A biweekly staff review of East Coast and regional lodgings.
In the dark, driving rain, I couldn’t see the namesake water feature of the Inn at Vaucluse Spring in Stephens City, Va. As my wipers swatted furiously at the fat droplets, I could have spotted an angry river rushing at me, but not a delicate trickle beside me. I suspended the search, to be resumed under sunnier skies.
As Noah once should have said: Head for higher — and drier — ground.
The 15-room Shenandoah Valley property features six buildings tossed about like windblown flowers on a bumpy field. The mini-village includes the four-room Chumley Homeplace; the Cabin by the Pond, a former North Carolina tobacco barn; the Mill House Studio, which rests on the footprint of the old mill; the Gallery cottage; the two-room Cottage on the Hill; and the Manor House, a 1785 structure perched like a welcoming beacon atop a hill. The spring bubbles up in the center of the picturesque tableaux.
I’d booked a room in the main house — the Thornton, which innkeeper Barry Myers recommended for its tranquility (translation: It’s not below the boisterous dining room). When I entered the house, I nearly dripped on Myers’s wife and co-keeper, Neil, who eagerly awaited my arrival.
Before I could even shake off the drops, Neil was giving me the grand tour. She took me into the pantry, which was stocked with hot beverages, and pointed out the fridge filled with sodas and waters, plus shelf space for guests. Around the corner, the kitchen staff prepped for dinner service, a multi-course meal personally presented by chef Adam Policinski.
In the living room, Neil showed me an artwork by the former owner, realist painter John Chumley. The watercolor inspired a short history lesson involving the Chumleys, who inhabited the site from 1963 to 1995. I had an “aha” moment: Chumley Homeplace was the family’s former residence; the Gallery, his art exhibition space; and the Mill House Studio, his work space. The family never occupied the main house, which was frozen in its Civil War state. An album on a coffee table documents the before and after. During the renovation of the Manor House, which ran from spring 1996 to summer ’97, the Myerses excavated a bottle of ancient sauerkraut and a petrified rabbit. Dirt covered the floors of the Thornton Room.
The Myerses retained many of the original features, such as the wide cherry and walnut doors that probably accommodated hoop skirts, the fashion during the era of the original owner, Revolutionary War Captain Strother Jones; the stone walls in the Winter Kitchen rooms; and the downstairs fireplace that’s large enough to roast a whole herd of goats.
Despite the coziness of the Thornton Room, which shared a common hangout space with the two other rooms, Neil wanted to offer me another option: the Strother Room.
Whereas the Thornton provides a ground-level view of grass blades, the Strother’s oversize windows open up to grand vistas of the Massanutten and Blue Ridge mountains (at that moment, they were shrouded in gray clouds). Opposite the views, a gas fireplace meowed. I dropped my bags, signaling my commitment to Strother.
To learn more about my surroundings, I cracked open the thick notebook resting on a dresser with a marble top. I flopped onto the king-size bed, my landing cushioned by — count ’em — 11 pillows. I learned, for example, that Strother named the house Vaucluse after a village and water source in Provence that was a haunt of Petrarch’s. Descendants of the first family lived at VS until after the Civil War. The property later passed into the hands of the Rices, followed by the Chumleys in 1963.
Neil and Barry — whose biography falls under the heading, “Maybe you were wondering about us . . . What did you do before opening the inn?” — honor the artist and his creative offspring with a section labeled, “Do you like . . . Chumley prints and paintings?” The section provided a scavenger hunt of art by the Chumley clan, including two watercolors of snow scenes painted at Vaucluse. In the foyer, an artwork by son Jeffrey captures for posterity the property before its renovation. And in the reception room, a painting by Papa Chumley of apple butter-making celebrates the fruit-mash activity at Vaucluse.
Food matters as much as sleep at Vaucluse. While I was relaxing beside the fire in the living room, the dishy pronouncements by Chef Adam in the dining room across the way distracted me from my reading. The situation in Syria surrendered to the pearl barley cooked like risotto with truffle oil; Obamacare was no match for the curry carrot soup. Breakfast seemed forever off.
To burn the hours, I settled into a green gingham chair and watched the fire flicker through the faux logs. I also poked around the forgetful-guest closet downstairs, sifting through bins of toiletries for every skin and hair need. And I made a few trips outdoors as part of my catch-and-release stink bug program. Eventually, I tired myself out.
Come morning, the rain had thinned out enough for a quick jaunt onto the porch. I returned indoors when breakfast arrived, a special order of toast and rice milk pudding topped with fresh fruit. (Non-veg folks plunged their knives and forks into eggy and croissanty creations.)
My window of good weather shut abruptly, but I was determined to see the famous spring, even if I had to suffer through a soaking. From the Manor House, I drove down a slight hill and stopped at a bridge. Through the raindrops, I saw a small waterfall and a clear pool of water, a calm oasis amid a brewing storm.
Inn at Vaucluse Spring
231 Vaucluse Spring Lane
Stephens City, Va.
Rooms from $160.