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Archive for August, 2007

I opened my eyes and looked at my surroundings. I had gone to sleep as a weary road traveler, but I was clearly starting the new day as a princess. Sunlight flooded the room, casting a fairytale spell that melted right into the pastoral, hand-painted mural on the wall. Soothing tones of ivory, apricot and sage surrounded me. The faint sound of birdsong played in the background and the aroma of freshly baked goods hovered in the air.

It wasn’t easy prying myself out of the luxurious queen featherbed in The Primrose’s Room of The Woolverton Inn, but I managed to do so in order to get a glimpse of the world outside. Looking down from my second-floor window, I was met by a peaceful scene of sheep grazing. It was tempting to fall right back into bed, but I gathered my senses and settled on a more practical goal: coffee.

I’d been lucky to catch a vacancy at this enchanting bed and breakfast, without a reservation. But impulse has its benefits and a quick call from Connecticut landed me a place for the night. It was perfect, as I was westbound for Pennsylvania. The Woolverton Inn, located in Stockton, New Jersey, would put me within hopping distance of my next destination.

Dinner had been my only stop the evening before. A table on the outdoor terrace at The Stockton Inn had given me a chance to rest after the day’s drive. Over an exceptional salad of mixed greens, mandarin oranges, glazed nuts, cranberries, toasted wonton strips and balsamic vinaigrette dressing, the stress of travel faded away. I followed the salad with an appetizer portion of lemon-pepper chicken, equally delicious.

Setting my fork down, I sat quietly after finishing my meal. Votive lights flickered as darkness began to fall. The sound of an outdoor fountain mixed with a few Neil Young tunes, cast about by live musicians. The air was soothing – not too warm, not too cool. A faint breeze floated through the patio. It was a perfect moment.

Though stopping for a meal brought me in after dark, it didn’t take long in the morning to realize how exquisite the inn’s location was. Set on ten acres and encircled by an additional 300 acres of farmland, the 1792 stone manor and surroundings resembled a scene from a Thomas Kinkade painting. It was idyllic. Breakfast ranked up there with the best I’ve ever enjoyed. Juice, coffee, ice water, homemade granola, yogurt and a basket of fresh muffins started off the morning feast. Given a choice of two breakfast entrees, I managed to finagle a mini-portion of each: lemon-ricotta pancakes and eggs with herbs, brie and sausage. Both were outstanding. I caught myself attempting to scrape herbed brie off my empty plate.

The Woolverton Inn has more going for it than just its amazing accommodations, food and peaceful surroundings. A short stroll from the inn leads to The Delaware River. Nearby Lambertville offers exceptional antiquing. Shops, cafes and galleries are merely a saunter across the bridge to New Hope, PA. The many enticements of Bucks County, PA, are only a short drive away, including the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works and the Mercer Museum. Winery tours, train excursions and hot air balloon rides are all easily arranged. There’s no shortage of area activities. The only challenge facing guests is in stepping away from the luxury of the inn itself.

I would have loved to stay a second night, but my schedule didn’t allow it. I packed my overnight bag and thanked the inn for the luxurious accommodations and wonderful hospitality. I left feeling very fortunate, as if I’d stumbled into a secret paradise. Maybe because I did.

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I woke up in Massachusetts, with no idea what state I’d be in later that day. Literally, that is. Perhaps I would head to a different part of Massachusetts. Or I could drive west, into New York. Or head south. There were a few options in that direction, as well.

Afternoon found me sliding into Connecticut, with a set destination in mind: Essex, CT. I’d caught a last minute vacancy at The Griswold Inn.

Known by many simply as “The Gris,” this historic inn first opened its doors in 1776, making it one of the oldest continuously operating inns in the country. It sits proudly on Main Street, a stunning example of historical preservation and colonial hospitality. Within walking distance to shops and galleries, it couldn’t be more perfectly situated for visitors to the Connecticut River Valley.

I checked in during the late afternoon, picking up a key to a cozy room up a flight of stairs. Though the inn offers rooms and suites of varying sizes, this room was absolutely perfect for me – comfortable, secluded, quiet and charmingly decorated to reflect the colonial period.

I’d heard about Essex over the years, often referred to as “The Best Small Town in America.” The town of Essex is actually formed of three villages: Essex, Ivoryton and Centerbrook, each with its own zip code. It was known by the Native American name of Potapaug until the early 1800s. While I still had adequate light for exploring, I headed out to see what there was to see.

