You can go outside if you want -- in goose down you can walk the barest windy beach. But winter is a good time to stay in: Think of crackling fires and wood smoke, deep beds and counterpanes, spiced tea and hot cocoa, and other interior pleasures. Think of country inns in winter.
The fundamental requirement for a good winter inn (beyond warmth and freedom from drafts) is that the rooms must transcend mere sleeping quarters; they must be roomy enough, comfortable enough -- and with a good enough look to them -- that you want to stay. These four inns, from the New Jersey beaches to the Vermont mountains, meet all the needs: rooms that are perfect places for sitting and talking things over, for reading or writing, for getting acquainted, for napping or dreaming. Or for remembering. A winter setting for your winter dreams.
To love upstate New York, you have to love winter in its pure white, unequivocally snow-filled state. No mere chilly drizzles here, or breezes that merely cool. Here, the snow flops out of the overnight sky in foot-thick blankets, and the morning temperature can show you what zero looks like when seen from far below. People here like it that way, savoring the squeak of snow that stays clean and white underfoot and won't degrade into dirty slush, and favoring air that feels honed to an icy edge.
You can love it, but you've got to be ready for it and upstaters know how to prepare. They plow the roads quickly, they wear insulated clothes, they take up sports like ice fishing, and they develop snug havens like the Sherwood Inn.
In Skaneateles, N.Y., at the northern tip of Skaneateles Lake (one of the 11 Finger Lakes), the Sherwood began as a stagecoach tavern in 1807 -- long before the Erie Canal and the railroads and the thruway. It's been a long time developing and the current owner, William B. Everhardt, has kept the basics of north-country innkeeping in mind: The Sherwood is close to the main road -- now U.S. Route 20 -- so no traveler need plow far to reach the door. There'll be a fire going in the lobby and in the main dining room, and congenial talk and warm drinks in the wood booths of the tavern. Upstairs there's a cozy library lined with oak bookcases and old books, and 16 guest rooms -- half of them facing the lake and all with private modern bathrooms.
I suspect that it's justified pride that leads the Sherwood's owner to leave open the doors of the unoccupied rooms. That way, when you walk the long hall you can see which combination of colors and furnishings you like, and where you might stay next time. Each room is painstakingly decorated with an artful blend of antique and reproduction items, no two alike. Aside from such unobtrusive north-country necessities as good heat (controlled in each room) and tight storm windows, the only contemporary note is the room telephone.
We favor the Garden Room Suite, which has a bedroom with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the frozen lake, and muted rose and green colors with white trim. There's a turned maple bed and details in brass, pewter and cherry. What makes this a "suite" is the adjacent 20-foot-square sun porch with 18 windows facing three directions, and actual wood paneling. In the middle there's a trestle table for spreading out your stuff, and anywhere you sit -- on the corduroy couch or in the Windsor chairs -- you can read by brass lamp or by the silver light reflecting through those windows. The "garden" in the name refers to the well-tended plants that line the room. These are the kind of quarters that give the word "stay" the resonance of a pleasant idea. On your first morning here, bring coffee and a fresh muffin up from the breakfast spread in the lobby, then listen to the muffled whir of chained tires out in the new snow and decide whether to go outside or just stay right here.
You can also stay inside the building for dinner. The three comfortable dining rooms (plus the tavern, where lunch is served and, in the evening, appetizers and light entrees like grilled chicken in orange sauce) offer well-prepared and attentively served mainstream choices on the order of prime rib, charcoal-grilled lamb chops, duckling Cointreau, baked scrod, grilled swordfish and more, at prices that range from $9.95 to $17.95.
Some evenings there'll be piano music (show, jazz, classical) and every morning there's a complimentary breakfast of fresh-baked breads, Danish, locally renowned muffins, plus the usual juices and coffee.
If you must go out, you'll find Skaneateles a village of large old trees and generously scaled classic revival houses -- white on white in the snow -- that wears its age gracefully. It offers some good shops, ice fishing on the lake (and possibly ice skating off the old pier). Over on the east end of town there's a Rossignol ski-touring center where you can rent cross-country skis and learn where the good trails go.
The beach made Cape May: a broad sweep of packed sand facing south at the tip of New Jersey where Delaware Bay joins the open Atlantic. Now, Cape May is a comparatively low-key residential resort, but a century ago it was very big time, boasting seaside hotels with hundreds of rooms. The resort's popularity peaked during the era when Victoria was queen in England (1837 to 1901), and when the complex of styles called "Victorian" was in vogue.
The elephantine resort hotels are long gone, but Cape May remains a Victorian town with some 600 period houses in its historic district. If looking at other people's houses counts among your favorite sports, in summer or winter, then Cape May is an arena of delights. It is a walker's town, a looker's town, and along its fenced yards you'll find representatives of every 19th-century architectural style: Italianate, Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Stick, Shingle, Queen Anne and many eclectic variations.
