- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The election is over, and the holidays beckon. It’s toast-your-tootsies-by-the-fire weather, and what better way to do that than off in the country at a cozy bed and breakfast?

An hour or so beyond the Beltway is a world of farmer’s markets, small-town shops, and history. The landscape is as diverse as the people: beaches and waterfront views in one direction, mountains and winding roads in another.

“We’ve lived in many areas, but the Greater Washington area is unique,” says Susan Hilyard, the owner of Chaffinch House, an 111-year-old bed and breakfast on the Eastern Shore. “There’s so much available within a short drive.”

Staying at a B&B; is one of the best ways to experience the countryside. You won’t find all the bells and whistles of an upscale hotel, but you’ll be pampered far more personally than any VIP.

Forget the standard-issue bedspreads and antiseptic smell of a side-of-the-highway chain; bed and breakfasts are full of quirky qualities like heirloom quilts and the scent of baking bread.

Not all B&Bs; are created equal. It’s easy to get stuck with a place where you can hear the host family quarreling through a pasteboard partition, or where the sheets haven’t been changed since the last guest.

The key is research. Listen to friends’ recommendations. Use the Internet to check B&B; associations that review and inspect their member inns. Look for magazines — such as Arrington Publishing’s Inn Traveler Magazine and Bed and Breakfast Journal — that celebrate excellence in innkeeping.

The four bed and breakfasts described here are all scrupulously clean, thick-walled, well-lighted places. One, to be sure, is a converted Victorian, but it’s not filled with potted palms and overstuffed couches. Among the others are a Federal-period home and a very modern one.

Most have working, toast-your-tootsies fireplaces in the common rooms — though these tend to the gas-fired variety — and some have non-working fireplaces in bedrooms. Most serve a full, cooked breakfast; Barney House’s breakfast, though continental, is nonetheless quite a spread.

By definition, B&Bs; offer only one meal. Most of the B&Bs; mentioned here, however, have tea, coffee and snacks available all day. Some innkeepers will offer a glass of wine to guests in the early evening in the common areas, and rooms themselves are often equipped with soft drinks or a coffeemaker.

Practices vary from one B&B; to another, so it’s best to check with your host before counting on that afternoon sherry.

• • •

At Chaffinch House, owner Susan Hilyard has sprinkled her converted Victorian with personal touches, from her children’s old toys to family photographs, to her grandmother’s silver spoon.

“It’s a hodgepodge of comfortable, relaxing things,” she says. “It’s really more cozy that way.”

Chaffinch House is in Easton, a small town tucked away on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Unlike the nearby towns of Cambridge or St. Michaels, however, Easton is not dependent on the water for its attraction. This town gets its charm from history (the oldest structure dates from 1684) and the unique collection of shops that range along its downtown streets.

Easton is a walking town, where from Chaffinch House you can stroll over to the historical society museum or perambulate around the residential area.

The house gets its name from the first owner, William Chaffinch, a downtown store owner who moved in with his extended family. Within are plenty of reminders of the past, including a working wind-up Victrola.

For Mrs. Hilyard and her family (her husband Edward is a Navy lieutenant commander working at the Navy Research Lab in Washington), the allure of Easton is an essential part of the sprawling Victorian’s charm.

“We wanted a place that was not just a wonderful, beautiful house but within a community,” she says. “Easton is just what we were looking for.” Meanwhile, her two boys, ages 14 and 19, actively help out with the house.

“You have to be a family affair,” says Mrs. Hilyard. “We’re too small to hire a staff, but too big for one person.

There’s also a special greeter, in the form of Daisy, the Hilyards’ yellow Lab.

“She gets upset if she can’t greet the guests,” says Mrs. Hilyard. “And the guests get upset if she isn’t around.” As is the practice at many B&Bs;, Chaffinch House guests eat together in the dining room.

“I had considered getting separate tables,” says Mrs. Hilyard, who bought the “up and running” B&B; two years ago. “But the whole idea of a bed and breakfast is to bring people together. We are so disconnected in our society.”

• • •

Over on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the 1883 Bell House offers up its own distinctive tale. The place takes its name from A. Melville Bell, the father of Alexander Graham Bell, who bought the house in 1886 as a summer retreat for his family. The current owners, who had been living on their boat at Point Lookout, Md., bought Bell House when they decided they “wanted to see something growing out of dirt,” as owner Anne Bolin puts it.

“We were looking for a cottage,” says Mrs. Bolin, whose husband Phil retired from the Navy 12 years ago as a captain.. “But then we fell in love with Bell House.”

Bell House is located in Colonial Beach, an important destination for summering Washingtonians well into the 20th century. It’s still a popular spot during the summer months, although not quite the place it once was when steamboats plied their way up and down the Potomac River.

