The lack of friends in Newport or close relatives with a country estate has never stopped me from planning weekends as a houseguest. The weekends I have dreamed are in homes of character, where the pillows are lace-edged and the books on the shelves tempt me to lie abed late under an eiderdown quilt. Sometimes they are city apartments with fireplaces. Other moods require mountain chalets or the estates of gentlemen farmers. And somehow, in these reveries my hosts are not even there; I am free to enjoy their comforts without the requirements of sociability.
Which led me to Chrlottesville.
Charlottesville has all the qualifications of a weekend escape: It is close enough to be a change of pace, pretty enough to warrant a springtime or fall visit. It has distinctive restaurants, a graceful university campus, Monticello, and a bell tower to remind your ears that you are away from home. Charlottesville also has Guesthouses, Bed & Breakfast, Inc., which means that you can ignore the Holiday Inns and Travelodges, need not depend on the anonymity and formality of a commercial inn. You can be a paying houseguest, with all the benefits of somebody else's home but none of the social duties of a houseguest.
Sally Reger, ex-teacher, faculty wife, human file box, has persuaded 40 families, widows, couples, homeowners of all sorts, that their lives and purses will be enriched by paying houseguests. In one call (804/9743-7403) or letter (Guesthouses Reservations, Box 5737, Charlottesville, Va. 22903) you establish your preference for an in-town apartment or historical mansion. You might like a suburban home with a swimming pool or something with a tennis court. You might prefer a kitchen where you can prepare your own meals. If price is no object, you can reserve one of these for as much as $25 for a single room, $36 for a double, including continental breakfast. If price, rather than grandeur, is the point, your room can cost as little as $12 for a single, $18 for a double.
We opted for a splurge, but were limited in our choice by the unwillingness of most hosts to accept young children.
Our country house was built around 1800, and is still reached via unpaved roads along split rail fences. Our city house was a second-floor apartment with its own entrance, a couple of blocks from the University of Virginia.
What they had in common were flowers and fireplaces. And antimacassars. And balconies and rocking chairs and current magazines and pretty sheets and my wanting to stay there all day every day for at least a week and maybe a year.
Having only one day in the country, I immediately got busy stretching out on the chaise lounge against the lace and satin pillows, a silver bowl of daffodils next to me on the inlaid dresser. My children frolicked (a word that never seems to apply in the city) with the three dogs, weaving in and out of the weeping willows, sometimes organizing a game of tennis, sometimes just lolling on the grass and watching the horses. A jade lamp behind my shoulder, I leafed through old National Geographics and wondered how many days would need to pass until I began to believe the tintypes on the wall were my very own family's portraits.
There were two highlights to my guesthouse days: baths and breakfasts. The carpeted bathroom could have passed for a deluxe double room at most hotels I know. Sitting at the handpainted vanity I could see horses ambling through the fields. The face towels were monogrammed, the bath towels were warm, fluffy wraps. And the magazines whiled away the morning. Breakfast started with Blue Mountain instant coffee and a stack of old English cookbooks on a silver tray before the fireplace while everyone else was sleeping. It moved on to a dining room of imposing magnitude with a picture window overlooking the fields. Toast and coffee and homemade marmalade on English china. Charlottesville will forever after evoke bowls of cut flowers and the smell of wood fires.
Another day brought a city contrast, a whole apartment to ourselves, and again the bathrooms - both of them - had views that would lead any urban hotel to charge a deluxe rate. Again my towels were monogrammed, as my identity changed, different sorts of magazines carrying me further into a new urban personality. My bedroom with its four-poster and fireplace, two rockers and two desks again could have contented me for half a winter. But this being a more urban setting, it encouraged greater activity. I made my own breakfast. My refrigerator held English muffins and butter. The Oreintal rug in the kitchen and wicker armchair made toasting my own muffins seem a less arduous task, but there was no denying the creeping sloth that was overtaking me in Charlottesville.
I wondered how long it would take me to wear out my welcome, and whether I might be required to declare my residency eventually. Rumors of Guesthouses' French-style farmhouse and Swiss chalet enveloped me as my feet began to sink roots into Charlottesville soil.
I had to leave before it was too late. I was growing to expect those bowls of cut flowers and bathrooms with a view. Charlottesville was wrapping me in antimacassars and I might never break loose.
After Bed and Breakfast
I don't have to tell you about Monticello. You can't escape Charlottesville without knowing all about Monticello. But, while you are exploring the countryside and history, you can learn a lot about contemporary Charlottesville life by visiting house sales. You can find them in the classified section of a local newspaper under antiques. Or contact The Settlers, 12 Spring Court, Charlottesville, Va. 22901. 804/973-3801 or 804/973-7390. Besides being the best place in Charlottesville outside the University Cafeteria for people-watching, a house sale can turn up a '30s lace dress or a 28-volume, turn-of-the-century British edition of Shakespeare's plays for $9.
Getting around to the important things, lunch and dinner, what you saved on bed and breakfast should be spent on a memorable dinner at the C & O (515 E. Water St., 804/296-8280). In the small, stark white second-floor dining room you choose from a small menu that changes daily, perhaps large juicy shrimp faintly erfumed with Pernod or lamb chops in a buttery drizzle of parsley and coriander, accompanied by crisp vegetables or silky vegetable purees, with homemade bread and ice cream with deep bitter chocolate sauce, all for about $20 a person including wine and tip.
For lunch combine eating and shopping at the Crafters' Gallery west of town on Route 250. 804/295-7006. Good quiches and pates, pleasant homemade specials and desserts culminating in superb toffee shortbread are served on homemade pottery, and you are likely to buy the centerpiece right off the table.
Then there is Michie Tavern at the foot of Monticello, a lunchtime fried chicken buffet in a historic and charming pre-Revolutionary log cabin. And the food is better than one expects with such a captive audience. It costs about $5 for wonderful chicken, authentically solid biscuits, backeyed peas and potato salad and stewed tomatoes and - of course - corn bread. Don't be put off by the tour buses and colonial costumes.
The costume at Prospect Hill Inn (14 miles east of Charlottesville near Zion Crossroads, 703/967-0844), where the owner wears a disco shirt as he garrulously describes the dinner you are about to receive, fits the surroundings less well. He would not let us look at the Inn's rooms, as they had all been rented, but the restored, candlelit 18th-century plantation showed possibilities as a country retreat. Dinner, a set meal for $10, unfortunately moved from one heavy, bland course to another, through it was all fresh and homemade. While there were no specific complaints, the surroundings outshone the food except for grand homemade bread. One would not drive the distance for the cuisine, but pleasant country inns shaded by tree gardens, where the guest rooms include fireplaces and breakfast in bed, are sufficiently scarce that Prospect Hill Inn bears watching. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 5, Rooms and views like these are momentarily yours when you are a paying guest at one of Charlottesville's 40 elegant guesthouses-for-hire. by Breton Littlehales