Forget lace curtains and chintz. The most fabulous B&Bs in the West are wild, wacky, and anything but quaint.
It seems likely that the English invented the bed-and-breakfast as a means of sharing with the world one of their most notable culinary accomplishments: the boiled egg. In their very British way, they considered it quite enough that they allowed total strangers into their homes, then banged them back out onto the motorways the next morning fortified with porridge and a three-minute egg. All for a modest price.
But it took the American genius for artifice and promotion to perfect the B&B. In England, you can drive from Dover till it's over and never stay in a B&B with a waterfall shower. And yet, as a tour of the eight exotic inns on the following pages demonstrates, a night in a B&B in the American West may include the chance to bathe in a simulated rock formation.
Unless, of course, you're staying in a lighthouse on an island where they gather rainwater, then parcel it out parsimoniously in the form of bathing privileges to guests who book a two-night stay. Or up a tree. In the thoroughly modern B&B, that cheery ampersand signifies that if it's not one thing you're getting, then it's probably another.
Named for the British mariner in James Clavell's Shõgun, the Blackthorne Inn floats among the treetops like a great ship, clad in cedar and elegantly swathed in fir. Waking up in one of its lofty rooms—particularly the Eagle's Nest, a kind of crow's nest for lubbers and other strangers—calls to mind the second line of the novel's first chapter: "For a moment he thought he was dreaming because he was ashore and the room unbelievable."
In this octagonal aerie, surrounded only by the trees, the moon, and the circling turkey buzzards that nest at the nearby Point Reyes National Seashore, you may feel so much at one with the forest that you're tempted to sit on an egg. Instead, try the excellent frittata, served at breakfast on the inn's 3,500-square-foot redwood sundeck.
The Eagle's Nest rises on a tower from the inn's main room and is reached by climbing a narrowing spiral staircase up to what feels like Rapunzel's room. All of the Blackthorne Inn's five rooms are attractive and extremely cozy, but none is as magical as the $325-a-night love nest—even with its peculiar outdoor plumbing, a quick 50-foot scamper (particularly on the chilliest winter nights) across a sky bridge and past the hot tub to the bathroom.
Initially designed as a private residence and constructed from lumber that was cut and milled right on the property, the Blackthorne Inn is about an hour's drive north of San Francisco, where it sails majestically atop the San Andreas Fault. Rooms start at $225. (415) 663-8621, www.blackthorneinn.com .
Standing in Kokopelli's Cave B&B—a 1,650-square-foot Anasazi-style cliff dwelling carved out of solid sandstone—you may not know what it felt like to be a member of that ancient tribe, but there is a tendency to keep telling yourself things like "I'm sleeping in a cave! I'm standing under a waterfall in a cave! I'm eating a bologna sandwich because there's no real food in a cave!" If you come in winter, you may even tell yourself, "I'm freezing in a cave!"
This was obviously not a problem for guests who have hosted "cave parties," for which everyone came dressed as Flintstones characters. The sandstone walls and ceiling make you feel as if Ann-Margrock might walk in at any moment and start filling the hot tub.
The biggest attraction is the expansive view of Shiprock—the famous dorsal fin of the Southwest—and the La Plata Mountains to the north. The view isn't pristine, however. An oil company's lot sits in the foreground, 250 feet below this single-unit inn, and in the distance a plume rises from the smokestacks of a power plant. But the spectacular sunsets, followed by nightly visits from ring-tailed cats, skunks, foxes, and golden eagles—all captured by a closed-circuit camera trained on the ledge outside the front door—more than make up for man's intrusion on the view. (505) 326-2461, www.bbonline.com/nm/kokopelli .
Out 'n' About Treesort
Either you are the sort of person who wants to drive out into the middle of nowhere, climb up into a tree, and spend the night sleeping nearly 40 feet up in the branches of a Douglas fir or you aren't. The Out 'n' About Treesort is for the people who want to live their lives out on that particular limb. It's for the Tree Musketeers.
