Suddenly, several deer emerged from the woods and began browsing in a clearing. I kept floating and watching, and the incongruity of the scene captivated me. Since them, I've been back twice, once with my wife to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
More than a century old, Chico is about an hour's drive north of Yellowstone National Park in the practically nonexistent community of Pray, Mont. The main lodge is a rambling white clapboard Victorian relic with modest but clean and comfortable rooms, many (but not all) with shared baths.
But the real charm of Chico is its authentically Western flavor. Behind it, Emigrant Peak soars to 11,000 feet, and around it are acres of open pastureland. Cowboys still ride up to the Chico saloon and tie their horses to its hitching post. On many nights, a country-western band plays. The lodge's restaurant is regarded as one of Montana's finest. And then there is that wonderful hot springs pool, actually two of them--hot and hotter. A room (with private bath) for two begins at $64 a night. For information: Chico Hot Springs Lodge, Drawer D, Pray, Mont. 59065, (406) 333-4933.
INN AT THORN HILL
The 16-room Inn at Thorn Hill commands the crest of a small hill on the edge of little Jackson, N.H., an unspoiled New England village with an authentic covered bridge at its entrance and a tumbling waterfall steps from the town hall.
I've stayed at the inn in winter and in summer, and I can't decide which season is most romantic. In winter, the whole village becomes one of the country's best and most scenic ski-touring centers, and guests can glide from inn to inn sipping hot chocolate at several of them. A fire blazes in the Thorn Hill's dining room, which serves innovative American cuisine. On our wedding anniversary last August, my wife and I reserved a second-floor room with a view of Mt. Washington, the northeast's loftiest peak.
Out in the garden, a swimming pool is hidden behind the hedge, there's an outdoor hot tub (winter or summer), and the porch is lined with rocking chairs. Miles of hiking trails trace white-water streams in the surrounding White Mountain National Forest. During ski season, a room for two with breakfast and dinner is $140 a night; in summer, the rate is $130. For information: Inn at Thorn Hill, Jackson, N.H. 03846, (603) 383-4242.
PONTE VEDRA INN AND CLUB
The style at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, a beach resort just south of Jacksonville, Fla., is that of an elegant private club--but a friendly club with not a whisper of snootiness. All but a few of the inn's 200 rooms are in two-story buildings that face directly upon a fine stretch of white sand and a gentle surf.
Lots of guests check in for the tennis or the two 18-hole golf courses. I was more impressed by the two large heated swimming pools, which in April I seemed to be the only one using. I swam laps in one before breakfast, and then for a change of views swam in the other one before dinner. Dinner, by the way, tends to be a romantic, dressy affair complete with candlelight.
An ocean-view room for two in winter begins at $125 a night; in spring (golf season), it's $189 a night, and in the summer, it drops back to $145 a night--a bargain for such sumptuous surroundings. For information: Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, 200 Ponte Vedra Blvd., Ponte Vedra, Fla. 32082, (800) 234-7842 or (904) 285-1111.
Virginia is graced with a number of inviting country inns, but I fell in love with the 10-room L'Auberge Provencale--about a 1 1/2-hour drive from Washington in little White Post--when I awoke one morning to the sound of a cow munching on the hedge outside our window. My wife and I had stopped for a night en route to celebrate her birthday in a big resort hotel far to the south, and we thought seriously about canceling our reservations and staying put at the inn.
Innkeeper and chef Alain Borel is from Avignon, France, and his place near Winchester has the feel of an inn in the South of France--especially the colorfully tiled rooms in the new wing. The main house, a stone building dating to 1753, has three intimate dining rooms, where the menu is distinctly French. In season, Borel plucks herbs and vegetables from his garden and fruit from his trees.
A room for two with a full breakfast ranges from $120 to $165 a night. For information: L'Auberge Provencale, P.O. Box 119, White Post, Va. 22663, (703) 837-1375.
The first time I stayed at the Cavalier Hotel in Miami Beach a while back, the lobby always seemed to be filled with gorgeous European fashion models posing with the hotel's Art Deco decor as a backdrop. My wife didn't really believe me, so I returned with her last fall. This time the models were posing everywhere--in the hotel, on the street, on the beach, in front of restaurants and draped across fancy cars. The charming little three-story Cavalier stands front and center at this exciting show.