By Pamela Jacobs
In 1893, a wealthy businessman had an extravagant mansion built in the style of a Florentine palazzo overlooking mountains and lakes atop a knoll in the Berkshires; it was his gift to his young daughter, to celebrate her marriage to a duke. The young couple spent a few weeks per year at their spectacular summer house in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Well over a century later, most people will not be given a gift, wedding or otherwise, of an Italianate country estate, but some fortunate visitors (including brides and grooms) can spend some time at this mansion, now an inn called Wheatleigh, and live like royalty for the duration of their stay.
Indeed, when I spent an early fall weekend at Wheatleigh, I was able to envision myself as this fortunate young lady whose father gave her her dream house. After all, I was treated as if I were a duchess, and this was my own private chateau, with a full staff at my disposal.
What visitors to Wheatleigh first see, after turning off the quiet country road onto the even quieter driveway leading to the house, is a building that is at once overwhelming in its beauty, yet quietly dignified in its elegance and distinction. The friendly, attentive staff immediately greets each guest with a glass of champagne and a short tour around the main floor of the inn, pointing in the direction of the dining room, the pool, the tennis courts, the fitness room, and the walking trails.
The main room of the hotel, known as the great hall, is a magnificent space filled with elegant furnishings, a grand piano, comfortable seating areas, a large, intricate fireplace, and huge, arched windows that overlook the property’s 22 acres. Once outside, there is a terrace where guests can sit and sip champagne while admiring the peaceful, idyllic setting.
Each of the 19 rooms and suites is equally stylish and elegant, exhibiting masterful architecture and design, which displays the perfect marriage of contemporary, 21st century art and amenities, with classic, antique finishings and details. My room, a junior suite, was exceptionally spacious and beyond tastefully decorated, and featured a grand fireplace, a terrace overlooking the entire property, and an abundance of large windows allowing the breathtaking Berkshire setting to come indoors. Additionally, my suite featured a large bathroom with an antique soaking tub and separate shower, Frette linens, a sitting area, a king size bed, and a high-tech BeoVision 7-40 Entertainment System. When I was first shown to my room, I was equally enamored with the space, the views, the details, and, admittedly, the unbelievably good homemade cookies that were waiting for me.
There are a number of rooms from which Wheatleigh guests can choose—the superior and deluxe rooms with park and courtyard views and BeoVision 7-40 Systems (apparently techies realize this is a big deal), the small room which was voted by Lexus Magazine as the most luxurious small room in the world, the Terrace Suite whose sitting area is enclosed in bronze, glass, and brick and opens to a 40 foot covered private portico, and the Aviary, a two-story suite with a private covered terrace and a sculptural glass-enclosed circular stairway that leads to a sleeping area that seems to be floating in the trees. All guests are offered a choice of bath amenities, free high speed internet, and use of all facilities. Within my room, and while sipping champagne and eating cookies on my terrace, I could feel what it must have been like to be that young duchess to whom this all belonged.
On that first afternoon at Wheatleigh, I decided to stay on the property; it’s located in the heart of the Berkshires, and down the street from the famous Tanglewood, so the area has tons to offer visitors, but I just wasn’t ready to leave yet. In fact, while there is much to see and do in the area surrounding Wheatleigh, if one chose to never leave the property, there would be plenty to keep him or her occupied. I simply relaxed in my room and showed myself around the property, feeling as if it was all mine—with only 19 rooms, the hotel can never feel crowded. While there were other guests there at the time that I visited, I hardly saw any. It was delightfully quiet and peaceful.
At 5:00pm I descended the stairs from the grand hall and entered the wine cellar, where every day they offer complimentary wine tastings to guests. The incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, and lovely sommelier, a young woman named Caroline, took us on a tour of French wines that was as informative and enjoyable as any wine tasting I’ve had, including wine tastings in France.
