Where the past still gleams; Virginia: The Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville takes guests back to old-fashioned comforts amid historic attractions; SHORT HOP

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An imposing antique forms a backdrop behind the reception desk at the Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville, Va. The bottom portion contains shallow drawers, while the top half displays several rows of cubbyholes that once functioned as hotel mailboxes. Thick brass discs, each bearing the carved likeness of a wild boar, dangle from cup hooks at the tops of the cubbyholes. The golden ornaments form long, neat lines that gleam in the overhead light. When I ask the receptionist if I can take a closer look, she hands me a hefty fob attached to a brass key, and the heavy, glittering disc covers my entire palm.

"Aren't they pretty? The designer from Atlanta suggested we use them as decorations. Unfortunately, it's not safe to use them anymore." Then she smiled and added conspiratorially, "My mother spent her honeymoon here 30 years ago -- she kept one."

I reluctantly return the massive fob, and she hands me an uninspiring plastic passkey for my room. However, I discover that although the keys and some amenities have been modernized, spending nights and days at the inn still provides guests with an elegant, old-fashioned experience.

The Boar's Head Inn, which bills itself as a "country resort," sits on 573 acres on the outskirts of Charlottesville. It contains a main inn building, a four-star restaurant, convention facilities, two outdoor pool complexes, 16 tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, a large state-of-the-art fitness room and a gift shop. Picturesque vegetable and herb gardens provide fresh ingredients for the restaurant and add interest to the grounds.

A limpid green lake outlined by a gravel walking path serves as a centerpiece. On a pretty day, I sit in a wooden swing on the bank beside a weeping willow and watch dragonflies hover over tiny yellow aquatic flowers. The lake is also home to a pair of white swans and flocks of Canada geese and wild ducks.

Overnight accommodations are in four 3- and 4-story guest quarters situated around the property. Two buildings are attached to the main inn via a corridor. The other satellites are located a short walk away. Most rooms feature patios or balconies, and many offer lake or mountain views.

The inn is undergoing a facelift. All guest rooms and hallways have freshly painted walls, newly carpeted floors and recently draped windows. Common areas are in the process of being refurbished. I spent a weekend at the resort three years ago and can testify to the improvements. The inn, although successful in maintaining its signature quaintness, now possesses an appealing freshness.

My spacious lakeside room is located on the ground floor. It features a screened back door that leads to an 8'x 15' brick patio separated from its neighbors by screens of louvered shutters. Two wrought-iron chairs and a small circular table are stationed here. This spot is ideal for enjoying a morning paper and cup of coffee. A green manicured lawn extends from the brick pavement to the lake. Tree-studded hills form a backdrop. It is a simple pleasure to impulsively leave my cup and paper on the table and step out for a leisurely morning walk into a landscape that evokes a dewy English countryside.

The interior of my room features the same warm cream, camel, brown and brick-red color-scheme as the inn's exterior. The decor strives to create the feeling of a cozy, 18th-century country inn -- a gentrified version. To that end, a pretty four-poster, king-size bed covered with a cream-colored spread dominates the space. A plaid, fringed throw lies neatly folded at the foot, a nice touch. It's perfect to wrap around shoulders while sitting on the patio in cool weather or to use as a light coverlet while napping in the upholstered chair.

The room also features two armchairs and a writing desk with a drop-leaf that transforms it into an eating table. A large armoire contains a TV, a do-it-yourself coffee service, a small refrigerator and a safe. Two beefy bathrobes and an ironing board share space in the closet.

The white tile bathroom makes up for its small size by offering the charm of a dark wood, marble-topped washstand. A modern sink with goose-neck faucet takes the place of a basin and pitcher. Stacks of white towels and a hair dryer are stashed on the shelf underneath. A delightful wall-mounted print depicts the metamorphoses of two caterpillars into moths.

Recreational activities

The Boar's Head Inn complex serves double duty as community country club. Locals and vacationers alike are drawn to its recreational possibilities. In addition to classic diversions of golf, tennis and swimming, guests may bicycle around the grounds or try their hand at fishing using complimentary equipment. The complex offers the added attractions of spa services and hot air ballooning.

The inn is a popular setting for wedding receptions. During my stay, I saw a 1937 Cadillac limo with a white bow tied on its hood ornament pull into the parking lot -- no doubt a "getaway car." Later that afternoon, from a distance, I glimpsed a bride and groom posing for a photographer. A large white semi-permanent tent commands a spot at one end of the lake. The pavilion provides an alternate site for wedding festivities and other big parties.

The Boar's Head has many attractions to recommend it; however, the jewel in its crown is its distinguished restaurant, the Old Mill Room. The original portion of the inn was constructed from a waterwheel grist mill (1834) that was spared from burning during the Civil War. The historic structure was dismantled, then reassembled on the site. The interior of the restaurant features exposed beams and massive, rough-hewn columns from the mill. Polished, honey-colored hardwood floors, cream walls and several windows brighten the space and balance the interesting dark and massive architectural details. Although rustic looking, the restaurant has a sense of refinement imparted by immaculate white tablecloths, fresh flowers, a jackets-for-men dress code and attentive liveried personnel.

New chef Alex Montiel is a winner. We enjoyed his work during a Saturday night candlelight dinner. We knew we were in for a memorable experience when the pewter bread basket arrived bearing freshly baked rolls, sweet cornbread sticks and slim wooden wands featuring silver dollar-size tidbits at the ends. The waitress explained that the chef makes each "potato lollipop" by trapping a small sprig of fresh herb between two potato "leaves" at the end of a flat skewer, then frying the tiny sandwich briefly. The small green frond is visible through crisp potato panes -- the savory morsels are deliciously different.

As expected, dinner is extraordinary. For me, it includes roasted shallot bisque laced with fresh crabmeat and a vegetable medley paired with a seafood ragout. The tender vegetables and fresh herbs come from the inn's gardens.

Other places to visit

The Boar's Head Inn is near several points of interest. The historic campus of the University of Virginia, Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's celebrated mansion), Ash Lawn-Highlands (James Monroe's plantation) and Montpelier (home of James and Dolley Madison) are all only short drives away.

And, although I recommend the inn for at least one breakfast and dinner, Charlottesville offers many great places to enjoy a meal. For lunch, I recommend the Bellair Market Gourmet-To-Go, less than a mile from the Boar's Head entrance. This unique combination gas station, convenience store, coffee emporium and gourmet eatery is a fun place to eat. The menu features sandwiches containing Virginia ham, freshly prepared salads, vegetarian and meaty casseroles, and deserts (such as tiramisu and local peach and blackberry cobblers). Diners may eat in or take out.

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