Saturday 23 June 2018

Rhode Island & Berkshires: A cruise on dry land

US Rhode Trip

Ocean House, Rhode Island
Ocean House, Rhode Island
Blantyre is a red brick mansion with turrets, towers and gargoyles set in the middle of woods
The wonderful Weekapaug Inn

Anne Marie Scanlon

The Ocean House had me at 'Hello'.

I arrived very late at night having crossed the Atlantic on a Norwegian flight to Boston, and then taken a car to my destination at Watch Hill, Rhode Island.

Everyone on this side of the Atlantic has heard of the Hamptons and probably think of it as posh (parts are) but The Berkshires and Rhode Island are where the real Toffs retreat as they're more discrete.

The check-in process was swift and painless but it was what happened next that made me fall deeply in love with the place. When asked if I'd like an alarm call in the morning and I answered in the affirmative, I was asked what beverage I would like. No disturbing phone call to scare you out of sleep - instead the comfort of caffeine.

The following day, having ingested a large flask of coffee, I had a look around and the more I saw, the more I fell in love. It's actually hard to do Ocean House justice without gushing.

The hotel is rated five-star and deserves every single one of them. Like most other five-star properties, it's fabulous and awe-inspiring but there's more to it. Ocean House is designed as a haven, a place of relaxation and calm, the food is splendid and the staff not just efficient but apparently happy too. Small wonder 70pc of guests are regulars.

Blantyre is a red brick mansion with turrets, towers and gargoyles set in the middle of woods
Blantyre is a red brick mansion with turrets, towers and gargoyles set in the middle of woods

In order to effect the least stress on guests, the hotel operates as a 'stationary cruise'. I particularly loved this. I'm a fan of cruising but inevitably get seasick. Tips and gratuities, and the contents of the minibar and snack bar are included in the room rate. On opening my door and without even walking out on to my large veranda, I could see and hear the sea. All without feeling woozy. That's what they call a 'win, win' situation.

Also visible from my bed - Taylor Swift's seaside retreat. (I don't think she was home, not that I scrutinised with binoculars or anything). Nor did I scramble over rocks in an effort to get a better look - mainly because they're fenced off!

When you're in Ocean House it's easy to forget that you're in a commercial property. The artwork on the walls is all original (and routinely changed) and I could have spent all my time just wandering around looking at it. Overall the experience is more like staying in a private house (owned by exceedingly rich people, obviously) than being in a hotel.

In keeping with the stationary cruise theme a variety of daily activities are available to guests, including watching films in the luxurious 'cinema' along with cookery and wine appreciation classes. I had a go at making a pasta dish with chef Ryan Beaudoin. It was delicious and he was good enough to give me all the credit, which I'm shamelessly taking!

Both Ocean House and The Weekapaug Inn, where I next stayed on this fantastic trip, and which is about a 10-minute drive away (you can borrow one of the Ocean House Mercedes), are part of the Relais & Chateaux collection.

The Weekapaug Inn also has beachfront access and is a great place to take the kids. The main reason for this is their in-house naturalist Mark Bullinger. (That's naturalist, not naturist, Mark keeps his clothes on). One of the activities Mark oversees - and is equally enjoyable for both adults and kids, is a beachcombing expedition for shells and sea glass which he then helps you turn into jewellery. I now have a beautiful necklace that is completely unique and priceless in its own way.

The wonderful Weekapaug Inn
The wonderful Weekapaug Inn

Mark is also an expert on oysters and oyster farming but he got a bit embarrassed when attempting to explain the sex life of these molluscs. I googled the subject and don't blame him for blushing.

While at Weekapaug I managed to drop my laptop. It slammed right into the joints where toes meet foot. The pain was excruciating but, as I'd done it in public, the embarrassment was worse. The staff had my foot in a bag of ice before I could swear out loud, and were kindness itself.

In an effort to combat the pain I overdid the painkillers which left me feeling extremely nauseous and with killer indigestion. I retired to my room and lay on the bed, afraid to move, lest something come up.

