Great Escapes

Summer is here, and for many, that means a much-needed break. Think fun in the sun, foreign flings, films, food and a chance for the exotic to become the exciting every day.

But before your body joins your imagination for a stroll along some foreign street or an adventure abroad, remember that a great escape isn’t all that far away.

This feature celebrates the sophistication and spirit that is to be found in a summer spent in New England. Travelers will discover a genuine hospitality and warmth that is all-American and all-welcoming. The Northeast also does not see nearly as much tourist traffic as other top summer destinations, meaning you’ll have more traveler elbow room. I found that the area has a way of accommodating anyone’s tastes and interests. New England boasts a rich history and an active gourmet and wine scene, promising summer performances, scenic beauty, friendly people and an unhurried, unharried atmosphere.

More than ever, the inn has enjoyed a revival that goes beyond the typical hotel room. Many innkeepers are celebrating the character and charm of their historic “inn-stitutions” while giving their guests the pleasure of an excellent culinary experience. The three inns featured below each have a gastronomic master leading the kitchen, and each has earned its share of awards and recognition from top reviewers. Bon appetit.

The Bramble Inn
Brewster, MA
Rooms from $158, Average Entrée $28

Centered in the historic section of Brewster, the Bramble Inn is best known for its owners Cliff and Ruth Manchester, who have kept the charm and character of the inn at its peak for 26 years. The inn-keeping magic runs in the family. Cliff grew up in the hospitality industry working with his parents before he and his wife began managing inns. Each of their daughters worked at the Bramble growing up, with one daughter and her husband now managing an inn that Ruth and Cliff used to own. There is an undeniably familial air about the place.

A major component to the inn’s character is its age. Built around 1861, the inn is a noted historical landmark, and Ruth and Chris cherish its history. Interior renovations and decoration are continuous in an effort to keep up with the times, without adversely affecting the inn’s antique charm. Guests are also enjoying a new bar addition, which attracts a younger and more local crowd that loves the bar menu and a cozy familiar place to have a drink. Modern additions, though, haven’t stamped out its heritage: the closet of room three apparently plays host to a benevolent female ghost the owners believe was a baker. The closet always smells of fresh bread and stories of a calm presence have been shared among the staff.

Of course, the inn would be nothing without its restaurant, which “reflects that of a sea captain’s home and what would be served at a sea captain’s table,” says Chris. Here there is a love for the local bounty of fresh seafood — Ruth admits to having a “fish fetish,” New England lobster being her favorite ingredient.

The menu changes monthly and is Ruth’s brainchild, but there is continuous inspiration and collaboration from a newly hired kitchen staff. As seasonal as the menu is, there are two dishes that have remained on the menu as consistent favorites: chicken in paper with lazy lobster and the seafood curry. Ruth’s tastes have been influenced by her travels and her love for interesting spice is alive in the seafood curry. The sauce is vibrant and flavorful and adds a new dimension to the perfectly cooked seafood while tying in jasmine rice and the textural intricacies of the crunchy toasted coconut, almonds and grilled banana.

Bouchard Inn & Restaurant
Newport, RI
Rooms from $179, Average Entrée $35

Welcome to the Bouchard, nestled in the heart of Newport’s busy shopping and dining area. Also successfully run by a husband and wife team, Sarah and Albert Bouchard love what they do and have earned the praise and esteem of the Newport community — guests, diners and critics alike.

The Georgian-style inn was originally built in 1785 and the original beams are still visible. It was at one point a brothel and, naturally, a frequent haunt of sailors docked nearby. Later, it was attached to a greenhouse and thought to be used by the Vanderbilt family. Under multiple owners, the lower level became a restaurant in the ’60s and ’70s and underwent a renovation in 1990.

The Bouchards ensure the inn’s status as the “happening place,” catering to a crowd of guests that can range from the elderly Newport old guard to young visitors to foodies or guests from abroad. At the inn, guests will find a wooden folding tray against the wall by their door, solely for the purpose of breakfast served at their leisure. The fabulous landscape mural along one wall shows France’s Saint Tropez. It’s easy to be entranced from the get-go.

