woods and a splendid garden with benches and two stocked trout ponds, a scene that's framed by Green Peak and Owl's Head, a couple of verdant mountains with splendid trails for hikers.
A Zigzagging Tour
On this zigzagging tour of southern Vermont we took in the Golden Stage Inn at Proctorsville, which catches one's fancy the moment it looms into view: a 1776 farmhouse on Vermont 103 between Chester and Ludlow whose hosts, Kirsten Murphy and Swiss-born Marcel Perret, surrendered lucrative positions as flavor chemists in New York for the serenity of old New England.
The Golden Stage charms the fussiest guests, what with its old-fashioned parlor and fireplaces, its handmade quilts, country wallpapers, ruffled curtains and big bay windows. The dining table groans with garden-fresh produce ("We grow everything from scratch," Murphy says). And there's a cookie jar that's always full. Menu items range from potato chervil soup with Pernod to tortellini with pesto, salmon steaks and a sumptuous dish Murphy calls her "Hungarian Rhapsody." Her five-course meal winds up with such delights as lime sorbet with gin and walnut tart St. Paul de Vence.
The inn is shared by a couple of cats (Natasha and Mischa), a wire-haired dachshund (Beanie) and a golden retriever (Maite). Scattered about the inviting old farmhouse are hooked rugs, framed needlepoint, antique beds, Martha Washington spreads and deep sofas that bid the guest to snooze.
Once the home of Cornelius Otis Skinner, the Golden Stage faces gardens blooming with dahlias and daffodils, pansies and peonies, roses, lilies, begonias, zinnias and immense Siberian sunflowers.
Own Strawberry Jam
Only last summer Murphy and Perret harvested leeks, beans, tomatoes and 325 herbs, plus 100 pounds of strawberries that were made into jams, shortcake and hand-cranked ice cream.
Deer wander through the yard. Woodchucks steal apples. A creek runs into Black River, and wild berries grow in profusion.
Murphy does wonderful hazelnut snails, maple walnut muffins and outrageous chocolate cakes. And there's the Baba a Louis bakery down the road that turns out fresh-baked breads, sticky buns, meringue cookies, chocolate eclairs, date bars, twists and creme horns.
Murphy and Perret credit family members for their success: "Quilts by Terry and Ann, needlepoint by Mary and Nania, culinary advice from Mary, napkin folding by Jeff and Jason, advice on travel by Bruce, cherry pies by Ma Kerrick, granola by Marina, house painting by Willy, manure disposal by John, bathroom design by Dominique and just heaps of love for us."
Hotels and inns:
The Inn at Sawmill Farm, Box 367, Mt. Snow Valley, West Dover, Vt. 05356; (802) 464-8131. Rates: $190/$240 (modified American plan).
Rowells Inn, Rural Route 1, Box 269, Simonsville, Vt. 05143; (802) 875-3658. Rates: $65/$75 B&B;, $100/$120 (MAP) plus 6% tax. (Slightly higher weekends.)
The Quilted Cat, Rural Route 1, Box 201A, Andover, Vt. 05143; (802) 875-2724. Rates: $75/$95 (B&B;) plus 6% tax. (Discounts for guests remaining four or more nights.)
Old Tavern at Grafton, Grafton, Vt. 05146; (802) 843-2231. Rates: $55/$110.
Barrows House, Dorset, Vt. 05251; (802) 867-4455. Rates: $75/$180 (MAP) plus 6% tax, 15% service.
Marble West Inn, Dorset West Road, Dorset, Vt. 05251; (802) 867-4155. Rates: $50/$100 (B&B;) plus 6% tax (14% service charge during peak seasons).
The Golden Stage Inn, P.O. Box 218, Proctorsville, Vt. 05153; (802) 226-7744. Rates: $60/$65 (MAP) plus 6% tax, 15% service.
The Inn at Weston, Weston, Vt. 05161; (802) 824-5804. Rates (depending on the season): $44/$49 (weekdays) and $49/$54 (weekends) (MAP) plus 6% tax, 10% service.
The Darling Family Inn, Route 100, Weston, Vt. 05161; (802) 824-3223. Rates: $55/$65 (B&B;) plus 6% tax.
The Inn at Weathersfield, Route 106, Weathersfield, Vt. 05151; (802) 263-9217. Rates $61/$84 (MAP) plus 6% tax, 10% service.