America's connoisseur of country inns looks ahead to spring

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Norman Simpson talks about traveling with such relish you want to go with him. I asked him one day about staying in country inns in spring. The bare trees stood out against cold-looking gray clouds in the small western Massachusetts town where he writes and publishes his books (''Country Inns and Back Roads'' and ''Bed and Breakfast, American Style,'' as well as a handful of other books published by the Berkshire Traveller press). But the interview became a brief, all-encompassing spring vacation.

''Spring is interesting at inns,'' he said, ''because spring comes earlier in the South and so you could really have a wonderful time starting in, let's say, mid-March, and visit inns that I know of as far south as Florida, for example. . . .''

And off we went. ''Let's go farther north,'' he would say, or,''Now as the days get longer and we move into mid-April, that's when Virginia really comes into its own. . . .''

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He is a quietly genial man with the forehead of William Shakespeare, a mane of white hair, and the genial shrewdness of a country storekeeper. He is also a persuasive talker, in his gentlemanly way. I completely forgot that I was gripping the handle of a cocoa mug and began to visualize Norman Simpson's United States, dotted with hostelries of all shapes and sizes, mostly owner operated. He brought to mind pink brick walls and white porches softened with new greenery. Blossoms emerged along with the smell of duck dinners and freshly baked muffins for breakfast.

He traced the meandering route of spring, and it was like watching a slow sunrise beginning in Florida, seeping up the California coast and the Southeast, lapping the Midwest in warmth, and finally rolling on up to New England, Michigan, and eastern Canada. I could practically see the gray ice and snow shrinking northward and the mud drying up behind it, revealing walks to take and back roads to follow.

He started in the balmy Floridian mid-March at Chalet Suzanne, a wildly picturesque spread in Lake Wales. Then on to the Beaumont Inn, Harrodsburg, Ky. , an 1845 brick building with Ionic columns that started out as a school for young ladies and is run by the great-grandchildren of the people who turned it into an inn. ''Makes a good place to go meet spring,'' he said.

He backtracked to the profusion of Arizona wildflowers you can see in February from horseback while staying at what he calls a ''ranch inn.''

He paused to compliment the horseback riding at the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, in California. ''We mustn't forget, of course, spring comes to California also a little bit earlier (the beginning of March).'' North of Rancho Santa Fe, ''there's a bit of a space for me'' until Carmel, because the small hotels in between provide bed and breakfast, and he thinks of an inn as a place one can have dinner. ''There are two in Carmel, then, north of San Francisco, the Old Milano hotel in Gualala. It's south of the Russian River. . . . There's a group of California inns, and you just follow the coastal route up, and if you take your time, you can stay right even with spring.''

Stops on the road north include Heritage House, ''the grandfather of all California inns'' in Little River, Harbor House in Elk, and Garberville's Benbow Inn just after coastal route 1 ends and you rejoin route 101.

He recommended Virginia's ''garden week,'' April 21-29, as a way for Easterners to wait for the New York and New England thaw. ''That's when they open up the famous (historic) houses in Virginia. . . . There are some exceptional places that would really be fun, and you could do it by sampling them - one at a time for a week, or you could go for three or four days at one place.

''Let's go to North Carolina, where spring, of course, comes earlier'' in April, and the Hound Ears Lodge in Blowing Rock is open all year. ''The dogwood and the laurel and so forth are coming out, and it's a delightful experience to go down there. The Hound Ears Lodge provides not only inn accommodations, but the first golf of the year without going all the way (south).

''Now as the sun gets higher, we're moving into Pennsylvania, or let's just take right across that band across the country, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado. Colorado, (except for this year's early snow), has a very mild climate. . . . Just take the Colorado mountains. What a wonderful experience to be coming out in,'' for the traveler poking his head up from a long winter like the proverbial ground hog.

