There are two kinds of people.
With an opening line like that, I could go in a million different directions, but as promised in a recent posting, I want to discuss bed-and-breakfast inns. On that subject, there are indeed two kinds of people, at least among those who have ever stayed at one: those who adore “B&Bs” and those who — hate is too strong a word — dislike and avoid them.
Hence my title: “DB&Bs”: delightful bed-and-breakfast inns, or dreaded ones, depending upon how you feel about them.
For reasons that a couple of tales will explain in a bit, Carol and I skew toward the “dread” end of the scale. We prefer the predictable presentation, the points we earn toward free future stays, and the blessed anonymity of decent chain motels.
To a lot of people — us included at first — cozy bed-and-breakfast inns are alluring. (“Cozy” or “quaint” is an obligatory part of their descriptions in brochures and online, and you can be sure that they’re always “nestled” or “tucked” into some picturesque location.)
Who doesn’t want cozy? You’ve spent month after recent month confined to the same-old house or apartment or condo that you have to clean and maintain, or pay someone else to. You love sumptuous homes with high ceilings, gnarled furniture, unusual nooks (and unexpected crannies), perhaps a ghost or two, interesting ownership histories, and lovely gardens with comfy lawn chairs on which to read a book and listen to the whippoorwills.
A little pampering’s nice, too. When you arrive at the B&B, you’ll likely be offered a glass or two or three of sherry or a local wine and some nibbles. Your pillows will be soft and fluffed. The place really will be “nestled” in a lovely and quiet neighborhood. Unlike a bored motel clerk, your enthusiastic innkeeper and her or his mate will know all about nearby attractions, and can recommend a truly good place to have dinner.
Next morning, she or he, not you or your partner for a change, will be the one rising early, rustling up breakfast, and doing the dishes afterward. You can picture it now: not a B&B but an R&R: a rest-and-relaxation inn.
Like thousands of other Americans, Carol and I went so far as to daydream about opening an inn of our own one day, if only to keep retirement interesting. With a flounce here, a curlicue there, and a few vases full of fresh flowers, our 1902-vintage Victorian home would make a cozy — yes, cozy — place of repose for weary travelers. The place was once a boarding house, after all.
But slowly and surely, we came to appreciate the unromantic realities behind these inns’ lovely façades.
• Meeting new people (Stanley Schmerdoc and the Missus, from Sheboygan) sounds interesting on first blush. But after, what, six months? of chatting up quirky, demanding strangers, even the most gregarious of hosts surely aches for peace, quiet, and privacy. Problem is, except for a couple of weeks during which you may be able to afford to shut your doors, Schmerdoc after Schmerdoc types — like the marching broomsticks in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” story — keep coming and coming and coming.
• B&Bs are businesses, not play houses. Their proprietors face myriad regulations; business taxes; mounds of paperwork and laundry; advertising and marketing expenses; constant repairs and touch-ups; day after day scrambling eggs and laying out wine-and-cheese spreads; and fence-mending with their neighbors, who may grow quite testy about all the new people and cars coming and going next door at all hours. To have any chance of profitability, you had better be organized to a T. Since success depends upon repeat business, you’ll have to smile and schmooze with all the Schmerdocs — no matter how obnoxious — who check in. And you should brace for the moment your spouse says he or she is sick of skulking up the back stairs to the “family quarters” rather than having the run of the house.
Where’s all that “fun” you imagined in that?
• Not only are you up early, cooking and serving and “making nice” with your guests every single morning, but you’re out shopping, vacuuming the floors and making beds, answering the phone, and greeting the next round of customers the rest of the day — probably seven days a week. And don’t count on a good night’s sleep in your own bed. Many a midnight, you’ll be getting phone calls or doorbell rings.
If you’re braced for all that and still determined to give it a go, consider some tips from Sallie Clark, the owner, with her husband Welling, of the Holden House Bed and Breakfast Inn in Colorado Springs, Colorado. First, she writes, stay in lots of B&Bs and ask the innkeepers every question you can think of. Go to workshops, and pay a consultant for dispassionate advice. Even apprentice in a B&B if someone will let you.
All that time and expense are better than losing a fortune on a failed inn, or radically redoing your home and lurching into a whole new lifestyle if doubts remain. Remember: these days, people the world over are cutting back on discretionary expenses such as leisure travel.
This reality check quickly doused Carol’s and my ardor for the B&B life. And before long, we didn’t even enjoy staying in them.
Oft-weary travelers ourselves, we soon weren’t interested in getting to know “new friends” like the cheery B&B keeper (I like that term despite anticipated protests from the beekeeper crowd). Sharing bathrooms with her other guests got old fast, too.
