In Boonsboro, Maryland, a Hideaway for Book Lovers

A couple finds romance and renewal at a best-selling author’s literary B&B.

After navigating the long, woodsy drive along U.S. 40/Old National Pike, my husband and I entered Boonsboro, Md., and saw all the trappings of a typical rural town: the colorful but worn-looking, two-story Colonial buildings; the historic clock-tower, once a church and now a wellness center; the handful of shops, such as Crawford’s Confectionary, which a small sign explained was part restaurant, part guns-and-ammo store.

It wasn’t exactly the picture of romance. Then again, romance is sometimes found in the least likely places.

About four years ago, best-selling novelist Nora Roberts opened her romance-themed Inn BoonsBoro here, creating a physical reality based on fictional characters and settings. Located on Main Street, the inn celebrates literary lovers from classic novels. It’s a case of life imitating art, although Roberts has turned even that theme on its head. The bed-and-breakfast has inspired a trilogy of romance novels by the author herself, with the inn as the setting.

Arriving at our destination, it occurred to me that I hadn’t read a Nora Roberts romance novel in nearly two decades—roughly the same amount of time I’d been married. It also occurred to me that the mundane reality of managing work schedules, kids, a house and a dog had taken a toll on romance in our own lives. I figured the ingredients for a romantic getaway were similar to those for the genre: a sense of mystery, excitement and escape from everyday life.

For this one weekend, my husband, Tim, and I would escape from our everyday routine, and Roberts’ beautifully restored inn would help us to do so.

I pressed the inn’s back doorbell, and Missi Williams, one of the property’s four innkeepers, welcomed us into a brick-walled reception area. She handed us two room keys labeled “Eve and Roarke” (the guest room based on lovers from Roberts’ mystery series written under the pen name J.D. Robb) and took us on a tour.

Though the inn’s exterior stone front and shapely porch pickets look like Americana, the interior feels more like a European villa, with its arched brick doorway, centuries-old stone walls, stained-glass chandeliers and slipper chairs upholstered in flaxen fabric.

The western Maryland town of Boonsboro was founded in 1792 by brothers George and William Boone, cousins of Daniel Boone. The inn’s original structure was one of the earliest buildings in town and served as a hotel through the early 1900s. Then it housed various businesses before sitting empty for many years.

A longtime resident of nearby Keedysville, Nora Roberts looked out at the deteriorating building whenever she attended book signings across the street at Turn the Page Bookstore, which is owned by her husband, Bruce Wilder. (Like so many of her characters, Roberts found romance in an unlikely setting when Wilder was hired to build custom bookshelves for her home. The two have now been married for more than 25 years.)

Wanting to save the historic building, the couple bought the property in 2007 with plans to restore it as a boutique hotel with six guest rooms inspired by literary lovers. But several months into the project, a liquid propane tank ignited in the early morning and the inn erupted in flames. By the time fire companies from Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia had put out the blaze, only the masonry remained.

Within a month, construction and restoration started anew, with an amended building plan that included two additional guest rooms on the third floor. In February 2009, the inn welcomed its first guests.

BoonsBoro and the bookstore aren’t the only Roberts family enterprises in town. The author and her husband also own a gift shop and fitness center. As we paused in the lobby near a cake pedestal holding chewy oatmeal raisin cookies, Williams noted two places for dinner—Dan’s Restaurant & TapHouse next door and Vesta, a family-style pizzeria across the street that delivers to the inn. It turns out both are owned by Daniel Aufdem-Brinke, one of Roberts’ two sons from a previous marriage.

As we continued our tour, we passed the inn’s only first-floor guest room, dedicated to the aristocratic Marguerite and Percy and done up in 18th-century French décor inspired by Baroness Emmuska Orczys The Scarlet Pimpernel. We later learned that the handicap-accessible room is popular with women who are traveling together as friends, because of its two full-size beds.

Upstairs, we passed more rooms identified by literary couples whose names were etched on oil-rubbed bronze signs: Titania and Oberon from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Jane and Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; Elizabeth and Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; Nick and Nora from Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man; and Eve and Roarke from Roberts’ futuristic “In Death” series.

