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Checking In

A Vermont inn on its way to being storied

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / April 9, 2006

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. -- It's as true of houses as of people that oldtimers often tell the best stories. The Swift House Inn, it so happens, has a tale of entwined destinies. Lawyer, judge, and newspaperman Samuel Swift built the main house in 1814 on a rolling hill overlooking the river-hollow village of Middlebury.

On Swift's death in 1875, the property was sold to Governor John Stewart. His daughter Jessica inherited the house and married a grandson of the original owner, making it once again the Swift home. The family used it as a country retreat until Jessica Swift moved there full-time in 1939. When she died in 1982 at 110, the estate became an inn.

The canopy bed and fireplace led us to pick the Swift Room from the inn's website pictures. Not until we arrived did we appreciate the complex history, or that we would occupy the master bedroom. The door to Room 24 was at the top of a broad staircase that ascends from the parlor. Directly across the hall, the brass birdcage elevator used by Jessica Swift in her later years was filled with plants.

True to the web picture, the most prominent features of our large room (roughly 20-by-24 feet) were the queen-size spindle bed with a white cotton canopy and the brick-hearth fireplace with a white-painted mantel decorated with a photo of Jessica Swift. Wingback chairs flanked the door to a private deck. (Alas, the weather was too dank to sit outside and appreciate the long slope of the lawn.) The pink-blue-and-green floral upholstery of the chairs was echoed in the curtains and complemented by salmon pink wallpaper with a white floral repeat.

The cable television was hidden in a dark wooden armoire, furniture the earlier owners didn't need, since the room had a substantial walk-in closet. All in all, the effect of the room was homey, right down to the worn wooden floor and the occasional nicks and dings on the furniture and woodwork. The large (7-by-15 feet) bathroom featured a deep soaking tub (with shower fixture) and a sink top broad enough to spread out our toiletries.

The bedroom fireplace was laid with a Duraflame log, but the big parlor fireplace seethed and popped with hardwood logs. With a couch and four well-padded armchairs, it was a perfect spot to relax in the afternoon with a cup of coffee from the high-tech, single-cup tea and coffee brewing system in one corner. The parlor also functioned as a buffer between the small bar, where a chessboard was set up in front of a cozy couch, and the dining room, which serves dinner to guests and to the public.

It's an easy amble from the inn to the center of Middlebury, a college town studded with crafts galleries, bookstores, and boutiques of outdoor gear and youthful clothing. And like most college towns, the village has many places to eat. We stayed home: The Swift House Inn offers a three-course prix fixe for $28 and has a 145-bottle wine list with good choices in all price ranges.

Dark wainscoting, a large gas-log fireplace, and linen-draped tables gave the dining room the feel of an upscale tavern. Local residents seem to favor the spot for get-togethers. Two couples seated near us were celebrating the birthday of one of the group.

The contemporary American menu made good use of local products. We started with a Fuji apple and Cabot cheddar soup (with a dollop of maple cream) and grilled bruschetta topped with Maplewood Farms smoked mozzarella, before moving on to entrees of a top-round lamb steak and local free-range chicken with oven-roasted parsnips. Everything was well prepared, if a bit underseasoned. Desserts were gooey and rich: an apple tart with caramel sauce and cinnamon ice cream, and chocolate bread pudding doused with the same sauce.

The sun was streaming in when we returned to the dining room for breakfast and found a buffet of breads, croissants, cereal, and yogurt. Those, however, were just starters. We had our choice of eggs any way we wanted them, including omelets filled with fresh vegetables and local cheese. After catching her breath from the list of omelet fillings, our waitress told us we could also select pancakes (with or without blueberries) or French toast.

With Vermont maple syrup, of course.

Contact David Lyon and Patricia Harris, freelance writers in Cambridge, at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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