In Durham, N.C., an inn that’s traditional but casual, too


An elegantly appointed seating area in the lobby of the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club in Durham, N.C. The English-country-style inn on the Duke University campus has the refined look of an older era but a casual attitude. (Zofia Smardz/The Washington Post)
May 22

A biweekly staff review of East Coast and regional lodgings.

“Do you think you’ll need a sportcoat?” I ask as we get ready for dinner at the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club.

“I don’t know, but I plan to wear one,” my husband responds.

“Yes, good.” I nod affirmingly. After all, we’re in North Carolina (Durham, to be exact). At a somewhat pricey hotel (and golf resort). Surely it’s the kind of place that might still have a dress code. You know, some rules about appropriate attire in the fancy white-tablecloth restaurant. I, for one, am wearing a nice dress and heels.

And I’m sure, when we enter the Fairview, in a distant wing of the sprawling hotel across the road from Duke University, that we’ve been wise to follow old-fashioned protocol. The restaurant’s all chandeliered and carpeted and bouqueted elegance, softly lit and quiet, as old-school and stuffy-seeming as my proper Virginian spouse (and yes, I) could have hoped for.

But two seconds after we’re seated, in comes a gaggle of 20-somethings dressed in . . . yup, shorts and T-shirts and teeny-tiny tank tops and skirts way up to here. And the ubiquitous year-round footwear of youth today — flip-flops.

Dress code? Huh? What century are you living in, lady?

Yes, I really do have to get with the program. This is a college campus, for Pete’s sake. Of which we are nicely reminded when our waitress brings the martinis we’ve ordered. In the low light, we can’t quite make out the color of the glasses’ dark stems, and being martini-glass collectors, we’re curious.

“Is that blue or green?” we ask simultaneously.

“Blue,” says the smiling waitress. “Duke blue.”

Duh.

“You’re in Duke country now,” she adds genially, and truer words, as they say.

Not only is the 271-room, English-country-style inn obviously the landing place for all Duke parents and visitors, it’s something of a shrine to the Dukes, the Carolina first family who made a fortune in tobacco and energy and gave the university its name. Plus a whole passel of money, of course.

I didn’t know much more than that about the Dukes before I stepped into a hotel hallway lined with the bronze busts of prominent Duke males on one side and a gallery of black-and-white family photos on the other. But these shots explain a lot. Like this photo of a distinguished-looking 19th-century gentleman — that’s (George) Washington Duke (so that explains the inn’s name), patriarch of the clan himself. And here’s lovely Mary Duke Biddle; we’ve stayed at a hotel built around her home in Tarrytown, N.Y.

Other snaps are of little family groupings, babies in fancy christening gowns (Benjamin Newton Duke, James Buchanan Duke), celebrations of various sorts. Oh look, here’s JFK with Angier Biddle Duke. Angier (don’t you love that name?) gets pride of place in another hallway all his own, lined with memorabilia from his days as an ambassador to El Salvador, Spain, Denmark and Morocco. Also chief of protocol in the Kennedy administration. There are keys to various cities and citations from numerous heads of state. Pretty impressive for a guy who dropped out of Yale.

But then, there’s little the Dukes were involved with that wasn’t impressive. Including the inn. Forget those minimalist bi- or tricolor Manhattan redoubts; the Washington Duke is a rainbow-splashed throwback to a, yes, more formal era, when luxury equaled opu­lence and a kind of lush beauty (think huge floral arrangements and lots of representational art). Our room is a study in blue (of course) and gold; yes, there’s a white comforter on the bed, but it’s half-covered by a satiny blue-and-gold spread. The bathroom’s done in brown marble, with a beautiful basket-weave design on the floor and the shower wall. I feel rich just standing in it.

The inn opened in 1988, and old Angier had quite a hand in it, apparently, including dubbing the public spaces. Like the Fairview, which he named after the onetime family mansion in downtown Durham (which is, alas, long, long gone). Wonder whether he chose “Bull Durham” for the bar?

I don’t know, but we have a nice drink there, after wandering from the restaurant through various plush but oh-so-comfy-looking sitting areas into the hopping watering-hole (well, it is Friday night) and managing to snag a spot on one of the sofas flanking the gas fireplace. (It’s May, but it’s still cool outdoors, even here in the South.) After a little while, we stroll out onto the rear patio for a breath of air. At the end of the broad terrace, bright white spotlights on the ground illuminate a stand of trees and some white Adirondack chairs on the lawn, which glow eerily against a swath of golf course that stretches blackly into the distance.

“Scenes like this always make me think of the movie ‘Blow-Up,’ ” remarks my husband, and I totally see it. It’s all ghostly, like the corpse scene in the classic Antonioni film.

The next morning, of course, the same scene looks entirely normal and lovely in the sunlight. We even sit in those Adirondack chairs for a while to watch the golfers on the putting green getting in some strokes. Then, feeling restless, we set off down the paved path leading into the depths of the course, but uh-oh. A golf-cart-driving staffer stops us partway, cheerfully informing us that walking on the course is a no-no. But there’s a public trail that runs all around it if we’re looking for a stroll, he says.

Okay, we respond affably — everyone’s so nice here — and head back through the hotel and out the front in search of the trailhead. We make our way around the curved drive, lined with yellow and purple pansies and tall posts bearing banners that proclaim, “Celebrating 25 years of tradition.” When I point this out, my husband laughs. “In Virginia, you have to have at least 300 years before you can call it a tradition,” he says.

Which may be true. But it’s nice to be in a place that still appreciates the concept. Even if (okay, happily) they don’t have a dress code.

DETAILS:

Washington Duke Inn
and Golf Club

3001 Cameron Blvd.

Durham, N.C.

919-490-0999

www.washingtondukeinn.com

Rooms from $199.

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