From New York to Kennebunk for an autumn drive with
Rolls-Royce motor cars and Grace Hotels.
My flight to La Guardia landed late on a mild fall evening and I was met curbside by my driver, Kirk, standing next to a beautiful silver, extended-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantom Series II. Feeling very much like a rock star as other travelers looked at me trying to figure out if I was “somebody,” I handed Kirk my bag and slid through the massive coach door into the cavernous executive lounge in the back of the car.
Even with my upgrade to first class in the sardine can that passes for a regional jet, the jump in comfort from my air transport to ground was nearly unfathomable. I could use every trite metaphor and cliche known to man and still not properly describe the exquisite feel of the leather that covers the seats and door panels of this quiet conveyance. And if you ever get the pleasure of stepping into the back of a Phantom, the first thing you must do is take off your shoes and sink your feet into the inch thick, lambswool carpeting. Its transformative powers after a long stressful day are greater than an 18-year old Scotch, a Brahms’ Symphony, or a 30-minute deep tissue massage (okay, maybe not the massage).
After a short drive to midtown – the one benefit of landing in New York at 10:30 PM – I thanked Kirk for his service, grabbed my bag and headed to my room in the Iroquois Hotel. Located between 5th and 6th Avenues on 44th Street, this is a classic Manhattan Luxury Hotel, with smaller, but perfect rooms featuring modern amenities and fixtures throughout. Because it offers the best of the old and new with impeccable service, this is my kind of hotel.
The sun rose through a light fog the next morning. After rising early and getting a little work done, I met my fellow traveling companions in the hotel lobby for coffee and and waited for the four Rolls-Royce cars that would carry us from New York to Maine over the next two days for fall color tour of New England. Not knowing which models would be in our fleet I was pleasantly surprised to see not just the Phantom from the previous evening, but also a Ghost II, Phantom Drophead Coupe, and an old friend, the stunning Wraith finished in St. James Red.
Given that the sun was threatening to shine and temperatures were above 60 degrees, I opted for the Drophead for my morning drive through the Connecticut countryside. Our plan was to arrive in Newport, Rhode Island for lunch and then spend the afternoon seeing some of the historic port city’s most interesting attractions before turning in for the evening at the Vanderbilt Grace Hotel.
If you’re planning a leisurely tour through New England to enjoy the fall colors, I can’t imagine a better car to do it in than a Phantom Series II Drophead Coupe. Aside from the fact that the droptop provides you an unobstructed view of the maples, oaks, aspens and birches as their colors explode across the hillsides, there simply isn’t a more comfortable convertible in the universe.
The Phantom Drophead Coupe is substantial, powerful and luxurious. Everything about it is designed for an unhurried cruise through the countryside. Sure, you can hop on the interstate and with the top up, ride more quietly than most luxury sedans, but this car is best enjoyed with the top down, the sun overhead, your best girl beside you and your favorite traveling companions in the back seat. The classic 6.75 liter V12 engine delivers 453 horsepower and an even more impressive 531 lb.-ft of torque, three fourths of which is available at just 1,000 rpm building to its 3,000 rpm peak. So even though the Phantom Drophead weights nearly 5,800 pounds, it accelerates nicely from stoplights and has plenty of power to climb even the steepest hill. Phantom is equipped with Rolls-Royce’s 8-speed, satellite-aided, automatic transmission, that uses GPS data to help the car determine which gear you should be in by reading the road ahead and downshifting if there’s a hill coming so you never feel like you have to wait for power. And it does all this with surprising efficiency. No, no one will confuse Phantom with a Prius, but 24 miles per gallon highway in a car this big is impressive.
The fully independent suspension gives Phantom that famous Rolls-Royce “Magic Carpet Ride” feel. This car glides over rough pavement and cobblestones making the road’s imperfections nearly imperceptible. That’s accomplished with a double-wishbone front suspension, featuring mounts that isolate and minimize vibrations through the steering wheel, while multi-link rear suspension employs anti-lift and anti-dive technology to aid stability under acceleration and braking. Spring dampeners and anti-roll bars keep body roll to an acceptable level, while the air struts compensate for different loads within the car, even making continual adjustments as the weight of fuel decreases or number of passengers and amount luggage change.
The result is a car that while not sporting, is effortless to drive. Once you get used to its eighteen foot, four inch length, six foot, six inch width and the fact that it costs more than a comfortable cottage on Cape Cod, piloting the Phantom Drophead Coupe is a pleasure. It goes where you point it at both low speeds and high, doesn’t wander as you glide down the road, accelerates better that cars nearly half its weight and stops confidently thanks to the massive four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes.