But as Albert and Sarah say, “once they’ve tried the restaurant, they are ours forever.” I believe them. Crafting what he calls “creative classic” cuisine, Albert — a Cordon Bleu-trained chef — takes inspiration from the great Joel Robuchon, the classic technique and small plate presentation that he learned while in France. His passion for food shows. Everything is made on site, including the bread. Sarah is the baker and I was lucky enough to enjoy a roll hot from the oven. Bliss.

The menu is Albert’s work, inspired by seasonal ingredients. The widest menu variety can be seen in the specials, but certain dishes, such as the Dover sole with sorrel sauce or the coffee-encrusted duck breast, have become popular classics. Albert is also known for his soufflés and mousses. Overall, the menu is well balanced, with some dishes sporting oriental influences and an impressive haul of Newport’s freshest seafood. Small wonder the inn is booming and the restaurant continues to draw rave reviews.

The Maidstone (and The Living Room)
East Hampton, NY
Rooms from $495, Average Entrée $30

Our final destination is all famous and all posh: the Hamptons, or East Hampton, to be exact. The crowd that frequents this area mingles with a social elite where haute cuisine, haute couture and haute heels are on constant display throughout the season. The cream of this high-society crop is East Hampton’s largest hotel, The Maidstone, a historical building that dates back to the 18th century and is remarkably well preserved, at least on the outside. However, the interior and concept has been reworked under its new owner, Jenny Ljungberg of Sweden, and is introducing a new an exciting experience to the guests.

Ljungberg imports a Swedish influence to the hotel, a concept she calls “Scandinavian cozy.” Renovations began in 2008.

The hotel is entirely dog-friendly, even offering a menu for any canine companions. Bicycles are provided for guests, along with room amenities that stay true to the luxurious and natural theme that can be seen throughout the hotel. Each room’s interior design is inspired by historical personalities of Scandinavian heritage. Artists, authors, botanists, and even the famous Alfred Nobel each have their own rooms, giving guests another way to learn from their experience.

But the real highlight is The Living Room restaurant, based upon the slow-food movement (that is, dining antithetical to America’s fast food culture) and led by the enthusiastic, talented and friendly Executive Chef Jonathan Carpenter. The slow-food movement focuses on preparing dishes with local and sustainable ingredients that support local farmers and artisans, giving diners an appreciation for local, fresh products that celebrate the ingredients’ natural flavor. The menu is Scandinavian-themed, introducing a cuisine that is, for the most part, not widely known in the United States. Overall, the hotel gives guests a taste of Swedish culture while paying attention to detail and anticipating every guest’s needs.

Also important to the restaurant is the descriptive aspect of the menu. Diners are given information about the history of a certain dish or where a particular ingredient comes from. The Living Room’s bread, for instance, comes in from the Blue Duck bakery, famous throughout the region.

Carpenter has been in the Hamptons for 12 years, after working mainly in the American South. His slow-food philosophy has been formed over the years through his work under great chefs at great restaurants, where he learned about celebrating and respecting the ingredients being used. He has great relationships with local farmers and artisans, and is always excited to be “putting our best in our guests’ dinner.” The Living Room is becoming the benchmark for restaurants hearkening back to high-quality standards with a leisurely pace. Fresh seafood is guaranteed. A few Swedish products are imported specifically for certain items on the menu, such as herring and lingonberries. Try the home-made gravlax or a Capatano Farms goat cheese tart paired with a homemade lingonberry sorbet, or the ever-classic toast skagen. As Chef Carpenter puts it, “The freshness and locality of the ingredients speak for themselves.”

Full-time sommelier Kelly is a recent addition to the team and oversees all wine pairings and management of the hotel’s wine club. Membership in this club allows members to keep wines in the Maidstone’s top facilities and access the extensive resources and wine lists that cater to all tastes from all parts of the world. The culinary team was actually sent out to Sweden to visit Ljungberg’s other hotels, truly experience Swedish culture and cuisine and bring it back to The Maidstone. This great restaurant pairs perfectly with the Maidstone, which looks to become the new hot spot in the already-haute Hamptons.

Driving along the many New England roads and taking in some scenery, any summer vacation spent in New England has the same magic as any trip abroad. Sometimes the best times can be beautifully simple and so very, very close. Enjoy New England, my fellow leisure lovers — I know I did.

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