I decided to finally leave the property that first evening, as I had a dinner reservation the next night at Wheatleigh’s restaurant, and thought I should try a restaurant nearby in the town of Lenox. The staff at Wheatleigh, in addition to being attentive and friendly, knows all there is to know about the area, and can help direct guests toward anything they might desire. They recommended Alta, a restaurant/wine bar on Church Street in Lenox, where I went and had a very good meal which was exactly what I was looking for.
The next day I again forced myself to leave the hotel, so I drove around the area and explored. The surrounding towns—Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, Lee, etc—are some of the most picturesque, charming, and scenic in the country. They offer a wealth of dining, shopping, antiquing, and cultural activities, including theater festivals, Tanglewood’s concerts, and an array of art galleries. The Berkshires are known to be beautiful year-round, especially in the fall when the leaves are turning, and the area was the inspiration for many of Norman Rockwell’s visions of the perfect America. The proximity to New York and Boston, along with all of these attractions, makes the Berkshires an incredibly attractive weekend getaway, and has long been one of my favorite regions.
I managed to get a lot of sightseeing, eating, and shopping in, and still made it back in time for that day’s wine tasting. Caroline, the sommelier, had told me that it would be wine and chocolate, and that I simply could not miss. Caroline and Rebecca, the pastry chef, paired different Valrhona chocolates with wines, champagnes, dessert wines, and ports, making me a very happy taster.
What I had really been looking forward to, after the wine and chocolate, was the dinner reservation that evening. Wheatleigh offers two dining choices: the less formal (but excellent) library restaurant, and the main dining room, where diners can choose between a four-course and seven-course tasting menu. The restaurant, along with Chef Jeffrey Thompson, is known throughout the area, and beyond, as one of the top restaurants. Travel & Leisure said it’s “some of the best cooking in the United States,” and AAA awarded the restaurant five diamonds.
Diners are seated within an intimate glass enclosed portico, whose views of the surrounding mountains are exquisite, and the simple, refined, candlelit atmosphere of the room does not try to outshine this natural beauty—it simply complements it perfectly.
The food, however, is the true masterpiece, and it is inventive, sophisticated, modern, and flawless. The service is highly professional and impeccable, the wine pairings are precise, and the execution and presentation are truly among the best I have ever seen, anywhere.
I had an amuse bouche of tender, fresh tuna followed by the first course of cepe and black truffle “Au Pistou” with fresh beans, baby squash, and cipollini mushroom. It was rich yet delicate, and extraordinary. The next course was Dungeness crab with beets, cucumber, and trout roe—equally superb, unique, and special. Following that was the main course of Alaskan cod with langoustine, artichoke, and potato, and it was heavenly. The fish was fresh and light, and the accompanying sauce made from the langoustine was superb, and it matched the fish perfectly. It was all magnificent. I was tempted to try their cheese course whose offerings were numerous and rare, but I abstained in order to save room for dessert. I chose a unique, creative, and exceptional dessert of sweet corn soufflé with cassis ice cream, which was an incredible combination of warm fluffy soufflé and cold ice cream, along with a touch of saltiness from the corn with sweetness from the cassis. I’ve never had a dessert quite like it, and I absolutely loved every last bite. The sommelier paired it with a fruity and light moscato d’asti, which ended it all perfectly. The meal was as outstanding as the hotel in which it was served.
Following dinner I chose a DVD from their enormous DVD library, and they even offered me popcorn to go with my movie, but I was too full to accept. I ended the night in the luxurious bed watching an old Cary Grant movie, and indulging in one last truffle they had left for me at turndown—I couldn’t resist.
Wheatleigh is in a class all its own, and on a level of sophistication, elegance, beauty, and refinement that is a rarity, and a gem. It’s been named by many publications and experts as one of the best inns in the world for good reason. There are not many places like this in the world, and that makes it even more special, and necessary, and simply perfect. I hope that young duchess knew how good she had it.
Wheatleigh is located at 11 Hawthorne Road in Lenox, Mass. 413-637-0610;