Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Head for the Hills
He was a little ungainly and awkward, like Basil Fawlty, John Cleese's character in Fawlty Towers. But, unlike Basil, who, though incompetent, is basically harmless, my innkeeper had a slightly uncomfortably mysterious side, like Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho.
The inn, in Southern New England, was perched on a hilltop and had extraordinary views. Most local residents were not even aware that the place existed or that access to this hilltop with such exceptional vistas was possible, much less that an inn was perched atop the mountain. The place was atmospheric and had been hand built in stone by the owner's parents with a wonderful flagstone terrace.
I was compelled to book a room there. I just love the mountains. The innkeeper appeared to be the only one present, and at night, he disappeared to some unseen cottage on the property, or so he said. There were only two rooms in the inn, and on my stay, only my room was occupied. The place was musty. Books were everywhere. At night it was pitch black everywhere and, though intrigued to explore, with my imagination running wild, I decided it best to stay in my room.
I spoke at length with the innkeeper on one occasion about hill or mountain lovers, and he put it quite succinctly - there are hill people and valley people. If this is how humanity is divided, then I must be a hill person. I do love a mountain drive - the more precipitous, the better. If a Michelin map to a European country I am traveling in indicates a difficult and dangerous road, that's the road I prefer.
The hilltop perch is what first drew me to the Tibetan retreat on Lighthouse Hill in Staten Island. Very few visit this remarkable place, and like my hilltop inn in New England, it is virtually unknown. See additional photos here.
The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art was founded in 1945 and officially opened in 1947 by Jacques Marchais (the professional name used by Jacqueline Klauber), a collector and expert in Tibetan art who acquired the largest collection in the Western world. She never visited Tibet during her lifetime and sadly passed away the year following its opening.
The rustic complex of fieldstone buildings was designed by Marchais - the architecture, gardens, fish pond and terraces resemble a Tibetan Buddhist mountain monastery, or gompah. You will also find sculpture on the grounds, as well as bright-hued prayer flags. It was the first Himalayan-style structure to be built in the United States and the first museum in the world devoted exclusively to Tibetan art. The Dalai Lama himself paid a visit in 1991. In addition to the museum's display of art and objects, there are classes and special programs. My first visit was for a Tibetan festival.
Of course, the love of mountains as a building site is far from being my exclusive passion - Lighthouse Hill, along with nearby Todt Hill, has some of the most opulent homes on Staten Island. The preference of hills and valleys is replayed around the world by the well heeled. Some will live in the valleys or by the ocean, while others, with a penchant for drama, danger and vistas, will head for the hills :)