Wind and road noise are almost non-existent with the top up, and even when down, it’s very easy to carry on a conversation with both front and rear seat passengers or enjoy the rich, full sound of Phantom’s audio system. The bespoke surround sound system processes seven individual sound signals specifically for the car and its interior conditions using a combination of speakers that include subwoofers housed within resonance chambers in the space created by Phantom’s double floor. A nine-channel amplifier delivers excellent clarity even at high volumes, making you feel like you’re a part of the music.
Thanks to the comfort of our Phantom Drophead, our arrived in Newport both relaxed and refreshed having braved the traffic out of Manhattan and enjoyed some spectacular views. Our first stop was for an excellent lunch at the LaForge Casino – I highly recommend the lobster salad – where we ate in the dining room that overlooks the demonstration court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The restaurant and hall of fame are all a part of the original Newport Casino complex which was built in 1880 as a social club (casino had a much broader definition in the 1800s) and remains one of the best examples of Victorian shingle style architecture in the U.S.
Legend has it the casino came to be after James Gordon Bennett, Jr. bet his guest Captain Henry Candy that he would not ride his horse onto the porch of the Newport Reading Room, a club that Bennett belonged to. Captain Candy did just that, and soon Bennet was censured by the club’s directors. It was then that Bennet bought the land and hired architect Charles McKim to design the Newport Casino.
Originally the site of the U.S. Open Tennis tournament – which is now played at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, NY – the Casino became home to the newly refurbished International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1954 and today holds the largest collection of tennis memorabilia in the world. We were led on a tour by the museum director, Douglas Stark, who gave us the ins and outs of the collection that includes everything from the earliest tennis equipment, to outfits worn by champions Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Tracy Austin and more, to interactive exhibits that test your knowledge of the game and its history.
As a former competitive junior player, I found the Hall fascinating and could have spent hours exploring every exhibit and learning more about the details of my tennis heroes, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Rod Laver.
After our all too brief tour of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, we walked through the Casino’s arch to see our fleet of Rolls-Royces surrounded by a throng of onlookers asking questions and generally admiring the craftsmanship. I chose to ride to our next destination in the rear of a Ghost II as it only seemed appropriate to be driven to the gates of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s summer home, The Breakers, a 70-room Renaissance style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Italy.
If you’re looking for a location that defines the quintessence of American luxury, this is it. Completed in 1895, The Breakers measures over 62,000 square feet and has five stories overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. You enter the grounds through 30-foot tall hand crafted iron gates and pass through a stone archway into the home’s reception area. Walk through the reception into the main hall and the impact is stunning. This three story atrium is adorned in Italian Marble. Over each of the six entrances to the hall are limestone sculptures that depict science, art and industry. From their our tour took us through the clubby billiards room, into the morning room with its platinum panels, to the walnut-paneled library and into the dining room where gilt-topped rose alabaster Corinthian columns and two Baccarat crystal chandeliers dominate the room. Upstairs, the bedrooms are mostly Louis XIV style and the bathrooms feature tubs with hot and cold running fresh and salt water, as bathing in the ocean’s brine was felt to have curative properties.
The Vanderbit’s youngest daughter, Gladys inherited the house on her mother’s death in 1934. She opened The Breakers to the public in 1948 to raise funds for the Society. In 1972, the Preservation Society purchased the house from her heirs. Today, the house is designated a National Historic Landmark. Personal guided tours, group tours and audio tours are available year round.
After a long day of driving and touring, it was off to our evening’s home, the Vanderbilt Grace Hotel. Built in 1909 by Alfred Vanderbilt who died in 1915 when, as a passenger on the torpedo-stricken and sinking Lusitania, he gave his life vest to a young mother and her child even though he himself could not swim.
The Vanderbilt Grace is just a few blocks from Newport Harbor tucked away in a quiet neighborhood. With 33 luxury rooms and suites, the Vanderbilt keeps much of the character of the original mansion and perfectly captures the essence of Newport luxury, managing to be both formal and casual at the same time. My second floor suite had a living room with fireplace on the main level with an iron and wood spiral staircase leading to my open master suite on the third floor. It also included an exit to the roof deck which provided an excellent view of the harbor and town below. Our group met for cocktails on the deck, and even though the crisp, fall air was chilly, the propane heaters kept us warm as we watched the sun set across Narragansett Bay. Having had a chance to unwind we made our way to the hotel’s restaurant, Muse, and enjoyed a meal that featured local ingredients and riffs on recipes that date back to the town’s founding days.
