Lodge open June 1 through Dec. 1; Inn open March 14 through Jan. 4. Prices: Lodge $45.50 to $64 per person modified American plan, Inn $52 to $106 per person American plan.
Indecision. The Tides wracks me with indecision. Shall I stay at the Inn or the Lodge? At which should I have lunch? Do I want a poolside fruit and turkey buffet or scallops in red wine with a cool river view?
The Tides is at the bottom of the Rappahannock in Virginia's upper Tidewater, about three hours and umpteen decibels from Washington. On one side of Carter's Creek is the Tides Inn, rambling along the water from lounge to lobby to gift shop to cocktail lounge to two formal dining rooms, decorated in golf green and tennis white from wallspapers to lounge chairs. Deep reds of mammoth bowls of roses. Silver candelabra. The Inn is comfortable in that settled manner of a hotel that allows no television in its guest rooms, only individually controlled Muzak.
The Lodge rooms have television. And tiny private balconies, every one of them, amidst the pine trees. Birds provide the only Muzak. The Lodge, with 48 rooms, is just a few low buildings of weathered shingle around a manicured bowl of lawn with one hammock, a small playground and river almost all the way around. It is small enough that the staff immediately learns your names.
Butterflies flit around both Inn and Lodge, since both are sweet with the scents of honeysuckle and clover.
The Inn has a large salt water pool with a diving board, and a beach on the river that is ominously populated with jellyfish. The Lodge has a small pool, also salt water, maximum five feet deep, and nothing so formal as a beach. Whatever the Lodge has, the Inn has more and bigger, but at either you can play golf or tennis, pick up a bike on the corner and ride it around at will, take out a sunfish or sign up for a river cruise. The Inn had dancing; the Lodge has dancing on Saturday nights. If the Inn reminds you of weekending at a country estate, the Lodge is like summer camp where you can scrunch your toes in pine needles and lounge with your feet over the end of the pier, though I don't imagine any summer camp has king-size beds and long mirrored vanities and carnations in bud vases.
In my indecision I shuttle back and forth on the motorized gondola that runs between the two. The Lodge averages $10 or $15 less than the Inn, but does not include lunch in its rate. So lunch is an excuse to visit the Inn.
I try to capture in words the flavor of both. Folksy versus formal; the Lodge has a red and green motif and more giggly waitresses; the Inn requires jackets and ties at night, and its waitresses have mastered quiet attentiveness. They say the Lodge is better for children and draws a younger crowd, but children are happy frolicking at both. The Inn's swimming pool is the clear winner, but the Lodge has more varied games in its playroom and a putting green right outside the dining room.
We stayed at the Lodge. What I liked were the large, thick white towels in profusion and the instant coffee service in the rooms. What I didn't like was the scarred condition of the bathroom sink and the broken tub drain. The flower beds and lush, clipped grass were nicely humbled by the rustic patches of pine. Every aspect was a pretty configuration, but I wish I didn't have to keep skirting the sprinklers that keep the view green.
At breakfast I liked the heavily smoked, firm country ham that reminded me I was in deepest Virginia. The sausage, mild and meaty, reaffirmed the Southern breakfast heritage. The melon was ripe, the coffee cup kept filled, the French toast made of homemade bread and scented with vanilla. It is modern budgeting that is responsible for cooking the eggs in oil? I learned to request my eggs cooked in butter.
The Inn goes all out for breakfast, with spoonbread, grits and daily specials like roast beef hash on hot cakes (Tuesdays) and chicken stew on cornbread (Saturdays). Don't ask me how they expect people to eat lunch. The biscuits and sweet rolls are superior at the Inn.
True to its environment, the Tides stuffs its menus with local crab and trout, oysters and ham. Crab in chowder and bisques, on ham and sauteed Norfolk-style. Oysters in seafood cocktails and stuffings for Cornish hens. The food is good, but not immune from travesties such as freezing the shad roe or shrimp even if they have been bought fresh, or presenting raw oysters out of the shell on a bed of lettuce, heavily dosed with cocktail sauce. The food at the two places is nothing to build into legend. At both the soups are indifferent or worse. At both the desserts are homemade but likely to be cloying. Food is plentiful; a shrimp cocktail is eight shrimp, a crab Norfolk looks like half a pound of crab. The kitchens know how to cook fish so that you will have the benefit of its moistness, and dream up unexpected touches -- pecans and pineapple on the salad bar in the Lodge's Binnacle 2 restaurant, water chestnuts in the fish chowder. Southern touches of ham under the grilled filet. But there is no attempt at excellence that goes so far as to make fresh French fries and chop real bacon for the salad. The ice creams and sherbets are not one whit luxurious goods, and the floating island at the Inn was naught but vanilla pudding with a squirt of uncooked meringue. But always there is some simple and fresh seafood on the menu, and a creditable roast. The Lodge offers a nice variety of wines by the glass, but the Inn has a greater selection of bottles.
What do people do in the stretch between meals? They golf, of course, and pedal and paddle and swim and sun. Some, however, cannot quite make the transition to such rural quiet. At the Lodge, the only non-local paper is The Wall Street Journal. And around the pool, conversation becomes mired into wondering how long it is to cocktail hour. Yachtsmen tie up at the dock; their comings and goings are part of the entertainment for landlubbers. Water sports add a dimension to the Tides that the Greenbrier and Homestead cannot match. From the simplest canoeing to the most extravagant yachting, life focuses on the water. And inevitably, whether one stays at the Lodge or the Inn, one's eye is drawn across the water to the other.
That is why the gondola shuttles back and forth all day with golfers and hikers and lunchers. Everbody else is plagued with indecision, too. I still don't know whether I prefer the high Tides or the low Tides.