B&B serves Victorian delights

Staunton: Beautiful Belle Grae Inn provides an entry to a historic town.

August 15, 1999|By Stephanie D. Fletcher | Stephanie D. Fletcher,Special to the Sun

I asked innkeeper Michael Organ why he calls his bed & breakfast in Staunton, Va., the Belle Grae Inn. He walked me over to a window and pointed to two peaks in the near distance.

"Those are actually big hills, but the locals call them mountains. The one on the left is Betsy Belle and the one on the right is Mary Grae. They are named after two Scotch-Irish heroines. I borrowed their names."

Then, the natural born-storyteller (and barbershop quartet singer) launched into a legend from the mid-1600s that starred two beautiful young Scottish cousins who were also best friends. The plot pivoted around passion and tragic death -- inflicted, by accident, via a lover's token of affection -- a lace handkerchief -- infected with bubonic plague. The romance of the love story seemed to match the Victorian charm that is so carefully nurtured in this delightful place.

The Belle Grae Inn is not a single building, but a "village" composed of an entire block of 13 historic structures built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In addition to standard lodging rooms and suites, the inn offers several multiroom guest houses. One, the Jefferson House, often serves as the "honeymoon cottage," and several others provide ideal accommodations for large families or business conferences and retreats.

The main building in the Belle Grae Inn complex is a rosy red brick house built in 1870. It has eyebrows. At least it looks like it does from the sidewalk. The Italianate-style gem is decorated with a restrained amount of gingerbread trim as Victorian buildings go, however, the curved white arches over four upstairs windows give it a distinctive and pleasing personality. The overall effect is that of a refined (if somewhat startled) late-19th-century lady.

The primary house, called the Old Inn, features a wide curved front porch where guests may rock in wicker chairs and watch the world pass by. On the first level, it contains the main gathering rooms -- a bistro, two dining rooms, and a combination music room/parlor -- plus a large bright room reserved for parties and receptions. The spaces feature fireplaces, jewel-tone Oriental rugs, and comfortable period furnishings. One guest room is downstairs, five upstairs.

I stayed in the Town House during my stay at Belle Grae. The two-story building is connected to the main house by a short, flower-lined gravel path. Each guest room in the satellite features a unique decor. Mine had a cool blue palette. A pencil-post bed projecting from one corner of the spacious room bore a blue floral print spread topped with a lacy white crocheted coverlet; an Oriental rug (primarily blue) softened the dark hardwood floor; and a row of cobalt glass vases stood in a pretty line on the mantle over the gas-log fireplace.

The Belle Grae Inn houses a fine dining facility. A full American breakfast is included in the price of a room. During my stay, I enjoyed waffles with blueberry sauce, scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, juice and very good coffee. The inn also serves dinner. From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. the candlelit formal dining room is open to both guests and the public. The elegant menu includes several entree choices, and I had a tough time deciding between the salmon and the pork tenderloin.

Organ is a regional president of the Independent Innkeepers of America and represents his area as a board member of the national organization. He says he has resurrected more than a dozen derelict historic properties and transformed them into lovely and respectable lodges. Organ showed me a stone terrace where many brides and grooms have tied the knot at the Belle Grae Inn, then he led me to a grassy, stage-like setting in the extensive back lawn that is metamorphosing into a wedding dell. The spot looks out over Victorian rooftops and will feature a flower garden and grape arbor. As the innkeeper painted a picture he made sweeping gestures -- a string quartet beneath the arbor, a bride making her grand entrance from one side -- I could see it all.

The Belle Grae Inn commands an impressive hillside address in the Newtown district of Staunton, a village nestled in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Although Staunton is modest in size, it is loaded with diversions. The Museum of American Frontier Culture, Woodrow Wilson's birthplace, the Statler Brothers complex, a fascinating historic district, and an Episcopal church filled with Tiffany stained glass windows are a sample of the attractions. Art galleries and cute stores line thoroughfares downtown. And, in addition to functioning as a station for the every-other-day Amtrak passenger service, the newly-restored C&O railroad station provides a picturesque setting for a collection of shops and restaurants.

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