You can stay there, in the midst of all that architecture. In recent years, a significant number of walkers-and-lookers and corporate dropouts have acted on the obvious answer to the question of "What do you do with such a great old house?" Turn it into an inn.
Noteworthy among the three dozen or so houses that have become bed-and-breakfasts is The Queen Victoria inn, renovated, stocked and operated by Dane and Joan Wells. This is a couple that takes its Victoriana seriously: Joan was executive director of the Victorian Society in America before they set about bringing their own 1882 Italianate house ("Victorian is not a style," Joan Wells explains, "it's a period") up to specifications: It's done in several greens and a red, with corner towers, tall windows and front and side porches. Inside, the 11 guest rooms (seven with private bath) are authentically furnished in oak, walnut and wicker. The front parlor and the dining room are a veritable gallery of Arts and Crafts furniture -- stout, square, dark Stickly Mission chairs, stands, tables and oak lamps -- plus a Roycroft cabinet filled with Van Briggle pottery.
Each room is distinct, named for some eminent Victorian, and each looks out toward the beach or toward a neighborhood packed with unrestrained architecture. Each has a brass bed or a four-poster or a detailed Eastlake item -- redolent of marble and oak. One upstairs corner room, the Prince of Wales, has a semicircle of windows that contain and illuminate a good reading chair and a small desk for writing. It's just the right place for holding still and listening to the wind off the sea.
You'll be sorry if you don't bring a camera, but one thing you needn't bring is something to read: The Wells' house is stocked with books on the arts and history, and fiction; and just a few blocks away on the Mall there's an outstanding magazine and bookstore, Keltie News.
It was a big sea wind -- hurricane Gloria -- that took down one of the Queen Victoria's venerable front-yard trees, but otherwise there have been few alterations of late. The Wellses have paused in their restorative efforts -- a house like this can scarcely be said to be finished -- and are concentrating on attention to their guests. Each afternoon's tea is an occasion to meet other guests. And each morning's breakfast reflects a Victorian abhorrence of skimpiness. Dane and Joan join their guests in the dining room for souffle's, hot or cold fruits, fresh-baked fruit breads, cereals, juices, teas and coffees, and for tireless conversation about the place. After a breakfast like that, you've got to get out and walk. Either in town or along these blustery, bare beachs.
No statement on country inns can be complete without some reference to Vermont: the village green, the classic white houses with dark shutters, white birches and the white spire of the Congregational church against the blue sky, the green mountains on the horizon. And that's just what you see through the panes of 1811 House, a small inn on Route 7A in Manchester Village, Vt.
Located within easy drives of some major ski areas -- Stratton, Bromley, Magic Mountain -- 1811 is a strong and surprisingly recent entry in the genial competition among Vermont inns. Jack and Mary Hirst began to operate 1811 as a year-round inn in 1982, after Jack retired from Wall Street and they undertook an extensive, detailed and successful restoration of this 11-room inn. It was, clearly, a labor of love.
The Hirsts had been collecting English art and antiques for years and in these rooms they have arranged to share their enthusiasms and their collections. Rooms -- each individually decorated, of course -- are filled with original paintings, prints, drawings, with antique furnishings. Details count, evidently: Wine is served in Waterford crystal, the chess set by the fire is a hand-carved work of art. Even the magazines in the rooms are not just old magazines, like the swollen Reader's Digests in your dentist's office, but are themselves collectibles: 1920s magazines on fashion and decorating.
In the rooms -- each has a private bath -- furnishings run to canopy beds or pineapple-topped four-posters, rocking chairs, bow-front chests and brass lamps on varnished or painted wide-plank floors.
The public rooms downstairs -- a homey living room, a formal dining room and a library with shelves of books and games -- have active fireplaces. For the elaborate breakfasts, the afternoon refreshers and the evening drinks, everyone in the house (plus outside drop-ins) congregates in the pub: It's a warm woody room with fireplace, with pewter oddments hanging from the ceiling, a proper dart board on one wall (the innkeeper takes on -- or teaches -- all comers), and an honor-system bar that now reflects the special beer and ale choices of the Hirsts' son Jeremy: He favors, and stocks, Fuller's London Pride, Newcastle Brown Ale, Sam Smith's Pale Ale, in addition to the more customary Grolstch and Pilsener Urquell.
Not all the guests are downhill skiers; there's a ski-touring center nearby at a place called Hildene that rents equipment and has 26 kilometers of groomed trails. But if you have your own equipment and the snow looks appealing, you can ski right out the door at 1811 and down across their dormant gardens to the open expanse of the Equinox Valley.
