Nature Inn: Green inside and out

Pennsylvania's Nature Inn, which overlooks forestland and a lake, strives to be eco-friendly. It's seeking LEED certification.
Pennsylvania's Nature Inn, which overlooks forestland and a lake, strives to be eco-friendly. It's seeking LEED certification.
By Christine H. O'Toole
Friday, December 10, 2010

Peering at the dark Pennsylvania mountains, deep water and black clouds racing past the three-quarter moon, I can think of only one thing to top off a December evening at the Nature Inn: a soak in a steaming, simmering hot tub.

The setting here in Bald Eagle State Park, at the first eco-lodge in the state parks system, is a peaceful mountain inn overlooking a vast lake. But after spending a restful night here, I get it. Adding an energy-guzzling hot tub would be like adding flashing neon signs and plastic flamingos to the place, killing the whole sustainable buzz.

Perched on 5,900 acres of forest 25 miles from the town of State College, the cozy, all-green Nature Inn is emphatically not a resort. It has just 16 rooms, not hundreds; it offers a patio with a fire pit and gas grills instead of a gourmet dining room; and, to quote the great outdoor writer Bill Heavey, if you want your toilet paper folded in a point, you'll have to do it yourself.

The only five-star rating the place craves is LEED certification: It will shortly receive the U.S. Green Building Council's gold ranking for its sleek, energy-efficient design and materials. Geothermal heating, rain barrels and plenty of natural light and ventilation are standard here (but so are WiFi and flat-screen TVs). Though close to Interstate 80, its location on the tip of a wooded peninsula puts it three miles from the nearest highway. It's rural, for sure, but family-friendly, and there's a charming town waiting to be discovered down the road.

When my husband and I walk into the light-filled lobby, we immediately get the message: Birds are big here, year round. Local species such as grouse and turkey are portrayed in the ceramic floor tiles, a stained-glass transom features an eagle in flight, and a high-powered scope on the outdoor deck is trained on a one-ton eagle's nest across the reservoir. A kiosk by the door invites guests to log their sightings into an online database for Cornell University ornithologists. Jessica Welch, the friendly desk clerk, offers us an iPod Touch with a birding app to identify the locals.

Our room - actually the two-room Hummingbird Suite - is furnished in luxurious Mission style, with gleaming oak tables and chairs of Pennsylvania white oak. The balcony settee is rugged recycled aluminum; the kitchenette counter, polished concrete flecked with recycled glass.

A placard on the railing of our balcony offers a succinct description of how the reservoir levels change to prevent local flooding, and we find other friendly markers as we wander the grounds: clues for telling turkey vultures from osprey (vultures' wings form a V, ospreys' an M), guides to waterfowl and how the inn reuses rainwater.

As we head outdoors, Jessica tells us that she'll light the logs in the two-story fireplace in the lounge, which doubles as the breakfast room, whenever we like.

Biking along the reservoir's 23-mile shoreline, we pass trail markers and modern campsites. In the summer, this place must hum; unlimited horsepower motors are permitted on the water, and a marina rents nearly 400 boat slips. In fall, the Penn State crew teams practice here. And when the cold snap arrives, ice fishers and skaters take over.

After sunset - it's a stunner - we meet innkeeper Charlie Brooks, who lives on-site. He ticks off three good dining choices in Bellefonte, 10 miles down Route 150, so it's westward ho. When we arrive in town, garlands are being strung along High Street for the Victorian Christmas weekend, a 30-year tradition that includes candlelight caroling and a polar bear plunge.

Two things I knew about Bellefonte: It has a big natural spring and an old courthouse. Three things I learned as we strolled along High Street: Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, supposedly named it during a U.S. visit in 1795. It's an unusually well-preserved Victorian town, with an opera house and busy shops. And the stream that rushes through Talleyrand Park was once part of the 19th-century Pennsylvania Canal. Earlier, the stream powered an 18th-century gristmill. Now it's the Gamble Mill Restaurant. With a contemporary menu and a 10-page wine list, this place, like the Nature Inn, is low-key but far from rustic.

At breakfast, park superintendent John Ferrara stops by to share a pre-Christmas surprise: A flock of tundra swans stopped by earlier in the week. Blown off course by a storm, they spent a day resting on the water and being admired by the inn's guests. That's just the experience he envisions for visitors.

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