A view of a room
On B&B tours, guests can see a prospective getaway for themselves.
© Beth Gauper
Antiques aficionados own the Madison Avenue Inn in eastern Wisconsin.
Not so long ago, a bed and breakfast was little more than a way station, a homey and inexpensive place where travelers could sleep and be fed breakfast before continuing on their trips.
It still is in the British Isles, from which this country borrowed the idea. But in the United States, many B&Bs have become destinations in themselves, luxurious sanctuaries in which guests can have a romantic getaway or find respite from stressful jobs.
Double whirlpools and fireplaces are almost obligatory, along with CD players, VCRs and refrigerators, and antique furnishings are a given.
As expectations have risen, so have prices. Now, a night at a B&B is likely to cost $150 to $200 or more.
For most people, that's a significant investment. Spending $200 does pretty much guarantee you'll have an attractively furnished room. It doesn't, however, guarantee that you'll be comfortable there.
Money can't buy hospitality, which is what separates a B&B from a Best Western. Years after their stay, most people still will be talking about the friendly innkeeper who baked cookies and scraped the frost off their windshield, not about the authenticity of the inn's antiques or the thread count of its sheets.
And hospitality is something that doesn't come across on the Internet. For that, prospective guests still need to actually set foot in an inn.
"Recently, we had a couple come by who were scouting that's what they called it, scouting B&Bs," said Pam Thorsen, proprietor of the Rosewood Inn in Hasting.
"They were going to Red Wing, Stillwater and our area and planned on coming back in February. They had lunch at a place where they thought they might have dinner then, and I talked with them quite a lot and pointed out to them the things they might not want to miss. Basically, they made a day out of it."
Most proprietors are happy to show their inns to prospective guests. But for the guests, setting up tours at individual inns is time-consuming, and there's only a narrow window of opportunity usually, the hour or two before check-in. Even then, some rooms are likely to be occupied and unavailable for viewing.
That's why organized tours of B&Bs are such a good opportunity for guests. Not only do they get to see every single room at an inn, they get to chat with owners who have set aside time to do just that.
One December, I was in eastern Wisconsin during the Wisconsin B&B Association's statewide open house, so I stopped by some of the inns along my route.
The 1897 Habberstad House is one of the many B&Bs in Lanesboro.
Having stayed at hundreds of B&Bs over the years and toured even more, I know what I like most: cleanliness, like every guest, but also a good location, though that isn't as important to many people.
I'm also in the minority when it comes to in-room whirlpools, which leave me cold, and I'd rather have a fresh croissant and great coffee than an elaborate four-course breakfast.
Still, I appreciate some of the other trappings of a first-class inn fine linens in particular, and also fireplaces, fridges and afternoon treats.
Every guest has different preferences, which presents a challenge for innkeepers, especially those who have older buildings. But when Mary Jane and Steve Tauschek built their inn from the ground up, they got a chance to get it right the first time.
"We tried to think of everything," Mary Jane Tauschek said. "We tried to get a lot of feedback from other people."
Their Tauschek's B&B Log Home had only been open for four months when the couple opened it for the Wisconsin open house, and they were still giddy with excitement.
"It's been a goal for a long time," Mary Jane Tauschek said. "That's all my husband and I stay in, B&Bs. I love the warm feeling you get; you feel like family. You get to know the owners, and they make you feel special."
The inn is in the countryside of eastern Wisconsin, near Plymouth, but only two miles from Road America, so it's a good location for people who patronize the racetrack in summer. The gabled log home has a great room with polished wood floors, large cathedral windows and appealing Crate and Barrel-style furnishings.
In the Moose Room, I counted many amenities on my personal "good" list fridge, night light, CD player, reading lights, bathrobe hook in the bathroom, bedtime chocolates and only two on my "bad" list, a television mounted on the wall and a pedestal sink, my No. 1 pet peeve (no room for a toiletries bag).
The double whirlpool went under "don't care."
