Grand hotel

Keswick Hall beckons all ages to luxurious retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains

September 19, 2010|By Donna M. Owens, Special to The Baltimore Sun

For his birthday last year, William Robertson chose to visit his favorite place: a lovely Italianate villa set in the lush Virginia countryside.

And when the 7-year-old arrived at Keswick Hall, accompanied by his family, the staff at the luxury inn treated him like royalty.

"There was a card in the room and snacks," said his mother, Catherine Robertson. "Later, at dinner, the chef made him dessert with clef notes decorating the plate. And the pianist played 'Happy Birthday.'"

William was delighted. So were his parents who were married on this property in the 1990s. Since then, the Virginia residents have returned often with their three children.

"When we asked our son where he wanted to go, he didn't say Disney World or anyplace like that," said Robertson, whose children range in age from 6 to 12. "He wanted to go someplace he'd visited before and loved, that our whole family enjoys."

And that place was Keswick Hall, a 48-room hotel and resort just outside Charlottesville. Built in 1912 as a private residence, it's on a 600-acre estate framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Graced with trees, rolling meadows, lakes and gently sloping hills, the area was once described by Thomas Jefferson as the "Eden of the United States." During a recent visit, I could see why Jefferson built his famed Monticello nearby. It's achingly beautiful in this region.

Sprawling and picturesque from the outside, filled with antiques, art and elegant furnishings inside, Keswick Hall is nestled in Virginia hunt country with wildlife so abundant that it has been designated an Audubon Society Estate.

Yet, beyond the pastoral setting and old-world refinement, the resort boasts plenty of modern and boutique amenities — including Wi-Fi in rooms, award-winning cuisine, a vineyard and a top sommelier.

It makes this retreat a choice for families with kids who don't want to sacrifice sophistication. Moms and dads, teens and tweens, and grandparents will all find something to do here. Even babies are welcome. There's a baby "butler service" offering bottles and gourmet food, and sitters are on call.

"We get a good number of young families — about 30 to 40 percent of our guests," said Andre Xavier, the front desk manager. "Many come in the summer, and during vacations when school is out."

One thing that might appeal to a younger set steeped in video games and computers: The "to do" list here is delightfully eclectic. Think bocce, yoga and billiards. Horseshoes, pingpong and volleyball. Croquet, water basketball and badminton. You'll also find Wii games, archery and lawn darts — even hot-air balloon tours that provide a bird's-eye view of the countryside.

And that's just a sampling.

Hotel guests also have access to a private country club that features an indoor/outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, fitness and tennis centers, plus an 18-hole signature golf course redesigned by Arnold Palmer.

In that same complex, the Palmer Room offers casual dining with expansive views of the golf course. After a morning golf lesson, I joined some new pals for lunch. The menu showcased local produce, seafood and Asian-inspired cuisine, including squash bisque, tequila lime shiso chicken and jumbo lump crab cakes "Delmarva."

As I enjoyed my tasty entree of oysters, I sipped — what else? — an Arnold Palmer. Half iced tea, half lemonade.

Fall at the hall

Autumn brings its own distinct pleasures to Keswick Hall. Chief among them, of course, is the promise of glorious fall foliage.

"When the leaves change, it's even more beautiful," said Xavier, who adds that October typically launches the burst of color. Families can take nature walks on the trails.

Other fall-friendly pursuits here include archery, bike riding and historic estate tours. There's fly or cast fishing at the property's Broadmoore Lake, which the resort stocks with catfish and rainbow trout.

Visitors can also swim year-round at Keswick Hall. The resort boasts three pools — two of which remain open after Labor Day. I was drawn to the outdoor infinity pool, where the edge drops off like a waterfall. It's a tiny oasis in a scenic garden with sweeping property views. There's piped-in music that plays underwater, and the pool is heated.

"We keep the horizon pool open until the temperatures go below freezing," said Xavier, adding that last winter's snow forced the staff to, somewhat reluctantly, close the pool. "We're hoping for mild weather," he said.

If not, there's usually a roaring fire somewhere — fireplaces are abundant in this grand hotel. Beginning in the fall, guests can expect to see bright blazes and warm hearths.

"We burn real wood and the pastry chef does s'mores and roasted chestnuts," said Xavier. "Everyone's invited."

If you're more in the mood for fine dining, many guests and locals alike flock to Fossett's — the hotel's nationally recognized restaurant. Its floor-to-ceiling windows provide a stunning vista of the property.

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