Lafayette, we are here -- in Pennsylvania Resort: A luxury hotel in the Allegheny Mountains reminds a Baltimore couple of Disney World rather than the Ritz.

September 28, 1997|By Maria Hiaasen | Maria Hiaasen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We are standing outside the Chateau Lafayette on a crisp September night, tracking the crescent moon to a spot beneath the tree line and admiring a bronze statue of Lafayette himself. Near a queue of white stretch limousines, we gaze at the hotel's French Renaissance architecture, which mimics that of the Ritz in Paris.

Stretching our legs after a lobster dinner in the hotel's restaurant, Lautrec (jackets required), we note the manicured croquet court and the airstrip for private and corporate jets. We sigh in anticipation of my facial and his massage, set for the next morning at the resort's Woodlands Spa.

Such opulence. Such luxury. My husband sums it up perfectly: "Something about this place reminds me of Disney World."

Strange as it may sound, his statement rings true. The Lafayette opened in May, the latest addition to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in southwest Pennsylvania. Like Disney, this is a self-contained environment chock-full of fun things to do (virtual arcade, golf, billiards, sleigh rides and more). And just as Disney rises from austere surroundings (a central Florida swamp), the same is true of the Lafayette. The luxury hotel sits in the Laurel Highlands, just off U.S. Highway 40 -- the old National Road, now lined with decaying barns, produce stands and farm-implement dealerships. It's about a three-hour drive from Baltimore.

Here, in the Allegheny Mountains, Nemacolin's less showy English Tudor lodge and rustic Woodlands Spa seem more suited to the surroundings than the pristine and prim Lafayette. The hotel certainly could double for the Ritz, and they've mastered the attitude: Casual resort wear is required on the grounds, stipulated the directory of services in our room.

As we contemplated a trail ride, the statement seemed incongruous.

But if you're spending a tidy sum to get away from it all, incongruity may not be a concern. You want luxury, plenty of diversions and impeccable service.

Only the best

Luxury and diversions the Lafayette definitely has -- at $245 to $1,500 a night. Regular rooms have desks wired for computer and fax as well as oversize bathrooms with marble floors, brass fixtures and whirlpool tubs. Decor in the hotel's 125 rooms features earth tones and neutral-colored carpet, chandeliers and coffered ceilings, damask wallpaper and cherry furniture. A smoking parlor off the main lobby sells cigars and houses four built-in humidors, a fireplace and a library.

You only live once, so we stayed in the penthouse floor -- the Lafayette Club -- and were entitled to all of the above plus five food and beverage services a day (continental breakfast, light lunch, afternoon tea, hors d'oeuvres and after-dinner cordials and truffles).

Checking in on a weekday around noon, we were accommodated by the front desk despite our arriving three hours before the official check-in time. As the bellhop placed our luggage in the room, I tried out the mattress on the king-size bed, then peeked at the bathroom -- about the size of my son's room back home. Then it hit me: I'd forgotten my toothbrush and toothpaste.

"No problem," said the bellhop, adding that he would have some sent right up.

He rang the front desk, then sheepishly informed us that the hotel could provide only toothpaste. For a toothbrush, I'd need to visit a shop downstairs. A bit put off, I thanked him anyway. Minutes later, as we were about to head outside, another bellhop raced down the hall, toothpaste and toothbrush in hand. They've corrected their peccadillo, I thought. Then the bellhop handed it all to me, wrapped in a receipt for $1.33.

Would this happen at the Ritz? I was too excited about my stay to let it bother me.

As guests at the Lafayette, we had access to the Nemacolin compound's equestrian center, spa, two golf courses, walking trails and indoor and outdoor pools. Boredom seemed unlikely. Other resort offerings include canoeing, tennis, downhill and cross- country skiing, volleyball, croquet and boccie, a kids club and fishing in nearby lakes and streams.

For shoppers, there's Heritage Court Shoppes, a miniature mall of indoor shops and casual restaurants, which connects to the original inn. A brochure promised a unique shopping experience. The giant aquarium in the center of the mall captivated us, but the shopping was disappointing. Too many T-shirts bearing the resort's insignia for our taste. Then, there was the cubbyhole of a bookstore and the sparse offerings in the tiny gallery.

But worst of all, not one clerk in any of the shops we browsed offered us service, and we were there during the lull after Labor Day.

I've actually been more intrigued by some airport shops. And again, the experience resembled a day at Disney, not the lush life at the Ritz.

On the trail

No great loss, we figured. An afternoon of horseback riding sounded much more appealing than shopping on this crisp day anyway. We took the five-minute shuttle bus to the equestrian center.

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