To prepare for a day of skiing or for browsing in the Manchester area, the 1811's breakfast is all that's needed. There are always fresh-squeezed juices and excellent coffee, and certain mornings may feature deluxe eggs Benedict (usually on Sunday) or various combination omelettes, what Jeremy refers to as a "full English breakfast" or the pancakes that provide an opportunity to indulge in Vermont maple syrup.
1811 serves a breakfast that will hold you most of the day, but it is, strictly speaking, a bed-and-breakfast inn. To compensate for not having their own restaurant, they maintain current knowledge of the local restaurants -- which are many -- keep menus on hand and will arrange for your dinner reservations. The Village Auberge in nearby Dorset is an excellent choice, and currently 1811 is suggesting a nearby new entry (it opened in late December) with nouvelle cuisine, The Black Swan.
Although the restorations of such buildings are seldom quite finished, the 1811 looks quite finished indeed. Still, a bit of tinkering goes on: Currently, a downstairs room is in the process of conversation to a games room and the Ping-Pong table and pool table are already in place.
At the Cameron Estate Inn, the balloon goes up whenever you want. Guests there can arrange to ascend directly from a clearing on the inn's oak-shaded 15-acre grounds. For about $100, four at a time can rise past the red brick inn and pass an exhilarating silent hour bearing witness to the neatness and industry of the Pennsylvania Dutch farms in the sere winter hues of an Andrew Wyeth painting.
It's scarcely the usual sport for a winter weekend, but innkeeper Amelia Barr notes that where the inn is located in the Susquehanna Valley winters are quite mild and snow is not common. So there'll be no mingling with crowds of skiers here. There is little to do here, by way of actions and diversions -- which makes this a perfect place for the coming-to-a-complete-halt sojourn that's occasionally necessary.
Once the estate of President Lincoln's secretary of war, Simon Cameron, the inn is truly out in the country: 15 miles west of Lancaster, Pa., on narrow Donegal Springs Road, which takes many an abrupt turn and generally seems to be heading nowhere special. To get to the inn at all, you must pay close attention to the small black-and-white inn signs on the farm fences. Don't even bother attempting to find the inn after dark.
The white-trimmed brick building -- rather austere for what we've become accustomed to for cabinet officials' country houses -- is set in a private park with stands of aged oak trees and a wandering stream with stone bridge. These are good grounds for walking and for thinking things over.
Until a few years ago, the Cameron house served as a conference center for Elizabethtown College. Owners Abe and Betty Groff have worked hard to effect a meticulous and quietly stylish (early American) restoration.
Each of the 18 rooms is distinct in size, shape and layout, but each has varnished hardwood floors, very solid doors and thick Oriental rugs. Seventeen of them have modern, immaculately tiled bathrooms, and seven of them offer working fireplaces and at least a queen-size bed.
Room 17, for example, overlooks a neighboring dairy farm and is so large that two cherry four-posters don't begin to crowd it. Every item in it, from the gleaming hardwood chests and Oriental porcelain lamps to the double-thick towels, is first quality, understated and expensive. Cozy wing chairs and good lamps suggest the obvious: Curl up here and read.
Downstairs, there is a large library with big chairs, books, magazines and games. The inside dining room, with its fireplace, and the glassed-in porch dining room (for non-smokers) with its views of the wooded grounds operate as a restaurant open to the public as well as for inn guests.
The menu has nothing in common with that of the Groffs' orthodox, heavy-hitting Pennsylvania Dutch Groff's Farm Restaurant, just outside Mount Joy; instead, the inn offers a "continental" cuisine that is in the process of being expanded under the guidance of a new chef. For their continental breakfast, they bake all their own breads -- muffins and coffee cakes and such -- fresh each morning.
Admiring antiques -- either in museum collections or in shops -- is one of the major pastimes in this corner of Pennsylvania, and at Cameron Estate you can't avoid browsing among the items of Chiques Antiques, since their furniture and porcelain are part of the decor in the Cameron Estate's hall and the parlor on the first floor.
There may not be much else to do at the inn itself (that's the idea, isn't it?), but there's plenty of amusement in Lancaster County. For nonpareil back-roads sightseeing, go out through the gates and down past the one-room schoolhouse to Donegal Mills Plantation, an authentic 1720 settlement with mill, bake house and stable. Another anomalous winter pastime is back-roads bicycling, and innkeeper Barr reports that the inn is becoming a favorite with bicycling groups. One pass along Donegal Springs Road tells you why. Traffic (and traffic noise) is not a problem.
These inns are out of the mainstream, and, except for 1811 House, winter is their off-season. That means the inns are less crowded, the help less harried, the pace less hurried: a choice time to get away and hole up.