Do you know what I’ve discovered? I don’t know what possessed me to think it would be a good idea to dangle hundreds of feet in the air in a wicker basket half the size of a bathtub, borne aloft by hot air from massive gas burners a couple feet above my highly flammable wig, while being carried along by the currents, above an endless mountain range at 6:00 in the morning. Fortunately, I have my plans and God has his plans. Fog set in each morning of our trip that was as thick as pea soup, cancelling my crazy-go-nuts plan, where I had fantasized that I was going “to sing a song and sail along the silver sky” sounding like the exact replica of the Fifth Dimensions—all five-part harmonies coming out of my mouth at the same time. Maybe God knew I had booked myself on the Titanic of hot air balloons and wanted me to live to see another day. Whatever the reason: balloon day was a big fat bust!
Hot air balloon festival||Google Image
On top of the “no show” balloon ride, it rained on and off the entire weekend (as in the heavens opened up and exploded on us) throughout our winery tours, and the overly-crowded wineries in the Charlottesville area proved to be as lackluster as I had remembered. One very popular winery, which will remain nameless, moved us along an assembly line of mediocre “watery” wines as if we were pigs at troth while each new section wine pourer barked at the crowds to get their samples and “move away from the counter” while waves of busloads of people filled in the gaps to line up at the troths to swig swill. Maybe it was just me, but it was starting to look like the best laid plans of mice and men were beginning to go asunder. Thanks Steinbeck!
But then when I stopped complaining and worrying about the weather and my missed opportunity to potentially get killed, along came the unveiling of the splendor that is the Inn at Willow Grove, our lodging that we had discovered by accident several months ago after a road trip through Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Inn at Willow Grove||photo by J Tomczyk
“The parlors in the big house at the Inn at Willow Grove are just chic beyond chic, the height of elegance, beautifully and luxuriously decorated, swathed in yards of fabric in understated blacks and grays and beiges, so tasteful, so subdued, so soothing, so rich. It’s all serenity and silence.”—Zofia Smardz, The Washington Post (May 2011)
Usually historical places that bare the stain of slavery give me hives. But the Inn at Willow Grove, located off Route 15 near Orange, VA is an 18th century plantation manor home situated on 40 well-appointed acres that was renovated from top to bottom by David and Charlene Scibal, and they have chased all the bad “juju” away with their gracious hospitality and charm. Besides the main house, the property has five elegantly refurbished cottages with a couple of butlers to boot and a fabulous gourmet restaurant run by Executive Chef Jason Daniels. Even though I was born a poor black child in the ghetto of Cleveland, Ohio, I have long suspected that I was destined to be “to the manor born.” My diva spirit was confirmed when we were booking our room in the Inn and my wonderful white husband, WW, temporarily lost his mind and suggested we take one of the cheaper, smaller guest rooms in the Carriage House (beautifully done, but obviously the historical significance went right over WW’s head). I remembering saying, in no uncertain terms: “Hell to the no, “White and Wonderful,” I have waited over 200 years to sleep in the ‘Massah’s House,’ so pull out that platinum card, book us the ‘Master Suite,’ and have that cute, young, white butler fetch me a mint julep on the verandah, thank you very much, ’cause this is how Big Mama rolls!”
“Big Mama and WW’s Suite” (The Master Suite)||Inn at Willow Grove) ||Willow Grove website photo
As I walked the meticulously groomed grounds in the early mornings while giving my “shout out to God” and meditated on the grace of my Lord, I thought of my historical lineage (descendent of a slave owned by the Wimbushes of Pennsylvania and a Cherokee Indian grandmother). When I later sipped champagne with my Coupmance friends and WW on our Jeffersonian balcony (it magically has no visible means of support) while the rain exploded in raucous joy and our genuine laughter matched its timber, I slowly but steadily began to realize that this redeemed plantation acreage (“where urban meets plantation” according to Mrs. Scibal), that had once been a place of disgraceful suffering in the 1700s, had now become a venue of healing and relaxation under the tutelage of people who not only had an eye for beauty but had the knack for hiring some of the nicest people I’ve ever met to propagate that welcoming spirit of a modern inn for the ages. When the breakfast tray of French-pressed coffee and a bag full of warm beignets was delivered by the butler the next morning, I thought: “Hot damn—now, Big Mama, this is change we can believe in!”
Garden Pathway||J Tomczyk photo
Butler’s Cottage||J Tomczyk photo
Main Event Space (receptions and corporate meetings)||J Tomczyk photo
Old School House Cottage||J Tomczyk photo
I am discovering I agree with John Lennon in that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I didn’t get to risk my life in a hot air balloon and I’ve toured better wineries in my day, but I’ve rarely had such an engaging, peaceful, laugh-filled, sumptuous, beauty inspired weekend as I did at the Inn at Willow Grove. I returned to the front lines extremely grateful that I am a black woman living in 2012 and not the 1700’s—thank you very much!
“That a gracious innkeeper can be found in Virginia is hardly surprising. That one who offers of-the-moment fare and Fifth Avenue urbanity has taken up residence here lends this hidden gem a brilliant shine.”—Karen Sommer Shalett, The Radar|Weekender
The Author on the day she serendipitously discovered the Inn at Willow Grove
“Any fool can be happy. It takes a man (or woman/parenthesis=mine) with real heart to make beauty out of the stuff that makes us weep.”—Clive Barker, Days of Magic, Nights of War
“People have the power to redeem the work of fools.”—Patti Smith
“The highest compliment that I can give Charlene and David Scibal, the proprietors of the Inn at Willow Grove is that they have ‘redeemed the work of fools’ (from the historical plantation stain of slavery to a magnificently elegant property of graciously welcoming, restful inclusion to all who cross their threshold). I shall return—again and again.”—Eleanor Tomczyk, How the Hell Did I End Up Here?
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