LENOX — I realize as I’m checking into Blantyre that my jacket is misbuttoned, with one side hanging much lower than the other. Normally this would not be an issue, but I’m at the US equivalent of Downton Abbey, and Carson has just greeted me at the door.
Blantyre is the veddy elegant Tudor-style country estate built in 1902, with stables and potting shed dating to the late 19th century. It is in these stables — or the Carriage House, as it is now called — that my husband and I are staying on a Saturday night in late April. We were looking for the cheap seats, taking advantage of off-season rates and the off-season option of staying only one night on a weekend. Still, the least expensive room starts at $600, and with taxes and an 18 percent service charge, the night will total $778.20, or about what I recently paid for a week’s stay on a beautiful Thai island.
But then, Blantyre considers itself an experience as much as a place. It is one of three inns in Massachusetts to be awarded the exclusive Relais & Châteaux designation, given to luxurious small properties worldwide. (The other two are The Charlotte Inn on Martha’s Vineyard and The Wauwinet on Nantucket.)
We are in the Berkshires for the weekend to check out two of the state’s top inns, Blantyre and its nearby rival, Wheatleigh. Both Lenox inns, halfway between clientele in Boston and New York, are internationally ranked and exorbitantly priced. We need to find out what all the buzz — and cost — are about.
At first glance, the inns couldn’t be more different, Blantyre with its dark, looming facade and Wheatleigh, smaller, lighter, airier.
Our first night is at Blantyre, which fussed over us even before we arrived. As I was making the reservation, I was asked if we were celebrating a special occasion. Indeed, I said, it was my husband’s birthday. Though I soon forgot the question, I’d later learn that Blantyre had not.
At Blantyre, no detail is overlooked. Even the powder-blue shopping bag, which bears a wraparound image of the inn, is a work of art. The rooms are filled with fresh flowers, chandeliers, antiques, and oriental carpets. The grounds are lush and feature whimsical chainsaw sculptures of wildlife by local artist Ken Packie (who gives us a good tip about Karen Allen’s cool knit shop in Great Barrington). The chef’s divine croissants are accompanied by his homemade jam. Or maybe you prefer his orange marmalade today?
The picture postcards of Blantyre are so perfect they look Photoshopped. And they’re already stamped, for your convenience. I have a feeling if I asked, they’d address them, too.
In 1981, after years of decline, the 220-acre property was bought by Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick, who founded Country Curtains in the 1950s. In 1968 they bought the dilapidated Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, which they renovated and reopened a year later. They gave the Red Lion to their daughter Nancy, who in 2001 opened The Por-ches Inn at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams. Blantyre went to daughter Ann, who restored it to its former glory.
When I made our Blantyre reservation, I was also asked if we prefer red or white wine, or champagne. In our room, there’s a half bottle of a 2009 Domaine Chevalier, a French burgundy, along with bottles of Blantyre-labeled water, a basket of fruit, serious chocolate chip cookies, and cheese and crackers. There’s also a handwritten welcome note from the general manager.
I nibble and peruse a book on the accommodations. On croquet: “We do ask our guests to wear proper croquet attire (whites) and smooth-soled shoes.”
The leather-bound wine list is as thick as a phone book, and we later learn that Blantyre has 14,000 bottles; the most expensive is $48,000. It’s a Petrus, Pomerol Grand Vin. At my gasp, the sommelier explains that the super-size bottle serves 30 to 40 people. Still.
The Carriage House is a few minutes’ walk from the Main House. Our room is lovely, with a king-size bed, a sweet dressing table and bench, and a patio with table and chairs overlooking the swimming pool. There’s a small flat-screen TV — you may strain your eyes watching — and a shelf with good DVDs and CDs from James Taylor to John Williams.
It’s after ski season and before the summer arts season, with not much going on. That’s fine; we walk one of the many marked, wooded trails on the property, then decide to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum in nearby Stockbridge. When we ask for directions at Blantyre, we are handed two complimentary tickets, normally $16 apiece.
Christelle Cotar, the wine director, has invited us to a 5:30 p.m. wine tasting featuring two 2001 white wines: a Marcassin chardonnay from Three Sisters Vineyard in Sonoma, and a Maison Joseph Drouhin from Burgundy.
Oops. The Burgundy is oxidized, she announces, and it does taste a bit off. My husband whispers: “With 14,000 bottles, why can’t they open another?” The six of us wine-tasters are given a quick tour of Blantyre’s packed wine cellars.
We have a 6:30 dinner reservation at the inn, and head for the Music Room, where we are handed menus. At Blantyre, this is where you relax while you make your selections and when the first course is ready, you’re ushered into the adjacent dining room. The prix fixe menu is $125 for three courses, $145 for four. Plus a 20 percent tip and a 7 percent tax.
While we sit, a waiter asks if we’d like something to drink: a glass of wine, a cocktail? No wine list is offered, so my husband asks for a glass of Oregon pinot noir. I decline, wondering if it’s “included.” To ask would be beyond tacky. I sip his, and decide to get my own glass.
When we’re shown into the dining room, its pink tablecloths adorned with flowers and candles, our waiter brings us an amuse bouche — that’s French for yummy free thing. I’ve ordered scallops to start, or to be precise: the caramelized New Bedford scallops with Jerusalem artichoke, mache salad, and shaved black truffle. The Chateaubriand for two is expertly carved and plated table-side, and it’s all delicious, even the broccoli.
There are elaborate desserts, but we’re so full that we go for the simple: crème brûlée, and an olive oil cake with ricotta and lemon. Perfectly fine, but not particularly memorable. Then our waiter brings a very fancy chocolate cupcake with a white fondant ribbon that says, “Happy Birthday Francis!”
