Bob Derrick came back after driving the winding portion of Route 1A from Rowley to Newburyport, a rural New England road dotted with farms, antique shops, and flea markets.
He had brought his wife, Mary Jane, from Portsmouth, R.I., for her 71st birthday. The couple had stopped at the Country Garden Inn & Spa in the morning, checked out a few other places, and in the early afternoon had returned to Rowley to check in.
``My wife and I looked around, and she said, `This is the prettiest one,' " Bob said, as he picked up the key to Room 110, which included a Jacuzzi tub and fireplace for $139 a night. ``She wants to go to flea markets, too."
While Country Garden's 24 units are filled most summer weekends with Internet searchers, repeat guests, and drop-in folks like the Derricks, it remains largely unknown to area residents who could avoid the traffic and congestion of Cape Cod and New Hampshire with a vacation right in their backyard.
``We are trying to appeal to people in the area," said Alan Mahar, who owns the inn with his wife, Cindy.
Seventy percent of guests are from out of state, he said. ``We are only 26 miles from Boston. With gas prices so high, you can look out our windows and see the same thing as you do in New Hampshire."
Located just north of the intersection with Route 133, the inn offers a wide range of accommodations, from standard rooms for less than $100 a night (during the week) to town house suites with indoor hot tubs, kitchens, and two gas fireplaces for about $300 a night (on weekends). The inn is minutes from Newburyport if you head north on 1A, and Ipswich is nearby if you drive south.
The Mahars have been innkeepers since April 2005, when they bought Country Garden from their friend Richard Audette, who developed the property over 18 years.
``We would visit him here and just loved the place," Alan Mahar said. One night they were out to dinner, and Audette said, `` `I think I am going to sell it,' " Mahar recalled. ``I wondered if he'd be interested in selling to us."
Alan Mahar, 49, grew up in Wenham; Cindy, 47, in Hamilton. They met at the towns' regional high school. Alan spent 28 years in sales and marketing for office products and had grown tired of traveling. Cindy worked in food services at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in her hometown and also was ready for a lifestyle change.
Audette, an avid gardener who now lives in Gloucester and still calls to check on his trees and flowers, left the 4-acre grounds and building ready for business.
Alan Mahar went to work on getting the word out and attracting newcomers. He changed the name from Country Garden Inn and Motel to Country Garden Inn and Spa. He increased Country Garden's Internet presence and promoted in-room options and specials, including massages and manicures. And he added free wireless Internet access, beckoning business people and others to bring their laptops.
The marketing is working. Through the first week in August, booking was up 11 percent from the same time last year, Mahar said.
One of the specials this summer is a ``Romantic Getaway" that includes a one-hour massage (one person can take it all, or it can be split), a dozen roses with petals strewn about the loft bed and Jacuzzi or hot tub, and a cheese-fruit-chocolate tray. It's $239 a night for the Jacuzzi-fireplace suites, $339 for the 700-square-foot town houses. All rooms also include cable television with free HBO.
Those on a budget can stay in one of the standard rooms in the 1901 farmhouse, the carriage house, the motel, or the cottages ($80-$149) and have access to the gazebo, exercise room, hot tub, and heated outdoor pool. Ipswich Mobile Meals provides room service from 17 restaurants, including the venerable 1640 Hart House and the popular Choate Bridge Pub. The inn is also close to two of the area's eating institutions, the Village Pancake House and the Clam Box, where there's always a line and the owners say: ``We don't claim to have invented the fried clam. We believe we have perfected it."
It was no surprise when Wendy Halkingcroft -- on holiday from Slough, a hamlet in Berkshire County, England -- wandered in on a recent Friday, looking for some peace and quiet. She had joined husband Martin following his business trip to Boston, and they had driven up to ``Niagara" (Wendy's term for the Falls), and now she wanted some R and R.
The Halkingcrofts, like the Derricks, had been up to bustling Newburyport and decided it was a nice place to visit, but they didn't want to stay there.
Wendy looked at the few available rooms before deciding on No. 124 upstairs in the main farmhouse ($129), where she could plop down on the queen four-poster, enjoy a complimentary cuppa, and maybe sneak in a massage before their return to England on Monday.
Alan Mahar said that a lot of Canadians visit in the summer and that Europeans find the inn on the Internet and flock to Rowley to see the foliage.
So with help from daughter Tana, 21, the unofficial office manager, and son A.J., 19, who helps with the grounds, the Mahars take care of their guests, then retire to their home at the back of the property, where their pug, Duke, is waiting for his dinner.
Ask Alan Mahar about future plans, and a gleam comes into his eyes. ``What we plan to do to get it to the next level is build a function center for business meetings and weddings, and I'd like to develop a walking trail around the pond at the back of the property, so people can enjoy the nature," he said. ``That's where we'll go next."
For more information on the inn, including room availability, go to www.countrygardenmotel.com.