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Less swank and more Seuss

Novelty is the trend in elite retreats such as Connecticut's Litchfield Hills. Visitors can stay in a 'cave' or copter, but bring the big wallet.

January 21, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Morris, Conn. — ARCHITECT David Sellers feels certain there are folks out there willing to spend $1,950 to hunker down for a night in a cave.

Not just any cave, of course. This is a custom-built retreat made from enormous boulders. Windows shaped like eyes offer views of a vast meadow. A massive stone fireplace -- so big it has a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk feel -- looms at the foot of the king bed.

"People are going to see it," Sellers said, "and think, 'Oh my God, I've always wanted to get inside a giant rock pile.' "

A lot is riding on that prediction.

The rock-pile hideaway is part of an unusual hotel that opened this month in the staid Litchfield Hills of western Connecticut, a 2 1/2 -hour drive from New York. Winvian, funded and run by heirs to a Merrill Lynch fortune, is at once luxurious, whimsical, spooky, stunning and flat-out startling.

Eighteen cabins dot the forests and fields of the 113-acre resort. Each is different and utterly unexpected.

For $1,700 a night, you can reserve a barn-like cabin dominated by a meticulously restored 1968 Coast Guard helicopter. Watch TV in the chrome-and-steel fuselage or take a bath by the mock runway.

The Golf Cottage has banked walls and a green shag rug that varies in thickness so you can grab an antique putter and play the course that runs through the bedroom. The two-story Treehouse sits 35 feet off the ground and sways with the wind.

Or try sleeping in a bleak box in the woods inspired by Yale's legendary secret society Skull and Bones -- and yes, for $1,450 a night, it's supposed to look like a tomb.

This play land for the wealthy is at the leading edge of an emerging trend: hotels that promise not just a getaway but an experience.

The traditional retreats of the elite -- resorts such as Twin Farms in Barnard, Vt., or Auberge du Soleil in the Napa Valley -- have made their mark with an understated elegance: Their refined hush is the draw.

In recent years, however, some weekend travelers have begun to demand more of their hotels than fine linens and exquisite food. They're looking for the same sense of novelty they find on African safaris or Costa Rican rain forest rambles.

"The new luxury is something experiential, something unique," said Maria Shollenbarger, senior editor at Travel + Leisure Magazine.

Thus the success of Miami's Delano Hotel. A night in one of the Delano's starkly hip, all-white Modernist bungalows costs $3,200 -- but the poolside cabanas are well-stocked with bronzing celebrities.

"People are looking for the wow factor, the bragging rights," said Rick Swig, a hotel consultant and president of RSBA & Associates in San Francisco. "They want to come back from these places saying, 'You won't believe what I did this weekend.' " Brad Garner, a vice president of Smith Travel Research, said he hears a lot of buzz in the industry about pumping up the novelty. "There's a lot of brainstorming," he said. "It's a concept ready to be hatched."

Here at Winvian, the wow factor was built into every suite, from the marimba-drum fence outside the Music Cottage to the painstakingly reconstructed stick-and-twig dam that hangs over the bed in the Beaver Lodge.

Some of the cottages have mainstream decor; the library suite, for instance, is all about warm wood, burnished leather and floor-to-ceiling books. But even in the more traditional cottages, there are no Laura Ashley floral prints or camp-cabin Adirondack chairs. The overall vibe is determinedly avant-garde -- in a region that's Norman Rockwell quaint.

"That's part of the gamble," said Sellers, who first sketched Winvian's master plan.

Developer Win Smith Jr., the former chairman of Merrill Lynch, bought into Sellers' eclectic vision after seeing him work magic at the Pitcher Inn, a family property in Warren, Vt. In the early 1990s, Sellers invited architects to transform the inn's 11 suites so each told its own story. One room was redone to resemble an old country schoolhouse. Another became a duck blind, the curved ceiling painted the pale blue of a dawning sky.

"We figured if there are 5,000 people coming [to the area] every weekend to ski, there must be a dozen who will pay $500 a night for something really amazing," Sellers said.

The Pitcher Inn has been a standout success, so when the Smiths were pondering what to do with a large tract of farmland the family owned in Connecticut, it seemed reasonable to try a similar concept -- on a much grander scale.

Thrilled, Sellers invited 30 architects to Vermont for two days of brainstorming. The Smiths told the architects that each cottage must have room for a king-size bed, a luxurious bath and a desk. Their only other instruction: "Think outside the box," said Maggie Smith, who has taken over Winvian since her recent divorce from Win Smith Jr. (Their daughter Heather is the resort's managing director.)

A few of the proposals landed a bit too far outside the box.

Heather Smith rejected a circus cottage with a carousel as "too cute."

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