Case of the $300 Splurge

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2003

I've forgotten my to-do list. I didn't leave it behind; it's somewhere in the briefcase I brought along. But on this gentle rolling plain of forests, fields and vineyards, lying in a hot tub under a night sky, the items on the list no longer seem important. Even the traffic on I-66 feels like part of someone else's life; someone a million miles from here.

But I-66 is in fact just a couple of winding country roads away. The city that sometimes feels like it has a big red bull's-eye painted over it is a mere 50 miles distant. I feel a surge of gratitude toward Fauquier County for fighting to preserve the quiet, rural character of this area so close to the madness of modern-day urban life.

Poplar Springs Inn, set on 200 acres just outside Warrenton, Va., has been on the Travel section's radar screen since it opened last fall. The old stone house on the property has been converted to a restaurant, and the owners have added a 22-room inn and spa, while keeping the barn, smokehouses and trees. With rooms starting at $300 a night, the place is a definite splurge -- and one I have managed to justify completely, given my current stress level and the inn's proximity to Washington. Each hour I don't have to drive, I figure, is worth another $50 on the room rate.

Will it be worth the significant outlay of cash to leave SARS, Code Yellow and deadlines behind? I'm about to find out, because I've finally found the requisite 24 hours to make my escape.

I race up the one-lane country road and run into the spa. Traffic has made me 20 minutes late for my appointment. But my anxiety melts the moment I slip between giant towels in a dimly lit room filled with the sounds of Pachelbel's Canon. My legs, feet, arms, back and torso are rubbed with sweet-smelling oils, then covered in wet, steaming-hot towels. Then Dead Sea salts are scrubbed against my skin, one limb at a time. And in turn, each limb is wiped down with more steaming towels.

I feel like a corpse. But if this is what death is like, it's not so bad.

By now it's nearly dinnertime, and I walk down a paved path lined with poplar trees to the Manor House, once the home of Robert Randolph Hicks. Built in 1928 by local craftsmen using fieldstone from the property, the country-style mansion was modeled after 16th-century homes Hicks and his wife had seen in Europe.

It is hard to imagine that the elegant dining room was once someone's living room. Broad beams of wood are exposed atop the 30-foot ceiling. The thick fieldstone walls have been left exposed inside and out. French doors overlook the grounds that were once part of a 10,000-acre estate. Over the years, sections were divided for a growing number of family members. This particular parcel was held by the same family from the early 1700s, until Bethesda caterers Howard Foer and Lauren Levine bought it with dreams of creating a rural sanctuary within an hour's drive of Washington -- assuming no traffic jams, which of course is almost always an absurd assumption.

But none of that matters now, as I settle in for a gourmet meal in front of a gigantic stone fireplace. The restaurant smokes its own salmon on the grounds. I usually don't like smoked salmon, but when the waiter comes with a set of tiny puff pastry shells filled with the fish prepared various ways, I savor each one.

Most entrees involve meat (prices range from, gulp, about $28 to $32). I settle on the peppercorn-crusted filet of beef with a souffle of Roquefort potatoes. When I see a roasted rack of lamb passing by on its way to another table, I wish I'd ordered that. Bet I could have substituted the potatoes for the lamb side dish of potato Anna with rapini and porcini mushrooms.

Poplar Springs' brochures promise to pamper you, and staff members do seem to be lurking everywhere, in case you have a whim or need. For example, a car and driver are parked outside the restaurant if you prefer a ride to the inn. Heaven forbid you should walk 100 yards on a moonlit night.

Another staff member spots me on my way back from dinner and asks if I require anything. No, I say, and change into my bathing suit for one of life's great pleasures: sitting outside in a hot tub on a cool evening.

Even considering their luxuriousness, the guest rooms still seem overpriced. But my room is large, and the bed is dressed in fine linens and a goose-down duvet. Nearly every room has a patio or porch and a giant bathroom. Rooms have high-speed Internet access, which I hope is intended solely for those on executive retreats. (The upstairs of the Manor House is devoted to meeting and conference rooms.) The bathroom amenities are wonderful: finely milled French soaps, and shampoo and lotion that smell and feel divine. Not only is the toilet paper end folded, but the resulting triangular end is kept in place with a golden stamp in the shape of a poplar leaf.

Lulled by the effects of massage, dinner and hot tub, I sleep like the dead. (Is it a comment on the times that I keep thinking in death metaphors?) The next morning, breakfast is delivered to my room. Still in my jammies, I carry the tray that includes fresh-baked scones and fresh melon and berries to my first-floor patio. A woman walking up the circular drive spots me and peeks around the pillars of my patio to greet me. She introduces herself as Victoria, and reminds me that she took my reservation earlier in the week.

By the time I'm ready to borrow one of the bikes to explore the grounds, sunshine has turned to rain. The desk clerk suggests I instead take a covered golf cart for a look around. I appreciate his warning that a large black snake seems to have taken up residence in the barn, and keep to the path that meanders past a pond, a stream and tennis courts.

On the way home, I plan to explore the gift and antiques shops in the nearby town of Warrenton, and to stop at a winery or two. But I'm in no hurry. There is really nothing I have to do.

Rooms at Poplar Springs Inn (9245 Rogues Rd., Casanova, Va., 540-788-4600 or 800-490-7747, start at $300 per night (double or single) during high season (April- October), but packages and deals are available, and rates can drop to $250. Spa and restaurant costs are in addition to room rates. Golf, horseback riding and other outdoors activities are available in the area, and several wineries are nearby. Details at and, or check wine- related links at

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