‘Seriously? There’s a hotel in Rowley?” That was our reaction when we heard about Briar Barn Inn. It’s a common response, according to the inn’s general manager Teresa McKillop. “Everyone says, ‘Why Rowley?’ I just tell them, ‘It works, it fits, and you’ll love it,’” McKillop explains. Located 32 miles north of Boston, this sleepy inland town of 6,421 souls might not be an obvious location for an inn. Moreover, there’s a law on the books forbidding live music in Rowley’s historic district. Not exactly a happening burg, this.
But owners Bramble Hospitality, who also own Willowdale Estate in Topsfield, may be onto something. Even if you’re over “farmhouse chic,” as a design style, you can’t argue with the calming effects of the inn’s country setting. Rowley may be lacking when it comes to restaurants and shops (very few) and beaches (none), but bordering neighbors, Ipswich and Newburyport, have those in spades. Will travelers along the Route 1 corridor between Massachusetts and New Hampshire discover Rowley? Only time will tell. A major source of business may be weddings and events, set inside the inn’s 100-seat restaurant, Grove.
First impressions can be deceiving. From its Main Street entrance, the inn looks like a humble B&B — in fact, this building once housed the Country Garden Inn. “People are shocked when they come in, thinking we’re just that first building,” (now used for administration), says McKillop. Move down the driveway, though, and the new, 30-room property comes into view. You’ll pass a spa (to open later this summer), a pool-in-progress, the silo-shaped inn, and a courtyard bordered by greenery. A separate building houses the Grove restaurant, plus an outdoor terrace for summer dining and a firepit patio.
Everything but the street-facing structure is a new build. The inn opened in January, and it still has a shiny new feel, offset by antiques and reproduction furniture sourced from nearby Todd Farm. Guest rooms range in configuration, including queen bed, double-queen, king suites, and a grand king suite, and no two are alike. Average room size is 345 square feet; up to 625 square feet for grand suites. Colors vary from grays to blues to taupes, depending on which area you’re in. Every guest room has a gas fireplace — there’s also one in the lobby — and flat-screen TVs that are hidden behind wood doors. Every room has a mini-bar and mini-fridge, too, stocked with three brands of local beers. (These change on a rotating basis.) Linens are by luxury maker Frette; toiletries are by Italian line Acca Kappa. (The scent is White Moss, a unisex fragrance.)
“Farmhouse style” is a bit of a misnomer — you won’t see farm tools-as-décor, or Joanna Gaines-ish touches like giant clocks and recycled barn doors. The look, by Electric Iris of Boston, is subtle and comfortable, enhanced by 100 pieces of artwork by artists such as Leonard Baskin.
Opened in late April, the Grove restaurant seats 100 in an inviting barn-like space. Under the direction of executive chef Ben Lightbody, Grove is open for breakfast, brunch, and dinner. The menu, hewing toward straightforward American dishes (a steak entrée, clam chowder, a pork belly BLT), relies heavily on local and regionally sourced ingredients from North Shore farms and purveyors. The menu will change seasonally; entrée prices on the spring menu range from $24 for house-made agnolotti with lemon ricotta and spring vegetables to $29 for red-wine marinated steak with charred spring onion, asparagus farro, and morels. The house-made “tator-tots” with sea salt and thyme ($5), fried in duck fat, are a popular, sharable starter, and pair nicely with Grove’s signature cocktail, the Bramble, made with gin, crème de mure (blackberry liqueur), and lemon juice ($11.)
For those who appreciate escaping the news cycle while dining with friends, consider this: There’s no TV in Grove, not even behind the bar. There’s no place else like this in Rowley (go-to eateries include the Village Pancake House and the Agawam Diner), so the Briar Barn folks are hoping local diners will check out Grove. Ticketed events, like wine dinners, are also in the works. “People are very excited about this,” says staffer (and Rowley-ite) Katrina Jodz. “We’re putting our tiny Rowley on the map.”
Coming soon (in late July or early August): the Spa at the Briar Barn. Treatments will include massages, facials, waxing, and nail services. Also coming: a lagoon-style outdoor pool, available to inn guests and spa clients alike.
In the meantime, the leafy outdoor terrace and firepit patio is a pleasant spot to sip a cocktail with friends on steamy nights, with a hanging-in-the-backyard vibe. “We’re definitely in a neighborhood,” McKillop says, which is why events here won’t be loud and rowdy. And if they want to offer live music, they’ll have to get a permit. For the record, DJs are allowed.
What else would you do on a weekend getaway to Rowley? We’d hit in-town hot spots Mill River Winery and Todd Farm Flea Market, open on Sunday mornings in season. (Think Fiestaware, not tube socks.) The lively, boutique-filled city of Newburyport is a pretty, 15-minute ride north. Two ocean beaches, Plum Island in Newburyport and the superlative Crane Beach in Ipswich, are a short drive away. On the water, options include Newburyport Whale Watch, boat tours with Essex River Cruises, and kayak rentals from Foote Brothers Canoe and Kayak Rentals (there should be plenty of water in the Ipswich River this summer, after our wet spring.) The inn also offers package deals with North Shore Music Theater in Beverly and other North Shore cultural venues.
For all those who say, “Why Rowley?” we’d say, “Hey, why not?”
Briar Barn Inn, 101 Main St., Rowley; 978-484-5166; www.briarbarninn.com. Rates range from $119 to $289 per night, depending on season. Average daily rate is $189.