Everybody equates romance with spring, but right now -- deep in the midwinter blahs -- may be when you need it most.
But where does one find romance in winter, and with whom?
The whom is up to you. The where is easy: Get away to one of the Washington area's many fine inns -- perhaps in the heart of historic Virginia, where tales of America's past unfold down almost any back road and the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains are lovely year-round.
So many good inns are opening their doors nearby these days, and especially in Virginia, that this region could one day challenge New England as the country-inn capital of the nation.
The delight of inns is that each is individual, reflecting the historic flavor of its community -- special places for special occasions: an anniversary, a birthday or simply a weekend escape from winter's grip.
Usually the innkeeper will greet you personally, a friendly way to start your stay. Sometimes you are treated so much like an invited guest, you want to pitch right in with the chores as you do at a friend's house.
One criterion is a must for a winter getaway: Make sure that somewhere on the premises there's a warming fire to sit beside. A quiet fire relaxes, and you soon will find yourself settling in to the slower pace of the countryside.
Among Virginia's many cozy inns are three that are particularly representative of what's available -- a country inn, a city inn and a resort inn, each a fine place to pursue a romance, or renew one. And if romance is not in the air, they offer other compensations.
You can sleep as late as you wish; go for a long, morning walk; spend an afternoon exploring the state's historic past; relax later with a book beside the fire and then enjoy a candlelight dinner and a bottle of wine to end a memorable day. Choose one or all of these pleasures, or come up with possibilities of your own.
Two of the inns are very small. The country inn is the inviting six-room Ashby Inn and restaurant, a new addition to the tiny village of Paris near Middleburg in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. The Hunt Country folks, regulars at the Ashby, gather in the basement Taproom after dinner.
The city inn is the four-room Carrington Row Inn, a bed-and-breakfast inn sitting elegantly atop Church Hill in Richmond, just a half block from St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry gave his famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. The Carrington Row has no restaurant, but many are close by, and the young innkeepers will tell you which are best.
The third, which is much, much larger, is the well-known Boar's Head Inn in the rolling green hills just outside Charlottesville. A 175-room tennis resort, it manages to serve up a country helping of Southern charm in spite of its size -- while putting you only minutes away from Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, and the beautiful campus he designed for the University of Virginia.
At this time of year, the Caribbean and other warm-weather spots beckon, but one of these Virginia inns -- or one of their many neighbors -- can also add a bit of cheer to your winter.
*The country inn: Innkeepers John and Roma Sherman knew what they wanted, and what they didn't want, when they decided to open the Ashby Inn in Paris just over a year ago.
First, the inn had to be less than an hour and 45 minutes by car from Washington, so weekend guests could leave the city Friday after work and still make it there by dinner time. John Sherman does so daily from his Capitol Hill job as press spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee.
And the inn had to have an attractive approach, "so you know you are in the country," as he said recently. The Ashby sits just off U.S. Route 17, a scenic road north from I-66 to U.S. Route 50. Just before you reach 50, you turn west to Paris on Virginia Route 701, a narrow lane leading between fenced pastures where black Angus cattle are grazing. It's all country.
The Shermans did not want television, though as John Sherman admitted, they made a concession to Sunday afternoon football. There's a set in the Taproom, the Ashby's pub, but it's switched off after each week's game and when the season is over. You will not find a TV set in your room, or a telephone either.
They also made a concession, but only one, to the menu in their large and popular restaurant. He favors country fare -- venison and other game, when available; duckling; pork roasts; rabbit and hearty meat pies. He did not want veal dishes or lobster, which he considers big-city food -- "When people come out of the city, they should come out of the city." But he finally acquiesced to filet mignon, because so many guests ask for a steak.
The Shermans searched for a half-dozen years before they found, in Paris, a place they liked and could afford. She was a Washington advertising executive who gave up her job. He might someday also relinquish his. "I've got an interesting job in Washington, but this," he said, his eyes taking in the new couple stepping into the Taproom, "is what I want to do."
