My love affair with the B&B

April 11, 2013

How do I love B&Bs? Oh, let me count the ways . . .

I love, love, love the houses: those romantic, sprawling Victorians or other gracious old properties full of quirks and character, allure and atmosphere. Not to mention history, which positively seeps from their pores and envelops you in the night. So fabulous!

I adore the decor: all those lovely antiques, soaked in the aura of days long past — wish I could take them home with me. Floral wallpaper? Can’t get enough of it. Knickknacks galore? They’re so warm and enwombing (and I don’t have to clean them). Overstuffed couches? Where better to lounge or laze, reading a book or chatting?

And the chatting! There’s nothing more fun: The owners or caretakers are always so pleasant. And their tales of the B&B biz — fascinating! I could listen for hours. As for the guests, I’ve never met any who weren’t equally engaging — or at least polite enough when you strike up a convo at breakfast.

And about that breakfast. This bennie is one that B&B owners take seriously, I can tell you. Very seriously. It’s always so, um, generous. More generous than I can ever handle — fruit cup! waffles! eggs and bacon! (yes, all three!) — truth be told. But then, my Hoover husband is usually more than happy to clean up after me. And who can begrudge a host such magnanimity, especially when it means that you can skip lunch?


(Johanna Goodman for The Washington Post)

So you see? B&Bs are the B’s knees. (Groan, I know. But you get my point.)

Actually, it surprises me that I think this way. You wouldn’t take me for a bed-and-breakfast natural. I’m not really an extrovert. In groups, I’m rarely the Ms. Gabalot who keeps the chatter flowing. I’m a listener more than a talker. Generally speaking, I like to be anonymous and private.

But something comes over me at a B&B. In these homey hostelries, my inhibitions fall away. I feel . . . at home. It’s the small scale, I guess. With only a handful of rooms in most cases, you’re talking fewer than 10 people together in any space at a time. And usually way, way fewer than that. We’ve stayed at loads of B&Bs where there was maybe only one other couple in the place, or even where we were the only guests. (Which means that you have the whole house to yourself — woo-hoo! — but I’ll get to that.)

So all those complaints about having to be sociable over breakfast, when you just want to grump into your coffee — well, now let’s be honest. Aren’t they a bit exaggerated? Of course they are! Nowadays, you don’t even have to sit at one big communal table. Lots of B&Bs have separate seating, so if there are any other guests, you really don’t have to talk to anyone — okay, maybe the owner/innkeeper — if you don’t want to. You can be as antisocial as you like.

But surprisingly, I find that I don’t like. I like sitting at the communal table. Even my husband, who’s hardly Mr. Sunshine in the morning, has no trouble carrying on a pleasant conversation with the cheerful couple across the way, or the super-friendly proprietor. We recently stayed at a Maryland B&B (yes, we were the only guests) where my husband fell into a breakfast discussion about nuclear submarines with the owner (a former Navy man) that just went on and on. Which was really annoying, because I wanted to grill the guy more about running a B&B. (Yes, I’m that guest.) His spiel was counter to the usual — he and his wife were looking to sell and get out of the business. (“Five years is the norm,” he said. “We’ve been at it for 10.” Tell me more!)

As for the “usual” spiel, okay, maybe the general outlines — hard-charging urban professional couple chucks it all for the slow life in the country — are the same a lot of the time. But I can listen ad nauseam to B&B folks talk about how they got into the racket. I mean, what if I wanted to give it a try?

And turns out, the details are all different. Take the couple in Virginia who, yes, chucked their hard-charging Washington professional lives and moved to a small town. But not why you think. It was to get away from the city after 9/11. Pretty interesting, huh? Or what about the small-town Texas woman who couldn’t bear to give up the house where she’d raised her kids after she and hubby bought a more luxurious home up the street? She took a B&B course and invited the public in. I thought that was kind of touching.

But you know, often you may not even see your hosts until breakfast, if then. So many don’t live in the house, or live in another wing, or live in another town and use a manager. Lots of them aren’t there when you arrive — they just leave a key. If they are around, they retire early to their distant digs and let you have the run of the place.

And if that isn’t fabulous! It’s one of the best things about a B&B. I’m a snoop, so I love running around and poking into and oohing over every room, sticking my nose into all the nooks and crannies. I like that our-home-is-your-home feeling. “The house is yours,” I was told at a Washington B&B, and it gave me a little thrill.

And there are all the thoughtful little extras that help that feeling along. Say, a decanter of Irish whiskey for the taking in the library. A happy hour with wine and treats before dinner. At a recent stay, we came home after dinner, popped up some free guest popcorn and plopped down to watch a movie on the big-screen TV in the common room. After which I checked out all the other guest rooms. (Yes, we were the only guests.)

So all those stereotypes you hear about B&Bs — don’t buy ’em! Like the doilies. Everybody’s always going on about B&Bs and doilies. A while back, a colleague was looking for lodgings for a trip. When I suggested a couple of B&Bs, she wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like doilies,” she said.

Please. Let me put this on the record: In all the B&Bs I’ve stayed in, I have never. Seen. A doily. Nope, not a one. Maybe a dresser topper in a place or two, but not crocheted or doilylike in any way. This doily thing is a slur upon the good name of B&Bs everywhere. Although, come to think of it, what’s wrong with doilies? They’re actually lovely — all that delicate handiwork. They hardly deserve all this dissing.

Nor does the general B&B decor. Contrary to popular cliche, all B&Bs are not created identical. Not every single one is a supposedly stuffy old Victorian, although try telling that to some people. Another colleague once asked for some advice on a nice Virginia getaway but made it clear: no B&Bs. “I’m over Victoriana,” she said.

Well. I’ll have you know that I’ve stayed in plenty of spiffed-up Federal-style mansions, in refurbished farmhouses of no particular description, in small colonial inns, even in some brand-new — if retro-styled — houses.

And yes, of course, in the ubiquitous Victorians. And I have to confess, they are my favorite.

Because I, for one, am not over Victoriana. I hereby proclaim that I love turrets and dormers, and massive wooden staircases and fireplace mantels, and curvy old antiques and Oriental carpets and crystal chandeliers and even velvet curtains. And yes, I love tchotchkes. I have a house full of them.

In fact, I have an old Victorian house. And you know what?

It’d make a great B&B.

Zofia Smardz is deputy editor of The Post's Travel section. She joined Travel after eight years editing provocative opinion articles in the Sunday Outlook section.
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