Historically speaking, it would be hard to find a better weekend destination than Charlottesville, Va., but that’s not what lured me to town. Being interested in more hedonistic than historic adventures, I was intrigued by Keswick Hall, a luxury country resort perched on 600 acres of glorious Virginia countryside in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s owned and operated by Orient Express Hotels, the same folks who own the Hotel Cipriani in Venice and La Samanna in St. Martin along with other classy name-droppers. Plus, it made Conde Naste Traveler’s 2002 Gold List of the “world’s best places to stay”— a good enough reference for me.
There were two other practical pluses: the drive and its size. Keswick Hall is about three hours closer than Virginia’s more famous Grand Dame resorts (The Greenbrier and The Homestead). And, unlike big hotels crammed with conference-goers sporting name badges or small B&B’s that lack resort amenities, with 48 rooms, an 18-hole Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, tennis courts, an Olympic Tuscan-tiled pool, fitness center and spa, Keswick Hall is sized just right.
The Italianate villa sits at the center of a classic circular drive in a part of the world Thomas Jefferson described as the “Eden of the United States.” Lou Mongelluzzo, the accommodating doorman, whisks us through one of several sets of French doors into the Great Hall dotted with English and early American antiques, porcelains and original works of art. Two facing rose-colored sofas flank an impressive stone fireplace that I size up for cocktail time cocooning. A massive guest book plopped on an antique reception table hints of an international clientele as well as celebrities in search of anonymity.
Donatella Versace was in residence while overseeing a fashion photo shoot in a nearby castle. Anthony Hopkins stayed in Room 27 for three weeks when filming “Hannibal.” Julianne Moore and Michael J. Fox were former guests, and Anjelica Huston tucked herself in during the Virginia Film Festival, a happening every fall. And, Sissy Spacek lives just up the road. I try to pry some dirt about the rich and famous from Buddy, the hotel’s discreet bellman of eight years, but he’s tight-lipped. The only nugget I can uncover is that author Patricia Cornwell once tipped him $100 just to get her car. She stayed in Room 7 for a month while writing her second book.
We are led upstairs to Room 9, a big, bright, butter-yellow corner room with cheery red and green floral fabrics covering just about everything from the down-filled love seat to the dropcloth on the table holding up the TV. But the most dramatic feature is our private and massive square stone balcony with postcard-perfect views of the stunning countryside. As always, details make the difference and there are plenty: feather pillows, hand-painted antique furniture, gorgeous cornices and heated towel racks in the spacious bathroom. Buddy tells us this is the room Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward shared for five days. Ooh, la la.
Charlottesville has been getting lots of attention these days because 2003 marks the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s expedition across America, thanks to Jefferson. Not only did Jefferson propose the idea to explore the West while living here, he convinced Congress to pay for it. The Inn has its share of history, too. It was built as a private residence, Villa Crawford, in 1912. In 1930 it was converted into a country club and eventually closed for 10 years. In 1989 Sir Bernard Ashley purchased the place (he once owned the Inn at Perry Cabin), tripled its size and added a golf club. Orient Express acquired the property in 1999 and gave the place a major face-lift.
After unpacking it is hard to decide where to enjoy complimentary afternoon tea and the sweet fruity cakes, cookies, bowlfuls of flawless berries, scones with clotted cream and jam that are artistically displayed atop a marble sideboard in the lobby. Should we unwind in the tranquility of the sunny yellow Morning Room with comfy sofas trimmed in fringes and tassels or in the cozier, more masculine Library? Or by the fire in the Great Hall where we can browse through a few art books or rare editions? The Snooker Room looks appealing, too, and so does the terrace near the English gardens brimming with colorful flowers, ornamental grasses and fragrant herbs that we’re told the chef puts to use each day. Decisions, decisions.
Like the rest of the trappings, dinner is a return to kinder, gentler times. Choices include the laid-back Keswick Club or the formal, candlelit Ashley Room where on warm evenings guests can be served on the vast terrace beyond a wall of French doors. Executive chef Bruce MacLeod honed his skills in fine restaurants from coast to coast, including Charleston’s highly touted Peninsula Grill. Many delicately crafted entrees offer surprising twists like his version of a club sandwich: stylized layers of lobster and fried green tomatoes. We zero in on mussels, sea scallops and watercress tossed in a sherry vinaigrette and piled on top of a fennel pancake before devouring wild mushroom pasta with farm-raised rabbit that is every bit as beguiling as the setting. Since we overindulged on sweets with afternoon tea, we pass on dessert, only to find mouth-watering butter cookies waiting next to our bed when we return to our room.
