Lush, intense luxury. Home grown hospitality. Plush carpet at your feet, stunning artwork on every surface surround. A moment ago I was on a highway somewhere in Virginia and suddenly I’m in the French countryside, stumbling upon a royal’s opulent home and being handed a thirst quenching champagne cocktail. The gilded gallery wall frames smile in the sunlight and I know an enchanted evening awaits.
The Inn at Little Washington is a famed Relais and Chateaux, 5 star, 5 diamond property, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. There is inspiration from the greats, from the classic European inns and countryside Chateaus, but there is no artificial replication—this is an authentic rejuvenation of the town fondly known as Little Washington, a town that 17 year old George Washington once surveyed and saw incredible potential for over 250 years ago.
Renowned self-taught Chef Patrick O’Connell saw that same je n sais quoi in this tiny village forty years ago, when he fell in love with the town and bought his own slice of heaven in the form of a small shack. After gallivanting through Europe via dish washing, line cooking, and any other (often unglamorous) kitchen job he could find, he came back with a vision—he wanted to cook, he wanted to innovate with traditional and creative cuisine, and he wanted to do it in ‘Little’ Washington.
Thus began the start of something rather magical. Patrick found a dilapidated gas station in the heart of town in need of some serious love and affection. The man had a vision no one else had, and already had a small but loyal cult following from the catering business he had started a few years earlier with his partner. The gas station was renovated and transformed—from head to toe—into a Versailles-like 18th century dream.
The ceilings showcase hand carvings and velvet draping, the epitome of classic elegance. Every inch of space was designed by London interior designer Joyce Evans, a British tapestry and set designer with a flair for the dramatic. The authenticity is transformative—nothing is forced or fake. This is not Disney World. I mean, it could be described as the happiest place on earth, but it’s not artificial. Patrick breathed new life into the gas station and all the ‘cottages’ (really mini-Chateaus) with George Washington’s inspiration, bringing a Mount Vernon feel and historic aura to the entire campus.
SOAK YOUR WORRIES AWAY WITH A GLASS OF CHAMPAGNE
Check in at the main house a little weary and worse for the wear (I happened to make this the last stop of an epic road trip, so a little wearier than usual). Champagne placed in hand and you are told not to get back in the car or help with your bags—just enter your room, relax, and let the awfully dapper young gentlemen at the valet take care of it all.
You can’t go wrong with any of the houses or suites here, but I fell hard for the The Norman House. Enter through a gated rose arbor that leads to a charming miniature garden, complete with a front porch to sit and watch the world go by. The interior is filled with luscious exotic fresh flower arrangements and a charming English Country House aesthetic— the ambiance is that of a captivating home in the countryside, full of whimsy and surprise.
Most importantly, the bathtub is swoon worthy. Enter the master bath fit for a King (and a Queen) and fling open the doors to a gorgeous Juliet balcony, with a soaking tub overlooking the greenery. Sink in, rest your tired head, take a sip of the second champagne cocktail you requested on your way in, and breathe deeply. The rain soaked air has a cleansed feel to it, the chirp of birds nearby sing you their own song. All the stress of the road and the city and the barrage of e-mails that infiltrate your brain at a staggering rate—gone. All that’s left is you, this tub, and the escape that is the Inn at Little Washington.
WHATEVER YOU DO, DO NOT MISS THE BREAKFAST
Dining here is a true gastronomic adventure. The dining room is exotic, powerful, an almost ethereal entity. In the blink of an eye you’re transported to Europe, or a romantic far away land, with detailed opulence and beauty in every direction. It’s pure fantasy, a wondrous cocoon of luxury. The Inn also boasts two Michelin stars. The gold standard—and internationally acclaimed—rating system is just a tip of the iceberg to the refinement you’ll find. The team likes to call dinner here ‘dinner and a show.’ It starts with truffle popcorn and champagne in the lounge, and continues with amuse bouches and next courses in the dining room.
