Keswick Hall at Monticello offers a step back in time

By Steve Rocca, Contributor

KESWICK, Va. -- If you've ever been treated like just another number at a large resort, you'll appreciate the appeal of a place like Keswick Hall at Monticello. It's a place where you put your feet up and allow yourself to be pampered. Big-box resorts know how to cater to a large number of people, but Keswick prides itself on catering to you and only you.

No matter what you desire, and no matter how many in your party, Keswick will make your dreams come true.

The estate, located five miles east of Charlottesville, VA., is a small, cozy resort with just 48 rooms. Set on 600 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is on Conde Nast Traveler magazine's 2002 Gold List of "the world's best places to stay." The resort won the award by learning how to say "yes" to everything and "no" to nothing.

Formerly owned by Englishman Sir Bernard Ashley, the property was purchased in 1999 by Orient Express Hotels. These are the same folks who have perfected the art of pampering at places like the Windsor Court in New Orleans and the upscale dining establishment "21" in New York.

The rooms are decorated with Laura Ashley accents, fine paintings and other art collections. The public rooms, including the morning room where tea is served daily, the library and the snooker room all offer a down-home atmosphere where guests are encouraged to browse.

"Is there a better way to finish off a round of golf than with cognac, cigars and a little game of snooker after dinner?" said Doug Camp, the director of sales and marketing. "Anything you want, we can do it."

And he's not kidding. Want a private room for dinner? Just give him 30 minutes' notice, and he'll make it happen, even if it's just the two of you. The last time he did that, the couple spent $4,000 picking from the world-class wine cellar. You want to have your board meeting on the croquet lawn? No problem. Camp's crew did that recently, and all they needed was the time to get the leather chairs and table moved out onto the lawn. In a matter of minutes, presto. You want a fire in the fireplace on a chilly night? They are built on request by the staff, even outside on the patio.

A popular feature is the "ultimate takeover." It allows a group or a family to purchase the entire estate for a week or a weekend. The front gates will be closed to visitors, a sign will be posted and the entire 100-person wait staff will be at your service. Talk about intimacy and privacy. Camp said this feature is popular with groups that like secrecy, like patent groups, among others.

The resort is complemented by an Arnold Palmer golf course, lighted tennis courts, fitness and massage facilities, saunas and spas, and a candlelit dining room.

There are four pools: An Olympic size 35-meter outdoor lap pool; an indoor-outdoor pool and a wading pool would be plenty for most places. But the jewel here is the $1.3 million horizon's edge pool, complete with an underwater sound system so you can hear music while submerged. The "horizon's edge" has an open waterfall at one end of the pool that allows visitors to sit on one end and see the mountains through the other side.

"It's an experience like coming to your wealthy uncle's house," Camp said. "There are no reader boards and no Musac. It's not like a hotel in the true sense at all."

The lobby and hallway floors are made of six-inch thick stones from European chateau ruins. As you walk, you can stop to enjoy butterfly collections, original paintings or sculptures. This is a place where strolling is the order of the day. There is no hustle and bustle here. One downstairs meeting room, which has a wall-to-wall mural of a Welsh train station, has an antique model of a vintage train set along the upper rim. Antiques can be found at every turn, and only 5 percent of the furnishings are NOT antiques.

The mornings here are quiet and peaceful, and as you eat breakfast or enjoy your coffee on the patio, the only interruption to the peace and tranquility is the sound of geese flying overhead. You will not hear any traffic or car horns, although there is the periodic whistle of a nearby train, which in itself is a charming interruption to the quiet.

Just off the patio, between the hotel and the croquet lawn is a well-manicured garden that chef Bruce McLeod presides over regularly. He grows all of his own herbs here, in addition to some green peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers and pumpkin. As they ripen, he incorporates them into the menu in the main Dining Room.