A short stroll down to the Connecticut River and Steamboat Dock turned up a picture perfect scene. Against the filtered backdrop of the afternoon sun, two boys worked together with buckets and ropes, catching blue crab with pieces of chicken as bait. One was clearly the teacher; the other, slightly younger, eagerly learning. In spying a bucket half filled already with crab, I was amazed to find out this was the bounty from just one half hour’s efforts. I was even more impressed when the older boy told me he had caught seventy-five the night before. They happily posed for a photo and then set back to work.

Just beyond, I came to The Connecticut River Museum, which offers numerous exhibits, including many detailing the maritime history of the area. My visit was too late in the day to see the inside of the museum, but the building itself – a warehouse dating to 1878 – was both quaint and stately and only added to the idyllic riverside landscape.

Peaceful as the scene presented itself to me, it was anything but that on April 8, 1814, when British ships landed at Essex, destroying twenty-eight ships and occupying the premises of The Griswold Inn, at that time called The Bushnell Tavern.

Being late in the day, shops and galleries were closing up. I returned to the inn and found a seat at a small wooden table in the Tap Room Tavern. This section of the inn is even older than the rest, having been built in the early 1700s as the area’s first schoolhouse and later moved to its current location and reincarnation. With an antique popcorn machine to one side of me and a piano player to the other, there was no shortage of atmosphere in this cozy, dark room. I could almost imagine the scene to be the same 200 years ago.

The Griswold Inn has a fascinating assortment of dining rooms, all heavily laden with artwork and meandering from one into the other. The Steamboat Room, The Library, The Covered Bridge, The Gun Room and The Essex Room all showcase paintings and prints portraying scenes of early village and seaport life.

Amidst these museum quality displays, I enjoyed a dinner of Pork Shank Braised in BBQ Spices, served with sautéed sweet corn and mashed potatoes. Satisfied from both food and atmosphere, I retired to my room, read until my eyes began to feel heavy and turned in for a good night’s sleep.

A continental breakfast is included with lodging, so I started the next morning off with coffee, juice and a muffin. Served in the main dining area, it gave me a chance to admire the artwork again before checking out.

I drove west from Essex, stopping briefly in Old Saybrook, approximately five miles down the road, where the Connecticut River meets the Sound. Here, as if I hadn’t already been on enough of a culinary adventure during the last twenty-four hours, I just had to try a “Lobster Dog” at Jack’s at Harbor One, located in the marina. His own creation, Jack creates his lobster dogs with a lobster and butter mixture, packed in a casing.

Faced with several exotic options, I chose a “Coyote Ugly” dog, which came loaded down with corn, tomatoes, cilantro, avocado and jalapenos. It was excellent, though a little pricey at 14. Still, it was lobster, not just an ordinary hot dog. And it was an adventure. Not a bad way to end a visit to this intriguing area.

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I stopped for the night in Windham, NY, finding a small room at Albergo Allegria, a Select Registry bed and breakfast. It was a great deal for less than $100., considering free sodas, snacks and a full breakfast were all part of the bargain.

My arrival was late, without a reservation, as I’d anticipated stopping in Cooperstown, where lodging was essentially non-existent that night. Linda, the innkeeper at Albergo Auberge, welcomed me graciously and, once I settled in, sent me over to The Horton-Smith House for dinner. The food was good and I had envisioned the restaurant packed during the ski season. A sign stating “No Snow Boots” was posted on the door.

After a hearty meal of skirt steak, roasted potatos, salad, veggies and cornbread, I returned to the inn and curled up for the evening with reading material.

Breakfast at Albergo Allegria was a feast, served in a room filled with welcoming morning light, at beautifully set tables. A buffet of cranberry-orange muffins, fresh mango, strawberries, grapes, cantaloupe and watermelon, cereal, juice, coffee and a wide assortment of teas would have been enough to start the day, but that was followed with a choice of entrees, cooked to order – a choice of belgian waffle, frittata/open-faced omelette with mushrooms,cheese, onions and bread crumbs or a closed omelette with broccoli and brie. My choice was the frittata, which was out of this world delicious.

I was headed for Massachusetts and couldn’t linger, but I left Alegro Allegria grateful for the impromptu stay that led to a cozy room for the night, an excellent dinner and a perfect breakfast to send me back out on the road.

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I had several days available to wander around Ohio, due to a business convention that I had to (and then didn’t have to, and then did have to, after all…) attend a few days later. I took a look at my long-bookmarked sites and conjured up a plan for the next few days.

Just east of Lebanon, I caught Rte. 22 east through Washington’s Court House (that would be a town, not a building…) and Circleville, where I picked up Rte. 56 and followed that into South Bloomingville and beyond, where the road began to run alongside and then into Hocking Hills State Park.

