Pleasing paradoxes in Newfane, Vermont

“I’m playing The Rolling Stones since we’re going to the inn,” my sister Gina said, pumping up the volume as I got in the car.

The inn where Mick Jagger slept, not to mention Queen Latifah, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Kissinger, Paul Newman and Sting, among others. That would be Four Columns, nestled amid the village greens, shimmering rivers and kaleidoscopic, Klimt-colored hills of southeastern Vermont in the town of Newfane. About a three-hour drive from WAG country, Four Columns has a strong connection to it. Like the Delamar Greenwich Harbor and the Delamar Southport, Four Columns is owned by Charles H. Mallory – shipping magnate, hotelier, architectural preservationist and art collector. And like its sister properties, its menus are overseen by executive chef Frederic Kieffer, who appeared on the cover of WAG’s July “Celebrating Uncommon Delights” issue.

So after the usual drama on the work and home fronts – massive deadlines, a boiler switch malfunction, a power failure, don’t ask – we sallied forth in Gina’s SUV with her feisty Chihuahua mix, Fausto, along for the ride. Would we be able to decompress quickly and get some much needed R and R, Fausto included? It’s a question with a foregone conclusion:  Even as we immerse ourselves in these challenging interior seasons, Four Columns and Newfane are the kinds of warm, friendly, picturesque places that allow you to hibernate luxuriously while leading what fellow New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson would call “the examined life.”

This is partly because Vermont is a delightfully paradoxical state. On the one hand, it’s a place where Anglo-American history lives. Chartered in 1753, Newfane was named for John Fane, the seventh Earl of Westmoreland. That British heritage threads the nearby Olde and New England Books, set in a kind of modern barn. But as that book shop demonstrates, the locals live with the past, not in it. Amid the Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian homes, Gina pointed out houses with the latest in roofing – colorful metal roofs to withstand the elements.

Just as the past happily marries the present in Vermont, so solitude joins intimacy. The region seems to be filled with transplants from other states, mainly New Yorkers, pursuing their passions as massage therapists, yoga instructors, cooks, book sellers, artists and artisans. Their strong individuality doesn’t preclude gregariousness. Rather, it fosters it. Everyone is instantly charming and chatty, like Greenwich residents Tony Besthoff and Gloria Chin-Besthoff, also visiting the inn. The impish Tony – who insisted that the couple lives in “Green witch” – was friends with the inn’s founder, the late Norwalk restaurateur René Chardain and his wife, Pierette. Chardain banked on authenticity, Tony said. The inn’s antiques didn’t have to be expensive, but they had to be genuine. And there were no TVs in the rooms.

Tony also recalled helping make the breakfast pancakes, grinding orange zest for the special powdered sugar topping, and some of the celebrity guests, including Jagger. Let’s just say that Mick did not go with the Four Columns’ program of socializing in the dining room. His meals had to be brought to his suite in what Tony called “the old chicken coop.”

How times have changed at the revamped, 18-room Four Columns, which preserves the antique in a contemporary setting. The old chicken coop is now the former spa where Gina and Fausto stayed. (“You can tell everyone your sister slept in Mick Jagger’s bedroom,” Tony offered.) It contained a bath complete with steam room and a bed that, like the bath, was the size of most hotel rooms. My room was equally generous, with bedding as soft as a baby’s skin and a sitting area, offset by Doric columns, that overlooked a deck, a pond and a swimming pool. I turned it into a little yoga sanctuary for my stay.

But, as the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. No doubt Chardain would’ve approved of what executive chef Kieffer has done with the menus. Vermont embraced farm-to-table long before it became fashionable, my foodie sister noted. Our superb meals featured a cheese board with locally sourced sheep’s milk cheeses, berries, figs and a drizzle of maple syrup; an irresistible herb bread; divinely textured goat-cheese salads and butternut squash and sweet potato soups; Florentine-stuffed flounder; a succulent Berkshire pork chop with Vermont Bourbon-mashed yams, roasted rutabaga, parsnip and ginger glaze; and a light, luscious apple-filled puff pastry worthy of the gods. “That is too good,” Gina said.

No need to worry about dietary restrictions: The excellent wait staff happily accommodated my sister’s food allergies. Brunch was equally sumptuous, but we decided to forego it for the complimentary light breakfast that fueled our explorations on foot with Fausto and by car. On our way up to Vermont on Interstate 91, we had stopped for spicy Indonesian butternut squash soup and a roasted broccoli one at the vegetarian Haymarket Café in Northampton, Mass., home of Smith College. (If you have the time, visit the college’s Museum of Art, whose fine collection includes the frolicking nudes painted all over the restrooms, right down to the toilet bowls.)

Once in Vermont, we drove 22 miles north to Chester, whose storybook downtown includes DaVallia Artful Living, Misty Valley Books, the Polish Pottery Gift Shop, Sage Jewelry, Vintage Vermont and the Moon Dog Café, home of sublime salads, soups and pastries, including one heck of a pumpkin cake with cream cheese frosting.

On getaway day, we stopped in neighboring Townshend for goat-milk caramels at Big Picture Farm’s warehouse before heading south to buy syrup, red pepper relish and sheep’s milk cheeses at the Grafton Village Cheese Co. in Brattleboro and some of the creamiest chocolates you’ll ever have at Tavernier Chocolates in nearby Guilford, Vermont’s Cotton Mill artisan complex.

Gina and I agreed we’d love to go back, not just to see Big Picture Farm during spring’s kidding season but to spend more time at Four Columns.

It’s a place where you can savor the quiet, ever-changing beauty of nature alone or chat up the locals and other guests — whatever Mick might do.

For more, visit fourcolumnsvt.com or call 802-365-7713.

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