The third floor of the inn features a royal-themed room based on William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (dedicated to Westley and Buttercup). It also includes a luxurious but themeless penthouse suite with an ornately carved, four-poster, king-size bed, crystal sconces and a “floating wall” that separates the tub from the shower.

In Eve and Roarke’s room, references to Roberts’ “In Death” books are everywhere. Homicide detective Eve’s preference for simple stylings is reflected in the king platform bed with its illuminated headboard, while billionaire Roarke’s ornate tastes are represented by an orange antique dresser, elaborate wall sconces and a pair of Lucite Louis XV chairs. A fabric pillow with a bicolor-eyed cat sits in for protective Galahad, the feline Eve adopts in the series’ first book.

Based on remarks written in the room’s guest journal, I learned that there was a gray suit button tucked away in the room, a button that symbolized when Roarke first fell for Eve. We searched the room until we found it (though its location will have to remain our little secret).

In the bathroom, we found all the accoutrements an overworked detective could need: towel-warming rack, oversize shower with a rain showerhead and wall jets pointing in every direction, a half-egg-shaped soaking tub, heated tile floors and, the best part—a toilet with a lid that rises and a seat that warms as you approach.

“Make sure you try out all the buttons,” Williams said as she left, her voice carrying the hint of a Southern drawl.

As we unpacked, Tim and I agreed that everything had been provided for a relaxing weekend.

Before heading to dinner at Dan’s, we joined fellow guests sipping a red wine labeled “Jealous Mistress” in the lounge. A flat-screen TV and chess set with Civil War soldiers went unused as we all compared notes on our rooms. Linda and Adriana (friends, thanks to the marriage of their respective son and daughter) passed around an album they’d found on a side table. It held pictures of the inn at each stage of construction—from before the fire to its opening, with Roberts and Wilder standing on the glossy porch floor.

Another guest, Phyllis, visiting with her husband, Mickey, filled us in on Roberts’ Inn BoonsBoro trilogy, the third book of which came out this past November. She told us that Vesta (the nearby pizza place) frequently shows up as a setting in the first book. In fact, the series is set against the backdrop of the inn’s construction—a fact Williams confirmed when she popped in to check on the wine.

The next morning, we poured ourselves coffee from the dining room’s copper urn and filled our plates with fruit, homemade muffins, and spinach and sausage quiche from the complimentary buffet breakfast, part of which was set out on an antique breakfront.

Originally we worried there wouldn’t be enough to do near tiny Boonsboro, but that was not the case. Within a short drive we could explore Crystal Grottoes (caverns with pure white stalactites and stalagmites), Antietam National Battlefield (one of the country’s best preserved battlefields) and Harpers Ferry (a Civil War-era village and entry point for great hiking in West Virginia). And if it rained, there were always the Hagerstown outlets.

We opted for the 20-minute drive to Harpers Ferry, and spent a good portion of the day climbing the Maryland Heights Trail. At the top, we came to a rocky overlook where a number of people silently contemplated the view of Harpers Ferry village and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

I had forgotten what it was like to let a day unfold this way. As we hiked, we reminisced about the New England mountains we’d climbed and the things we’d once dreamed about—careers, kids, building a house, family travels, all of which had long since become realities. We asked someone to take our photo near the edge as the wind whipped across the overlook.

When we got back down to the town, we shared a Sam Adams and a sandwich on an outdoor patio that fronted the train station. Instead of talking about the next week’s responsibilities and logistics, we imagined hikes we still wanted to do with our boys, and talked about other plans for the future.

Later that night, after pizza at Vesta, we relaxed in the library for a bit—Tim with a glass of Jameson (Roberts’ favorite, we were told) and I with a cup of hot cocoa. Thumbing through the books on the shelves, I found popular fiction, romance novels and classics, some of which had Roberts’ full given name, Eleanor Robertson, written in cursive inside.

As I took The Great Gatsby off the shelf and settled next to Tim, he put an arm around me.

