Ever since someone figured out that burning a piece of forest would keep the cave bear at bay, we humans seem to have been programmed to gather around a fire. But our forebears, from pragmatic cave dwellers to no-nonsense Colonials, would probably roll their eyes at modern romantic notions about a burning pile of logs. Precisely because flames are no longer a daily necessity, they seem all the more alluring — especially in this season when a warm fire offers some compensation for the early dark.
To get a sense of fire at its most practical, look no further than the “Fireplace Feasts” offered more or less weekly through March at the Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield in central Massachusetts. The late 17th-century inn uses the massive fieldstone fireplace on the ground level of the barn to cook the meals, which include 20-pound beef rib roasts and gigantic iron cauldrons of clam and fish chowder. The wall of heat thrown by the blazing wild cherry logs is a welcome sear after the cold outside, but this form of “extreme campfire cooking” (as one participant put it) could get old in a hurry if you had to do it every day.
It’s far better to let someone else make the meal and simply enjoy it fireside. The dining rooms at the Old Inn on the Green in New Marlborough in the southern Berkshires are lighted entirely by candles and the glow from the fireplaces. Never electrified, the rooms seem little changed from their Colonial origins. This 1760 former stagecoach stop turned inn and restaurant has 11 guest rooms in two buildings. Chef and co-owner Peter Platt creates masterful updates on traditional American fare. Somehow, rack of lamb with polenta or braised halibut with puréed parsnips tastes even better by the flickering light from the hearth. And all the diners seem warmer, happier, and — dare we say — softly glowing.
Like the Old Inn on the Green, a patina of age clings to the Quechee Inn at Marshland Farm in central Vermont. The main portion of the inn was built in 1793, although it was moved up from the riverbank to its present spot in 1960. Everyone staying at the inn and most of those who come only to dine converge in the common room lounge in the original farmhouse, where the barnboard walls, brick floors, and clusters of overstuffed couches and Windsor chairs create a convivial rustic ambience. At one end of the room, stern portraits of the farm’s Yankee founders stare down from the mantel above the brick fireplace where a few split logs seem to burn on the andirons from the onset of cold weather until the slurpy days of mud season. It’s where guests congregate for afternoon tea and cookies.
The pleasures of a roaring fire are even more rewarding after a day of winter sports. At Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Chittenden, Vt., a big stone fireplace dominates the wood-beamed lobby lounge. Although it’s only 11 miles west from Killington’s first-rate downhill runs, Mountain Top helped pioneer cross-country ski touring in Vermont when it opened its first trails in 1964. The property now boasts 60 kilometers of Nordic trails, 40 of them groomed. Folks gather around the fireplace at the end of the day to recount their outdoor exploits, which become ever so slightly grander with each telling. The last time we spent the night at Mountain Top, the mercury hit 11 below zero and even the intrepid Vermonters never donned their ski boots. We were perfectly happy to curl up with good books on a big couch in front of the fire. We’d much rather be kissed by flame than frostbite anytime.
Farther downstate, midway between the Stratton and Okemo ski areas, the Inn at Weston offers small tables by the large fieldstone fireplace in the cozy pub as enticements to an afternoon drink or an intimate meal after a day on the slopes or a round of shopping at the town’s two country stores. We even saw one couple stand before the fire to recite their wedding vows — a good cold-weather alternative to nuptials in the gardens. But sometimes you’d rather be alone with your fire. The Inn at Weston has gas-burning fireplaces or stoves in nine of its 13 rooms spread across the main inn, the carriage house, and another house across the street. While there’s something undeniably appealing about the scent of woodsmoke and the crackle of burning logs, it’s awfully gratifying to simply flip a switch and have instant dancing flames.
There’s no such thing as fireplace envy at the Captain Lord Mansion in Kennebunkport, Maine, where all 16 rooms in the main house and all four in the garden house have gas fireplaces. Fast approaching its 200th anniversary, the main mansion (built between April and October 1814) was constructed with multiple chimneys. With their deep colors, rich fabrics, comfortably padded furniture, and big beds (often with four posts, canopies, or intricate carvings), the rooms at the Captain Lord ooze romance. The fireplaces are simply the pièce de résistance. The commodious gathering room on the first floor, scene of afternoon tea and cookies, also has a gas-fired hearth.
Fireplace purists will discover 42 suites with wood-burning fireplaces at the Taj Boston. As one might expect from the former Ritz now under the luxury Taj flag, even the fireplace assumes an almost ritual significance that would bewilder our Colonial ancestors. During the November through March “fireplace season,” guests choose from a firewood menu of birch, cherry, oak, maple, or the Taj custom blend. The staff fireplace butler then builds the fire to specifications and lights it. There’s no fuss with kindling, flue adjustments, or even the ashes. (That’s housekeeping’s job.) Even better, once the flames start flickering, the cave bears stay far away.