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Over the top

Design flair, fine food, and the ultimate in service in scenic Connecticut

over the top
(Mark Wilson / Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / February 25, 2007

MORRIS, Conn. -- The road from Boston to Winvian takes you by down-and-out doughnut shops, motor lodges, lots of places to get auto parts, and working five- and- dime stores.

Approach Litchfield and the scenery suddenly becomes New England bucolic. Morris, the town southwest of Hartford where Winvian is located (the stationery reads Litchfield Hills, which is the region's name), is all white-farmhouse Connecticut.

At the gates you announce yourself, then drive up to a main house so discreetly marked that we had to guess which one it was. Winvian is a cluster of houses (a designer collection of cottages priced in the stratosphere) where guests go to unwind and forget time. With no tennis, golf, or swimming on-site, you have to wonder who will patronize this newest entry among New England's ultra-luxe destinations, opened last month after three years of construction. If you are looking for a restorative place, if your pockets are bottomless, and your idea of relaxation is a long walk and a good book by the fire, snowshoes, croquet, or horseshoes, depending on the season, this is the spot.

You can stay in a cabin built like a treehouse, or another with greenhouse elements, or a third with a helicopter in the living room. One night costs between $1,450 and $1,950, which includes all meals, wines, and anything else you might want. Except treatments at the spa.

At the door, a gracious Italian gentleman, who turns out to be food and beverage manager Paolo Middei, sets the tone . He doesn't quite say it, but his house is your house. We're late for lunch and it doesn't seem to matter.

We sit down in a long, narrow, sun-filled room called the Smith Ell, which overlooks a pond where koi fish swim all winter below the frozen surface. The room is bright, the landscape stunning, and the light snow that fell the evening before almost sparkling. The Italian waiter, in an ankle-length brown apron and vest, offers menus. We're looking for wine but there are none by the glass.

"Choose a bottle," he tells us. "We open it for you."

"Any bottle?"

"Yes."

One menu selection says simply "turkey soup." This no-nonsense presentation -- nothing that makes you think some poor farmer is toiling away producing your perfect parsnips -- is part of chef Chris Eddy's understated approach. The Vermont native's turkey soup is so dense with flavor it probably turns into poultry Jell-O when chilled. A tiny dice of root vegetables, croutons, and parsley adorn the broth. It's the finest version of this homely bowl I've ever had, enhanced by thick slices of dark, but not sour, homemade pain levain and sweet butter.

Eddy, who worked for culinary superstar Daniel Boulud and most recently at Alain Ducasse's Mix in Las Vegas, wanders over after dinner that night. He's unassuming for a chef with the confidence and talent to present food so simply. We have dined on sausages with lentils, creamy foie gras, poussin served in the humble grand-mere style, and a thick pork chop, still pink near the bone, with little adornment. We also enjoyed the delicious Bordeaux left from lunch, which the waiter decanted and saved for us.

Something about Winvian reminds me of Les Prés d'Eugénie, the famous inn and spa in the southwest of France owned by celebrity chef Michel Guérard. Here and there, everything you touch is the best available. Winvian offers Sambonet silverplate flatware, Italian linen and cotton napkins by Anichini (two are included with some fruit when we leave), and Riedel glassware. Where Les Prés specializes in making unknown guests feel like bumpkins, Winvian staff are trained to the hilt. They are always there when you want them, but unobtrusive enough to disappear when you don't. The whole experience hits a certain note that a little higher or lower would seem a mile off.

The main house at Winvian was built in 1775. Winthrop and Vivian Smith bought it in 1948. (His "Win" and her "vian" was what the couple called their country house, and the name stuck .) Their daughter Margaret "Maggie" Smith, who owns the property, and her daughter, Heather Smith, the managing director, did the expansive build-out, restoring and adding onto the original Seth Bird house and hiring 15 architects to design 18 cottages. They also own The Pitcher Inn in Warren, Vt., not quite as luxe as Winvian, but with rooms done by different designers.

Maggie Smith inherited these 113 acres when her parents passed away. Heather Smith tells me on the phone that they didn't have the heart to sell it and see it developed, so they came up with the exclusive cottage idea. The land borders the 4,000 -acre White Memorial Conservation Center, which offers trails and activities. A third of Winvian's land is wetlands, another third farmland, and the rest new structures.

We stay in the only suite in the house, which includes chestnut floors in an English-style bedroom with a large four-poster bed -- so high it comes with a step stool -- where Mr. and Mrs. Darling of "Peter Pan" might have slept. Draped on it is a lush comforter completely covered in bed linens so your skin never touches a blanket. In the bathroom, the marble floors are heated and the shower is about the size of my bedroom at home. When you look closely at the details, here and in the cottages, you see that every tile, every cornice, every bit of carpentry is seamless.

No doubt millions were spent on this renovation. Heather Smith will say only that it's a "significant investment," and you have to wonder if a sleeping capacity of 38, even at these prices, will keep the place afloat. Smith says she's depending on corporate retreats. The Boardroom houses a state-of-the-art meeting place for 22.

Down a path from the main house is the spa, a modern structure operating-room clean and with light pouring in. A massage is $150, 75-minute facial $210, body treatment $225, and upward to $360 for a 90-minute couple's massage. My facial includes a shoulder, arm, and hand massage that is silent and relaxing. Outside the window, I watch the sun go down as the gentle attendant presses the tension out of my neck. When I find my husband, he's sipping champagne and reading by a fire that refuses to catch until a persistent waiter forces it to.

No menus appear at breakfast. They make what you want to eat. My egg-white omelet with toasted pain levain and Harney's tea are delightful. I eat a croissant with dark chocolate oozing at one edge. The soft scramble across from me, with diced prosciutto, looks creamy enough to have been stirred patiently in a water bath.

Winvian's cottages, which we tour with a "guest assistant," as staff are called, are alternately fascinating and hokey. Aside from the helicopter, a treehouse cottage has a tree growing up the middle. The Beaver Lodge has an actual dam above the bed. Each little house is themed, with a bed for two, and a novel element: a shower on a lower level with a glass ceiling for your favorite voyeur; sinks made from trees; showers with smooth all-pebble walls. These and other ideas have given the local trades a free reign to build unusual places with uncommon materials.

And therein lies the rub. There is sculpture on the grounds and artwork galore in the cottages. This is a place where Wall Street types will find nirvana, when instead it might house artists, artisans, craftsmen, and chefs. Workers will probably never come here, except, of course, to work.

Then again, the land was spared from development. It became something quite beautiful.

Contact Sheryl Julian at julian@globe.com .

If You Go

Winivan Resort
155 Alain White Road

Morris, Conn.

860-567-9600

winvian.com

Rates are $1,450 to $1,950 per night, which includes three meals, wine and liquor, and all activities ; spa treatments not included. A 13.2 percent service charge is added for gratuities. Winvian is adjacent to the 4,000-acre White Memorial Conservation Center, where there are walking trails and other activities. Winvian staff will drive you to the conservation land.

Directions: Morris is about 150 miles or less than three hours from Boston. Take Interstate 90 (Mass. Pike) west to I-84 west to I-91 south. At exit 18, merge onto I-691 and follow to I-84 west to I-91 south. Take exit 20 to Route 8 (Torrington) and follow to Route 109 into Morris. Take a right on North Street to Alain White Road.

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