At 7:30 a.m., Stephen Sanford, my, ahem, butler, knocks on the door of my cottage, a silver tray bearing a pot of French press coffee and a paper bag of hot sugared beignets in his arms. Only a day earlier he had asked what time I wanted my morning treats, walked me through the garden to my cottage and, after adjusting the heated floor in my bathroom and showing me how to turn on the fireplace in my bedroom, entreated, “May I please get your bags from your car?” as if I were allowing him a great favor.
Later that evening, I arrived back at the cottage to find a pot of rooibos tea and four tiny trompe l’oeil chocolate sandwich cookies posing as bite-sized hamburgers (the lettuce, I soon discovered, was tinted coconut; the tomato, a sliver of strawberry). My butler had also turned down my enormous bed and quite possibly plumped the half-dozen pillows that fill it.
My butler. Not a phrase I’ve ever used before; nor will I soon use it again unless I return to the Inn at Willow Grove in Orange, Va., a rural oasis 130 miles from Baltimore and a short 40-minute detour from Skyline Drive.
“Inn” seems a small word for a 40-acre property that includes a 1778-vintage manor house, suites and a few private cottages (soon to include several pet-friendly options in spring 2013), a spa, a renovated barn used for private events, gardens, fire pits and a farm-to-table restaurant. Owners David and Charlene Scibal, bought the 18th-century property in 2008 after watching it fall into disrepair and undertook a multimillion-dollar renovation before re-opening in 2010. The day-to-day operations are managed by the Scibals’ son, Matt, and his wife, Hope. “Charlene and I love to restore things,” says David, an insurance executive who owns Advantage Specialty, a Somers Point, N.J. based firm.
The result is what Hope characterizes as “urban plantation”—loosely translated as the combination of modern amenities in a country setting. My cottage, for example, may have an enormous gilt vintage mirror hung on a wall of exposed brick and a private patio and covered porch where I can view the rabbits and birds that scamper across the well-manicured property, but it also has two flat-screen televisions, free Wi-Fi, champagne-colored granite countertops and a heated towel rack in the bath.
There is a fire pit on the patio at the back of the manor house and two more outside the inn’s restaurant in the house’s lower level, where on Wednesday nights locals and guests fill the dining room and bar for $5 tapas, including a tongue-tickling cheddar-chipotle biscuit served alongside a shot glass of lobster bisque. In other words, I’m not roughing it.
“It’s Southern hospitality,” says Hope. “We want guests to have the experience of being treated like royalty and being treated like a friend.” The butler service is case in point.
But what does a modern-day butler do exactly? I wonder aloud. Had I wanted him to, Hope tells me, Stephen would have unpacked (and packed) my bags, ironed and hung my clothes in the closet. More often, he plans itineraries or makes travel arrangements for guests. Still, “butler service can be anything you want that’s not immoral, unethical or illegal,” David adds dryly.
As David also points out, there’s not too much to do in Orange itself, but Orange is a great hub, about an hour’s drive from Charlottesville, and even less from Fredericksburg, and within easy driving distance of several wineries on the state’s Monticello Wine Trail.
After the coffee and beignets, I drive to nearby Madison, Va., to visit Early Mountain Vineyards, 305 undulating acres that were formerly known as Sweely Estate Winery. The land was purchased by AOL co-founders Jean and Steve Case, who renovated, re-opened and renamed it after the original property owner, Revolutionary War veteran Lt. Joseph Early, in 2011.
Although the Cases are dedicated to making wine from parcels of varietals including cabernet franc, viognier and pinot gris, they also have constructed their business as a social enterprise designed to promote and benefit Virginia’s wine industry, including making their winery a showcase for the best of Virginia food and wine.
Under the soaring roof of the winery’s new tasting room, I indulge in a flight of Early Mountain Wines (the viognier is typically lush with pineapple and peach with a clean, dry finish) while a foursome visiting from Washington, D.C., share a bottle of nebbiolo from nearby Barboursville Vineyards at a table next to the stone fireplace. The smoked salmon in my salad comes from McLean, Va., I’m told, and I’m quick to pick up a container of the creamed honey made by the monks of the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville that accompanies the equally impressive plate of cheeses for sale in the winery’s market.
On another day, I’d take my lunch to the covered patio or to a chair near one of the fire pits at the bottom of the hill that rolls away from the tasting room. But for now, I’m happy to settle in by the windows and enjoy the breathtaking landscape and my taste of Virginia. No butler required.
The Inn at Willow Grove, 540-317-1206, http://www.innatwillowgrove.com. Rooms from $265.
Early Mountain Vineyards, 540-948-9005,www. earlymountain.com