Route 56 east of Interstate 81 in western Virginia is a winding road as it snakes its way up the mountain. In a few places, the road doubles back on itself and, at one point, a speed sign of 55 MPH is set just a ¼ mile before a hairpin turn. A drive up the famous Lombard Street in San Francisco is good prep for VA State Highway 56. You won't find more than two or three driveways for about five miles along the road and very few areas to pull over if you need to stop. Get stuck, and you won't be turning around -- or backing down the mountain. Your rescuers will have to tow you up the mountain to the nearest lodge or farm, assuming they have a driveway wider than a mountain lane.
That five-mile drive to the Sugar Tree Inn a few miles above the don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it town of Vesuvius is challenging, but it is nothing compared to what awaits from the foot of the Inn's driveway to its lodge and comfortable cabins. A single-lane perched
As if to compensate for the challenge of the ride in, Sugar Tree provides you with the means of a relaxing getaway, with few distractions, and at a reasonable price (we paid $148 per night). Our cabin was comfortable, warm and dry on a drizzly night, one of the four units in a square log building perched against the side of the hill. We arrived along with a couple just returning from dinner, and as we parked our car to carry our bags in, the woman asked me: "Where do we get keys for the room?" Sorry, I said, having done my homework: "There are no keys." All rooms lock from the inside, but when you leave for a day of mountain touring or, in our case, parents weekend at Washington & Lee College in Lexington, take only your valuables with you. In our three days at Sugar Tree, the only sign of entry to the room was a made bed by the housekeeper. Nothing else was disturbed, and I suspect nothing ever is; Sugar Tree is too far from anything to attract bad intentions, and non-guests or non-employees would stick out like a sore thumb. I felt our room was totally secure, despite the open door policy.
Sugar Tree has much to recommend it, especially for couples seeking a romantic getaway. Our room, The Skyline, was nicely sized, with a working fireplace and plenty of logs just outside the door. Closet space was fine for a long weekend's worth of hanging clothes, and the one dresser can accommodate all folded clothing. Although there is no TV in the room, which bugged me a little during the World Series, a boom box with a radio was enough to pull in a New York radio station that carried the game. There was no desk or dressing table in our room, and do not count on Internet service, wireless or otherwise, anywhere on property except for the main lodge, where a connection via satellite is at the mercy of cloud cover, according to co-innkeeper Jeff Chanter. Noting my struggles to connect early one morning, Jeff made some magic adjustments to his router, and I was able to get in an hour of work time.
Our comfortable room, the Skyline, at top left, had a nice view to to mountains behind and beyond.
The breakfast part of the B&B experience at Sugar Tree was excellent for our three-day stay and featured Becky's signature baked oatmeal every morning. It was a little on the dry side for my tastes, but the side complements of baked apples and cranberries one day and sautéed bananas another were the perfect wet toppings. Sugar Tree offers a different egg dish daily, and our rotation included straight scrambled, scrambled with peppers, and a frittata that was delicious and light, almost pudding-like, but whose parmesan foundation perfumed the entire lodge (a big smack in the face as I opened the front door at 7:30 in the morning).
A few quibbles with Sugar Tree include a disappointing lack of attention to housekeeping. On our first morning, I went to use the in-room coffee maker and found the coffee carafe had not been washed from the prior tenant's use. One of the nice round soaps the Inn provides did not last two days use in the shower, but when we returned the second evening, the little soap shards we had left were still there. The Chanters need to do a little more training of their housekeeping staff.
A small attitude adjustment could help the Sugar Tree Inn as well. At breakfast one morning, my wife complimented Becky on the frittata and asked how she made it. "Sorry," said the innkeeper, "I can't tell you." The food, though good, was not quite state-secret material, and every time I have asked an innkeeper for a recipe -- I have a fabulous one for granola from The Hummingbird in Goshen, VA -- it has been offered enthusiastically.
Earlier that same morning, before my wife arrived for breakfast, I listened as one guest recounted her previous night's pleasant dining experience at an inn down the road. "Well, I'm glad," said the innkeeper, who didn't exactly sound glad (they serve dinner at Sugar Tree). "We have had a lot of guests tell us it is terrible." "Well, the food and service were quite good," responded the guest as Becky retired to the kitchen. She emerged a minute later and reminded the guest, again, that her other guests had trashed the competitor.
Trashing the competition is not only indiscreet but also insulting to the customer who, after all, is endorsing the experience. It may take a tough woman to run a complicated operation, but her snootiness stole a bit of the romance from the weekend.
Sugar Tree Inn, Vesuvius, VA. 13 rooms in five buildings, including the main lodge. Rates begin at $148 per night. Phone: 800-377-2197. Web: www.sugartreeinn.com. The nearest golf courses are 30 minutes away in Buena Vista (Vista Links) and Lexington (Lexington Country Club). The latter is private but permits public play most days. Call ahead to check availability.