But the fall and winter are a different story. Now, it seems like the town is on pause since a time in the early 1960s. Neat white houses dot the landscape. Boats are battened down for the season. The streets are quiet, although the Thursday night bingo game at the American Legion is very popular with the locals.

“There are things going on at any given time, but they tend to slow down after summer,” says Mrs. Bolin. “A lot of people come here to spend time quietly,”

The Bell House was built in 1883, “on the cusp of the Arts and Crafts movement,” says Mrs. Bolin, and carries a number of distinctive touches. Its cupola, made from red oak, is still marked on navigation charts as a landmark. All the woodwork is original, along with some chandeliers and the horsehair plaster walls on the first and second floors.

“There are no televisions in the rooms and no phones,” says Mrs. Bolin. “What people do is actually talk to each other.”

Bell House is reputed to have a resident ghost. The tale is told in “The Ghosts of Virginia,” by L.B. Taylor (1993, Progress Printing Co., Inc.). Mrs. Bolin herself hasn’t sensed anything out of the ordinary, but she says the previous owners of the B&B; reported some encounters. The apparition is believed to be a former owner, a woman who lived in the house for nearly 50 years in the mid-20th century and taught piano to local students.

Pride of place at Bell House, however, probably goes to something you can actually see. The view is spectacular even at night, when the shores of Cobb Island, 71/2 miles across the river, can be just dimly spied.

Day or night, a step into the Bell House is like taking a step backward in time. And that, says Mrs. Bolin, is just how it is supposed to be.

“It’s still delightful,” she says. “It’s just a grand, beautiful, welcoming house.”

• • •

Drive west from Washington, and you’ll soon find the rolling hills of Virginia’s horse country . There, in Remington, Ralph and Linda Robinson run the Highland Farm Inn in a modern rambler that has been renovated to give guests a spectacular view of the Virginia mountains. Step out into the Robinsons’ front yard, and it seems as if the Big Dipper is ready to scoop you up into the sky.

Dr. and Mrs. Robinson (he’s a retired physician and the county coroner) have lived here for 24 years, and after her children were grown and out of the house, Mrs. Robinson says, she began to feel a bit, well, lonely.

“You can’t just stay home and twiddle your thumbs,” she says. “We’re a little isolated out here. The cows are great, the horses are great, but when you start talking to them, that’s a problem.”

So 10 years ago the couple decided to take in some company. The guests at Highland Farm Inn find themselves enjoying a glass of Virginia wine and sleeping on fresh sheets that Mrs. Robinson insists on drying in the old fashioned way, on the line outside.

If you’re lucky enough to arrive at foaling time — ideally February through April — you may choose to witness a birth. The Robinsons keep down jackets on hand for late-night visits to the barn.

“It’s really like a religious experience,” says Mrs. Robinson, who helps out actively in the process. “There’s nothing like watching something being born.”

Not all guests choose to be that hands on, of course. Some just come to relax in the Robinsons’ stone cottage, complete with exposed beams and an outdoor fireplace, the only portion of the original 1729 farm still standing.

Back at the current main house, built in the 1950s but substantially renovated since then, guests set the timetable for breakfast.

“I like them to confer about breakfast time,” says Mrs. Robinson. “I’ll make two breakfasts if someone has to leave real early, but it’s more fun if the guests breakfast together.”

One of the advantages of staying at a B&B;, she says, is that innkeepers tend to know a little bit more about the place than your typical motel desk clerk.

“We can tell you the places where the locals go,” she says. “And we know all the special things that are going on at the time.”

• • •

Not taken with horse country? You may want to venture north to the historic town of Savage, Md. Here, old company houses cluster around Savage Mill, which now houses a collection of shops, a bakery, and the Ram’s Head Tavern Restaurant. A short distance away, innkeeper Susan Betts will welcome you to the Commodore Joshua Barney House, an imposing Federal style building that features the original flooring, an eclectic mix of furnishings, and up-to-date accoutrements.

A native of Baltimore County, Joshua Barney first went to sea at the age of 15. From there, he distinguished himself during the Revolution, earned a kiss from Marie Antoinette during one of many journeys to France, and led a crew of white and black sailors during the War of 1812.

“He was the only naval officer to serve actively in the Revolution and the War of 1812,” says Ms. Betts. “It seemed like he was everywhere. It’s amazing that we don’t know more about him.”

When the Washington militia began to panic during the Battle of Bladensburg — the debacle that later became known as the “Bladensburg Races” for the way the militia cut and ran — Barney’s integrated force stood its ground.

“Not only did they serve their guns with a quickness and precision that astonished their assailants,” wrote British Lt. George Gleig in his “A Subaltern in America; Comprising His Narrative of the Campaigns of the British Army, at Baltimore, Washington, &c.; During the Late War,” published in 1826, “but they stood till some of them were actually bayoneted with fuses in their hands; nor was it till their leader was wounded and taken, and they saw themselves deserted on all sides by the soldiers, that they left the field.”