When they bought it, the Ashby was a rambling old three-story home, built in 1829. They invested heavily, carefully converting it into a six-bedroom inn with three first-floor rooms that together seat about 60 for dinner. The Taproom, a snug retreat with a stone fireplace and walnut beams, was the original kitchen. Both the comfortable "library" and the main dining room also have fireplaces.
The decor throughout is country antique, the pieces found mostly in the nearby Shenandoah Valley.
Among the guest bedrooms, the New England Room is surprisingly large and airy for such an old structure. It is comfortably furnished with a huge wooden four-poster bed; a couple of wooden rocking chairs; a hand-painted, slightly tipsy gray-green wardrobe; a foot-of-the-bed chest filled with quilts; a large ornamental screen and an old banjo case propped up against the wall. The polished wood floors are partially covered with rag rugs.
The look is a bit spartan -- except for the fresh flowers on the bedstand -- but that, as the Shermans explained, is proper for the period of the house. And anyway, "we couldn't afford to gussy things up."
The New England Room, which has a private bath, rents for $70 a night on weekends, including a full country breakfast. Rates in other rooms range from $60 for the East and West Dormers (without bath) to $90 for the Fan Room, so named because of its elegant fan window looking across the pasture to the hills and woods beyond.
Some mornings, according to the Shermans, you can watch white-tailed deer emerging from the trees while you still lie in bed. Canada geese, too, frequently can be seen in the pond at the foot of the hills.
The Ashby, a white-frame structure with a green roof, sits at one end of Main Street, one of the two Paris streets open to cars. The other named streets are grassy walkways -- including Water Street, which parallels a spirited little brook that cuts right through town.
Main Street, about two blocks long, is lined with mostly 19th-century homes, some restored. "It's as close to its original state as any village I've seen," Sherman noted, leading a visitor on a quick sightseeing ramble. Once a major coach stop on the road from Washington to Winchester, the village of Paris (named in honor of Gen. Lafayette) is now a residential community with a population of about 60. The Ashby Inn is the only business in town.
The townfolk generally have been welcoming, according to the Shermans, though the couple initially faced (and won) a court challenge from a large landowner nearby who felt an inn might jeopardize the tranquility of the village. One indication of the Shermans' attempt to get along with their neighbors is that they don't open for Sunday brunch until services are over next door at the Trinity United Methodist Church.
Paris sits in a valley beneath Sky Meadows State Park, a quite scenic new 1,100-acre preserve of forest and meadows. You reach it from Route 17, just south of the turnoff to Paris, climbing a winding road to the meadows that gives the park its name -- about a five-minute drive from the Ashby.
A 150-year-old manor house, Mt. Bleak House, serves as the park visitor center. It was once owned by one of Confederate Gen. John Mosby's rangers and later by a British consul-general. Superintendent Jess Lowry is hard at work filling it with appropriate 19th-century furnishings.
From the long porch, you can see Paris peeking from the trees below. Five miles of trails lead through the park, linking up with the Appalachian Trail, good for hardier hikers who want more distance.
Another close-by side trip -- about 15 minutes -- is to the Naked Mountain Vineyard & Winery. From the state park, you continue south again for a very short distance on Route 17, turning west (and south) for a half-dozen miles on Virginia Route 688. The hilltop winery is open year-round for tours and tastings on Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. From March through December, it also opens Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, noon to 5 p.m.
If the weather turns too frosty for an outing, however, you can enjoy the comforts of the Ashby. Some guests, it seems, never stray far from the inn, whatever the weather. "They read by the fire," said Roma Sherman, "or they stay in their rooms." Ah, romance.
*The city inn: A discreet shingle hangs outside the wide and impressive door to one of the restored 19th-century row houses atop Richmond's historic Church Hill. It reads: "The Carrington Row Inn, Lodgings and Social Gatherings." It suggests taste, and a certain old-Richmond elegance.
