At the end of a narrow road pitted with patched gray asphalt on the coast of Lunan Bay in Scotland is a place called Ethie Castle. The castle dates back 700 years and was fortified against the Vikings and the English. Today, it’s a bed-and-breakfast, part of a fraternity embraced by people who enjoy travel but don’t like hotels.
The bed-and-breakfast crowd seeks sanctuary at places like Ethie Castle and the Moon River Inn in Freeport and the Amber House in Sacramento and like-minded operations in Amador County and Napa and Florence, Italy. These little businesses don’t add up to much in terms of tax revenue, but they reflect a community’s identity.
Few people appreciate it, but the Sacramento region is serious bed-and-breakfast country. The community lacks abundant posh hotels and doesn’t play in the major leagues of mass tourism. Yet Sacramento stands at the heart of some renowned geography and boasts an impressive inventory of Victorian homes—gingerbread-style charmers ideal for the bed-and-breakfast culture. Oh, and the weather is perfect 300 days a year.
After having been a hotel guy for decades, a guy who wouldn’t consider sleeping in a bed-and-breakfast, I’ve changed sides and become a believer. You can learn more about a community with two nights at a bed-and-breakfast than a month at a Holiday Inn or Four Seasons resort. Nothing against Holiday Inn or Four Seasons, but if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Consistency is the mother’s milk of hotel chains; consistency is the syrup of ipecac for bed-and-breakfasts.
People who run bed-and-breakfast inns are at once unique and familiar. They tend to be the same everywhere: a two-partner team with a modest background in the hotel or restaurant trades; one person a chatterbox, the other measured and shy; one with a day job to cover the slow months; both in love with big old homes and gardens they otherwise couldn’t afford. They always remind their guests that the front door protects a private home, not a hotel.
“People who operate bed-and-breakfasts are as mad as a box of frogs, but all of them can cook,” the owner of the Ethie Castle bed-and-breakfast told me. “You can always count on a good meal.”
The meals are good—and local. In Europe, your rich yellow breakfast eggs come from chickens running around a homemade coop behind the house. If you stick around for dinner (for an extra fee), your lamb will have been fattened in the green fields beyond the driveway. Meals are less rustic in the U.S., where bed-and-breakfast proprietors tend to worry more about bath and shower accommodations than the kitchen.
As for customers, they are a communal bunch, willing to share meals around big wooden tables, never dreading small talk with strangers. In a way, bed-and-breakfasts are like little cruise ships, minus the cruise, the ship and the excess. You enter a world of shared space and find a blissful domestic experience where someone else does the cooking and laundry.
There are 25 charming bed-and-breakfasts around Sacramento and the Gold Country, 12 more in Napa and Sonoma, and at least four in San Francisco. Many lack TV and Internet connections. After an hour or two, you hardly notice; by the second day, you don’t miss them at all.
R.E. Graswich co-hosts the afternoon news with Kitty O’Neal weekdays on NewsTalk 1530 KFBK AM radio and reports nightly for CBS 13.c