AURORA, Ohio Four Seasons. Ritz-Carlton. The Greenbriar. The Broadmoor.
Walden Country Inn & Stables. The St. Regis. The Mayflower. The
Whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. Back up. What was that one? Walden?
Walden? Isn t that the place where Thoreau hung out for a while back in the 1800s? Some little pond out East someplace, right?
What s that doing among this list of cr me de la cr me hotel names?
Actually, Walden has every right to be on that prestigious list. And guess what it s not out East anywhere, but right here in Ohio, on the other side of Cleveland.
And it s quite possibly the state s best-kept secret when it comes to first-class lodging.
There are plenty of better-known high-end properties in these parts Hyatt Regency hotels in Dearborn and Columbus, Ritz-Carltons in Cleveland and Dearborn, the Netherland Plaza in Cincinnati, and the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, to name just a few but not a single one of them can match up to Walden, which is in a class all by itself hereabouts.
The 25-unit, all-suite luxury inn, set on 32 acres of rural horse country about half an hour s drive southeast of Cleveland, is the first hotel in Ohio ever to receive the lofty AAA Five-Diamond rating. That puts it in a very elite group nationally.
Of more than 55,000 properties in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean evaluated annually by AAA s anonymous inspectors, only 85 lodgings (and 57 restaurants) are awarded five stars. That s about of 1 percent.
As you d expect, there are some well-known names on the list plenty of Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton hotels, along with storied places such as The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs; The Greenbriar in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.; the American Club in Kohler, Wis., and the Fairmont Olympic in Seattle.
Before this year, Ohio had never had a hotel or restaurant receive five diamonds in all the 30 years that AAA has been issuing its ratings. (Similarly, in the ratings given by AAA s major rival in the hotel and restaurant ratings business, Mobil Travel Guide, no Ohio hotels have ever gotten Five-Star Awards. In the restaurant category, Cincinnati s famous French restaurant Maisonette was always a Mobil Five-Star eatery, until its sudden closing last summer.)
The small city of Aurora is hardly known as representing the lap of luxury. Its main claim to fame is that it s the home of Geauga Lake amusement park and, until recent years, Shamu the whale at the former Sea World Ohio.
But there s another side to this city of about 13,500 residents. Since the mid-1970s, it s become an increasingly popular place to live for well-to-do people who work in Cleveland nearby Cleveland or Akron. Many of them have homes in the high-end residential developments of Walden and Walden Farms, built around a private country club and championship golf course.
There are more than 700 condos and houses in the developments, nearly all of them large from 3,000 to 7,000 square feet and expensive, with prices ranging from the high $400,000s to the multi-millions. Each home is custom built with lots of stone, cedar, slate, and glass, and they re subtly landscaped to blend in with their natural surroundings.
Some of the residences aren t occupied too often. One condo, for example, is owned by a doctor from New York who uses it only when he s in town occasionally to work at the Cleveland Clinic.
In 1998, a small hotel and conference center was added to the Walden mix by owners Manny and Bonnie Barenholtz and Robert and Barrie Rosencrans. But in line with the upscale nature of the residential developments at Walden, this is not your average country inn.
Surrounded by thick stands of trees, the single-story inn is situated among rolling fields outlined by weathered wooden fences where horses can be seen grazing. The small lobby has the feel of an elegant living room with a stone fireplace. It opens onto a glass-enclosed foyer from where you can see some of the inn s dozens of horses roaming the pastures out back.
Reflecting the high-end flavor of the place, a gift shop contains the only Saks Fifth Avenue boutique located outside of a Saks store. Items there sell for around $5 to upwards of $500.
A cozy library off the lobby is furnished with comfortable leather chairs and couches, with chess, backgammon, and other games tucked away on the shelves. On the coffee table are a book on Mediterranean architecture and another filled with gorgeous aerial photos by French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
Complimentary hors d oeuvers are served each evening in the library.
Different sections of the inn are connected by glass corridors, which bring in lots of natural light and make guests feel like they re walking through a country glen. Here and there are sculptures and pastoral paintings from the Cleveland Institute of Art.
The suites are oversized, ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 square feet, with vaulted, cedar-paneled ceilings and Vermont slate-tiled walk-in showers. All have king-sized beds with Italian Frette linens, and most have fireplaces, whirlpools, wet bars, verandas, and large windows that afford relaxing views of gardens, woodlands, and pastures. Many have dormers or skylights.
In each suite, panels on the telephones control temperature, lights, and 35 channels of digital music.
The inn has a fitness center but no spa but then again, it doesn t need one. All sorts of spa services are available to guests right in their suites, among them a one-hour Swedish massage ($90), gentleman s facial ($80), pedicure ($55), and fitness assessment ($100).
There s even a butler-drawn bath with scented candle, salts, specialty soaps, rose petals, and soft music ($25).
We treat guests better than they re used to being treated at home, says Bonnie Kane Barenholtz, co-owner and Walden s director of public relations. That s the whole point of getting away for most people.
A big part of the inn s allure for some guests are its stables and equestrian center, where dozens of riding horses are available. There are outdoor and indoor arenas, the latter with a huge glass window where people can watch the action from a viewing area inside the inn.
Guests can take trail rides through 110 acres of pastures and wooded areas ($70 an hour), with helmets provided at the stables. Lessons for novice riders are available, and guests with their own horses can board them at Walden s stables.
For those who prefer fairways to riding trials, there s the nearby Walden Golf & Country Club. Though it s a private club, guests at the inn have access to its 18-hole championship course, renovated in 2001 and home of the 2004-2005 Ohio Open.
Other recreational facilities at Walden include a swimming pool, clay tennis courts, eight miles of nature trails for hikers, and croquet and horseshoes on the lawn behind the inn.
There s also a private, 100-seat movie theater with a nine-foot screen. It s often used for business gatherings during the week, but it s available at no charge on weekends for private viewing of movies or sporting events. And the staff will provide popcorn and refreshments on request.
Unlike some high-end retreats, Walden welcomes children, and even offers babysitting services so parents can enjoy an evening out.
The inn is a popular family destination, particularly in the summer, Barenholtz said.
We re happy to accommodate guests with children, she said. In fact, in the summer we have something we call Camp Walden, with golf lessons, and horseback riding and tennis for the kids, rodeo parties, you name it.
There are three restaurants available for Walden guests. The only one inside the inn itself is the Blue Ribbon Cafe, a casual place where colorful checkerboard tiles cover one wall and two others feature 25-foot-high windows. Seating is at tables or in curved, high-backed booths.
The cafe is open for breakfast and lunch.
The Walden Clubhouse, a typically genteel country club dining room, is a short drive from the inn (a complimentary shuttle is available). The dining area overlooks the golf course and is open for lunch and dinner.
Walden s signature gourmet restaurant is in The Barn, a restored 156-year-old wooden barn. Thick beams crisscross the ceiling and paintings of horses hang on the walls. The restaurant is open only to members and to guests at the inn, and among its specialties are rack of veal with Madeira sauce and grilled filet of ostrich with burgundy sauce. It has a redwood wine cellar with space for 1,000 bottles, and there are private wine lockers for members.
Men are required to wear suit jackets to dinner at The Barn, but guests who have forgotten to pack one can help themselves from a closet at the inn that s stocked with jackets in all sizes.
For those inclined to venture out and explore the area, there s plenty to do within a short drive of the inn, including antique and outlet mall shopping, Geauga Lake, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other Cleveland attractions, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and Amish country.
Contact Mike Kelly at: mkelly@theblade or 419-724-6131.