That's actually what owner Michael Garnier—an implacable man with a big, bushy mustache who is the Donald Trump of tree houses—used to call guests who found their way to his remote tree ranch in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon. During an eight-year legal battle with county officials who thought it would be, um, squirrelly to allow people to sleep in the treetops, Garnier overcame the lack of a B&B license (or, for that matter, building permits for his little branch bungalows) by demonstrating the soundness of his building methods. To stress-test the Peacock Perch (a double room that goes for $90 a night, with the bathroom 50 feet away), he gathered 66 brave souls, two dogs, a cat, and a hummingbird. "We're not sure if the hummingbird lighted," Garnier says.
The rest, as Garnier would put it, is his-tree. He got the licenses and now offers deluxe accommodations such as the Suite ($160 a night, with antique claw-foot bathtub, kitchenette, and heat), the vertigo-inducing Treezebo ($110 for two)—which, like many of its occupants, hugs the 66-inch-thick trunk of a fir—and has just finished building the eighth wing of his soaring empire, the Forestree. (541) 592-2208, www.treehouses.com .
East Brother Light Station
San Pablo Strait, Calif.
The East Brother Light Station has been guiding mariners lost in the fog and the dark for most of the past 130 years, and yet it lacks the reassuring white tower design of a classic lighthouse. With its buff cladding, white piping, and sturdy rectangularity, it looks more like one of the Victorian homes you'd find in nearby San Francisco.
But when the thunderous diaphone foghorn clears its mighty throat and sings the two-tone lament of "Be-ware!" you know there's nothing else East Brother could ever be but a lighthouse.
Or a bed-and-breakfast.
One of the great pleasures of the East Brother Light Station B&B is hearing the old foghorn, now pressed into service only when innkeeper Curt Henry is showing guests around. Or when he feels like it. (Recently he felt like sounding it at 10 o'clock at night, and when his wife, Carolyn, stated a brief objection, he said, "What am I going to do, wake up the neighbors?")
Good question. The only ones around are cormorants, pelicans, and the seals swimming in San Pablo Strait, which connects the San Francisco and San Pablo bays. In service since 1873—and saved from the wrecker's ball in 1971—the lighthouse is now one of the most unusual B&Bs in the country, with five rooms (ranging in price from $290 to $410), including one in the building that houses the old foghorn itself. (510) 233-2385, www.ebls.org .
Santa Rosa, Calif.
As the gate swings shut behind you at the Safari West Wildlife Preserve, and your open-air jeep lurches into what the map distinctly refers to as the "wild animal area," it's difficult not to at least, you know, think about Jurassic Park.
True, this is the soft, rolling wine country of Sonoma County, not a mysterious island off the coast of Costa Rica. And these are mostly endangered animals, such as the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax, and the lechwe, not dinosaurs. But when one of the preserve's 350-plus exotic beasts comes cantering toward the truck, horns outspread in the international innkeepers' greeting salute, see if you don't start to feel just a little bit nervous.
The three-hour tours ($58 for adults, $29 for children ages 3 to 12) help to offset the $50,000 annual cost of feeding the hoofstock, and they form the heart of the experience at this blend of wildlife sanctuary and inn—pretty much unique in North America. Safari West is doubling its capacity for overnight guests, with 15 new sturdy canvas tents imported from South Africa. The tents ($225 a night for two; a two-bedroom cottage next to the lemur habitat goes for $300) have bathrooms, hardwood floors, and porches for watching knock-kneed giraffes graze as the sun sets. You really haven't lived until you've seen an eland in your pajamas. Although how he got in your pajamas you'll never know. (800) 616-2695, www.safariwest.com .
Salt Lake City, Utah (2); Logan, Utah; Boise, Idaho
The ultimate success of a themed-room inn depends upon your willingness to suspend disbelief and the inn's ability to help you do it. It's like making a movie. It requires a certain amount of energy from both innkeepers and guests, and if everybody isn't playing their parts, you end up with something like Waterworld.
