By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Even in Nora Roberts's world, truth can be stranger than fiction. In the best-selling author's books, the smart, sexy heroines solve crimes, rescue loved ones and always get the guy. And in mountainous Central Maryland, Roberts's new boutique hotel has just as improbable -- and rose-colored -- a back story.
As a longtime resident of nearby Keedysville, Roberts watched the old inn on Boonsboro's main street, which dated from the 1790s, slowly decline. In 2007, the romance novelist and her photographer husband, Bruce Wilder, who has run the Turn the Page Bookstore Cafe across the street for more than a decade, decided to fix up the old three-story inn, turning it into a romantic, B&B-style boutique hotel.
Then, on a February morning in 2008, just a few months shy of opening day, the hotel suddenly exploded in flames, the fire quickly spreading to buildings down the block. A propane tank behind the inn had burst; the building was gutted, and all the money, time and hard work that had gone into it went up in smoke.
Almost immediately, Roberts decided to start over, and a year later, Inn BoonsBoro opened to its first guests on Valentine's Day weekend, which happened to coincide with one of Roberts's all-day book signings at Turn the Page. She was signing her latest novel, "Promises in Death," which she wrote under the pseudonym J.D. Robb. (The book topped the New York Times best-selling fiction list its first week out.) For the book signing, fans streamed into town, shopped at the inn's gift shop (filled with local artists' wares) and ate at her son's pizzeria, Vesta.
Meanwhile, the economy tanked.
But as I discovered on a recent overnight stay at the inn, a few things are recession-proof, among them steamy novels and romantic inns. Of course, space-age toilets don't hurt, either.
When I pulled into the parking lot at Inn BoonsBoro on a drizzly Wednesday night, the town was quiet. Innkeeper Suzanne McErlain met me at the door and walked me upstairs to what's known as the Eve and Roarke room. McErlain has an apartment on the third floor, and although Roberts stops by Turn the Page from time to time, she doesn't usually pop into the hotel.
Inn BoonsBoro's rooms are romance-themed, naturally, and all but the penthouse suite are named after fictional couples. But forget Romeo and Juliet; this is Roberts land, where the couples live happily ever after. Accordingly, there's a Nick and Nora room (of "Thin Man" fame) done up in art deco, while Titania and Oberon ("A Midsummer Night's Dream") features a canopy bed draped with flowing, lavender fabric. Touring the rooms, I noticed copies of the namesake books (and sometimes the movies) left on bedside tables or dressers, and the second-floor library was filled with not only Roberts's works, but also titles by such authors as P.G. Wodehouse, Dean Koontz and Richard Russo.
All the rooms, except for wheelchair-accessible Marguerite and Percy ("The Scarlet Pimpernel"), have deep bathtubs and Toto toilets. These futuristic commodes have motion-sensing lids and adjustable, bidet-style sprays, seat-warmers and even built-in dryers. Every time I walked by the one in my room, the lid lifted up as if to say, "Have a seat!"
The Eve and Roarke room is named after characters in J.D. Robb's "In Death" novels, which are futuristic, science-fiction police procedurals. The room has hardwood floors, a king-size platform bed, a wall-mounted flat-screen TV and a huge arrangement of fresh flowers. The odd mix of ultra-modern pieces (smoky lucite chairs and sconces, deep womb chair and ottoman) and antiques (orange-lacquered dresser, rococo-style mirror) reflects Robb's novels: The setting is mid-21st-century Manhattan, Eve is a tough police detective (with a taste for high-tech amenities) and Roarke is her billionaire husband (who prefers antiques). The bathroom's chrome waterfall faucets, multi-jet shower, deep egg-shaped tub and wavy-patterned wallpaper up the sci-fi quotient. All the room needed was voice-activated fixtures and it could have come straight out of Eve and Roarke's world (minus the gruesome murders, of course).
The Eve and Roarke room's lavender-patchouli scented soaps, shampoos and lotion come from the Cedar Ridge Soap company in nearby Keedysville. Each room has a different scent: Jane and Rochester ("Jane Eyre"), for instance, comes with heather-scented amenities to "sweep you back to summer on the moor," as the hotel Web site puts it.
That focus on local artisans is evident throughout the inn, where paintings and photographs by local artists are on display, all of them for sale. Just across the street, Roberts's Gifts Inn BoonsBoro is filled with jewelry, knits, housewares and decorations, most created by Maryland- or West Virginia-based artists.
Leaving the hotel, though, takes serious willpower. After all, there are the cozy rooms, each with a balcony; the library with coffeemaker and Irish whiskey; a lounge with big-screen TV and sofas; access to a collection of books, DVDs and CDs, plus snacks and drinks; and wide, multi-story porches on both sides of the building. I envisioned summer days spent reading at umbrella-covered tables, once construction is finished on an adjoining building. The stone edifice, also owned by Roberts, will house more guest rooms, Wilder's photo studio and possibly a bakery when it is finished in the fall.
In the meantime, the French toast, sausage and fresh berry breakfast, my decadent room and the quiet town of Boonsboro made for a getaway so relaxing, even Roberts's toughest crime-solving heroines might start believing in happy endings.