I first learned of Hocking Hills years ago. I was just starting to do a little travel writing and had taken only one or two cross-country trips. I had decided to focus, among other things, on historic accommodations. After all, I couldn’t travel without having places to stay and there were such rich stories hidden within the walls of these places.

Before a westbound trip, I ran Google searches for historic log cabins. Many Tennessee cabins popped up, most in the Smoky Mountains. There were others in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. I took notes on those and filed them away for future trips through the south and southeast areas of the country. And a few more surfaced in western states – Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Montana. Add to this other cabins in various other states.

In addition, cabins were showing up in an area that was unfamiliar to me: Hocking Hills, Ohio. I’d never heard of it, so I took a trip there to check it.

Located in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, Hocking Hills turned out to be an area filled with caves, waterfalls and deep sandstone gorges. With nine state parks, there were plenty of activities for outdoor enthusiasts: hiking, swimming, horseback riding and canoeing, to name a few. Add fishing, bird-watching or a ride on a scenic railroad. It’s all there.

When I first visited this area, I stayed in a very old, historic log cabin. It was a fun, rustic experience and gave me a chance to get familiar with the area. (I think I posted a copy of that article in here years ago, though I’m not sure where without searching.)

But let’s fast forward to this trip. It was time to seek out lodging that was a little less rustic, something I could recommend to those looking for a peaceful escape or a romantic weekend getaway. So, as I drove into Hocking Hills State Park, I took a left on Rte. 374 and followed that a short distance to The Inn at Cedar Falls.

I’d had this inn on my wish list for longer than I could remember and it had been recommended to me over and over again by other travelers. It lived up to all my expectations and then some. The property offers cabins and cottages as options, but I took a small room in the main inn, a traditional post and beam building, which houses nine guest rooms.

Each room is unique, featuring semi-rustic decor and supplied with ample amenities for a comfortable stay. There are no phones or televisions, so it is peaceful and relaxing. The bedding is heavenly and the bathroom is stocked with all the miniature soaps and lotions that I love. (This is a ridiculous obsession of mine in hotels and inns, but I think a little basket of nice bath accessories is such a nice touch.) A coffee maker in the room was also a welcome sight, especially since homemade oatmeal cookies waited right next to it.

However, dinner before cookies. Based on the inn’s reputation for excellent food, I’d made a reservation in the dining room, housed in an 1840 log cabin at the front of the property. I was given a window table, overlooking the back patio and garden.

I loved everything about this restaurant, from the log cabin interior to the details of the table setting – quilted placemat, short vase with a single yellow spider mum, oil candle fashioned from a mason jar, appetizer tray with crackers, tomato pesto, bruschetta and a tiny Wisconson cheese ball. Soft renditions of Broadway show tunes floated through the air. (My notes say George Winston with a question mark…) Oval glass pieces and dried orange slices hung by strings in the windows, at varying heights. The combination of everything was enchanting.

The format at this restaurant is a four course meal, counting the appetizer as the first course. This was followed by a roasted red pepper soup and a mixed green salad with a lemon vinaigrette dressing. Wisely, the serving sizes are not so large as to cause the guest to be full before the main entree arrived. Given the way I’d been eating at the last few places, I’m hesitant to admit that I ordered pasta again, but it seemed the lightest choice of the selections for that evening. (An additional excuse is that it would be easy to save half in the common room’s refrigerator and have it for lunch the next day, which is exactly what I did.) The pasta contents were a perfect mix: sun-dried tomatos, artichoke hearts, spinach, pine nuts and olive oil. (It normally would have had goat cheese, but I had them leave it off. Instead I was given a small dish of asiago cheese.) Everything was delicious. This inn’s restaurant is frequented by many, both visitors to the area and locals, whether guests of the inn or not. I could see why it was so popular.

Breakfast was equally impressive, starting with a self-service buffet offering homemade granola, fresh fruit, yogurt and milk in an old-fashioned carafe on ice. A hot entree of an egg strata, sausage patties, fresh fruit and mini cinnamon rolls was then delivered to the table. Again I had a window seat, this time looking out over a porch with a swinging glider (is that redundant?) and rocking chair. Very peaceful.

Of particular interest to me was finding out that my server, Sarah, was the granddaughter of Anna Castle, who established the inn based on a dream of hers, to create a peaceful retreat for city dwellers, It was built slowly through hard work, personal sacrifice and determination. Anna was fortunate to see her dream become reality, but succumbed shortly thereafter to cancer. Her daughter, Sarah’s mother, Ellen, now owns the inn, along with her husband Terry. Home on college vacation, Sarah was able to give me an inside view of the inn. It’s an inspirational story, refreshing when compared with the corporate background of many places.