It is a style innkeeper Anne Pope Cataline has worked to achieve. "This is what Richmond is all about," she said recently, sharing an afternoon fire with a visitor in her newly decorated drawing room. Richmond-born, she opened the bed-and-breakfast inn in 1984 with her husband Michael, who is in the insurance business.
A city inn may seem on odd choice for a winter getaway -- to flee the bustle of Washington to put yourself right back into the busy streets of another big city. But exploring cities this time of year can be fun -- and Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, is full of historic interest. A small inn, such as the Carrington Row, can provide a quiet retreat after a day of sightseeing, museum-going and pub and restaurant sampling.
The Carrington Row dates from 1818, one of three adjoining row houses built in the Federal style by the Carrington brothers. For their time, the homes were quite sophisticated, according to Cataline. The row houses -- three-story brick structures covered with a gray stucco -- have separate front entrances. But in the back, the brothers shared a long, wide verandah that now looks over St. John's Mews, a small neighborhood garden.
Church Hill, which is reached by going east on Broad Street about a mile from downtown Richmond, has been undergoing restoration for about 30 years. It was the first project of the Historic Richmond Foundation. The result is a blend of fine-looking buildings and a few that appear still in need of help.
The Carrington Row's neighbors include law offices, an art gallery and another small inn, the Catlin-Abbott House, across the street. Unfortunately, the approach to Church Hill up Broad Street, which passes beneath I-95, is mostly unappealing.
Once you reach the hilltop, however, the St. John's neighborhood is quite lovely. The Catalines will give you a map to guide you on a walking tour of the hill, which includes St. John's Church and the mews. Located behind the Carrington Row at 2309 East Broad St., the mews was created in 1967 by the Garden Club of Virginia and is filled with hedges, shade trees and several kinds of ivy. When the weather warms, the inn's guests seek out the verandah and its view of the garden.
A cobblestone drive -- the cobblestones are the originals -- leads through the mews, which is furnished with ornamental cast-iron lampposts and benches gathered from several Richmond sites. The wooden fences, too, are in the style of the 19th century. Rest for a moment on one of the benches, and you will have no trouble thinking yourself back to a Richmond of 150 years ago.
That is the Carrington Row's agreeable setting. Climb the six front steps to the inn, rap on the door, and the Catalines will welcome you inside to an equally agreeable, and fashionable, 19th-century Southern home.
Both 31, the Catalines live in a basement apartment with their two young children. The main floor, for guests, is divided between the large drawing room and a very formal dining room, the scene of a number of Richmond weddings and other social gatherings. Each room is furnished with antiques or reproductions, and each has a fireplace.
There are two guest rooms on each of the two floors above, one furnished with a four-poster queen-size bed and the other with two twin-size beds. The second-floor rooms are larger, and each has a fireplace; the third-floor rooms share a private sitting room. Each of the upstairs floors has one bath. If the bath is shared, the rate for a room is $55 for two people; if you want a private bath, the other room goes unrented, and the rate is $72.50 a couple.
The Catalines bought the building with the intention of converting it from the office it once was to an inn. When they were married 10 years ago, they had searched for a place like the Carrington Row for their reception, but had to settle for a less-charming public room in a hotel.
As a Richmond native, Anne Pope Cataline sends her guests to St. John's Church, just down the street, for a short history lesson. An inviting old white-steepled structure, it was built in 1741, the first building on the hill. Buried in the churchyard are George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the mother of poet Edgar Allan Poe.
Among Richmond's other attractions are the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, not far from the inn; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, featuring a collection of Russian imperial jewels; the Valentine Museum, where the history and life of Richmond is the theme; and the classical Virginia State Capitol, which Thomas Jefferson designed.
For Civil War buffs, there's the Museum of the Confederacy and the White House of the Confederacy, along with the Richmond National Battlefield Park, which features a 97-mile drive linking the battle sites where the defense of Richmond was fought from 1861 to 1865.
In the evening, the Catalines will direct you to one of their favorite restaurants, perhaps at Shockoe Slip, Richmond's restored old warehouse district on East Cary Street, between 12th and 15th streets. It glitters now with restaurants, pubs, gourmet shops and boutiques.
