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Finding Low Air

Little Things Mean a Lodge

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2000


    Proprietors, Savage River Lodge Mike Dreisbach and Jan Russell in front of the carved bear at the entrance to the Savage River Lodge. Photo by Roger Piantadosi
People do crazy things up here in the Maryland woods, and I don't mean make low-budget horror movies. Not long ago, one guy came to these perpetually young forests of eastern Garrett County to do some trout fishing with his girlfriend. He surreptitiously hid a special sort of lure for her to discover in one of the tackle boxes. It was a diamond engagement ring. Inevitably, she was reeled in.

Years earlier in roughly the same spot, another couple came up here repeatedly and stayed over in their rustic little falling-down cabin in the middle of Savage River State Forest. Here they'd sit up on the hill and look at this tall pine tree -- and imagine a lodge just beyond it. Perfectly normal thing to do.

But then Mike Dreisbach and Jan Russell went ahead and built the lodge. And 18 cabins. And eight miles of trails, a mile-long driveway and a 50-seat restaurant and lounge.

You can indeed call them crazy. (They often do so themselves.) A more practical thing to do would be to just call them, however -- and make a reservation.

Turns out their upscale Savage River Lodge, a 10,000-square-foot, three-story log shed just down the hill from the twin rows of two-story log cabins, is a smart, comfortable, friendly, ably high-tech but genuinely rustic full-service hotel masquerading as a small inn. And all of it sits on 42 primarily wild acres surrounded by 700 acres of state forest ridges, stream valleys and slopes covered with oaks and stands of tall, close-ranked cedars. This kind of thing doesn't go unnoticed for long.

In fact, it may already be too late to make dinner reservations in the lodge restaurant for this weekend (the "gourmet country" restaurant is open weekends only at the moment), since the locals have discovered it -- or are in the process of doing so, particularly for Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch. (Through some quirk of local licensing history, Savage River's got the only Garrett County license to serve liquor with meals on Sundays. It's also a lot closer to Pittsburgh than Washington or Baltimore, and you know how people from Pittsburgh are about food.)

Caught in traffic, I missed my Friday dinner reservation. Several trusted friends have eaten here and assured me that chef Bridget Roque is talented and does wonders with fresh local (and otherwise neither canned nor frozen) ingredients and one of the few wood-burning ovens operating in deer country. This I found for myself at breakfast -- but it's the crazy way I behaved before and after breakfast that I wanted to mention.

The cabins have queen beds up in a loft, with a thick comforter between the bedspread and a wool blanket. On a cold night -- this is icebox-of-Maryland Garrett County in March, remember -- there's nothing quite as soothing as pulling up bedclothes that have some heft to them. I got in and out of bed several times just so I could repeat the process.

A gas-fired freestanding stove heats the cabin. They're quite efficient, so if you turn up the wall thermostat to see more flame while you're reading an old Time magazine cover story about "The Blair Witch Project," when you get to the loft it'll be 80 degrees up there. The hutch and cabinets and towel racks are all simple, rustic-country pieces in wood and forged metal; later, Mike Dreisbach, a labor mediator and avid canoer, fisherman and turkey hunter whose business consultant wife has helped design hotels from New Mexico to Scotland, told me they had local craftsmen make them all.

I never take baths. But the tub was just so large and empty-looking . . .

High ceilings and rough-hewn interlocking walls. I awoke at dawn to the unfamiliar sound of . . . nothing. Footsteps on the porch at 7:30. My muffin and orange juice had arrived, to go with the coffee I'd made -- with real half-and-half from the fridge.

I crunched a couple of miles through still, silent and thoroughly frozen woods before breakfast. A woodpecker ambushed me, waiting quietly until I was directly beneath the hollow, resonant oak it had chosen for this morning's jackhammer attack.

The menu said cinnamon bread with fruit topping, but the crusty, sweet focaccia-like thing beneath the peach preserves and whipped cream was something else entirely.

In front of a huge roaring see-through fireplace in the lounge, earlier breakfasters sat reading, and Dreisbach let me sample his homemade root beer, make friends with lodge labrador Bohdi (as in Bohdisattva) and showed me around. The gift shop and bike rental/fitness/recreation center are downstairs (not done); the 40-seat conference room, its faxes and phones and laptop-presentation hardware hidden away in rustic-country hutches, is upstairs (done). The library will have books as soon as the shelves are done.

Today, though, he's just had to do something about the driveway.

I was wondering where these people get all this energy, and then I glanced over at Mount Aetna, noticed its thrumming green aura of reflected sun, and remembered.

Ways and Means

GETTING THERE: On a good day, Savage River Lodge is about three hours from the Beltway. Take I-270 to I-70 to I-68 west past Cumberland. Take Exit 29 (Finzel) and turn left onto Beall School Road. Turn right at the T, bear left at the Y onto Frostburg Road, continue 2.6 miles and turn right at the sign onto the gravel farm road.

BEING THERE: The lodge offers snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, fishing, mountain biking and, in season, hunting on its 45 acres and surrounding state forest land, and can make arrangements (usually the same day) for guests to go fly-fishing, skiing, rafting, canoeing, riding or other activities nearby. Nearby? The outdoor recreation and historic sites of Cumberland and Victorian college-town charms of Frostburg to the east (Allegany County Visitors Center, 301-777-5132, www.mdmountainside.com) and Garrett County's Deep Creek Lake and Wisp Resort in the other direction (Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, 301-387-4386, www.deepcreeklake.org).

DETAILS: The cabins at Savage River Lodge (301-689-3200, www.savageriverlodge.com) go for $180 a night for two people (kids ages 2 to 12, $50 extra), including juice and muffins delivered to your porch (and a home-baked dog biscuit delivered to your pooch). On weekends, when there's a two-night minimum, the per-night rate is $165 ($30 for kids). Cabins have fridges, coffeemaker and phones; no televisions, no smoking in the lodge or cabins. Pets welcome but not as walk-ins; call ahead.

The Escapist: Trivia On Track

The results of "Escapes Trivia" Contest #2:

Kudos to Graham Petric of Frederick, who was the lucky draw among those who knew that you can take the Duquesne Incline to the top of Mount Washington in Pittsburgh where you'll be dazzled by the view of its Golden Triangle. You'll also find a tempting array of restaurants up top.

Several of you apparently did not pay complete and total attention and blurted out, "the Monongahela Incline!" It's true that this funicular also offers great views -- but its cars are not original. Those of you who answered our question with a clever question of your own -- "What's a funicular, anyway?" comes to mind -- won't be getting a free copy of The Post's $9.95 getaway guide, "Escape Plans," either. But one is on its way now to our winner via a special mountain railway on which counterbalanced cars on parallel sets of rails are pulled up and lowered by cables.

Alternatively, it might be going out via Priority Mail.

Those of you who like to hang in high places might have a chance to redeem yourselves with Contest #3:

In the mid-19th century, what mountain was mistakenly believed to be Virginia's loftiest peak (and thus was a stone from its summit included as Virginia's contribution to the construction of the Washington Monument)?

Deadline for Contest #3 entries is Monday, March 20, at 10 a.m. Send entries by email (escapist@washpost.com; put the word "Escapes Trivia" in the subject field), fax (202-334-1069) or U.S. mail (Escapes Trivia, Washington Post Travel section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Winners, chosen at random from among correct entries, receive a copy of The Post's "Escape Plans" getaway guide, or other prizes to be announced. One entry per person per contest. Employees of The Washington Post are ineligible to win prizes. Entries become the property of The Post, which reserves the right to edit, distribute or republish them, including electronically.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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