At the top of a hill on which a country road meanders upward, flanked by large maple trees and acres of cornfields, sits a large house that is a mixture of castle and farmhouse, whose large, wraparound porch practically begs one to settle into one of its comfortable chairs with a book and a cool drink.
The front door is open, and as you push the screen door and enter, the coolness and contrast of the living room’s low light to the summer heat and sun soothe the eyes and skin. All is quiet and still. A dog barks in the distance. A large bird sings a melody from a tree nearby. You feel as if you are coming home to visit family. And this is not Kansas, but New York, a two-plus-hour drive from the city and a little over an hour from Westchester.
Sandy Johnson, the innkeeper, enters from the kitchen, and greets you warmly, shows you to your rooms, and then leaves you to enjoy the comfort of the rooms, adorned with eclectic, old-world canopy beds and silhouette paintings, the inn’s large living room, and the spacious, wraparound porch bordered by majestic columns.
Throughout your stay, the house is more than a bed and breakfast; it is your home, it feels as such. Johnson reappears only in the morning, to present guests with a lavish country breakfast on a bright, airy side room of the porch, on fresh linen, with a fresh flower centerpiece.
“We did look at another B&B a couple of years earlier, but we were not intentionally looking for one. We looked several months for a house, and when I finally saw this, I knew this was the house. The previous owners were offering a free night’s stay for interested buyers. We came and stayed overnight and were hooked. We woke up to the smells of fresh baked bread and came downstairs to beautiful music and a fire going in the fireplace. It was so beautiful I didn't want to leave,” explained Johnson. They ended up buying the house in November of last year, and opened for business in April. Not having formal hotel training did not deter her Johnson, and she fell into her work as a fish takes to water. One of her passions which nicely dovetailed with her new venture was her baking skills.
A native of Schenectady, and then Brooklyn for the past 30 years, where she formerly ran a small baking enterprise, Sandy’s kitchen is where she creates the other half of her art form.
“I learned everything I know about baking from my mother. She always taught me to use the best quality ingredients available. My favorite memories are of the holidays when there would be numerous fresh baked cookies in the house.”
The guests at the house were enamored with Sandy’s cooking as much as with the comfort of the rooms, the living room, and the porch.
“Absolutely delicious,” pronounced Amalia Sacristan, who was with her husband Efren from Colombia, on a visit to her daughter Dolly, who had just graduated from a prestigious doctoral program in New York.
This was high praise from a fellow chef, as Amalia and her husband own a restaurant in Bogotá, El Balcon de los Abuelos (My Grandparents’ Balcony – See Volume 4, No. 124, February 19, 2009, “Colombia: Warmth and Passion”).
The term Bed and Breakfast is believed to have first been used in the United Kingdom, where it was for centuries a popular form of lodging, and continues to be so to the present day, as in other countries throughout Europe.
It has been a popular alternative to larger hotels and more impersonal motels for travelers in the U.S. as well for several centuries, due to competitive pricing, and especially, that special personal touch.
However, the vagaries of the economy and the advent of the age of technology have made the survival and livelihood of the business more competitive.
“2009 was a very bad year due to economy and weather. This year we are up 17% over last year, but not a banner year by any measure. The nature of our market is about four months of intense non-stop, no-break work with a slow tapering off to almost no business at all for about six months,” said Glenn Kithcart, innkeeper at The Bentley Inn, in Bay Head, New Jersey, which he and his wife Janet have run for the past dozen years.
All the hard work behind running a successful B&B, however, is part of the equation. The reward, according to Kithcart, is seeing the guests’ satisfaction.
“Most rewarding is the great feeling I get from people who are on vacation and love the inn. They are so happy and relaxed, and I helped create that for them.”
Johnson shares much the same sentiment, and her passion for entertaining and creating a space with a special magic for guests seeking a retreat with a more personalized touch than a hotel chain matches the year-round devotion required for owners of a B&B.
“I love entertaining and making people feel at home and seeing them enjoy the whole experience that Hilltop House has to offer. I also love meeting people from all around the world,” said Johnson.
Penelope Hedges, a local interior designer, worked closely with Johnson to redesign the house from top to bottom before it opened for business.
“This was a truly joint venture, with Sandy, myself, and Andrew Ciccone Advertising, with the idea of creating a comfortable, relaxing haven for guests. The bedrooms were redecorated in a relaxed, welcoming style. The colors are soft and appealing, just as a bedroom of that time (the house was built in 1909) would be furnished, with antiques and luxurious, upholstered headboards, a modern touch,” said Hedges.
“All of that aside, the heart of the house is Sandy, and it is her warmth and good cooking that make everyone feel welcome.”
As the Sacristan family was preparing to end their stay at Hilltop House, instead of a wave or a handshake, each received a warm hug from Johnson. And that is what true hospitality is all about.
Hilltop House Homemade Maple Syrup
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar3/4 cups water1 Tablespoon butterDash salt1/2 teaspoon maple flavoring
Combine brown sugar, water, butter and dash salt in heavy saucepan. Stir over medium heat until mixture comes to a full boil. Remove from heat and add maple flavoring. Serve warm. Refrigerate leftover syrup.
If you go:
By car: Off Rte. 44, at Amenia
By train: Metro North Harlem Line to Wassaic station (3 miles from hotel)
Hilltop House Bed and Breakfast
43 Depot Hill Rd, Amenia, NY 12501-5602
Millbrook Vineyards & Winery
26 Wing Road
Millbrook, NY 12545
6 Autumn Lane on Route 44, West of Route 22
Amenia, NY 12501
694 Main Avenue
Bay Head, New Jersey (NJ) 08742
Telephone: 732-892-9589; Toll Free: 866-423-6853
Lee Daniels, a columnist for the Westchester Herald and the Yonkers Tribune, lives in Pleasantville, New York, and is also an editor for ICU, a financial services research group in Ukraine.