Scotland on Sunday travel - gilty pleasures in Rhode Island
Director Martin Scorsese described The Age Of Innocence as “the most violent film I ever made”. Yet his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel contains none of his trademark brutality, bloodshed and sex – at least on the surface.
Instead, Scorsese’s film focuses on the darkly destructive forces at work behind the facade of America’s Gilded Age as an unhappily married upper-class gentleman, Newland Archer, is forced to forego a passion for his wife’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, to avoid inflicting scandal on his pregnant wife.
The Gilded Age, spanning the era from the end of the American Civil War to the beginning of the First World War, was a time of fabulous wealth for a privileged, pampered few in high society who reaped the rich rewards of industrial and technological advance while paying no tax.
The shallow lustre of their lives was worn away successively by tax legislation, the First World War and ultimately the Great Depression, which struck in 1929. But it’s still possible to get a taste of the way they lived by visiting the Gilded Age mansions that have been opened to the public, mainly as hotels and museums.
One of the finest of the hotels is Blantyre in Lenox, in the midst of The Berkshires, western Massachusetts, New England.
Its Scottish baronial architecture was commissioned by Robert W Paterson, who was born in Dundee in 1838 and emigrated as a four-year-old with his family to the US, later making his fortune in oil and supplying goods to the US Navy.
Stepping through Blantyre’s massive front doors and into the main mall with its carved wooden panelling, stained glass windows and bespoke Murano glass chandeliers is like walking into a Scottish castle but with flashes of understated contemporary glamour which signal that this really is something unique.
Off Blantyre’s main hall is the superb music room, with 6ft-high fireplaces at either end and French windows opening out on to the terrace. But one of its most surprising features is the talented pianist playing a grand piano in the evenings, matching his music to the mood and personalities of the guests.
With eight rooms in the main house, including Paterson’s bedroom looking out towards the mountains, and a further 11 in the Carriage House down the long tree-lined driveway and cottages on the 100-acre forested estate, guests are spoiled for choice.
Other treats include the Dom Pérignon Champagne salon in the cellar, a first-class restaurant, a spa and tennis courts.
Dunfermline-born steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, another Lenox resident, would visit Blantyre when he was homesick and too frail to sail home to Scotland to his own Skibo Castle in Sutherland.
But just as the Napa Valley in California is famed for wine, The Berkshires are known as “Art Country”, attracting the hip and happening crowd from New York and Hollywood A-listers to a host of galleries, museums and music festivals.
Museums include the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, where some of the artist’s former sitters come to give talks and which has Steven Spielberg as one of its trustees emeriti; The Clark Art Institute; and Tanglewood, the music venue and summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Not forgetting The Mount, Wharton’s home, which is a major attraction and only half a mile from Blantyre.
However, if New England conjures up a dream of a haven on the edge of the Atlantic, hundreds of miles of rugged coastline dotted with lighthouses and sitting on a white rocking chair watching the waves crashing on to the shore, then Ocean House, in the village of Watch Hill, in Westerly, Rhode Island, is the dream ticket.
This magnificent hotel, built in 1868 after the end of the Civil War, before being meticulously reconstructed and relaunched in 2010, was the leading summer vacation venue for wealthy New Yorkers escaping the city heat. Over 5,000 original items were retained, including the original wooden lift and the old phone booth used by holidaying stockbrokers to do deals.
With 49 guest rooms, 18 signature suites and five cottages, a private beach, a spa with saltwater pool, six restaurants, the Secret Garden Veuve Clicquot al fresco champagne bar, squash courts, croquet lawn, cinema, billiards room and sports including surfing, and the complimentary use of a fleet of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, and golf and tennis available nearby, Ocean House has been awarded a triple five-star rating by Forbes Travel Guide.
But what really distinguishes it from other hotels – notwithstanding its location, history and friendly staff – is the artwork adorning its walls. Imagine a thoughtful and intelligent friend given free rein to gather imaginative works reflecting the story of a wonderful building and its visitors.
These range from seascapes by leading regional artists, which are for sale and changed seasonally, to the permanent collection, with works by Ludwig Bemelmans including original illustrations from his Madeleine children’s books, plus a collection of self-portraits by famous writers, artists and celebrities such as Truman Capote, Herbie Hancock and Nora Ephron.
But perhaps the item which most exudes the free spirit of Ocean House is the model in the lobby of Aphrodite, the 74-ft vessel which once carried President Franklin D Roosevelt during the Second World War, and now restored, is the private yacht of Ocean House owner and developer Charles M “Chuck” Royce.
Blantyre and Ocean House are run by Ocean House Management and give visitors the chance to enjoy a selection of New England experiences. And no visit to the region would be complete without getting out into the great outdoors. For the chance to try activities such as sailing, paddle boarding, beachcombing, kayaking, swimming off the private white sand beach, going on the seasonal daily boat tours, water safaris, or spotting the birdlife (Bald Eagles and Purple Martins) with an expert in-house naturalist, Weekapaug Inn, a few miles from Ocean House and run by the same company, is a must.
Covered in red cedar shingles, the inn overlooks the saltwater Quonochontaug Pond and the Atlantic Ocean and is the ideal place to kick off your shoes at the end of the day and sit in front of a roaring log fire.
The night sky in this unspoiled haven is also a big draw and the inn has its own digital telescope with stargazing sessions and talks from astronomers.
Guests can round off the day eating modern interpretations of New England coastal cuisine in The Restaurant or outside on the SeaRoom terrace.
The relaxed vibe includes rows of Wellington boots guests can borrow and pebbles holding down leaflets on the old postcard writing table. Visitors can even try classes making jewellery from sea-glass washed up on the shore.
With 31 guest rooms and four signature suites, the small scale enhances the homely feel and a late night attraction is the fire pit where s’mores – toasted marshmallows with a layer of chocolate sandwiched between two crackers – can be enjoyed under the stars while listening to the sound of the lapping waves and the calls of night creatures.
One of New England’s unofficial mottoes is “An appeal to Heaven” – if you want a taste of that now, then its mountains and coastline beckon.
Rooms at Blantyre start from £323 per night (www.blantyre.com), Ocean House from £297 per night (www.oceanhouseri.com), Weekapaug Inn from £256 per night (www.weekapauginn.com).
Norwegian offers the UK’s only direct flights to Providence, Rhode Island, from Edinburgh in the summer season with fares from £139 one-way in a brand-new Boeing 737 aircraft.
Providence offers good access to Boston, New England, Cape Cod and historic Newport. Book at www.norwegian.com/uk or dial 0330 8280854 (opt. 1)