High life beckons in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Keswick: A small hotel not far from Monticello pretends it's an English country house and pampers its guests with quiet luxury

Short Hop: Virginia

July 25, 1999|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,Special to the Sun

Just east of Charlottesville, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Keswick Hall at Monticello stands as a testament to the power of fantasy.

From the outside, it's a villa in Tuscany. Indoors, it is something else again -- a 48-room luxury hotel decked out in Laura Ashley fabrics and an eclectic collection of antiques, offering a lifestyle experience most often associated with the rich and famous.

For $330 -- the price for a room with unlimited one-day golfing for one -- we get breakfast free, so Keswick could be defined as a B&B. But this is no just-folks kind of place. The illusion it promotes is of a country house in England; in fact, it refers to itself as a "country house hotel" and boasts of its membership in the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, a tony trade group. It was also included on Conde Nast Traveler's 1998 Gold List and The Golfer magazine's top 100 golf resorts list.

Allusion is involved here, too. Keswick Hall is not really "at" Monticello. It's a 600-acre estate in Keswick, Va., almost 10 highway miles away from the "little mountain" where Thomas Jefferson built his famous home. One can only imagine the strongly worded declaration Jefferson might have penned if he had known this highly polished pursuit of happiness English style would one day be attributed to his very doorstep.

"At Monticello," tacked onto Keswick Hall when it was sold along with a sister property -- the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels -- to Orient-Express in May, does, however, strike a historical note, hinting at Continental sophistication along with American gentility.

Actually, Keswick has some history of its own: The original building, known as Villa Crawford, for its owner, was built in 1912. Its expansion and incarnation as a hotel, in the small Ashley House chain, began in 1990.

The Laura Ashley fabrics and wall coverings still testify to the previous owner, as does the Ashley logo on the thick terry bathrobes waiting for us in the bathroom. The English country-house theme is an Ashley holdover as well.

The little play in which we have the role of guests begins immediately. As we enter the grounds, the gatehouse guard is calling the hotel to announce our arrival. A nice young woman named Kim greets us at the door, says she'll have the bellman bring up the luggage, take the golf bag to the adjacent Kes-wick Club -- a private country club with an Arnold Palmer-designed course, which is one of the reasons we've come -- and park the car. The car is new; we hand over the keys without a backward glance.

There's no reception desk at Keswick. Instead, Kim shows us the unremarkable office, tucked back from a corridor paved with terra-cotta tiles from a French chateau, where we will eventually pay for our pleasures. Along that same hallway, she shows us the similarly unobtrusive elevator, its door painted to look like a wooden one with an old-fashioned handle.

It's before the 3 p.m. check-in, and our room is not quite ready; but neither are we. The drive from Baltimore has taken 3 1/2 hours, almost all of it on U.S. Route 29. We had hoped to visit Monticello and have lunch at Michie Tavern, but when we reached Charlottesville there wasn't enough time for both. So we just pushed on, saving the tourist stops for our return trip.

Hungry now, but anticipating the free teatime, which also begins at 3 p.m., we go to the club for something light. Appetizer-size portions of cold poached salmon on mesclun, topped with black-bean salsa, are simply exquisite. It would be a lovely lunch but for the squealing toddler whose apparent grandmother tries, without much success, to entertain her by throwing a napkin over her head for a peculiar game of peekaboo.

The lunchtime disruption is one of the reasons we will not even blink at the price of dinner at the hotel that evening, in a room where gentlemen wear jackets, even in the summer; waiters speak with French accents; and the parents of children under 12 have respectfully been asked to feed them somewhere else.

Before we dine, however, we do tea, just like the Brits. Another guest, a woman who has been to English country houses where owners have had to take in paying company, tells us it is exactly thus. Teatime dainties are set out on a sideboard -- scones and lemon curd, whipped cream and made-leines. Sherry and stemware are nearby. We repair with our plates to a sunny-colored lounge and a waiter, after asking discreetly for our room number, pours tea, the real thing, with a little strainer set over the cup to catch the leaves.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.