By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2008
There's nothing quite like morning coffee by the privy.
That's just one of the quirky charms of the Inn at Montchanin Village, a soothing way station just minutes from Winterthur, Longwood Gardens and myriad other attractions in the Brandywine Valley on the outskirts of Wilmington, Del.
The inn is a regular on Travel + Leisure Magazine's annual list of 100 top hotels in the United States -- a fairly stunning feat, considering its surprisingly modest price and the fact that it offers no swimming pool or golf course and only a masochistic little basement gym, though the opening of a 4,000-square-foot spa is promised for September.
Set amid 20 acres of rolling hills and gardens intersected by roads and paths, the owners of the 12-year-old inn, once part of the du Ponts' Winterthur estate, have taken 11 stucco-and-frame houses built between 1799 and 1910 for laborers and artisans who worked in the area and turned them into 28 rooms and suites, each with private outdoor space.
It would be bucolic if it weren't for the two public roads that cut through the property, not allowing you to forget for long which century you're in.
Unless you're lucky enough to land, as I did, on Privy Lane, named for the bunker-style outhouses, now used for storage, that are plunked behind each house. Stone-paved and lined with old-fashioned street lamps and the occasional wrought-iron bench, the lane promises a meander in time upended.
My husband and I checked in on a Tuesday afternoon in late spring after roaming around Winterthur, the garden and museum of Americana, just five minutes away. Although we had been willing to spring for one of the pricier rooms, with a week's notice the only room available had been the least expensive.
No matter. It's more than comfortable, like a carefully considered guest room in a private home. Frette linens and down pillows on the queen-size bed, emergency umbrellas, a wet bar with a coffee maker and complimentary sodas and water in the fridge.
The faux-marbled bath is particularly fine. Not only does the vanity have the requisite miniature bottles of shampoo and body lotion, there's a vase of alstroemeria lilies, a lighted makeup mirror that's not too terrifying in its magnification and a sparkling glass box of cotton balls and Q-tips.
Perhaps best of all, the windows open -- no omnipresent odor of industrial-strength cleaner that embalms your pores.
I do find a few flaws. I'm ankle-deep in water when I'm done with my shower, and 6:22 p.m. is a little early for turn-down service. "We have a lot of rooms to do," the housekeeper says as she smiles apologetically and hands me two chocolates as my towel-wrapped husband skitters behind me into the bathroom.
At 6:30 a.m., however, having brewed a pot of excellent coffee, I am delighted to find the newspaper on the doorstep, and I wander out with a baggy sweater over my pajamas to the wrought-iron table and chairs by the former privy.
Puzzle finished, I'm restless and the husband is still snoring, so I grab my camera and stroll amid a riot of lilacs, tulips and cherry trees to the inn's office in the Dilwyne Barn, once Winterthur's dairy barn, which also contains a common room for guests.
The common room's "Out of Africa" theme is oddly jarring, with zebra-patterned cushions on rattan chairs, elephants on throw pillows, a paneled screen painted with scrambling monkeys, and a pair of five-foot stuffed toy bears that carry the theme perilously close to kitsch. But there's a vast stone fireplace, leather club chairs with ottomans and overstuffed sofas and tables for the backgammon and board games stored in a sideboard. Books live shelves and cases.
Last night, a moonlit stroll along Privy Lane had deposited us at the inn's Krazy Kat's restaurant. Though the name might be . . . unfortunate, the restaurant is handsomely designed. Resembling a stucco Italian farmhouse with umbrella tables outside, the former blacksmith shop still has rings for reins on the walls, and the forge is now a fireplace.
The menu is seasonal and the chef inventive. After a gratis amuse bouche of house-made mozzarella drizzled with 30-year-old balsamic vinegar, I ordered a delicately grilled herbed veal well paired with a side of tangy ramps, a wild cousin of the leek, and an oozing hunk of Camembert crunched with panko, Japanese bread crumbs. The husband did not offer me a taste of his saffron-infused paella, which you can take to be a good sign. But this is morning I'm here at the office in my thinly disguised pajamas and sleep-disheveled hair asking the maiden of the desk to see one of the grander rooms.
Occupying what appears to be the entire second floor of the house closest to the office, the du Pont is the inn's most-requested room. Its bonneted bed is against a stone wall that soars to the roofline. Cushy chairs flank the gas fireplace. And the bath is sybaritic, with a glass-walled shower, a deep soaking tub and a much fancier scale than the one in my room.
The scales must be for the same masochists who use the gym. Unless they're rigged for pleasure like the rest of the inn -- dare I step on and see if I've magically lost 10 pounds?
Maybe next trip.