America's connoisseur of country inns looks ahead to spring
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.Skip to next paragraph
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''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. . . .''
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.