The next morning we decide to test the golf course. The course was originally designed by Fred Findlay in 1939 but revamped in the early 1990s by the Arnold Palmer Course Design Co. With a slope of 130 (a golfer’s way of saying it’s tough), some fairways are slender and there are one too many natural hazards for me, a high scorer. But the gorgeous mountain views with the backdrop of Keswick Hall’s golden facade and clay-tiled roof make the score hardly matter.
The next day, to atone for my dining indulgences, I get energized by Hallie Garland’s stretch and tone exercise class at the well-equipped fitness center before tackling my penance: an hour on the treadmill. To soothe weary muscles, Yvonne van Cuiju-Waller, a charming Dutch masseuse, gives me a good old-fashioned massage in the small but satisfying spa before it is time to pack up and head home. Something we reluctantly want to do.
As Lou the doorman waves goodbye, we leave this unspoiled oasis of civility filled with a sense of inner peace and tranquility yet energized by the good vibes that permeate the place. Jefferson was right: This part of the world is an Eden.
Ask for a room on the back of the building facing the golf course. Some rooms in the front overlook the parking lot. Traveling with children? Check out the Summer Camp for Kids, June 9 to Aug.15. Weeks alternate between a junior golf and tennis program, with an all-sports camp, ages 5 to 12. Room rates from $295 to $695. 701 Club Drive, Keswick, Va. 800-274-5391 or 434-979-3440. http://www.keswick.com.
Thomas Jefferson spent 40 years constructing Monticello on a 5,000-acre plantation. The gardens and orchards have been restored to their appearance during Jefferson’s lifetime and many of the trees, vegetables and flowers that Jefferson cultivated are grown here. Through 2003 see “Framing the West at Monticello,” an exhibit that includes artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition. 434-984-9822, http://www.monticello.org. Montpelier, the home and magnificent gardens of James Madison, is about a 30-minute drive from Keswick. 540-672-2728, http://www.montpelier.org. Ash Lawn-Highland, the mansion of James Monroe, hosts a summer opera festival from June through August in the home’s beautiful boxwood gardens. 434-293-9539, http://www.avenue.org/ashlawn.
Two not to be missed: Barboursville Vineyards. With seven generations of winemaking experience in Northern Italy, the Zonin family came to Barboursville in 1976 to establish the first Virginia vineyard devoted exclusively to European grape varieties. Palladio restaurant is a “must” for lunch. 540-832-3824, http://www.barboursvillewine.com. Chef Dan Shannon, formerly of Manhattan’s Aureole, and Tom Thornton of Dean & Deluca fame have assembled a delicious specialty food and garden shop at the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard. Create an instant picnic and dine outdoors in the shadow of the magnificent 18th-century Kluge family home and chapel. 434-977-3895, http://www.klugeestate.com.
Charlottesville’s tree-lined downtown mall has a profusion of shops, galleries and restaurants. Best Bets: Owner Mo Ballard personally picks unique accessories for home and garden at Zebra’s (109 First St. South, 434-245-5117). Check out Artifacts (101 W. Water St., 434-244-3559) for noteworthy antiques and accessories. New Dominion Bookshop (404 E.Main St., 434-295-2552) is a one-of-a-kind classic hometown bookstore run by owner Carol Troxell. You just might see John Grisham, a local resident, signing a book or two. Second Street Gallery (201 Second St. N.W., 434-977-7284) is a non-profit contemporary gallery featuring local, regional and national artists. And George antique shop (3465 Ivy Road, 434-244-2800) is 15 minutes from Keswick Hall, but worth the jaunt. An eclectic mix of high-end European antiques, apparel and lots of items from New York designers pulled together by interior designer Jan Roden and her daughter/ photographer Christy Ford. Named after the family’s pet, a big lovable bulldog who’s always around.