Patrick’s approach to cooking, while paying homage to the lawmakers of Classical French Cuisine, reflects a belief in “the cuisine of today”, healthy, eclectic, imaginative, unrestricted by ethnic boundaries and always growing. From the award winning 14,000 bottle wine cellar, which includes the finest offerings from Bordeaux, Burgundy, California and Virginia, the Sommelier plays matchmaker between you, your dinner and the wine. A little top up of that Sauternes? As you wish.
The dishes are thoughtful and innovative, and the plating a work of art. A few standout bites include the ‘potato chip’ amuse bouche, a shot of red pepper soup with a ‘grilled cheese’ puff pastry, a bowl of Japanese wagyu beef two ways: seventy-two hour braised short rib and ribeye sashimi. The tasting menus—Our Enduring Classics, Here and Now, and The Good Earth let you stick to a more traditional flavor profile, a more modernized palate, or a strictly vegetarian dinner. End the evening with a visit from Faira the Cow (aka Cameron, “resident cheese whiz”) and finally finish the indulgence with a southern butter pecan ice cream sandwich that will bring you to the deep south and back with one bite.
The staff works as a family together, bringing an element of unadulterated fun to the table. It’s an elusive quality to find such warmth paired with such high levels of dining perfection. That combined with the carpaccio of herb-crusted elysian fields baby lamb loin with caesar salad ice cream is reason enough to never leave.
This is imperative—do not skip breakfast.
Be prepared for the best morning meal of your life with fresh croissants made by the overnight croissant team (they come in at 11pm to make them fresh for the early bird crowd), house made jams and jellies concocted with the onsite farm fresh ingredients, and flights of freshly squeezed exotic juices.
This is no ordinary scrambled eggs and coffee. Follow my lead and order the miniature of classics and get the most adorable little trio of scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and dill, a teeny tiny oatmeal soufflé with local maple syrup and rum raisins, and the sweetest little skillet of quail egg benedict you’ve ever tasted.
The service is of course, impeccable and the ambiance soothing. A Wall Street Journal or New York Times is offered upon arrival, so just sit back in the sunshine, sip on a glass of cucumber fennel juice, and bask in the sunshine.
WANDER THE PERIMETER TRAIL TO THE FIELD OF DREAMS
Work off that oatmeal soufflé by wandering the perimeter trail down to the field of dreams, a self explanatory place where baby goats frolic, llamas greet you with rough tongue kisses, and an enviable garden awaits.
Say hello to the hens with the stained glass window and chandelier outfitted coop, and take a stroll through a garden that is bursting with wafting scents of any and every herb you could imagine (and some you’ve never even heard of).
Pluck a ruby red tomato off the vine covered arch, breathe in the fresh lavender, harvest a bouquet of swiss chard while you’re at it. It’s an enchanted garden that mimics everything we love about it here: dedication to the craft, an obvious passion for perfection, and wild abandon and devotion to the earth that brings us all of these pleasures.
Black tie attire optional…something about this place just makes you want to dress up for the goats.
LEAVE WITH A HEART FULL OF MEMORIES
It’s impossible to leave here without dreams of returning. It will be a rough return to the ‘real world’, the place where cell phone service and conference calls exist. There will be an adjustment period, a time where you feel like you were awoken prematurely from a most peaceful sleep.
Then suddenly, as if Brigadoon had faded in front of your eyes, your visit here will be a cloud-like memory, an existence only in your mind (and iPhone, I suppose). The memory of Chef’s Mauviel clad kitchen tour, the dish dubbed tin of sin (royal osetra cavier, sweet crab and cucumber rillette…), the soft scent of daisies in the garden will all start to fade until you reach for them, almost desperately, clutching at the wisps and straws of memories swirling in your mind.
That’s when you know it’s time to go back and escape once again to this gem of an Inn. It’s so much more than a hotel or a fine dining experience. It’s the servers who smile and mean it, who offer an arm to a lady walking down a path or refreshing a glass of champagne without a word. It’s a genuine tip of a hat and an iced red eye delivery, wherever you are on the property. It’s the concept that the answer is always ‘As You Wish’. The pleasure derived from that sentiment leaves you with a warmth in your heart, something akin to the definition of happiness.