After dessert, we’re offered tea and petit fours in the Music Room, where we listen to Karen Tchougourian playing classical music on an antique Steinway grand piano. All I need is Maggie Smith to dish with.
Back at our room, the bed has been turned down. There are Harbor Sweet chocolates and bookmarks with a print of Blantyre on one side, and “Here I fell asleep” on the other. There’s a complimentary CD of Tchougourian’s music, and a room service breakfast menu that asks: “If your car is snowy, may we brush the snow off?” I don’t see a place to check, “Hell, yes!”
At 9 p.m., we walk down our hallway to the spa. Along the way, there are plush window seats, a computer nook, and a table where someone has started a 1,000-piece puzzle. There’s no one in the spa, and we soak in the large hot tub that overlooks the outdoor pool. Massages start at $125; a half-day package, including lunch, costs $350.
The next morning, our bill is slid under the door, and my husband’s laughter can probably be heard at the Main House. Those two glasses of predinner wine I worried about? They cost us nearly $90: $35 apiece, plus tax and gratuity. It’s a good thing there’s a fainting couch nearby.
Breakfast is included, and so I eat every bite of my whole wheat pancakes with lemon poppy seed butter and berry compote — after polishing off a basket of homemade croissants and muffins. I am poured a cup of hot chocolate from a silver service, and it’s like drinking a Ghirardelli bar.
At checkout, we are presented with that lovely Blantyre shopping bag filled with water bottles and some gourmet nuts for the road.
We are headed to Wheatleigh, but first we visit Edith Wharton’s nearby home, The Mount. Built in 1902, the same year as Blantyre, the house itself isn’t yet open for the season, so we walk around the grounds. We’re charmed by the pet cemetery up on a hill, where each dog has its own gravestone — yet another reason to love the author. One stone reads: “Our Sweetheart MODELE died Jan. 5, 1914.”
In midafternoon we check into Wheatleigh, the world’s best-ever wedding gift. The mansion was built in 1893 by Henry H. Cook as a wedding present for his daughter, who married a Spanish count. The architect based the design on a 16th-century Florentine villa, and many of the materials and more than 150 artisans were brought over from Italy. The inn is one of the smallest members of The Leading Hotels of the World and has an equally renowned dining room.
Whereas Blantyre has dark, old world charm, Wheatleigh has a more contemporary, relaxed feel. It’s smaller, with 19 rooms, 22 wooded acres, and an Olmsted-designed lawn perfect for sitting, sipping, or reading.
Upon check-in, we’re offered a glass of champagne, but it’s a little early, and after our $45 glasses of wine at Blantyre, I’m taking no chances. I’d also booked the least expensive room, which, I was informed on the phone, was 10-by-14 feet, for $625, plus tax. But it’s so early in the season that few guests are here, and we are upgraded to a junior suite, basically a large bedroom with a sitting area and a fireplace. There are fabulous chocolate chip cookies on our table — even better than Blantyre’s — and a welcome note from the manager.
The furniture and drapes are modern — leather and glass, no floral prints here — and the larger flat-screen TV requires no squinting. The room has it all, except personality.
We’re invited to choose from an array of high-end toiletries in the bathroom, including Clarins and Bulgari. I later learn that our suite usually goes for $1,475 a night — before taxes — and I wonder how the reservation clerk keeps a straight face.
The food’s the real star at Wheatleigh, which has a AAA Five Diamond restaurant, one of three in Massachusetts. (The others are Menton and L’Espalier in Boston.) Dinner is $125 for four courses.
Chef Jeffrey Thompson, who started in the business as a dishwasher in Colorado Springs, is a visionary in the kitchen, and his passion for food is obvious. First, we’re offered various homemade breads including the best baguette on this side of the pond. Then amuse bouches appear: a smoked salmon roll with citrus aioli, tuna tartar with a fennel and radish salad, poached lobster with a black olive vinaigrette.
For appetizers, the parmesan gnocchi with black truffle, turnip, and butternut squash and the grilled foie gras bring tears to my eyes. My entree is a to-die-for black truffle farro risotto.
Later, we’re offered a “pre-dessert,” a charming tradition I could get used to. It’s almond panna cotta with berries. Dessert arrives, and it’s gourmet art. I’ve ordered “The Pear,” a sliced pear poached in truffle honey syrup, with poached clementines, a truffle almond cream, and a pear almond sorbet with a florentine crisp. My husband orders “The Apple,” and it’s poached in cider with a madeleine cake, apple chutney, and salted caramel ice cream.
Passing on the $23 cheese cart is a no-brainer.
As at Blantyre, much of the staff at Wheatleigh is European-trained, and restaurant manager Andrea Verardo and a sweet intern named Chow (perfect for a budding foodie) tell us about the food, and what to do in the area. After dinner, they go to the terrace, build a fire in a fire bowl, and beckon us out. We sit, and they bring us blankets and cookies.
Life does not get any better than this. Until we get back to our room. The bed is turned down, there are slippers and a Voss water bottle on each side, chocolates and a sheet of paper bearing tomorrow’s weather and some places to visit on our way out. A CD by a jazz trio is playing softly.
In the morning, I don’t want to get out of the most comfortable, and costly, bed I’ve ever slept in. But breakfast awaits. It, too, is a revelation, but I’ve run out of superlatives, and anyway, it wasn’t included. My husband skips.
The scorecard? Both places get an overall “A,” but I prefer the attention to detail at Blantyre, the food at Wheatleigh. The wine charge at Blantyre left a corked taste in my mouth, but I learned a lesson: Ask before you order.