The Anniversary Inns—a small but expanding chain of themed hotels—don't have Waterworld suites. Because this is a chain, it can have a less than personal feel that sometimes causes the experience to fall flat. But the magic most always happens as guests submerge themselves in rooms like Neptune's Cave, where octopus tentacles stretch toward the bed. In the Savannah Nights suite, water pours from the mouth of an angel in the sunken tub. Did somebody say "Action"?
As the name implies, Anniversary Inns are popular with couples celebrating special occasions, so it stands to reason that the Romeo and Juliet room—with its white balcony above the tub and 46-inch TV—is the most popular room at the Salt City Jail location. In a nearby restored brick mansion, the Mysteries of Egypt ($199-$219) are plumbed in rich pharaonic splendor. In the President's Quarters ($179-$199), the bathroom is hidden behind a fake hinged bookcase and a stern Secret Service agent stands guard over the tub. Salt Lake: (800) 324-4152, Logan: (800) 574-7605, Boise: (877) 386-4900, www.anniversaryinn.com .
Sylvia Beach Hotel
The Sylvia Beach Hotel sits atop a 45-foot bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a wide swath of sand, but that is not Sylvia Beach. The regal 20-room inn is named for the great 20th-century bibliophile Sylvia Beach, co-owner of Shakespeare & Company, the legendary Parisian bookstore of the 1920s and '30s that first published Ulysses, James Joyce's masterpiece.
It's an important distinction because, while the beach affords spectacular views of the winter storms that come boiling in off the Pacific—making the nearby Yaquina Head Lighthouse more than a quaint hood ornament on the bustling coastal village of Newport—the Sylvia Beach is a snug paradise for book lovers. Each well-appointed room has been named for a celebrated author—Mark Twain, Agatha Christie, and Colette (all $173 a night) are the most sought after, with views, fireplaces, and decks—and furnished with just enough trappings of the room's namesake to be charming, but not kitschy.
The F. Scott Fitzgerald room, for example, features gin bottles positioned like mouthwash beside the sink; Tennessee Williams's room has a woodcut of the word STELL-A on the door and netting over the bed; the Dr. Seuss room sports a mural of the Cat in the Hat; and the Edgar Allan Poe room wears dark wallpaper like crepe while a stuffed raven perches on one wall. Breakfast is served in the Table of Contents room. If you like your first helping, ibid. (541) 265-5428, www.sylviabeachhotel.com .
The Madonna Inn: The Madonna of Quirky Hotels
San Luis Obispo, Calif.
That's 5-7-6 G as in girl, N as in naughty," the reservation agent said, sounding out the confirmation code like somebody's slightly lascivious maiden aunt. We had been chatting about the Madonna Inn's rococo decor for 30 seconds on the phone, and she had decided that the Jungle Rock room "might be okeydokey" for me.
It was as if she were peering through the toll-free line into my very soul.
With its small herd of zebra-skin beds, powder blue carpet, powder blue ceiling, and powder blue door, its artificial tree limbs growing from the boulder walls, and, of course, the waterfall shower, Jungle Rock was the okeydokey room I'd waited for my entire life.
It is but one of 108 individually themed rooms at the Madonna Inn, the grandmama of the West's eccentric inns, located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Opened as a 12-room motel in 1958, it was the shocking pink idea of Alex and Phyllis Madonna, and has thrived as a kind of gaudy chamber orchestra: the all-rock Caveman room with its leopard-print bedspread (booked for most of the next year), the Oriental Fantasy, the Daisy Mae room. There is also a steak house with pink booths and, in the men's room downstairs, a urinal with a motion-sensitive waterfall. It's N as in naughty. And F as in fun. (800) 543-9666, www.madonnainn.com .
Photography courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in July 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.