For his birthday last year, William Robertson chose to visit his favorite place: a lovely Italianate villa set in the lush Virginia countryside.
And when the 7-year-old arrived at Keswick Hall, accompanied by his family, the staff at the luxury inn treated him like royalty.
"There was a card in the room and snacks," said his mother, Catherine Robertson. "Later, at dinner, the chef made him dessert with clef notes decorating the plate. And the pianist played 'Happy Birthday.'"
William was delighted. So were his parents who were married on this property in the 1990s. Since then, the Virginia residents have returned often with their three children.
"When we asked our son where he wanted to go, he didn't say Disney World or anyplace like that," said Robertson, whose children range in age from 6 to 12. "He wanted to go someplace he'd visited before and loved, that our whole family enjoys."
And that place was Keswick Hall, a 48-room hotel and resort just outside Charlottesville. Built in 1912 as a private residence, it's on a 600-acre estate framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Graced with trees, rolling meadows, lakes and gently sloping hills, the area was once described by Thomas Jefferson as the "Eden of the United States." During a recent visit, I could see why Jefferson built his famed Monticello nearby. It's achingly beautiful in this region.
Sprawling and picturesque from the outside, filled with antiques, art and elegant furnishings inside, Keswick Hall is nestled in Virginia hunt country with wildlife so abundant that it has been designated an Audubon Society Estate.
Yet, beyond the pastoral setting and old-world refinement, the resort boasts plenty of modern and boutique amenities — including Wi-Fi in rooms, award-winning cuisine, a vineyard and a top sommelier.
It makes this retreat a choice for families with kids who don't want to sacrifice sophistication. Moms and dads, teens and tweens, and grandparents will all find something to do here. Even babies are welcome. There's a baby "butler service" offering bottles and gourmet food, and sitters are on call.
"We get a good number of young families — about 30 to 40 percent of our guests," said Andre Xavier, the front desk manager. "Many come in the summer, and during vacations when school is out."
One thing that might appeal to a younger set steeped in video games and computers: The "to do" list here is delightfully eclectic. Think bocce, yoga and billiards. Horseshoes, pingpong and volleyball. Croquet, water basketball and badminton. You'll also find Wii games, archery and lawn darts — even hot-air balloon tours that provide a bird's-eye view of the countryside.
And that's just a sampling.
Hotel guests also have access to a private country club that features an indoor/outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, fitness and tennis centers, plus an 18-hole signature golf course redesigned by Arnold Palmer.
In that same complex, the Palmer Room offers casual dining with expansive views of the golf course. After a morning golf lesson, I joined some new pals for lunch. The menu showcased local produce, seafood and Asian-inspired cuisine, including squash bisque, tequila lime shiso chicken and jumbo lump crab cakes "Delmarva."
As I enjoyed my tasty entree of oysters, I sipped — what else? — an Arnold Palmer. Half iced tea, half lemonade.
Fall at the hall
Autumn brings its own distinct pleasures to Keswick Hall. Chief among them, of course, is the promise of glorious fall foliage.
"When the leaves change, it's even more beautiful," said Xavier, who adds that October typically launches the burst of color. Families can take nature walks on the trails.
Other fall-friendly pursuits here include archery, bike riding and historic estate tours. There's fly or cast fishing at the property's Broadmoore Lake, which the resort stocks with catfish and rainbow trout.
Visitors can also swim year-round at Keswick Hall. The resort boasts three pools — two of which remain open after Labor Day. I was drawn to the outdoor infinity pool, where the edge drops off like a waterfall. It's a tiny oasis in a scenic garden with sweeping property views. There's piped-in music that plays underwater, and the pool is heated.
"We keep the horizon pool open until the temperatures go below freezing," said Xavier, adding that last winter's snow forced the staff to, somewhat reluctantly, close the pool. "We're hoping for mild weather," he said.
If not, there's usually a roaring fire somewhere — fireplaces are abundant in this grand hotel. Beginning in the fall, guests can expect to see bright blazes and warm hearths.
"We burn real wood and the pastry chef does s'mores and roasted chestnuts," said Xavier. "Everyone's invited."
If you're more in the mood for fine dining, many guests and locals alike flock to Fossett's — the hotel's nationally recognized restaurant. Its floor-to-ceiling windows provide a stunning vista of the property.
Known for impeccable service, the restaurant serves innovative regional American fare and has a "garden-to-table" philosophy, with the hotel maintaining its own "Chef's Garden," growing seasonal produce that shows up on many plates.
Fossett's, which has an adjoining bar with live music, also maintains a well-stocked wine cellar featuring both Virginia and international wines — more than 650 labels.
Keswick Hall produces its own private-label chardonnay, and it has a tasting room on the property. The resort recently planted a vineyard on the property and anticipates a harvest by 2012.
Grand rooms, grand guests
Such rarified touches have made the hotel popular with celebrities, too.
Mick Jagger, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Murray, Morgan Freeman, and the late James Brown and Paul Newman have all stayed here over the years.
It's said Anthony Hopkins favors a certain room (No. 9) as do fellow actors Michael J. Fox and Julianne Moore (No. 32). Hollywood has even come calling to film here: Room No. 12 was immortalized in the movie "Four Seasons," starring Carol Burnett and Alan Alda.
It's no wonder that the stars like sleeping over at Keswick Hall — no two rooms are alike. Each is subtly themed (think aviation, maps, music, the circus) with traditional furnishings, antique armoires instead of closets, and plush beds — many of the canopied, four-poster variety.
As is customary on grand estates, Keswick Hall also has public rooms that serve different purposes.
The Crawford Lounge — where silver dishes and porcelain bowls hold fruit and nuts, and decanters gleam with colorful liqueurs — is ideal for cocktails or afternoon tea. It also hosts a popular weekday lunch buffet that draws area residents.
Then there's the library, with its overstuffed furniture and period-inspired pieces. It houses more than 400 books by Virginians or about Virginia, including rare editions.
That's where Catherine Robertson found herself on a lazy afternoon this summer.
While her husband played golf and the children were off taking a cooking class, she headed into the cozy room to relax.
"I sank into a down-filled sofa, sipped a drink and read for hours," she said. The family reconvened later, at dinner, with the children excitedly sharing details of their day.
"At a lot of nicer resorts, kids are allowed, but they're not really welcome," she said. "We appreciate that they make families feel special."
If you go Getting there
Keswick Hall is about 21/2 hours from Baltimore by car. To get there, take your favorite route to Interstate 495 (Capital Beltway), exit onto Interstate 66 west to Gainesville, Va., then take U.S. 29 south to Charlottesville. From there, go east on U.S. 250 to Shadwell, Va.; left on state Route 22 east for 1.5 miles; and turn right onto Route 744. Keswick Hall is right ahead. Amtrak also offers train service into downtown Charlottesville.
Keswick Hall room rates start around $395 per night. The resort offers a variety of packages that include golf, meals and more.
Be sure the little ones pick up their "Keswick Passport" stamped for Kids Only. The passport is cleverly designed as an interactive guide to Keswick Hall and Estate, Charlottesville and the surrounding area. Other activities available at cost include golf lessons, tennis lessons, horseback riding and fly-fishing instruction.
The estates of several presidents are also nearby, including Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier and James Monroe's Ash Lawn Highland.
Go to keswick.com or call 800-274-5391.