On the thundering Interstate north of Manhattan, I couldn't resist asking myself: What's a nice country inn like the Homestead doing in a place like Greenwich, Conn.?
Greenwich, that symbol of suburban affluence only an hour from Times Square, is hardly Norman Rockwell country, but such was the point of the exercise: to inspect a handful of inns within close range of the big city I love to leave, and to visit with the actress June Havoc at her Early American restoration at Cannon Crossing.
Moments after leaving I-95, the freeway thunder still in my ears, I turned up Field Point Road and entered the stately precincts of Belle Haven, a corner of Greenwich surrounded by Long Island Sound. On a broad lawn behind some large budding trees stood the brown-shingled Homestead Inn, topped by a lovable cupola. To hear the owners, Lessie Davison and Nancy Smith, tell it, there was nothing much to love about the inn when they bought it 2 1/2 years ago.
"Part of the house goes back to 1799 and it was an inn for the last 100 years , but it was falling down when we got it," said Lessie Davison. "We had to go down all the way to the studs to renovate it." Mrs. Davison and her partner, Nancy Smith, hardly looked the part of the weathered innkeepers. Lessie had a fresh Johns Island, Fla., tan and Nancy was just off the tennis court, ruing the loss of two sets. We sat on the porch in white wicker chairs covered with periwinkle cushions, drinking in the spring air. It was clear these handsome 50 ish housewives had found the perfect outlet for their stored-up energies.
"Because of the location," said Mrs. Davison, referring to comfortable Greenwich, "we felt we had to have a sophisticated inn and not the cozy little place you'd find in Vermont." What they have wrought, with the aid of a New York interior design firm and a chef, Jacques Thiebeult, whom they got from Le Cirque on E. 65th Street, is a stylish 13- room inn and an increasingly popular restaurant, La Grange.
The guest rooms, on the second and third floors, have names lettered on the doors. I peeked into the Sleigh Bed Room, named for the shiny wooden sleigh-shaped beds. Early American is the motif, but if George Washington had slept here he would have been too contented to fight the war or found a nation. There are clock radios, electric blankets, televisions, telephones, tubs, and showers, but no room service. Prices are Late American: $70 to $80 double including continental breakfast.
How does one divert oneself on Field Point Road? Belle Haven, so close to the water, was once a New York summer retreat and the shore is less than a mile away, the partners explained. They will provide passes for the ferries to the two offshore Greenwich beaches, direct you to historic houses, and urge you to visit the Museum of Cartoon Art across the state line in Port Chester, N.Y.
They will also send you to June Havoc's project at Cannon Crossing, which I headed for after sitting down to cold poached salmon and chocolate mousse on the screened side porch (Mr. Thiebeult's kitchen already vies, deservedly, I think, with La Cremaillere 35 minutes away in Banksville, N.Y., for the best French food in the region). Spring sunshine had given way to a gray drizzle when I pulled up to the cluster of Cannon Crossing pre-Civil War farm buildings behind the proud red Cannondale train depot. There are a half- dozen antique stores, assorted shops, a tinsmith, a weaver, a potter, a quilter, a painter and, in the old schoolhouse, a restaurant. There would be nothing but firewood but for the redoubtable Miss Havoc.
She who has been through every form of show business, beginning with vaudeville at the age of two, got into the restoration business only a few years ago. She is also on the side of all birds and animals, which becomes apparent the moment you step into her house, behind the restaurant. I was greeted by most of her seven dogs and dozens of birds. All of her pets -- she calls them "friends" and "people" -- came to her handicapped or injured.
We sat looking onto a quiet millpond in a room filled with taffeta and velvet , a Victorian stage set. "I found Cannon Crossing quite by accident," she said. "I lived in Weston, over the ridge, for 20-odd years and one day I was out for a ride -- my idea of pleasure is exploring the back roads of this wonderful state -- and I came upon these gorgeous but forgotten farmhouses. They had been cut off from Wilton by the construction of a highway and were doomed. Even the train was no longer stopping at that perfect little depot."
Miss Havoc sold the house in Weston and, it is said, her furs and jewels to buy the acre- age on which the 19th-century buildings lay rotting. Then she rolled up her flannel sleeves and led the restoration. "The train would toot at me on its way by and sometimes the engineers would stop and wish me well," she said, her blue eyes glinting. When the farmhouses were restored and the schoolhouse was trucked in to house the cafe, she signed up the shopkeepers and craftspeople. And now the train stops again. on the Norwalk-Danbury run. At certain times of day you can ride from Grand Central all the way to June Havoc's dream village by the millpond.
I left her talking over her back fence to her burro and goats and headed north on Route 7, away from spring, to Ridgefield and found it was not an inn at all but a continental restaurant. Next door, though, the West Lane Inn, renovated handsomely three years ago, had $65 rooms for rent. Dinner was at another Ridgefield inn, Stonehenge, no modest country hostelry either.There is a valet to park your car and a menu that tilts toward Escoffier. All day I didn't see Yankee pot roast or blue plate special. Where are you, Norman Rockwell?