The inn has a spa, though I didn’t have a chance to see it. (Read: the budget was getting tight by this time…) Facilities for small group meetings and retreats are also available and cooking and photography workshops are also offered.

Needless to say, I checked out of this inn reluctantly. I would have loved to stay another day, but I had a chance to pick up another Ohio inn before moving on to a couple non-travel business days. Before leaving, I did a little shopping at the inn’s gift shop, which was stocked with a great selection of items and likely to be the best gift store in the area.

I attempted to stop and do a little bit of hiking before leaving Hocking Hills State Park, but the humidity….well, I’m a California girl and used to dry heat. Even the locals were complaining about the humidity being worse than usual, so I felt only halfway wimpy when I gave up on outdoor activities and hit the road.

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So let’s talk about old hotels. Really, really old, historic hotels. There are many throughout the U.S., some falling apart, some restored and some in-between. I’ve been to quite a few and I think they’re fabulous. Their walls simply ooze with history, whispering stories and gossip from centuries ago. Their decor, whether dark Victorian or stark Shaker or early Colonial, can throw a visitor into time travel with just one step through the front door. They could have faded carpets or weathered shutters. The wind might be heard whistling through a few tiny cracks along window sills. Floors may be slanted or sagging with the weight of years gone by. It all just adds to the charm.

It’s not uncommon in very old hotels to have several floors and no elevator. A guest needs to plan in advance if stairs will be a problem, making sure to reserve a ground floor room before the reservations fill up. Then again, you might save a little money if you’re up for some exercise. Many of these lodging establishments have a few smaller rooms on the top floors, often with bathrooms down the hall, These are economical little hideaways, a chance to enjoy the ambiance of the hotel at an affordable price. Burning off calories while climbing up to your room is provided at no extra charge.

This is where you’re likely to find me if you track me down at a historic hotel. So it should come as no surprise that when I checked into The Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Ohio, I dragged my overnight bag, laptop and camera equipment slowly up three flights of stairs, finally landing on the fourth floor. I fumbled with the lock to the William Howard Taft Room, cracked open the door and gratefully collapsed on the bed. I had driven in from Indiana by way of Kentucky, enduring some late afternoon Louisville traffic. I was glad to be off the modern roads and peacefully resting two centuries back in time.

The Golden Lamb was recommended to me long ago by an east coast friend. I’d had it bookmarked for several years, but had never been able to work it into my cross-country plans. It was finally time to move it from my wish list to my reality list.

Established in 1803, this inn holds the status of being Ohio’s oldest hotel and has a colorful past that includes stagecoach stopovers, gatherings of politicians, productions of plays and various theatre acts, socializing at the adjacent Black Horse Tavern and numerous visits from presidents and dignitaries. Twelve presidents, in fact, proudly listed on a plaque in the front hallway. Not to mention a visit from Charles Dickens, who expressed dismay over not being able to order an alcoholic drink, as the inn was a temperance hotel at that time.

There is a long (and confusing, in my opinion) history on the inn’s website, detailing dates, building reconstructions and changes of ownership. One thing is clear: The Golden Lamb has been prominent in Ohio’s history for the last two centuries.

One major claim to fame at this inn is the restaurant, so I headed back down the three flights of stairs and took a small table in one of several dining rooms. In keeping with the historic ambiance of the inn, the restaurant employees wore outfits typical of the 19th century.

It’s clear by now to readers that I was eating my way across the country and I kept up with that reputation here by ordering shrimp and scallop pasta with prosciuto and leeks in a (very heavy) garlic cream sauce, served over cracked peppercorn fettucini. Hey, it wasn’t that decadent – after all, it was served with a small salad. And, for what it’s worth, my habit is to eat half of a dinner meal and save the other half for lunch the following day. (You really shouldn’t travel unless you can pack leftovers in a bathroom basin filled with ice.)

I spent the remainder of the evening resting. If I recall, wireless access was not offered at this inn, but I was able to hitch a ride online through a free Cincinnati network. Before leaving the next day, I took a few photographs, visited the basement gift shop and had one more meal – a chicken wrap, with tomatos, lettuce, bacon and a side of fresh fruit. It was served with a celery seed dressing for dipping, a Golden Lamb specialty that can be purchased by the jar in the front lobby.

I loved that The Golden Lamb had such an authentic feel to it. As compared with some historic lodging establishments, which are restored and remodeled to a squeaky clean elegance that is almost antiseptic, this offered a genuine step into the past. And the prices? My room – very spacious, with a private bath, double bed, dresser, TV and telephone – was a whopping $67. Can’t beat that.

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