A private guest house overlooking the North Atlantic. Modern digs with a Jacuzzi bath and a heated pool near Los Angeles. A three-story town house tucked among the embassies in Washington, D.C. A fully restored turn-of-the-century greystone in Chicago.
These sound like real estate listings for those in the upper tax brackets. But, in fact, they are descriptions of overnight accommodations available to travel-weary members of a new organization called the Bed and Breakfast League.
Giving paying guests hospitality in the form of clean sheets and a breakfast tray has long been a respectable custom in Britain. It took double-digit inflation and the enthusiasm of Charlotte Taylor, a 60-year-old disciple of the Human Potential movement from Princeton, N.J., who has no previous business experience, to bring it across the Big Pond.
"I learned so much more about the people and the country by staying at Bed and Breakfasts in the Lake District in England last year that when I came home I thought it was too bad we didn't do the same thing here," she said. "Hotels and restaurants are so expensive now, people can't afford to travel in this country."
But Taylor's motivations are as much spiritual as economic. "I wanted to be on the side of solving the country's problems," she explained. "We have become disconnected and out of touch with each other. What's good about it is in each one of us. It's a matter of reaching out and touching it."
Diana MacLeish is one Washingtonian who has "reached out" by becoming a host member of the Bed and Breakfast League. Her graceful town house in a leafy Northwest neighborhood with its oriental rugs and antiques is welcome respite from the turquoise carpeting and plastic furnishings travelers expect to find in most American motels.
"I've always enjoyed entertaining," says MacLeish, an artist whose children have grown. "And taking in B&Bers helps justify keeping this big house I love so much . . . . And, I must say, I don't mind the money."
MacLeish, like most B&B members, read about the league last fall in a discreet ad placed in one of several prestigious magazines around the country. After inspecting her home for general order and cleanliness, the league's area representative deemed her respectable. She paid an annual dues of $35 to have her accommodations listed (minus her name, address or telephone number) in the organization's handsome green and white directory.
The directory, which this year lists 136 hosts in 14 major cities, exudes the warmth and spirit Taylor hoped to foster. Each listing gives a run-down of the stop's salient features -- whether it is near public transportation, how many guests may be there at once, whether children or pets are welcome.
Individual hosts fix rates on a range of $12 to $20 for a single and $16 to $28 for a double. This includes a continental breakfast and vastly undercuts area Holiday Inn rates of $45 a night for a single and $51 for a double, with breakfast in the coffee shop extra.
But many hosts go beyond just bed and breakfast and will take their guests on guided tours of their cities, sometimes charging a small fee, sometimes not. Others will serve dinner for a fee or lend bicycles, boats and tennis rackets. A young Florida couple who are licensed pilots give aerial tours of the coastline. All a nonhost member -- who pays annual dues of $46 -- must do is peruse the directory, call a toll-free number to Taylor's Princeton office to get the name, telephone number and address of a nice-sounding spot, and call or write for reservations.
What has resulted is a reflowering of old-fashioned graciousness. MacLeish, for example, always offers her guests a drink when they arrive and chats with them briefly. For breakfast she serves them whatever they wish, whenever they wish. It is served on antique china with her best silver and linen napkins either on a tray in bed, at the dining room table or outside on the deck.
In such ambiance, host and guest often become friends, as MacLeish did with a woman from Los Angeles. Another Washington hostess, Caroline Despard, picture editor for Smithsonian magazine, found two guests from Connecticut so likable she took them along with her to a dinner party one evening.
"No one would do this who did not want to meet interesting, new people," said Despard. "The money isn't enough to really make it a worthwhile enterprise. One difficulty in the setup is that the people are so nice I don't like to charge."
If the league's tone sounds elitist, that is mostly accurate. Taylor, a graduate of Smith College, has traveled widely, as have Despard, MacLeish and most other hosts. Nonhost members range widely in age and also tend to be experienced travelers.
"Unless Americans have been exposed to B&Bs in Britain or Europe, they tend to be too shy to stay in someone's home they don't know," said Taylor. "For example, the greatest response has come from people who want to be hosts rather than travelers. I think that's because Americans have an easier time visualizing having a guest and doing something for them than being a guest and having it done for you."
Not all Bed and Breakfast listings run to elegance, although when they don't the hosts seem to feel obligated to point that out. "Nothing fancy, but attractive and homey," wrote hosts from Chicago. Several hosts live in large mobile homes of the type retirees find so convenient.
Other than dues, membership in the league requires nothing more than one personal reference and the name of an employer. Neither Despard nor MacLeish worry about guests leaving with their valuables packed in their suitcases. Taylor believes the organization naturally attracts the kind of outgoing, interesting people she wants in her membership.
So far, guests have been as inspired by good manners as the hosts. Most hosts say they always receive thank-you notes, and MacLeish once received flowers from a grateful lodger.