Destination: Litchfield County, Connecticut
SEE ALSO: Hideaway: Mayflower Inn & Spa.
When it comes to hotel design, we live in a world of one-upmanship. Whether it’s an I.M. Pei–imagined penthouse suite (Four Seasons Hotel New York), rooms decorated with priceless contemporary art (Chambers in Minneapolis) or a restaurant sixteen feet below the sea level (Hilton Maldives), if the feature is exclusive and creative enough, the current generation of hoteliers seems to believe, intrepid luxury travelers will come. The trick, of course, is to understand where novelty ends and gimmickry begins, and to imbue even the most extravagant project with a soul.
On paper, Winvian—the resort that opened in in 2007—looks a bit like a publicity stunt: fifteen New England–based architects and designers were given carte blanche to fashion eighteen guest cottages around Connecticut themes. A recent visit, however, revealed a property of quiet, sincere and—above all—authentic charm. It brought to mind such iconic northeastern country retreats as the Point, in the Adirondacks, and Wheatleigh, in the Berkshires—whose ranks Winvian may one day join.
Winvian’s air of authenticity no doubt stems in large part from having the 1775 Seth Bird House at its heart. The saltbox cottage served as the country retreat for three generations of Smiths, the family that purchased the 113-acre estate in 1948. Spending time in one of the house’s lovingly restored rooms, such as the Blue Parlor, on the first floor, with its oversized fauteuil, antique porcelain and open fireplace, makes you feel as if Henry Wilcox had just welcomed you into Howard’s End. A new extension to the Seth Bird accommodates two dining rooms, a large solarium and a game room complete with a vintage pool and foosball table. Paneled in timber salvaged from an old barn, it blends seamlessly with the original cottage.
Objets, paintings and photographs are displayed throughout, including black-and-white prints of the Smith grandparents, Winthrop and Vivian (he was a founding partner of Merrill Lynch), whose names inspired the resort’s. Their daughter, Maggie, now owns the hotel and runs it together with her daughter, Heather, the managing director. Guests take all their meals in the Seth Bird House; room service is available, but the menu is limited because of the distance to the cottages, which are scattered across the grounds. There’s high tea in the afternoon, cocktails in the evening and an open fireplace in almost every room, so the atmosphere is decidedly old-world. I could have happily spent my weekend in one of the parlors curled up in an oversized armchair, catching up on issues of the New Yorker and emerging only for meals and an occasional pre-dinner game of pool.
Some guests, of course, will prefer to while their Winvian days away in the privacy of their spacious guest cottages, the smallest of which measures 950 square feet. Each was built from the ground up by a different architect, most of whom also oversaw the interiors. Five of the fifteen creators hail from Vermont, where the Smith family’s other acclaimed property, the Pitcher Inn, is located (Mac Rood, a consultant on that project, was the architect of Library, my favorite Winvian cottage). The amenities are sumptuous throughout: every cottage has a king-size bed, large whirlpool tub, steam showers, heated bathroom floor, Nespresso maker and at least one open fireplace. But the design schemes vary greatly—ranging from beautiful to slightly Disneyesque—and not every cottage may suit your taste.
The Winvian staff says it puts a lot of effort into matching guest to accommodation. The main things to consider before you book are location, space, view and, especially, decor. The cottages are clustered in four main areas. For the most privacy and uninterrupted views of the surrounding woods, you will want to book one situated on the outside of a cluster: Camping, Log Cabin or Beaver Lodge. Beaver and Log, with their dark wood furnishings, struck me as wonderful winter cottages but as perhaps too somber for the summer; I loved Camping, which was conceived by Connecticut-based John Martin, the architect behind Winvian’s airy spa who also oversaw the addition to the Smith Ell house. It has floor-to-ceiling windows framing the woods, a screened-in porch with a fireplace and a painted ceiling that shows blue sky during the day and glow-in-the-dark constellations at night.
I stayed in the two-story Beaver Lodge, designed by John Carino, and although I found it supremely comfortable, it lacked some basic hotel room details, probably because the decor had received most of the attention. The wooden chessboard set up by the upstairs window was a nice touch, but it did not make up for the lack of a coat rack (there was one small closet in the bedroom). The spacious bathroom had smooth stone floors but not a single hook on which to hang a towel. The hotel assured me that they are working out such kinks.
