I love going to quiet New England inns, particularly those dating back a couple of hundred years. I like the wide board floors, the brick fireplaces and the sense of permanence that comes with time.
Inns are such a contrast to the chain motels that have sprung up to serve travellers on the interstate highways, although many old inns originally served the same population: hungry travellers (albeit arriving on horseback) in search of a good meal and a comfortable place to sleep.
For me, the most important aspect of an inn is the dining room or pub. I look for inns that serve great food and have a nice atmosphere while keeping prices reasonable (complete meals for two with exquisite food, a glass of wine each and a shared dessert for about $100).
I recently had meals in three New England inns that met all my criteria -- and each inn is less than a day's drive from the Ontario-U.S. border.
The Norwich Inn, Norwich, Vt.
THE Norwich Inn was built in 1797 by Col. Jasper Murdock, a graduate of the then newly chartered Dartmouth College that is now one of the seven colleges in the prestigious Ivy League. Dartmouth is just three kilometres away across the Connecticut River in Hanover, N.H., and offers a variety of cultural and sporting opportunities.
The original building burned down in 1889 (foul play was suspected, but no ghosts have been reported), but rebuilt immediately in the Victorian style of the day. During the Prohibition of the 1920s, the owner, Ma Walker, is said to have kept alive the tradition of serving liquor by selling bootleg whisky out of the basement.
A key renovation, in my opinion, was made in 2003 when the inn transformed a historic barn into a microbrewery that produces fine beer and ales -- which are pumped through pipes under the parking lot directly to the pub.
The Norwich Inn prides itself in using local ingredients and making everything from scratch. I knew the Norwich Inn smokes its own meats and seafood, but I was amazed when I was offered their own homemade ketchup for my fries. They also offer a less expensive pub menu that is available in the main dining room and outdoors on the veranda, too.
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Inn at Weathersfield, Weathersfield, Vt.
Our next meal was at the Inn at Weathersfield. It was built in 1792, but has been an inn only since the 1970s (it was a private residence before that). Fodor's Guides cited the inn as the best restaurant in Vermont in 2010, and Bon Appetit magazine cited it as one of the Hot 10 Culinary Inns in America.
My companion and I ate a leisurely -- and delicious -- dinner on the veranda, watching the clouds turn the pinks and purples of a Maxfield Parrish print. Parrish, once the most popular artist in America, was from nearby Cornish, N.H., (home to a small national park at the home of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens). The atmosphere was conducive to talk, and we found ourselves chatting with other diners after the meal as we settled in near a central fire pit with a cheery blaze.
"What we serve is what is grown in the community," innkeeper Jane Sandleman says.
And she believes their support of the farms in the area has made a real difference. For example, she said they commit to buying all their veal from nearby Jersey Girls Dairy -- allowing a small dairy to profit from the male calves of the dairy herd (which are usually a loss). Cheese, meats, veggies -- all are local. A blackboard in the dining room lists all the farms that have contributed to each night's meal.
Their blueberries come from Green Dragon Farm, which is only a few miles away, in the shadow of Mount Ascutney, which has several challenging hiking trails to the top of the 958-metre peak.
Mount Ascutney is a launching point for hang-gliders (there is a road you can drive on to the top and an observation tower once you get there.)
Home Hill Inn, Plainfield, N.H.
Our third meal was at Home Hill Inn, which sits on 25 acres of horse field and open woodlands near the Connecticut River. The core of the inn is a stately brick Federal-style building built in 1818 on a site granted by King George in 1763, though the original building burned down.
Surrounding the inn are several guest cottages, a clay tennis court, a bocce court and a heated lap pool for swimmers who might be daunted by spring and fall water temperatures. Snowshoes and bikes are available to guests at no cost.
Home Hill Inn has become a destination wedding site for guests who want a private and luxurious experience. The inn closes to other guests when hosting a wedding, focusing on the needs of the bridal party. Unlike many inns, most of the furnishings are real antiques.
Like chefs at other inns we visited, chef Peter Varkonyi believes local food is fresher and tastier than food transported across the country. To that end, he collaborated with a pair of area garden designers to create a distinctive organic vegetable garden that consists of 24 large raised beds growing a little of everything from A (artichokes) to Z (zucchini).
Guests are encouraged to walk through the garden and sample the herbs or cherry tomatoes and chat with the gardeners.
Home Hill offers dining in the pub, the main dining room and, weather permitting, on the patio. The 14-foot-high ceilings of the main dining room help to create a quiet and luxurious eating experience.
While waiting for dinner we took our wine and strolled around the manicured lawns and met Sleepy and Nicky, two glossy thoroughbreds that poked their noses over the fence and demanded carrots.
As far as I know, George Washington never spent a night at one of these fine inns. But if he had, he wouldn't have been treated to the air conditioning nor the enjoyed the high-speed Internet connection these inns offer. But the dining rooms would have looked about the same, and the fine meals made from local organic ingredients might have been just as good.
Henry Homeyer is a garden and travel writer who lives in Cornish Flat, N.H. See his website at www.Gardening-Guy.com.
The Norwich Inn
Where: 325 Main St., Norwich, Vt.
Size: There are 38 rooms.
Cost: In summer, rooms range in price from $139 to $209 (all prices in U.S. dollars) for two persons during the week, and $159 to $229 on weekends.
Pets: Are an additional $35.
Contacts: 1-802-649-1143 or www.norwichinn.com
The Inn at Weathersfield
Where: 1342 Route 106, Perkinsville, Vt.
Size: There are 11 rooms.
Cost: Summer prices range in price from $139 to $239 for two persons during the week and $159 to $269 on weekends. Deluxe rooms may require a two-night stay.
Pets: Not allowed.
Contacts: 1-802-263-9217 or www.weathersfieldinn.com
Home Hill Inn
Where: 703 River Rd., Plainfield, N.H.
Size: There are 11 rooms.
Cost: Summer prices range in price from $160 to $260 for two people.
Pets: Not allowed.
Contacts: 1-603-675-6165 or www.homehillinn.com
1. The Norwich Inn Norwich, Vt.
The inn's historic barn was converted to a microbrewery -- beer is pumped into the pub.
2. Inn at Weathersfield Weathersfield, Vt.
Bon Appetit recently cited this spot as one of the Hot 10 Culinary Inns in America.
3. Home Hill Inn Plainfield, N.H.
You can stroll among 24 raised beds that grow all kinds of organic vegetables.
-- Postmedia News