That's Italian in Virginia? Almost.

After biking or croquet -- or even a round of golf -- a dip in the pool at Keswick Hall can make one feel infinitely better.
After biking or croquet -- or even a round of golf -- a dip in the pool at Keswick Hall can make one feel infinitely better. (Orient-Express Hotels)
By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

I went swimming in my underwear at Keswick Hall. Too much information, I know. But stay with me and you'll see how wonderfully discreet a well-trained hotel staff can be.

In my own defense, when I realized I'd forgotten my bathing suit I tried to buy one at the resort shop, but all they had were golf clothes. What to do? There was the infinity pool shimmering in the sun, mirroring the cloudless blue sky. I had to get in there. When my traveling buddy suggested I use his long, dark gray T-shirt as a combination bathing suit/coverup, I thought it over for, oh, about five seconds and jumped in.

So I wasn't exactly the classiest guest they've ever had.

To their credit, the staff reacted not with horror at my tacky ensemble but with perfect aplomb. When I climbed out of the pool to order a snack, the bowtie-clad waiter flicked an appraising glance my way, then recovered almost instantly and asked whether I wanted truffles on my french fries, and would that be a regular or a double espresso, ma'am? (I went with the double shot, no truffles.)

I do like a nice hotel. And while I'm not the kind of person who ordinarily spends $400 a night on a room -- not even close -- I managed to rationalize my stay at Keswick Hall thusly: Europe is not in the cards for me this summer. Just can't afford those $1,300 airfares, not to mention the crushing costs of food and lodging, thanks to the abysmal state of the dollar abroad.

But I could manage a tank of gas for the 220-mile round trip to Charlottesville, and Keswick was an appealing destination. The country-house hotel is set on 600 acres in Virginia's hunt country, in a 1912 Tuscan-style mansion that has been expanded and renovated over the years. Its 48 antiques-filled guest rooms overlook formal gardens or rolling fields; public spaces feature wood-burning fireplaces, overstuffed sofas, and tables piled with art books and first editions. I'd wanted to check the place out ever since Orient-Express Hotels bought the property in 1999 and liberated it from its Laura Ashley phase.

Even though it was just over two hours away, I'd hoped the hotel would offer some of the same pleasures I was looking for in a Tuscan getaway: great natural beauty, wine-soaked dinners, a sense of history and character. And so that's how I justified the $500 package deal for one night's lodging plus gourmet dinner and breakfast for two. Bonus: No passport, surly security agents or jet fuel surtax required.

* * *

What with all the Italian imagery floating around in my mind, I was a little disappointed to drive up to the hotel on a sunny Sunday afternoon and not find a backdrop of cypress trees. The building does, however, have the requisite red tile roof, Palladian windows, archways and weathered tile floors. And the view from the terrace was a knockout: green hills, ancient oaks, a pond, a classic white farmhouse, sand traps. . . . Oh, right. Golf is huge around here. To me, the carts and caddies mar the view, but I suppose even golfers must have their getaways.

Our room, while spacious and perfectly pleasant, did have an Ashleyesque whiff -- just a little too country-tasteful, with its lavender carpeting and matching print drapes and bedspread. But the fireplace and antique armoire added character, and the enormous bathroom featured a heated towel rack and oversize tub, complete with plush robes and even a rubber ducky. All was forgiven.

We inspected the public rooms, lingering in the library with its collection of Virginiana, the morning room with French doors leading to the veranda, and the original entrance area, featuring heart-of-pine floors, a grand piano and a sweeping curved staircase. The stairs became my favorite part of the hotel, evocatively creaking and summoning up the ghosts of past inhabitants. The original owner, Robert Crawford, was a U-Va. grad who had honeymooned in Italy and returned with his wife to build their own Italianate mansion, which they dubbed Villa Crawford. The unfortunate bridegroom died soon thereafter . . . or did he? Some say he disappeared mysteriously while walking the grounds. The young wife remarried and the villa passed through several owners, serving as a country club for a while before becoming an inn.

We could have played tennis, or fished, or hiked. But we couldn't resist the bicycles propped on the front porch, and hopped on a bright red two-seater to explore the grounds, which include a residential development and conference center. This excursion justified the pool break and the french fries. What's that, no chaise longues available? A young staffer, when summoned, was mortified. Would we allow him to bring us a pair immediately? We would, if only to put him out of his misery.

A little swimming, a little reading, and it was time for dinner. Our package deal included a five-course chef's tasting menu for two in the Fossett Room, a casually elegant space with yet another killer view. As the sky turned to indigo, we savored tiny cups of lobster bisque, heirloom tomato salads, grilled salmon with lobster ravioli and asparagus, fresh berry sorbets and pecan pie. The wine, a chardonnay from nearby Blenheim Vineyards (owned by the brother of Dave Matthews, of rock band fame), went down easy. We ended the evening in the hotel's cozy bar, curled up on a velvet sofa with another glass of Dave's brother's finest.

As we headed up that creaky staircase to bed, the bartender brought us back down to earth, asking what room to charge the wine to. What, you mean we're not house guests at a rich friend's country estate?

It was all very nice: the friendly service, the exquisite surroundings, the innovative meal. But the highlight was still to come. The next morning, after a breakfast of fresh fruit and pastries, I took my coffee out to the lawn, found a rocking chair overlooking the green hills and simply savored the view. It wasn't quite Tuscany, but it would do.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company