Her own top preferences, Tauschek said, are "really good pillows and bed and really good food, even if you have to get up at 4 a.m. to make it."
It was a lovely inn, and I'd happily stay there although I'm not a racing fan, so if I were in the area, I'd probably stay at an inn closer to whatever it was I'd come to do.
© Beth Gauper
The 1934 Golden Lantern Inn is part of the tour in the Minnesota river town of Red Wing.
The next B&B on my route, like Tauschek's, had recently opened. The Madison Avenue Inn was as different from the Plymouth B&B as it could be except for its owners, who were just as excited.
"Oh, I've wanted to do this so bad," said Brenda Kunkel, a banker from nearby West Bend who'd opened it with her husband, Rich. "We always stay at B&Bs in February for our two birthdays, every year at a different one, and every year the itch would just get stronger. I've been collecting recipes for 10 years, in anticipation for this day to come. "
Their inn, an 1895 mercantile building that once housed the post office and general store in the village of Cascade, was the perfect place to put the many antiques they'd also been collecting: "We love antiques," Kunkel said. "Basically, all we had to do was find the beds."
I'm not a big fan of antiques, but the Madison Avenue Inn had an idiosyncratic charm often missing in the bigger, grander inns, perhaps because the building has served so many purposes over the years, and also because the owner has delightful taste.
Little surprises kept popping up as we wandered through: a narrow passageway with a mural of a garden; a Mediterranean-style interior archway and cutout window; a sunroom stocked with a vintage Frigidaire, radio and phone.
It was just plain fun; what's more, Kunkel's enthusiasm was infectious.
"When we opened, people said, 'What's in Cascade?'" she said. "We are! You're coming to see us, you're coming to get away, to get some peace and quiet."
© Beth Gauper
The Olcott House is on the Duluth inn tour.
As I left, she gave me a $25 gift certificate and urged me to have some more treats from a table laden with goodies. Would I come back to stay? Sure I would. I'd be following advice a wise B&B owner gave me years ago: Make sure the innkeeper actually wants you to come.
The best thing about bed and breakfasts is that there's one for every taste Victorian or plebeian, patrician or barbarian. All you have to do is look.
Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association no longer holds annual tours.
In Minnesota, four of the best-known B&B towns hold tours in December, and in March, the inns in the St. Croix Valley between Minnesota and Wisconsin open their doors on Sundays for the Chocolate March.
For prospective guests, they'll be a preview of getaways to come.
Trip Tips: B&B tours
Tours provide a good chance to look over a B&B, meet the innkeepers and, if desired, buy gift certificates. At other times, many innkeepers are glad to give prospective guests a short tour if time allows.
Call in advance; the best times to visit are weekdays just before check-in, usually between 2 and 4 p.m.
The 1890 Sauntry Mansion is one of the B&Bs on the Stillwater tour.
First weekend in December
Many B&B also offer specials on rooms or discounted tour tickets on the day of the tour.
Christmas Inn Tour in Lanesboro, Minn. The tour is of of 11 inns in this southeast Minnesota town, all decorated for the holidays. Tickets are $20-$25.
For more, see Lodgings in Lanesboro.
Second weekend in December
For more about Duluth's B&Bs, see Living like a millionaire.
On Sunday afternoons in March, inns along the St. Croix River Valley between Minnesota and Wisconsin hold tours.
Two to four different inns and a museum are open each Sunday. Tickets each day are $26 and include a $20 certificate toward an inn stay or restaurant meal.
For more, see Chocolate on the St. Croix.
In June, the 11 members of the Bed and Breakfast Innkeepers of Galena, about a quarter of the total, hold a tour.
B&Bs of Galena, Ill.: On the first weekend of June, the Bed and Breakfast Innkeepers of Galena hold a self-guided tour of historic and contemporary homes and gardens of Galena's finest bed and breakfasts and inns.
For more, see Galena getaway.
Last updated on November 5, 2014