At that point the chambermaid came in. I was mortified but she was extremely nice to me and called a colleague who immediately brought medication. I was unsurprised to hear she has five kids, as she made me feel safe and cared for.

I'm happy to report that my foot was mended enough for me to end the night at the outdoor fire pit, toasting marshmallows, making s'mores, looking at the stars and listening to the nearby crash nearby.

Rhode Island, the smallest of North America's states, became popular with the super-millionaires of the Gilded Age era (about the late 1800s to World War I). The likes of the Astors, Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Rockefellers liked to escape New York to summer in their 'cottages' (mansions). The Berkshires, in the mountains of Connecticut and Massachusetts, similarly offered respite to these uber-moneyed folk as they can be reached in three hours from either New York or Boston by train.

In the town of Lenox, Massachusetts, alone there are a variety of mansions originally belonging to Edith Wharton, JP Morgan's sister and businessman John Sloan.

Blantyre, the third hotel I stayed in, was originally built by the very rich Robert Paterson, and named after his mother's ancestral home in Scotland. The red brick mansion with its turrets, towers and gargoyles set in the middle of woods has a distinctly fairytale air. Relais & Chateaux recently added the hotel to its portfolio and has been busy refurbishing it as authentically as possible.

Fans of Downton Abbey will just love Blantyre with its wood-panelled Great Hall, massive fireplaces and spectacular chandeliers.

I stayed in the Carriage House, a short walk from the main house, where all the bedrooms and suites are different. Some suites are split-level which my inner child found very exciting.

Being one of the first guests to stay in the refurbished property, I didn't get to partake of the fine dining experience which will be in the Conservatory. However, the food in the Bistro was absolutely delicious.

As a non-drinker, I have tried a variety of non-alcoholic cocktails but even as someone with a great love of sweets I've found most of them sugary enough to take the enamel of my teeth. In Blantyre, I finally encountered a proper grown-up mocktail, the 'Juniper & Tonic' created by barman James.

When the Gilded Age ended, the Berkshires became synonymous with the arts. A couple of friends and I decided we'd walk over to The Mount, former home of writer Edith Wharton and now a museum. The walk didn't take that long (probably a little over half an hour) but it was mostly along main roads and all of us felt a bit exposed with cars and trucks zooming by. I'd recommend taking one of the Blantyre's cars.

The Norman Rockwell Museum is also nearby, in the town of Stockbridge. I've always been a huge Rockwell fan, so this was a definite must-see. Many people remember him as a sentimental 'American Dream' artist who drew cutesy covers for The Saturday Evening Post magazine but there was more to the artist.

The museum contains several iconic civil rights images, including The Problem We All Live With (1964), depicting six-year-old Ruby Burgess being escorted to school by four US Marshals, and Murder in Mississippi (1965), a stark portrayal of the infamous incident which occurred in 1964 when three young civil rights volunteers were killed. The museum also has Rockwell's studio, which was transported from his nearby home, in the grounds.

Both Blantyre and Ocean House are the ideal location to celebrate a significant event like a wedding, an anniversary, a significant birthday or maybe a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

Ocean House hosts only one wedding a weekend, which just like everything else there, is aimed at making guests feel as special as they possibly can.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Fine dining at Coast

Coast, the fine-dining restaurant at Ocean House is a five-star dining experience. There are two five-course tasting menus, one for carnivores and one for vegetarians. Each course is paired with a specific wine.

Clark Art Institute

The Clark is famous in the art world but you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy the fantastic collection  such as its Gauguin (detail above). It is set in a 140-acre campus with amazing views. clarkart.edu

Getting there

Norwegian flies a five-time-a-week direct service between Dublin and Providence in summer, increasing to a daily service this winter. Fares start from €118 one way/ €199 return, including all taxes and charges. To book, visit norwegian.com/ie or call 0330 828 0854.

Ocean House from €337 per night (oceanhouseri.com)

Weekapaug Inn (above) from €291 (weekapauginn.com)

Blantyre from €367(blantyre.com)

And don't miss The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute (clarkart.edu) or the Norman Rockwell Museum (nrm.org)...

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