Mrs. Betts will be the first to tell you that the house is more significant for its former occupant than its architecture.

“It was built in 1760 but it’s not really a grand home,” she says. “It is on the National Register of Historic Places, though, because Commodore Barney lived here.”

But don’t discount the house or the accommodations. A longtime businesswoman who has traveled extensively, Mrs. Betts spent over a million dollars renovating the place to ensure that her guests would encounter none of the pitfalls that she did while on the road.

“I wanted a comfortable bed, so my guests sleep on Supple-Pedic mattresses,” she says. “I wanted bathrooms with a place to put your stuff. I wanted great water pressure, and I put in extra hot water tanks so we’ll never run out of hot water. And I didn’t want my guests to pay extra for a bottle of water or a soft drink.”

A self-described “hands-off” host, Mrs. Betts says that letting her guests have their privacy is a prime concern.

“I don’t think people want to be trapped by the innkeeper,” she says. “I retire early. My guests have the public rooms to themselves.”

But whether your innkeeper is hands-on or hands-off, you can rest assured that your B&B; will be a unique experience, far enough away to make a difference, but close enough so you don’t have to spend the whole time on the road.

Settling in at a bed and breakfast

Looking for a bed and breakfast to call your own? Keep a few things in mind.

• Remember that many B&Bs; discourage children. “You can’t have a romantic getaway if you have a bunch of screaming babies next door,” says Highland Farm Inn’s Linda Robinson. Some B&Bs; bar children under 12 outright, although innkeepers may be willing to work with you under certain circumstances.

• B&Bs; have only a limited number of rooms. That means they fill up easily. When you call, have alternate dates in mind. During the summer at Bell House, for example, reservations are made at least a month in advance.

• Ask about discounts and special packages. Chaffinch House, for instance, offers discounts to senior citizens, business travelers, and all military, firefighters, EMS, and police officers. A special anniversary package includes a two-night stay in the wedding suite, breakfast served in your quarters for one morning, a bottle of champagne, roses, and treats from a local bakery.

• Use the Internet. Today, the bulk of the B&B; business starts on the Web. The innkeepers for this story credited the Internet with generating 80 to 95 percent of their business.

• Look for association memberships and independent ratings, information easily available on the Web.

Check out the Maryland Bed and Breakfast Association at www.bbonline.com /md/mbba and the Bed and Breakfast Association of Virginia at www.bbonline.com/va /bbav/ index.html. For B&Bs; in other states, see Bed and Breakfast Inns Online at www.bbonline .com/usa.html.

Innside Scoop, the bed and breakfast newsletter, rates B&Bs; nationwide on the basis of a personal visit from its editor. See www.the-innside-scoop.com.

Arrington Publishing, which publishes Inn Traveler Magazine and Bed and Breakfast Journal, also issues a book of lists that cites bed and breakfast excellence in a number of categories. It’s available at www.bnbjournal .com/InnBOLWin/InnBOLWinFrame.php.

Here’s more information on the B&Bs; profiled in the main story.


• 132 South Harrison St, Easton. Voted one of the top 10 B&B;/inns in North America for Best Antiques by Arrington’s 2005 Book of Lists. Rates $95 to $200 (business rate). Two-night stay minimum holidays and weekends, May through November. All guest rooms have private baths. 410/822-5074 or 800/861-5074, www.chaffinchhouse.com.

m Commodore Joshua Barney House: 7912 Savage Guilford Road, Savage. Three-diamond rating by the American Automobile Association, and an A+ rating from Innside Scoop. Rates $175 to $225. Facilities for corporate functions, weddings, and receptions available. Extended-stay suite on premises, with full-sized kitchen and laundry. All rooms have private baths (one room has dedicated bathroom in the hall).

Open to the public 3 to 5 p.m. Dec. 9 for Christmas tea, complete with an old-fashioned Christmas tree that includes 1,000 old-style, blown-glass ornaments. $22.50. Reservations required. 800/475-7912, 301/362-1900 or www.joshuabarneyhouse.com.


• Bell House: 821 Irving Ave., Colonial Beach. A Virginia National Landmark and National Historic Property. All reservations include wine and cheese each evening from 5 to 6 p.m. and a full breakfast served from 8 to 9 a.m. Rates $125.35 single occupancy, $141.70 double occupancy, including all taxes. All rooms have private baths. 804/224-7000, www.thebell house.com.

• Highland Farm Inn: 10981 Lees Mill Road, Remington. Voted one of the top B&B;/inns in North America for Best Rest and Relaxation by Arrington’s 2005 Book of Lists. Rates $125-$200. All rooms have private baths. 540/439-0088, www.highland farminn.com.

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