As for golf, guests are issued temporary memberships in Keswick Golf Club, a private 347-member club located just a 50-foot chip shot from the guest house. No car or shuttle bus needed. Just walk out of your room and onto the course. Golfers can make a tee time, but why bother? With no marshals, rangers or even a starter, you can play whenever you like. Grab a fresh Granny Smith apple out of the barrel, or perhaps a fresh orange, and off you go.

The 18-hole course, a Palmer redesign of a Fred Findlay layout, is popular in these parts and is booked every weekend between now and Thanksgiving. The course is one of the best conditioned courses you will ever play. It is only 6,300 yards from the back tees, but it is harder than the yardage might indicate.

A front-nine renovation that was just completed finds hand-laid brick cart paths throughout the course, in addition to another 200 yards of length. The back nine will be closed next July and August for similar work, which will bring the new length to a more challenging 6,700 yards.

Course superintendent Peter McDonough also is adding bunkers to the 47 already on the course. Even with the advances in technology of clubs and balls, this course forces you to think your way around it. Most tees are elevated, forcing you to take an extra two clubs on approach shots, and the rough is quite penal. Once on the greens, your work really begins, because they are quite slippery and can test even the best putters.

Palmer called them "the finest greens in Virginia, probably on the East Coast." Some would argue, no doubt, but the point is this course is all about the two "Ps" -- placement and putting. If you can do both, you'll get around in great shape. If you can't do either, you may want to try your hand at snooker.

There is as much or as little to do at Keswick as you would like. Whether it's golf and snooker you crave, or soaking in the Jacuzzi after a workout in the exercise room, taking a hike or reading a book, Keswick can accommodate.

Keswick Hall at Monticello offers a step back in time to a simpler, more relaxed and peaceful place. It is an American country retreat with an ideal setting in the heart of Virginia.

Man's best friend

If you are a dog lover, there are a couple different avenues you'll enjoy at Keswick.

Across the street is one of the few remaining hunt clubs in the United States. Many guests go for power walks in the morning with the head handsmaster, who guides and trains the dogs with hand commands. It's a science that leaves you in awe.

On the course, Wendy is a working and determined Border Collie. She can be found roaming the course at all times, but hole No. 18, a 417-yard par-4 with a lake on the left, attracts the most geese. They are not there long before Wendy persuades them to relocate. Her hard work ensures her feathered friends move off of the fairways so golfers have a clean right of way.

With all the excuses taken away, you'll still be left shaking your head on the tough but scenic finishing hole. After a good tee shot, assuming you avoid OB and the bunkers right and the water and geese left, you are left with about 160 yards into the green. The green slopes right-to-left, and the carry over the natural preserve to this elevated green makes the play an extra two or three clubs. Stopping it on the green with a 3- or a 4-iron is next to impossible.

This is a hole you'll want to take another crack at, and at Keswick, you're more than welcome to play it again, at no extra charge.

Stay and play

The golf and spa package includes a choice of unlimited golf, or a spa treatment per person each day, along with full breakfast and traditional English afternoon tea for $550-$600 per night.

Off course

Monticello, Jefferson's home: Located 5 miles West.
University of Virginia: Located 7 miles West.
Montpelier, James Madison's home: Located 20 miles East.
Skyline Drive/Blueridge Parkway: Located 30 miles West.
Colonial Williamsburg: Located East 85 miles.
Busch Gardens: Located East 85 miles.
Ashlawn-Highland, James Monroe's home: Located 5 miles East.
Virginia wineries: Located East 10 miles.

Fast fact

Keswick has four swimming pools. The jewel is the $1.3 million horizon's edge pool, complete with an underwater sound system so you can hear music while submerged. The "horizon's edge" has an open waterfall at one end of the pool that allows visitors to sit on one end and see the mountains through the other side.

Orientation: Located on Rt. 231 in Keswick. From I-64 take exit 124 (Rt. 250 East) to Rt. 22 North (becomes Rt. 231) for seven miles to entrance on right.

Steve RoccaSteve Rocca, Contributor

Steve Rocca has 16 years of journalism experience, including stints at the Virginian-Pilot, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Palm Beach Post and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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