Judging from the lavish amenities, luxurious use of space—even if every cottage is booked, there will never be more than forty guests at a time—and top-quality cuisine and spa services, Winvian aims at unadulterated pampering. Litchfield County offers plenty of activities, including hiking, mountain biking, bird-watching, horseback riding and fly-fishing, but I have a hunch that many guests will stay close to the resort and treat themselves to a weekend of great food, restorative spa and fitness visits and serene relaxation à deux (children are not allowed).
One particular treat is the excellent cooking of chef Chris Eddy, who trained with Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud. The seven-course tasting menu when I visited didn’t make a single misstep, from the delicate ricotta ravioli with squash filling and truffles to the crispy branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) with prosciutto-wrapped white asparagus. The table was set in front of a roaring fire, each dish was paired with a lovely wine, and the evening was graciously overseen by Paolo Middei, Winvian’s Roman food and beverage manager (the international staff hails from Argentina, Chile, France and Italy and should be credited for the unpretentious and warm atmosphere).
No one can predict if Winvian will indeed grow up to become one of the Northeast’s great resorts. It will be interesting to return in a year or so when it’s fully operational; three cottages were still under construction when I visited. But already the property has a lot going for it, including überluxe details and a strong sense of place and history. And judging from the solicitous staff and hands-on owners, its heart is definitely in the right place. Cottages from $1,450 a night (two-night minimum on weekends), all meals, snacks, beverages, wet bars and on-site activities included; wines, spa treatments, private yoga lessons and off-property activities additional. The entire property, which sleeps fifty-three, can be rented for $35,000 a night.
Who Should Go: Couples looking for a pampering country getaway with spa treatments, languorous meals, nature walks and lots of time alone.
Who Should Not Go: Families (kids are not allowed) and couples who expect any sort of scene.
Ideal Length of Stay: A three-day weekend.
Room to Get: Some of my favorite cottages were Artist, a pretty smaller one, decorated by Vermont-based artist Phil Godenschwager with etched and stained-glass windows and a cushy window seat looking toward the property’s lake; Stable, done in warm reds and yellows, with a sunken bathtub set even with the lawn (the bed- and bathroom are on different levels)—surely a wonderful spot from which to take in Connecticut’s splendid leaf season; and the loft-like Woodland, which faces the lake and boasts furnishings that were hand-carved by its Vermont-based architect, Troy Osborne. On my next visit I would book the Mac Rood–designed Library, a beautifully appointed smaller cottage with a skylight, mezzanine and wraparound bookshelves. Guests who enjoy the restored 19th-century setting of the Seth Bird House should reserve the Hadley Suite, located on the top floor of the main house, which is the only accommodation that is not freestanding.
Rooms to Skip: The cottages I liked least were the ones whose design liberties were taken a bit too far: Helicopter—yes, it’s a real Coast Guard Sikorsky chopper, and no, you don’t sleep inside but next to it—the huge Charter Oak, whose large tree trunk “growing” through its center is cut off at the top, destroying the illusion; and Treehouse, a two-story cottage with a living room decorated in license plates and toy cars. But taste is personal, and some people might find it appealing to sleep in a tree house thirty-two feet off the ground that comes with a fireplace and oversized bathtub.
What to Bring: The dress code is relaxed. Jacket and tie are not required, but Chris Eddy’s sophisticated food made me glad I’d brought a cocktail dress for dinner at the main house. Pack hiking boots and outdoor gear if you plan on exploring the countryside, and all those books you’ve been meaning to read if you plan to stay put.
Indagare Tip: Ask a staff member to start your fire. Flues are not easy to work, and nothing ruins a country getaway like a smoky cottage. Plus, there’s something undeniably romantic about returning from dinner to flickering flames. Also, be sure to pay attention during the room tour when the cottage technology is explained; suffice it to say, it takes three remote controls to get the flat-screen television and Bose surround sound to work.
Don’t Miss: The transporting Eve Lom facial, offered for the first time in the United States at the Winvian spa. Lom is based in London, and her philosophy is to relax the entire body in order to rejuvenate the face, so the ninety-minute facial also includes a back, neck and foot massage.
Getting There: Winvian is located in Morris, Connecticut, a two-hour drive from New York City or Boston.
Read a rant from a member’s recent trip to Winvian
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