New England has long been the destination of choice for the East Coast elite. From mountain hideaways in the Berkshires to nature-inspired inns in Rhode Island, I uncover some of its secret gems and discovers an iconic summer-time playground just waiting to be explored.
On the cliff-edge in the distance, a lighthouse stands and, later that night, when its glow lights up the dark sky, I half expect to see Jay Gatsby’s silhouette outlined against it. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t set his bestselling novel in Watch Hill but he surely could have – for it’s the kind of place Gatsby would have dreamt about: timeless, romantic and intrinsically American.
The Eastern Seaboard town, found at the most south-western point of Rhode Island, the smallest state in America, has long had a reputation for being one of the country’s most affluent summer resorts. The dramatic Atlantic coastline is punctuated with impressive ‘cottages’ (better described as mansions), which were originally built in the 19th century by wealthy families wanting to escape the heat of Manhattan and Connecticut. These days, its quaint oceanside feel remains a discreet counterpoint to the flashier Hamptons and continues to welcome a multi-generational mix of well-heeled names.
High on the bluffs, overlooking the crashing waves, is Ocean House. Practically an institution – the sunshine-yellow weatherboard hotel originally opened in 1868 and has long paid homage to New England’s golden age of hospitality. These days, the storied hotel – now part of the OHM Collection – is dripping in awards, having been rebuilt by co-owners Charles and Deborah Royce to exacting historical accuracy and even better levels of luxury.
The front of the property, with its verandas, pillars and sash windows, is an exact replica of the hotel from its turn-of-the-century heyday, including the original signage, and, inside, many of the original features have been meticulously reproduced. The period feel has further been retained with some 5,000 artefacts salvaged from the property. In the lobby lounge, for instance, stands a huge stone fireplace which was dismantled and rebuilt stone by stone (twice, in fact, to get it perfectly right). The hotel’s first phone booth (originally installed so holidaying Wall Street financiers could call back to the city) has been repurposed as a fancy display cabinet and the main lift is a modernised, decorative, brass carriage-elevator dating back to the late 1800s.
Out of sight of the preservationists, but keeping within conservation requirements, the back of the hotel contains new areas – including a stand-out destination spa, with an indoor lap pool, herbal steam rooms, state-of-the-art fitness centre and squash courts.
One of the hotel’s highlights, and adding tons of personality, is a varied art collection (the hotel even has its own art curator). From unpublished cover sketches for The New Yorker to caricatures by the Belle Époque cartoonist Sem, everywhere there’s something novel to catch the eye.
The finely-tuned, seaside décor also does its bit to cement the ‘age of innocence’ feel. Classically designed, with white shutters, hardwood floors and Queen Anne beds, the bedrooms are just what you’d expect from a grand-dame New England hotel. From the complimentary private bar with jars of gourmet snacks to the monogrammed pillow left on the bed – to reflect the initials of your surname – the attention to detail is second-to-none.
While the standard rooms are uber-chic, the suites are spectacular. For utter romance, the circular Tower Suite, with its classic nautical décor, wood panelling and window seats is simply dreamy. On a mezzanine level, there’s a spiral staircase leading to the Crow’s Nest — a snug den overlooking the living area, which comes complete with a ladder to lead the romantically-inclined outside to the widow’s walk – a favourite spot for marriage proposals.
This is the kind of place guests dress for lunch and dinner and, it being a Relais & Châteaux hotel, food is just as much the focus as the aesthetics. In Coast by Jennifer Backman, the haute tasting menu changes nightly to showcase seasonal and local produce. While in The Bistro, it’s all about classic New England flavours – oysters, clams and lobster rolls. Blazers and button-down-shirts are a must for the Sunday Brunch, which has live jazz, and gets booked-up weeks in advance. When summer arrives, the hotel comes into its own and opens a ‘raw bar’ at The Verandah, a Below Deck doughnuts, gelato and milkshake store, and a Secret Garden Champagne Bar, not to mention the iconic lobster boils on the beach.
Talking of which, you feel here that the sense of place is as important as it ever was, and there’s pride in being part of the local community. Perfectly illustrating this is the group’s second property, found just a short 15-minute drive along the coast.
The Weekapaug Inn also has a strong sense of history, with it having first opened in 1899. Renovated in 2012, it takes inspiration from its natural surroundings set on Quonochontaug Pond. Wide skies, bull-rushes and sand-dunes set the tone. Inside the house, there’s a whimsical painted mural of seagulls, ospreys and gulls gracing the main staircase and a closet full of Hunter Boots in the lobby – Weekapaug is all about encouraging guests to explore the great outdoors.
Getting you into the swing of things is the in-house naturalist, Mark Bullinger – who offers a range of unique activities, from birdwatching – there’s an amazing abundance of birdlife, such as herons and purple marlins – to stargazing. There’s also paddle boarding on the pond, crabbing on the beach and water safaris on one of the hotel’s boats. If that doesn’t tire you out, then you can also take one of the cruiser bikes to explore the area, take a dip in the lap pool or play a choice of lawn games.
Downtime is equally satisfying, however, and the laid-back feel is followed through with the food offering – lobster and clam bakes, bbq’d chicken and s’mores sizzled over a fire-pit. After a day spent outdoors, wind in the hair, early nights beckon – and there’s nowhere nicer to lie your head than in the country-style bedrooms. Seagreen-painted floorboards are warmed by cream and sage woven rugs, beds are prettied with petal-print cushions and ditzy-print headboards. There are pinstripe curtains and vintage chairs, bird books and binoculars. Even the most hardened urbanites will be charmed.
Before you get too cosy, however, a final stop in your New England tour should be a side-trip inland to the latest project of the OHM Collection. Found in the Berkshires, a mountainous region in western Massachusetts, Blantyre, in Lenox, was once home to Scottish magnate Robert Paterson. Built in 1902 at the height of the ‘gilded age’, the rambling house and estate was one of the original ‘Berkshire Cottages’ – a misnomer applied to around 70 mansions built in the area belonging to a group of wealthy elite.
These days, it is one of the last remaining Gilded Age mansions in the US, and the perfect spot for exploring the region’s artistic heritage – nearby is The Mount – the home of author Edith Wharton, Tanglewood – the summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (not to mention an endless roster of jazz, rock and live music,) and the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Blantyre itself has been a hotel since the early 1980s – renowned, in fact, for being the first Relais & Châteaux property in the US – and since OHM Collection purchased it in late 2016, it has undergone a magnificent 21st-century upgrade, with its doors having just opened for a new chi chi crowd. Gone are the chintz and overblown décor, and instead there’s been an reimagining of its historical importance.
The Tudor-style main house, with its wood-panelled halls and restaurants retain their original splendour with specially-sourced furniture and standout lighting to retain the age-old atmosphere (one bespoke Venetian chandelier took 14 glassblowers 10 days to complete). Up the magnificent staircase, complete with stained-glass windows, are eight guest rooms, all of which have a pared-back style. Muted heritage colours have been used throughout to offset original features such as shutters, wallpapers and original bathrooms.
In the grounds are further rooms – 11 suites are found in the Carriage House and there are four characterful cottages. Best of all is the immersive dining across two restaurants – a traditional brasserie, with food served on vintage Spode and Dresden plates, and The Conservatory, which has an emphasis on elevated farm-to-table cuisine. Blantyre – with its famously well-connected (and fiercely loyal) guests – is also renowned for its iconic wine list, with some 10,000 bottles in one of the biggest private wine cellars in the region. Even Gatsby would be impressed.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Boston four times a day, fares start at £349, hand-baggage only. ba.com
This article is also published in the July 2018 issue of The Canary Wharf Magazine