Hotels rates, American plan, $55 per person through January 1, $50 per person, January 2 through March 31. Ski package, January 2 through the end of the ski season, except George Washington's Birthday weekend, $66 per person per day, minimum of two days. Dinner only, $14 per person. AE, personal checks. Reservations required.
SINCE WE HAD never, before last Christmas, spent that holiday in a public place, we were wary that the novelty of th experience might turn our heads. A scientific system was what we needed, insisted our family social scientist. So we devised a 50-point scale for rating Christmas at the Homestead.
When we added up the points, we found they totaled 96.
As fall approached this year and we noticed our thoughts again turning irresistibly Homestead-ward, one of the children - children of the Seventies being so comfortable with excess - overheard our discussion of whether or not we could again spend the holiday there. All innocence, all accepting of the world's riches that snuggle in his lap like a warm puppy, he asked with wonder, "Why wouldn't we spend Christmas at the Homestead?"
It became, inevitably, the family's gift to each other.
As we drove into the great curve of the Homestead's red brick arms for that first Christmas visit, we wondered what was the ultimate, and whether the Homestead's Christmas decorations would approach it. The ultimate was there, turned out to be quite simple. The entire lobby, all hundreds of feet of it, was lined with perfect poinsettias. And that was all, except for a tree at the end, a three-story tree thick with ornaments of tradition.
We ski at the Homestead, which is out excuse for seeking its luxury. And we ice skate, and swim, and hike along the grounds. For the rest of the family, this is the fabric of the day; for me, it is a way of getting hungry, the space between the meals.
The Homestead's kitchen wins your awe slowly, quietly. The first lunch pleases you with its breath - stews and simple grills, a hot sandwich perhaps, and as full a range of appetizers and desserts as any major restaurant might gather for dinner. But the first lunch might not knock you out. Commendable, quite a good chicken fricassee or veal stew, service as polished as the White House porch lantern. But no dazzle of a great chef's personality. Nice, you might say. Very nice. But wait. In retrospect, it is recognized as the andante overture to a grand symphony.
The next nibble is an interlude - tea and doughnuts before one of the fireplaces that stud the lobby, a small orchestra playing, ruffled-aproned waitresses silently delivering and retrieving teacups.
Then, on Christmas Eve, a cocktail buffet, just a little party from the management to the guests. You walk into what looks like six parties in one, a series of buffets, any single one being enough of an extravagance to make a Washington embassy feel it had done its job well. Where to start? The raw bars, rows of pristine oysters and clams. Smoked salmon to carve youself, in a neighborhood of smoked sturgeon and smoked whitefish and stone crab claws. Another table of small kebabs, of tiny bits of steak being grilled to order. And acres of hot hors d'oeuvre: baked hot crab, clams casino, quiche, Virginia ham. This is not just food, it isculinary art, framed with ice carvings and blown sugar sculpture, the tables looking like Christmas presents.
The dinner that follows is beyond reproach, though you are scarcely fit to receive it. The next night's dinner, Christmas night, is more appreciated, because you come to it with a full-blown appetite.
The dinners blur. Lavishness upon lavishness may not dull the senses in two days, but it does muddle the memory. Was the pheasant for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? So high on food, my time sense falters. But my palate flages not, not even after the parade of gravlax (impeccable), a cream soup that lives on as an experience (despite not quite recollecting whether it was sorrel or - what?).
Having to choose between the pheasant and the wild boar is as close as the Homestead allows one to come to self-denial. And facing such uncommon choices one still knows also that the prime ribs and filet mignon are of remarkable quality.
It is, as one tends to turn surfeits into summaries, the quality of the larder that astonishes at the Homestead.In Virginia's midwinter mountains, to find perfectly ripe melon at every meal! The vegetables, one and all, are fresh. The fish smells sweet and cuts moistly. The game tastes as if it lived bravely. The soups come from good stock.
And one pictures an entire wing of the hotel having been converted into a pastry kitchen for the occasion. The entrance to the dining room is paved with sweets - maybe a dozen varities of chocolate bonbons, flanked by a velveteen Santa presenting a treasure chest of edible goodies. Blown sugar forms an enormous basket, the sculpture of childhood fantasies. A monumental gingerbread house - did any child ever dare to dream so extravagantly? One can summon to one's place an individual buche de Noel, or a fruitcake. Name the cake or the torte or the gateau or the tart. Plain or elaborate, traditional or exotic. Try all of them. Finally, a bowl of fresh fruit. Dishes of nuts and raisins. Three bedazzled children hovered between a chocolate this and a fruit-filled that. So the waiter took matters into his own hands and promised them a surprise. Result: three spectacular banana splits.
Dining at the Homestead is a Christmas gift to the mouth.But it is also a Christmas gift to the soul. That such style still exists in the annals of service one might never know otherwise. What everywhere else is about a job is here the vehicle for genius. The captain knows not only the family name, but also the name of each child. A remark at lunch about how we covet turkey skin is overheard. And at dinner our table has a whole plate of turkey skin. Does our waiter have ESP? Are our unspoken desires so common place that he can anticipate them? The serving of rolls and butter is here a choreography. A captain name Herbert has joined Santa Claus and Ringo Starr as one of our childrens' all-time heroes.
It maked us feel like dancing. And so we dance, the teatime orchestra stringing the room with waltzes and fox trots. We take an intermission to put the children to bed, and find that the Homestead Santa has put on their pillows stockings filled with fruit and nuts. We take the dog his supper, a bowl of freshly cooked diced turkey of considerably greater quality than most people find in their sandwiches in run-of-the-mill restaurants.
Another round of dancing, a quiet moment before the fire with a cup of hot chocclate - which just happens to be the best hot chocolate I have tasted this side of Vienna. And absolute refusal to discuss until morning whether to have the kippers or the beef and kidneys stew for breakfast.