We realized, as well, that the “free” breakfast — not free at all; its cost is built into the price, along with jacked-up “ambience” charges — can be an adventure. You eat what the innkeeper serves, which can be a tad too creative. I’ll never forget the innkeeper in California’s wine country who informed us, in no uncertain terms, that the next morning’s meal would consist of pomegranate juice, tofu, and eggs with some sort of radish sauce. I told her that tofu repels us, pomegranate alarms us, and radishes belong in the ground or in salads.
When we sat down for breakfast, we were served . . . tofu and eggs with radish sauce. I can’t remember whether she subbed in something for the pomegranate juice. Seems to me it was strained celery essence.
Elsewhere we’ve been presented with — raise your hand if you recognize these as “breakfast foods” — granola-crusted quiche, eggs mixed with roasted garlic cloves, vegetarian scrapple, and potatoes garnished with “locally grown” mint.
At least, we thought, we could sleep as long as we liked in the cozy inns’ cozy beds. Think again. At almost all B&Bs, the innkeeper announces that “breakfast is at 8” or whenever. You can’t blame him or her for wanting a life — such as it is — but morning precision sets a depressing “head ’em up, move ’em out” tone to the new day.
Have I told you about our most memorable B&B stay? It occurred late in our inns-are-romantic period.
One afternoon, we were far, far from our destination and knew we’d arrive at an hour when only crickets, bats, and witches would be up and about. We knew we’d be dead tired and longing for that cozy bed and fluffy pillows, and we certainly did not expect our B&B proprietor to wait up.
We called and told her so.
The usual protocol on such occasions is that innkeeper hides a front-door key in a potted plant or under a flagstone, along with a note directing you to your cozy-wozy bed. The meeting and greeting can wait for morning.
We drove up (at last!), parked the car and shut its doors ever-so-quietly, and tiptoed up to the house. I reached into the key-drop point — a mailbox — rummaged gingerly for fear of wolf spiders, but found no key. We searched high. We searched low. We looked under the welcome mat. We gently lifted rocks and peeked around the side and out back, half expecting the town constable to leap from the shadows.
No key, and no choice but to wake the innkeeper, short of spending what was left of the night in the car. The tiny town was fast asleep.
Now try to picture what came next:
I approached the door anew and was raising my right set of knuckles to administer the faintest of taps when the door flew open.
After we got a heartbeat back, Carol and I beheld — not an aggravated innkeeper in housecoat and curlers — but what can only be described as a “southern belle” in full Gone with the Wind-style ball-gown garb, complete with bustle and, I could almost swear thinking back, a fresh gardenia corsage.
She may have even been fluttering a fancy lace fan as she proclaimed, in full and enthusiastic throat, “Welcome to the Antebellum Inn!”
Far from being annoyed about the hour and our tardiness — “pish-tush,” she cooed — she was thrilled to not only to have us but to give us the full guided tour. Then and there.
No, no, morning would be fine, we assured her, glancing longingly in the direction of the living-room stairs. She wouldn’t hear of it. We must see and enjoy the mantels and Tiffany lamps, the breakfronts and boudoir sofas, the pressed-glass doorknobs and grandfather clock, the knickknacks and Victorian toys. Learn their history, too, which she set upon telling us as she swished through the house.
The tale does not end with a collapse into our cozy bed at what must have been dayspring.
Over breakfast — at least it wasn’t tofu, I don’t think — she hauled out some photo albums and embarked on an endless verbal rendition of her family tree.
Ever since, we can’t look at an Edwardian sconce or antebellum egg cup — even our own — or put photos in albums without wincing.
We came to think of bed-and-breakfast inns as overdone performance venues whose amenities exact a toll that we’re not willing to pay. It’s easier to glide Carol’s camera equipment on a motel luggage cart than to drag it up to some chalet’s Churchill Suite or Gingerbread Room. We prefer to sleep in or leave early, like to choose our breakfast entrees, and have taken to bringing our own fluffy pillows. We find even weak motel coffee and ordinary eggs a cut above small talk with strangers over morning medallions of elk steak with locally grown mint.
What about you? On which end of the DB&B scale do you fall? Do you love ’em or happily pass ’em by?
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Breakfront. A china cabinet or credenza whose center section projects into the room.
Curlicue. A coiled shape, often favored in architectural design.
Rummage. To search persistently, if haphazardly, as in rooting around in a drawer while looking for something.
Scrapple. A breakfast staple in parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware, especially. It combines bits of meat mixed and boiled with cornmeal, then fried.
To a T. If something fits, or suits you, “to a T,” it means that the fit is perfect. Some sources say the term traces to the precise of use of T-squares by draftsmen. Others say the “T” once stood for “tittle,” as in paying attention to “every jot and tittle.” A tittle is a tiny amount or iota.