Summertime, and the living is pretty much the opposite of easy, at least at certain very popular oceanside vacation destinations. Fortunately, there are plenty of spots within three hours or so of Manhattan where the definition of the good life does not include Pilates racks and Brazilian bikini waxing. Our area is rich with stately, beautiful houses, dating from the Victorian era on back, a surprising number of which are now in business as inns and bed-and-breakfasts. Their owner-innkeepers have a passion for both their property and the comfort of their guests, and on the following pages, you'll find 30 of the best, compiled by Sandy Soule, the recognized expert in the field; she currently edits the BedandBreakfast.com Report, a free e-mail newsletter. Soule stays at each of the inns she writes about, and were it not for her editors here, she'd probably be the most relaxed person on the Eastern Seaboard. Spend a weekend at one of her picks, and you're unlikely to rub elbows with Puffy or a Baldwin brother or any of their personal trainers. On the other hand, you won't need a vacation to recover.
Colonial reproductions are legion, but for the real McCoy, set your sails for Essex, a Connecticut River shipbuilding town settled in 1637, and stay at the Griswold Inn. Open since 1776, the "Gris" (as it's always called) includes the main inn as well as several adjacent buildings. One of the dining rooms was constructed from a covered bridge, and the Tap Room was built in 1738 as a schoolhouse. Essex's narrow streets beg for strollers to admire the beautifully maintained Colonial homes and browse the art, antiques, and specialty shops. The Connecticut River Museum at Steamboat Dock houses a full-scale reproduction of the first submarine ever to be used in combat, built in 1776. Children will enjoy the Essex steam train and riverboat ride, and a show at the Goodspeed Opera House is recommended for music lovers. If you prefer buying to looking (or listening), Clinton Crossing, just off I-95, is the area's best outlet mall.
INFO Griswold Inn, 36 Main Street, 860-767-1776; www.griswoldinn.com; $90-$195; 31 guest rooms.
Morning Glory is an 1806 Federal-style home near Long Island Sound. Owner Charlene Denhardt has a winning way with bold colors, hand-stenciled furnishings, family heirlooms, and beautiful houseplants. While she offers beach passes and towels for Madison's own town beach, other options include a hike at Chatfield Hollow State Park or a boat cruise through the Thimble Islands. For less than the cost of a beer and a hot dog at Yankee Stadium, you can pick up box seats for the New Haven Ravens, an AA farm team for the Seattle Mariners. Charlene can also help with dinner reservations: Friends & Company in Madison for fresh salads and homemade breads; chef-owned Quatro's in Guilford for fresh fish and pastas; or the Wharf Restaurant at the Madison Beach Hotel for food with a view.
INFO Morning Glory Bed & Breakfast, 395 Boston Post Road, 203-245-9196; $110-$165; four guest rooms.
Some country inns are a means to an end; others are an end in themselves. Stonecroft falls into the latter category. You can visit Mystic Seaport, just five miles away, or take your chances at the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos. But if your goal is to be pampered, stay close to Stonecroft. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 1807 sea captain's country estate consists of a sunny Georgian Colonial home and a transformed hay barn called the Grange. The Stonecroft room has a whimsical hand-painted mural of the grounds as they might have appeared in the nineteenth century and a king-size canopy bed; the Buttery is the oldest room, dating back to 1740, with original doors and beams. The Grange, a converted post-and-beam barn, houses the inn's restaurant, plus six guest rooms, each with a fireplace and double whirlpool tub. Dinners are prepared by the accomplished chef Drew Egy, son of owners Joan and Lynn Egy.
INFO Stonecroft, 515 Pumpkin Hill Road, 800-772-0774; www.stonecroft.com; $130-$250; ten guest rooms.
New Preston, Conn.
When the Boulders was built as a summer home in 1895, it was a two-day carriage ride from Greenwich, where its owners lived year-round. These days, New York City is only two hours away, but the feeling of a peaceful country getaway is still the same. Overlooking Lake Waramaug, the inn offers rooms in its main inn, carriage house, and cottages. We splurged on a cottage -- an expensive indulgence, at peak summer rates -- but loved having a private deck overlooking the lake, a fireplace for the chilly night, and a double whirlpool tub in the bathroom. Great breakfasts include cooked-to-order omelets with fresh herbs and waffles with fresh berries. On warm evenings, dinner is served on the patio; if it's nippy, the dining room has a relaxing water view. Entrées include duck breast with cranberry-and-butternut-squash bread pudding, and horseradish-crusted salmon with leeks and oysters. For the energetic, there's canoeing and paddle-boating on the lake, or a seven-mile stroll up Pinnacle Mountain. The more laid-back enjoy driving winding country roads to local antiques shops.
INFO The Boulders Inn, East Shore Road, 860-868-0541; www.bouldersinn.com; $260-$380; seventeen guest rooms.