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Country Inns, A World Apart

May 25

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5/25/2010  RssIcon

"I talked to my wife about it, Mr. Gere recalled. "She said, 'Absolutely not.' Of course I did it."

Around the same time Victoria Lesser found a rundown 19th-century hotel in North Branch, N.Y., in the Catskills. Soon she was converting it into the Old North Branch Inn, a hip bed and breakfast that she now runs single-handedly, with large helpings of humor and fine whine.

“People say, ‘Was this your dream?’” Ms. Lesser announces to no one in particular. “I say, ‘No, it was my nightmare.’ ”

The desire to open an inn appears to be an equal-opportunity obsession. What other avocation could appeal to both Ms. Lesser, a self-described Jewish mother, who said she uses hers as a way of creating an instant social life (otherwise, she said, “I would be one of those old ladies living in the woods with my dogs”), and an actor who has spent much of his life avoiding publicity. Yet Mr. Gere (who, like Ms. Lesser, is 60), is now the proprietor, along with his wife, Carey Lowell, and a business partner, Russell Hernandez, of the posh Bedford Post Inn, which is centered on a very expensive restaurant and a yoga loft offering meditation classes.

The Bedford Post Inn is just an hour from Manhattan, in a Westchester County town known for its faux-rural perfection. (Residents include Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren.) The Old North Branch Inn is more than two hours from the city, in a section of Sullivan County that has seen hard times for nearly half a century.

One thing the properties have in common is that they reflect their owners’ personalities: Mr. Gere’s is Zen; Ms. Lesser’s, zany.

At the Old North Branch Inn Ms. Lesser, a former costume designer, is everywhere: serving meals to dinner guests with one hand; resetting pins in the vintage bowling alley with the other; looking after the dogs — Roxy, Baxter and Ruby — that live with her in the ground-floor apartment; answering the phone; pouring wine and kvelling about her son, Justin Bitton, who works in film production in Los Angeles.

Improvisation is the name of the game at the Old North Branch Inn. When the number of dinner reservations changes, Ms. Lesser changes the menu on the blackboards, adjusting the portions (and the prices) of the steak she bought earlier that day from a butcher in Pennsylvania.

But impromptu doesn’t mean careless. The four guest rooms — which go for less than $150 a night — are beautiful; mine came with a bathroom almost as big as a studio apartment. As Ms. Lesser explains, the building used to have six bedrooms and two baths; rearranged, it has four of each.

The furniture is funky — country style by eBay — but well-chosen and cheerful. (Randy Florke, an interior designer who has visited the inn, described it as “so wrong it’s right.”) As a visit to its Web site, theoldnorthbranchinn.com, suggests, the place will never be posh, but it is cozy. The bowling alley is a blast, and when you’re tired of retrieving balls, Ms. Lesser can convert the space into a screening room, with vintage movie theater seats.

Food is offered on the weekends and varies, depending on which part-time chefs Ms. Lesser has hired. (Sometimes they are locals; other times, star chefs from Manhattan who are between gigs.) The weekend I was there, every dish I had — at dinner and breakfast — was terrific. And the prices are modest. Dinners were around $30; wines run to $7 a glass.

Altogether my night at the Old North Branch Inn, including meals for two, cost $215. A few weeks later I spent almost $700 for a night at the eight-room Bedford Post Inn, and that was after careful planning to keep the price down.

I reserved a queen petite room, which, at $395 plus tax, is the least expensive accommodation, but was upgraded to a queen deluxe — a mini-suite under the eaves of the original farmhouse. (Most of the rooms are $550 a night.)

The farmhouse, which dates to 1750, is “one of the few buildings in the area the British didn’t burn,” Mr. Gere said. Working with the designer Tiffany Vassilakis, Ms. Lowell came up with a look that is calming and luxurious. “We worked to make it soft and inviting, but not ‘Ye Olde,’ ” she said.

The place is so gorgeous that if you care about design, you’ll find yourself examining every piece of furniture and every fixture and wondering how you can reproduce the look at home. The bathrooms are particularly stunning, tiled in blue-and-white Carrara marble, with heated floors, a supersized shower and a claw-foot tub. Even the shampoo is special; the hotel’s Web site, bedfordpostinn.com, says it is “exclusively made for Bedford Post by Greek skincare line Sponge” and “inspired by the area’s natural botanicals.”

I spent my morning at a yoga class, which was included in the price of an overnight stay. Then I repaired to the Barn, a casual restaurant where breakfast is affordable, at least by the inn’s standards. (A superb frittata was $14.) Sunday brunch at the Barn is another story; it’s $55 prix fixe, and you’ll probably need to reserve a table two months in advance. Ms. Stewart once came by on horseback.

The inn’s real showplace is the Farmhouse, a formal restaurant with aspirations to haute cuisine. It’s the perfect spot for a romantic dinner. One couple, my dinner companion said, appeared to be celebrating the anniversary of their first $500 million. A group of men at another table discussed polo. When I asked if I could bring my own bottle of wine to the table — to keep the price of dinner down — I was told the corkage fee was $50.

The food has gotten mixed reviews on Web sites like Yelp and Chowhound, and our experience showed why. Lobster ($42) was delicious, but a $39 chicken entrée was utterly ordinary. Dessert, a pear poached in olives, was a memorable mix of sweet and savory. Luckily, given how quickly the price was adding up, there were complimentary canapés, an amuse-bouche (sunchoke soup finished with pistachio oil) and, after dessert, a selection of chocolates.

Asked whether he regretted that the inn isn’t more affordable, Mr. Gere said: “We can’t do it any cheaper. I would love that everyone could have the most beautiful things in the world for free, but it doesn’t work out that way. We’re on the edge of just being able to pay the bills.”

Still, Mr. Gere said, his main goal wasn’t to make money but to engage in an act of historic preservation, “a bit of civil service,” he said. “I have fairly utopian dreams. I always think way beyond what something appears to be to how it could resonate to the community and the world.” He said that after the project was announced, his Bedford neighbors began pitching in, donating old barn wood for the buildings and stones for the surrounding walls.

Ms. Lesser has rockier relations with her neighbors; she says old-timers resent her because she is opposed to drilling for natural gas (a hot-button issue in the Catskills right now), and because she has lobbied to have the speed limit on North Branch’s only thoroughfare enforced. But she is more popular with local newcomers like the actor Mark Ruffalo, who has used her screening room and has arranged for friends, including Leonardo DiCaprio, to spend the night. “This was Leo’s bed,” Ms. Lesser said, showing me to my room. Then she added, with perfect comic timing, “But I changed the sheets.”

As to her performance as an innkeeper, she said, “I’m asking God to teach me patience, tolerance and understanding.”

For that, maybe she should speak to Mr. Gere.

By Fred A. Bernstein. Published in The New York Times, April 23,2010.

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