A Real-Life Downton


It was while waiting for the dumbwaiter elevator that I noticed the small, merry line of bells above the foyer doorway. With a spark of recognition, I realized where I’d seen them before: Downton Abbey!

As fans of the British period soap all know, the opening credits of “Downton Abbey” roll over a wall of vintage bells identical to the ones I was now studying. If I hadn’t been waiting for a creaky centenarian contraption, I would never have paused long enough to look up, and I would never have seen those bells. Or realized that the house I was staying in — the Langdon Hall Country House Hotel and Spa — was, essentially, a real-life Downton.

I was in the Canadian woods of Cambridge, Ontario, an hour west of Toronto. The wide-open fields and thick green forests are pleasant enough, but nothing on the ride from the airport prepared me for the transporting graciousness of Langdon Hall. Surrounded by 200 acres of Carolinian forest on the Grand River, Langdon Hall’s centerpiece is a sprawling, 32-room brick-and-column manse in the Federal Revival style — aristocratic in a very New World idiom, yet brimming with the pride of place that animates old English estates.

Built in 1902 as the Canadian retreat of Eugene Langdon Wilks — a great-grandson of the New York financier John Jacob Astor — Langdon Hall remained in the peripatetic Wilks family for eight decades. It served as a refuge for European family members during World War II, and housed several generations before its sale in the 1980s and rebirth as part of the Relais & Châteaux luxury hotel empire.

As I studied a wall of sepia-toned family portraits in the Langdon bar room — which, like everything at Langdon Hall, feels at once exquisitely formal and instantly comfortable — I realized there was yet another Downton parallel: Just as Downton’s fictional Crawley clan has rarely mentioned Jewish ties, the Astor family has also been linked to German-Jewish lineage several centuries back.

Regardless of bloodline, Langdon’s wood-burning fireplaces, fluffy duvets and private dressing rooms could make anybody feel like lord of the manor, I reflected as I sank into a cloud of feather-down pillows.

I was in Cambridge to check out luxury, Ontario style, en route to the nearby Stratford Festival — the Canadian summer mecca for Shakespeare and other serious theater. But Langdon Hall is less a resort than an enchanted world unto itself. I could easily have lost hours happily wandering the myriad rooms of Wilks’ mansion, taking in the meticulously conserved period details, or exploring the miles of trails through the surrounding forests.

In the morning, I strolled past sunlit lily ponds to a patio under the shady green canopy of a century-old tree, savoring brunch in a setting reminiscent of Monet’s garden. A chef in starched whites scurried to and from the lavish buffet table, explaining how the ingredients for his preserves, quiches and tarts are sourced right from the Langdon gardens.

After brunch, I strolled past the croquet lawns and toured those gardens with head gardener Mario, who oversees the heirloom beets, pea shoots, lavender and wild gooseberries that — along with dozens of other crops — inform the ever-changing menu at Langdon’s award-winning restaurant.

Amid all the exquisitely conserved period details, that ethos of local, seasonal and sustainable is decidedly contemporary. It extends, Mario explained, beyond the spring-pea salad and pasta I ate for lunch to the spa itself, where the scrumptious-smelling massage oils are crafted from garden herbs.

Langdon Hall may have typified the estates favored by well-to-do New Yorkers a hundred years ago — but today, it sets the standard for the kind of luxury accommodations increasingly favored by weekend tourists, for whom featherbeds, dual-head showers and sommeliers in the hotel dining room are de rigueur. And more and more, these luxury spots are popping up in the easy-to-reach, cheap-for-Americans countryside west of Toronto.

About an hour west of Langdon in Stratford proper, the first serious luxury hotel and restaurant — the Bruce — recently opened to offer an option for upscale culture-vultures. Traditionally, the half-million annual visitors who pack into the Stratford theaters have eschewed pampering in favor of no-frills lodgings; the area is known for its low-key, unpretentious culture.

But the strong U.S. dollar has made Canada a serious bargain for Yankees, and the Stratford-Cambridge area already has the elements many New Yorkers look for in a rural getaway: a tradition of gracious living in the British vein, a picturesque setting and a vibrant farm-to-table culinary scene. Both the Bruce — which offers a modern, in-town take on the Langdon luxe tradition — and the Wilks estate itself can be booked for less than $300 a night, far less than their American counterparts.

And as I tucked into a fluffy robe, gazed out over a field of wildflowers and nibbled on a tray of freshly picked cherries, I was sure that even a Crawley lady couldn’t have it any better.