“You can tell this is a passion of theirs, a labor of love,” he said with a sweeping gesture, “much more than just building a business to make money.”

I looked at the collection of books, the Irish whiskey, the beautiful woodwork surrounding the fireplace and the custom-made bookshelves and saw what he meant. Roberts hadn’t created a romantic setting by tucking away suites far from the other guests; rather, she had created a setting, a mood, in which a couple could dream.

Before checking out the next day, I ran into Phyllis in the hall with her luggage. I asked if I could see her room (named for Nick and Nora), promising to return the favor.

“Wait till you see the bathroom,” she said. It was tiled in blue glass, while the bedroom featured a chocolate-brown ceiling. Green tea and ginger scents permeated the room, and a DVD of The Thin Man sat on the bedside table. “Maybe next time Tim and I will stay here,” I said.

Afterward, Tim and I stopped in the bookstore across the street and browsed the front room, which is devoted to current best-sellers and book club favorites. The back room, meanwhile, features every Roberts and J.D. Robb book in print, numbering well over 100. I bought Roberts’ The Next Always, the first in the Inn BoonsBoro trilogy. I wanted to see how she traveled from fact back to fiction.

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination,” John Lennon once said, and Inn BoonsBoro embodies that quote with its own kind of imagined reality. There is no room for Romeo and Juliet or Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky or Gatsby and Daisy. Each guest room is based on what Roberts sees as a good romance: Namely, all the literary lovers get their happy ending.

Christine Koubek lives in Gaithersburg, Md., and recently completed her master’s degree in creative writing at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn.

If You Go

Getting There

Inn BoonsBoro is just under 90 minutes from Arlington. Take I-66 west to I-495 north, then take I-270 north toward Frederick. Merge onto I-70 west toward Hagerstown, then take Exit 49 onto U.S. 40 Alt toward Braddock Heights/Middleton. Stay left at U.S. 40 Alt W/Old National Pike into town. The inn is on the right.

Staying There

Inn BoonsBoro (1 N. Main St., Boonsboro, 301-432-1188, www.innboonsboro.com) has seven of eight rooms with literary couples as their theme. Rooms located in the front of the inn have doors that open onto the porch overlooking Main Street; rooms in the back have a porch that overlooks the courtyard and parking lot beyond. Rates: $225-$305; includes a full breakfast from 8 to 9:30 a.m.; access to the dining room fridge, which is stocked with water and soda; evening wine and cheese; and passes to Fit In Boonsboro, a fitness center owned by Roberts and her husband on the opposite side of the parking lot. Occupancy runs high year-round. The schedule for Nora Roberts’ book signings at Turn the Page Bookstore typically comes out after the first of the year. Once it’s released, those weekends at the inn typically sell out well in advance.

Eating There

Roberts’ son Daniel Aufdem-Brinke owns these two places that are a book’s throw from the inn. Vesta delivers.

Vesta (2 S. Main St., Boonsboro, 301-432-6166, www.vestapizza.com) is a casual, family-style restaurant with an open kitchen and wood booths (as depicted in Roberts’ The Next Always). New York-style pizza is its specialty, along with salads, wings, calzones, cold and hot subs and wraps. Prices range from $1.99 for a pizza slice to $11.95 for chicken Parmesan. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Dan’s Restaurant & TapHouse (3 S. Main St., Boonsboro, 301-432-5224, www.dansrestaurantandtaphouse.com) opened in June and is a classic pub-style restaurant with a craft beer bar. The menu includes delicious Boonsburgers, chicken, steaks and other American cuisine at affordable prices (entrées are $10-$20). Live music on weekends. Open noon to midnight Sunday, 11 a.m. to midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Worth a Visit

Turn the Page Bookstore (18 N. Main St., Boonsboro, 301-432-4588, www.ttpbooks.com) features an excellent collection of Civil War-related books, the latest New York Times best-sellers, book club favorites, and a room devoted to all the Roberts and J.D. Robb books in print. Several book-signing events are held each year, with Roberts (aka, J.D. Robb) and other nationally known writers. Check the schedule online.