One particularly interesting discovery was a third variety of clam chowder. I’m very familiar with both New England’s creamy concoction and the tomato-based Manhattan recipe, but on this evening was served Rhode Island clam chowder which is lighter, with a clear, clam broth that imparts the flavor of the sea in every spoonful. Each course of our meal was served with expertly paired wines from California, France and Italy.
After enjoying filet mignon on a sweet potato and oxtail hash with a red wine reduction followed light and sweet pomegranate panna cotta for desert, I finished the evening by learning to play Snooker while enjoying a selection of single malt and blended Scotch Whiskies.
The next morning I rose to bright sunshine and the promise of a beautiful drive through Massachusetts and New Hampshire on my way to Kennebunk, Maine and the 150-year old White Barn Inn. While interested and excited to see the countryside in all its colorful glory, I had also planned a side trip on the way, stopping by Turner Motorsport to meet with Will Turner and learn more about his championship caliber BMW race team and his BMW performance parts and engineering business where they also create some of the most interesting BMW project cars I’ve come across.
Because of this stop, I chose the Red Wraith as my chariot for the day assuming Will would like to spend time behind the wheel of one of the sportiest cars ever to carry the Spirit of Ecstasy above its parthenon grill. While not a factory operation, Turner Motorsport works closely with BMW to prepare and field highly competitive cars in both the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and the Pirelli World Challenge GT class. Will founded the parts business to fund his passion for racing and, now having retired from driving, takes great pride in winning championships as a team owner.
The drive from the race shop to The White Barn Inn was just 48 miles, but that was plenty to remind that the St. James Red Rolls-Royce Wraith is simply the grandest grand touring coupe ever created. With effortless power, silky smooth suspension, and seats that offer more support than a $250 per hour life coach, Wraith eats up mile after mile of road with amazing grace and poise regardless of how fast you drive it.
Upon arrival, I found the White Barn Inn to be everything I expected, except for the white part. Painted a beautiful buttery yellow, this Grace Hotels property is located on a forested lot just a short walk from the ocean. It exudes quaint Maine character with over the top luxury amenities one finds at the finest hotels in the world.
My suite not only featured a working wood fireplace and a sitting area with comfortable leather lounge chairs and other region appropriate furnishings, the bathroom featured intricate tile work, a glass walled shower and a separate whirlpool large enough for two. I had arrived just in time to grab a quick bite then change into clothes appropriate for an early fall boat ride, as we were headed out that afternoon on Rugosa Lobster Charter to learn more about the area’s primary industry.
Lobstering is as old as the colony although lobsters were not originally a highly prized culinary treat. In fact, lobsters were so abundant and ill regarded in this area in the 1700 and early 1800s that they were used to nourish criminals held in local jails. Most lobsters harvested today range from 1.5 to 2 pounds in weight and we were taught to use a gauge to measure the distance from the lobster’s eye socket to the end of its carapace to determine if it was legal to keep. Lobsters measuring less than 3.25 inches or more than 5 inches long must be released back to the sea. In addition, you are not allowed to keep female lobsters that are carrying eggs. This has helped stabilize the fishery and ensure there are enough lobsters to meet the demands of omnivores like me.
Which takes us back to the White Barn Inn and its restaurant which has been awarded five diamonds by AAA, five stars by Forbes, as well as a Travel and Leisure “Best” award and accolades from Condé Nast traveler. For my meal, I opted for their signature dish, Steamed Maine Lobster with homemade fettuccine and cognac-coral butter sauce. The dish was as delicious as it was easy to eat thanks to the intricate preparation of removing the meat from the shell. For dessert I decided to stay with the local theme and enjoyed their Maine blueberry soufflé with lemon Sorbet and mascarpone sauce.
And that is the beauty of Grace Hotel properties. Not only do they offer the highest levels of luxury when it comest to furnishings, bedding and linens, impeccably attentive customer service, food on property that equals or exceeds that of any local restaurant, and amenities like spas on site; they capture the character of their environment like no other hotel chain. Where most seek consistency from property to property regardless of location, Grace Hotels embrace their location and celebrate all that is good about the towns in which they’re located. The architecture, the food, the service, it all reflects the best a region has to offer. And if you can arrive at a Grace Hotel either behind the wheel or in the back seat of a Rolls-Royce motor car, then I can say for certain, your experience will be damn near perfect.