The Carrington Row serves a continental breakfast in your room and sherry in the evening in front of the fire. And though the look of the inn is formal, Cataline emphasizes the welcome is friendly. You will find some guests, she said, "coming down in their bathrobes. They're at home." The resort inn: You certainly could go to the famous Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville for romance. It has all the requisites: roaring fire, candlelit dining room, nice views of a small lake -- and the anonymity provided by its size (if that is what you are looking for).
I happened to be alone, however. And with idle time at hand on a quiet evening I surrendered to a surge of whimsy and decided to count the boars' heads I spotted inside the inn and all around the resort's 43 acres of manicured lawns. The inn is located in a plush residential neighborhood just to the west of downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.
Headhunting is not something I expected to do; there were just so many of them, and they were everywhere, that it became my solitary game of hide-and-seek. I felt challenged to hunt them out.
I spotted actual stuffed boars' heads hanging over fireplaces; the staff wears boar's head name pins on their lapels; a collection of boar's head objects is displayed in a lobby case; a boar's head was engraved on the chocolate pieces left by my bed. I already had checked out of the inn when I spied the last one, a sculpted boar (body and legs as well as head) peeping from the foliage beside a garden pool.
The boars' heads, whatever their esthetic appeal, do give credence to the times-gone-by character the inn has sought to achieve, part Old World and part Old Virginia.
When the Boar's Head was opened in 1965, there actually were more stuffed trophies -- representing the owners' interest in hunting, according to marketing director Missie Marks. But all except the boars' heads have been removed, because guests in recent years did not much like them.
As large as it is, the inn might really fall into the category of a hotel, but it is not a high-rise, and it has all those acres to explore. A footpath circles the lake, and a morning walk around it is a nice way to work up an appetite. (The inn serves a big country-buffet breakfast -- $5.50 for all you can eat.) The ducks on the lake are so tame, they don't flee at your approach; instead, they'll waddle after you looking for handouts.
The inn is really several buildings scattered over the grounds. Guest rooms are large and comfortably furnished. Mine looked out over the lake and had its own private porch, a nice place to sit in some other season. The rate is $78 for two people for a standard room and $115 for a suite. Most of the suites have fireplaces, something to consider if your getaway is to celebrate a special occasion.
Breakfast is in a cheery garden room with a good view of the lake. Dinner is served in the Old Mill Room, reconstructed from an actual grist mill that once operated in the Charlottesville area. The hand-hewn beams of pine give the room a rich, warm look, just right to ward off winter's chill.
My shrimp dish came on a very full plate that included spoonbread, baked tomatoes, rice and a serving of broccoli and squash -- a fully satisfying meal that owed a lot to Southern country cooking. Dinner for one with dessert, tea, a cocktail, a glass of the house wine (Oakencroft Winery of Charlottesville), tip and taxes came to $37.
The inn is only about a five-minute drive from the University of Virginia, reached by heading east on U.S. Route 250. Signs will direct you to turn right on Emmet Street for visitor parking. On fall weekends, when the football team plays a home game, it is almost impossible to get a room at the Boar's Head unless you have reserved months -- or even a year -- in advance.
If you continue east, another five-minute drive will get you to Charlottesville's downtown pedestrian mall, a nice place to browse. From the mall, signs will direct you to Monticello, up the hill to the south of the city an additional 10 minutes away. Two miles beyond is Ash Lawn, the home of another president, James Monroe. The inn's desk clerk can provide a good map to the city's historic sites.
As a resort, the inn has access to three indoor and 16 outdoor tennis courts; squash and racquet courts and separate health club facilities for men and women, including exercise equipment and saunas. The fee is $5 a day for the first family member and $2 for each additional member.
Nearby is an 18-hole golf course, for which guests can make arrangements to play; in the summer, the three swimming pools open; and from spring through fall, champagne balloon flights are offered over the Virginia countryside.
Or you might prefer to go hunting for boars' heads.