Gifts Inn BoonsBoro (16 N. Main St., Boonsboro, 301-432-0090, www.giftsinnboonsboro.com), also family-owned and adjacent to Turn the Page Bookstore, sells the scented items that correspond with each room at the inn, as well as note cards featuring a quote from many of the novels and even tea matched to each story (chamomile for Jane and Rochester).

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (Harpers Ferry, W.Va., 304-535-6029, www.nps.gov/hafe) is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Learn about the first successful American railroad, John Brown’s attack on slavery, and the largest surrender of Federal troops during the Civil War. Cross the bridge to reach the Maryland Heights Trail entrance. Two trail options take you past Civil War forts and to scenic views of Harpers Ferry village and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Visit www.historicharpersferry.com for information about the town’s shops and restaurants, special events and history-related visitors centers.

Antietam National Battlefield (visitors center at 5831 Dunker Church Road, Sharpsburg, Md., 301-432-5124, www.nps.gov/ancm/index.htm) is open year-round, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Labor Day to Memorial Day, and from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Stop by the visitors center for an introductory film, join a park ranger for a battlefield talk or drive the self-guided, 8½-mile tour of the site to learn about the Civil War’s bloodiest one-day conflict. Prices for a vehicle pass (good for three days): $4 per individual 16 and older, $6 per family.

Hagerstown Premium Outlets (495 Premium Outlets Blvd., Hagerstown, Md., 301-790-0300, www.premiumoutlets.com/hagerstown) is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Spend a cold or rainy day darting among 100 outlet stores, including Calvin Klein, J.Crew, Brooks Brothers, Kate Spade and Under Armour. Warm up with a French press coffee from Andrea Carmona French Macaron at the indoor food court. Sign up for the VIP lounge online and receive coupons.

Other Romantic Inns

Looking for a place to escape with your valentine? Here are some other secluded spots within driving distance of Arlington.

The Inn at White Oak (1 White Oak Trail, Gettysburg, Pa., 866-500-7072, www.innatwhiteoak.com) is nestled on 30 acres with gardens, ponds and pastures not far from Gettysburg’s downtown. This grand estate oozes romantic hideaway—especially if you opt for the “Secret Service package” with breakfast in bed. Each of the inn’s six spacious suites (referred to as “Guest Quarters”) features a fireplace, luxury linens and a flat-screen television with DVD player. Common areas include a spa, billiard room, library, theater with recliners, and an indoor heated swimming pool flanked by oversize stone fireplaces. The inn opened in February 2011 and shot to the No. 1 spot on Trip Advisor’s list of Gettysburg inns. Rates: $179-$289; includes hot breakfast, snacks and beverages.

The Hope and Glory Inn (65 Tavern Road, Irvington, Va., 800-497-8228, www.hopeandglory.com), a former schoolhouse near the Chesapeake Bay’s western shore, was turned into a playfully elegant inn by Peggy and Dudley Patteson. It features a spa called “Recess” and a bar dubbed “Detention.” The property includes six guest rooms, six quaint guest cottages situated amid the gardens, and seven vineyard “tents,” which are three-bedroom, three-bath cottages, each with a fireplace and each decorated in jaunty chic. Don’t miss the outdoor garden bathroom, available to any guest. It has it all—tub, separate shower, mirror, sink, potted plants and the sky for a ceiling. Rates: $205-$355; includes hot breakfast.

The Inn at Bowman’s Hill (518 Lurgan Road, New Hope, Pa., 215-862-8090, www.theinnatbowmanshill.com), a six-time AAA four-diamond award winner, sits on a gorgeously manicured 5 acres next to a wildflower preserve. Four rooms and two suites each have a king-size featherbed, fireplace and an opulent bathroom with a two-person tub. You can enjoy a gourmet breakfast by the fire, swim in the outdoor heated pool or book an in-suite couple’s massage. Off property, you can visit several piano bars (Bowman’s Tavern is a half mile down the hill from the inn) or take the Bucks County wine trail. Ten of Pennsylvania’s 90 wineries are within a few miles of the inn. Rates: $385-$595; includes gourmet breakfast.

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