He ventured cautiously into New England. ''Mudtime is not to be confused with springtime. Mudtime is when the snow is melting and there's probably still some on the ground, and it's starting to fill up the roads, and maybe some of those early spring flowers, like crocuses and so forth, are poking their way up, but that's not really a good time. . . . Many inns are closed in New England during mud time.'' But it's worth the wait. In May, New England inns ''come into their own,'' he said. The White Mountains and Green Mountains provide a ''tremendous amount'' of what people go to inns for - country views, walking, back roads, and hearty eating in good company. ''Warm days and nights and evenings where the fire is certainly appropriate,'' he said happily.

He extolled the late spring of Michigan at Stafford's Bay View in Petoskey, which ''has a mix of people, where the younger kids pick up surrogate grandfathers and grandmothers. The inn actually wants that to happen. . . . Some of their people have been coming quite a while, some of their grandfathers and grandmothers.''

In Maine, he said, spring is ''the substance of things hoped for'' until June , when eastern Canada and Northern Wisconsin also warm up.

Norman Simpson's spring landscape is a rose-colored view, but it's one that has been garnered and polished over 19 years of traveling more byways than highways, testing and following up leads. As soon as the first edition of his book came out in 1965, people started writing to him and suggesting their favorites. To research that first edition, he says, he ''drove around, stumbled in.''

There were some wrong turns. The warning sign for him in those days was ''a neon beer sign in the window.'' The sign of a great inn was that ''it starts out by being great. Right from the outside. Right from the parking lot and the sign and the bushes. The hedge and the planting and the porch.''

Mr. Simpson has to limit his great inns to 210, and there are plenty waiting to be listed when one gets sold and he takes it out of the book ''to give those new innkeepers a chance to get their act together.'' He likes owner-operated inns. In many, the whole family are inn-keepers and the guests feel they are visiting a family. The inns, themselves, are a family. Inclusion in ''Country Inns and Back Roads'' makes their operators members of an innkeepers' association.

He speaks of them as fondly as if they were favorite nieces and nephews. He selects inns, he remarks in the preface of the book, for ''clean, comfortable lodging rooms furnished with individuality; an imaginative menu with good, well-prepared food; and an atmosphere that encourages guests to become acquainted with each other.''

He doesn't advise going on an inn trip cold. Part of the pleasure of such a journey, he says, is that ''the trip begins before you have left home,'' and arriving at the inn of your choice is ''not a surprise so much as it's a fulfillment.''

Not that you have to use his book. ''I feel that we have sought out and gone with inns that have worked for us for years, but there are other books that are a little more dense. . . . The adventuresome will find more inns in a book that's regional rather than the book that's national.''

Reading his book is a vacation in itself. One entry begins, ''The sun shone down from a completely cloudless sky, and happy San Franciscans moved briskly up and down the many hills of the city pursuing the day's occupations - the kind of a day in which I knew everything would go right, and it did.''

In planning an itinerary, shed your urban ways and take it easy, Mr. Simpson says. He suggests a minimum stay of two nights if there's good landscape and things to do around your inn. Inns are different from hotels - not places you leave right after breakfast, but places you come home to after your day's activities. Where inns are close together, in North Carolina, for example, he suggests going to another inn for lunch.

Staying in an inn, he says, is ''like visiting the home of a friend.'' So you shouldn't lie on the bed with your shoes on or put your feet on the furniture. ''Just as you wouldn't do that in somebody's house, so you wouldn't do that in a country inn, because the furniture is not something that came out of a factory, it came out of somebody's house. It was home furniture.'' He suggests arriving in time to ''put on something that makes dinner an event, because that's the way I feel about a country inn.

''Back roads are just those roads which you get on and you feel like only you have discovered them,'' Simpson says. He suggests taking an interstate around cities, then branching off when you get into the country.

Turning off route 91, which goes from New York to Canada, for example, you can travel the smaller routes 5 and 10. ''Five goes on one side of the Connecticut river, and 10 on the other. Some of those Connecticut River towns, either in New Hampshire or Vermont. . .,'' he trailed off, in a tone of delectation, and this listener yearned to get on the road.

Inns mentioned in this article are listed in ''Country Inns and Back Roads'' by Norman Simpson. Rates are from $65 to $95 a night, double.m

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