Back in the Gilded Age of the late 19th Century, when the mansions of millionaire industrialists dotted the countryside of western Massachusetts, the Berkshire Railway connected New York City and Boston to the Berkshires. Nowadays, if you want to spend a weekend up in those lush hills where music festivals and art museums are sprinkled across the verdant countryside like fairy lights, you’ll have to find yourself a car. If you’re like this humble reporter, that could mean taking Metro-North into rural Connecticut and walking two miles on country roads to an overgrown driveway, where a disused and decidedly rickety Saab may or may not start at a twist of the key that you picked up from a family friend in Park Slope two days earlier.
Even the interstates bypass the Berkshires. US Route 7 winds north through the empty farmlands of Connecticut towards the Massachusetts border; as the ribbon of highway unrolls across the land, winding and leaping, beneath the deepening sky, and you feel the old, rocky wilds of primordial New England awakening in the gathering twilight—you’ll know then that it was worth all that bother, to be up here where the air is cool and sweet, and the noise and manic heat of the city are far behind you. (And that gurgling sound the Saab is making—don’t worry about that. It’s just gurgling with pleasure.)
If getting to the Berkshires has gotten more difficult, finding where to stay in the Berkshires has only gotten easier since the 1920s as dozens of inns and bed-and-breakfasts have sprung up in those very mansions where the daughters of steel moguls once lounged in white cotton dresses in rococo drawing-rooms with mirrored walls.
Staveleigh House is among the best these converted mansions. Located immediately south of Sheffield town square, Staveleigh House offers luxurious accommodations for the weekend visitor, as well as special services for all types of events, from bridal showers to small company retreats. The bedrooms and private baths are beautiful, clean, and homey; the staff friendly and helpful; the food delicious and sustainable.
The force behind Staveleigh is owner, innkeeper, and chef, Ali Winton. A former antique dealer and lifetime collector, Ali’s taste for the decorative arts are on rich display at Staveleigh. Dinner plates, intricately painted with vivid, almost lascivious fruit-arrangements, adorn the walls of the 2nd floor landing; a giant rooster of wire and Spanish moss sits atop a tray of gourds in the dining-room; the stained-glass window-panes of long forgotten houses decorate the windows of the bathrooms; spindly lamps, wooden dressers, delicate, side-tables are all carefully arranged about the rooms. The old Staveleigh mansion teems with the carefully crafted, abandoned objects of decades past, now gathered and given new purpose, along with the giant house they inhabit.
If a less generous visitor might accuse the interior of primness, he would find the careful arrangement of the house itself balanced by the wild lusciousness of the front gardens, where the purple tendrils of Love-Lies-Bleedings hang amidst a riot of untamed vegetation. Marigolds rise on fine stems, like the sky-cities of a science-fiction dream, and explode into vivid red and yellow mouths, gnashing at the sky; and dahlias stand, calm as blood-colored anemones; and giant leaves and vines and wild sprays of green reach towards the hanging painted sign of Staveleigh. Thus the well-ordered mind of Staveleigh House is betrayed by the wild heart of Staveleigh Gardens.
Wandering the halls and rooms of the mansion, the observant guest will notice a recurring theme of dogs: framed photographs, china sculptures, and on the bedside table, a copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. (The literarily-minded guest might even flip through the latter while his girlfriend is running a bath in that immense tub and find it, well, not quite as clever as its author seems to find it.) If you go around the back of Staveleigh, past the pointillist shadows of the lattice roof above the veranda, you can meet Ali’s three rescue dogs, along with her chickens, sheep, baby goats, donkey (from Craigslist), and miniature horse. Ali and her husband are animal lovers, and richly adorned as it may be, Staveleigh House is enthusiastically pet-friendly.
Whenever there are guests at Staveleigh, Ali is up at 6am to start breakfast. Using organic ingredients from local Berkshire-area farms and eggs from her own hens, Ali constructs elaborate breakfasts of Belgian waffles with fresh fruit and apple-cheddar quiches. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there for one of her cheese soufflés which she fills with kale and onions from her garden. On the side, she serves piles of roasted potatoes, croissants, and apple-cider. Her coffee is high quality, and her syrup is the pure maple kind.
From the coffee on up, a weekend at Staveleigh is a thoroughly satisfying experience—luxurious yet informal, rustic yet classy, carefully curated yet touchingly personal. Personally, we had such a good time that on the way back down to the city, my girlfriend (who took the photos for this article) started talking about buying that old Saab, so we could go up there more often. “It only shakes like that in the 60s,” she explained. “Once you get up to around 70, it smooths out real nice.”