May-June 2011 | Driving Range

A Cabin in the Woods

Savage River Lodge offers plenty to do-even as it makes the case for doing nothing at all.

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The fresh-baked muffins seal the deal.

Oversized and dense, they arrive on our front porch the morning after our night in one of 18 private cabins at Savage River Lodge, a rustic luxury resort nestled deep in the woods of western Maryland. They’re hand-delivered in a picnic basket, along with orange juice and The Washington Post, just as we normally would be pondering whether a hotel’s continental breakfast was worth having to change out of pajamas.

The muffins are one of many thoughtful touches softening the lodge’s rough-hewn edges—and the best invitation I know of to spend the morning curled up in bed.

After a day and a night at the lodge, we’re not surprised: The entire place makes a persuasive argument for mastering the art of doing nothing.

My husband and I arrive early on a Saturday afternoon, our eyes bloodshot and underscored by dark circles after a hectic week. I imagine the cheerful clerk at the front desk can smell Montgomery County on us. But it doesn’t take long for our tension and anxiety to dissipate.

Though the resort is located in the Savage River State Forest not far from Deep Creek Lake, with its arcades, miniature golf and go-carts, the atmosphere at Savage River Lodge couldn’t be more different. The 700-acre state forest surrounding the lodge serves as both a natural barrier and a psychological one: It possesses all the beauty but none of the frenzy of its rowdier counterpart, which can be reached only by driving almost an hour around the perimeter of the forest.

The gravel road leading to the lodge sets the tone for the weekend. It crosses a small stream and wends its way through deep thickets of mature spruce before arriving at the front door.

The lodge itself, an airy, three-story structure of spruce and fir, houses a nationally acclaimed restaurant (referred to simply as The Restaurant), a library that lends books to visitors, and a large, double-sided, wood-burning fireplace where guests gather to chat, read or play board games stacked on tables throughout the room.

Owners Mike Dreisbach and Jan Russell initially envisioned the lodge as a nature-themed corporate retreat center. Dreisbach is an avid outdoorsman, and Russell spent years developing luxury hotels around the world. But the deeper they got into the decadelong planning and construction process, the more they turned their focus toward weekend guests. The 18 private cabins that comprise the resort’s overnight accommodations line a narrow gravel path and offer varying degrees of privacy, from standard cabins that face each other, to premier cabins set deeper in the woods.

Since opening in 1999, the lodge has been named a Condé Nast Johansens “recommended property,” has become a member of the Select Registry program, a nonprofit association of small hotels, B&Bs and inns, and has been hailed as a rustic, romantic getaway by publications including The Washington Post and Southern Living. Cabins book months in advance of busy seasons, such as October, when fall foliage tends to peak.

At check-in, we learn about a wine-tasting that will feature five samples from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, a Napa County winery, and hors d’oeuvres for $75 per person. Wine tastings are among the many activities and entertainment options available to guests. In colder months, there’s cross-country and downhill skiing or snowshoeing during the day and sleigh rides at night. Warmer seasons offer fly-fishing, cycling, kayaking and white-water rafting.

Guests can book an in-cabin massage, or take part in a “chef for a day” program, in which head chef Jesse McKinley helps them plan, prepare and cook a multicourse meal suited to the guests’ tastes and areas of interest.

We decide to skip the wine tasting in order to check out our cabin and the lodge’s 14 miles of hiking trails. With so much to do, we figure we ought to be doing some of it. But the longer we spend at Savage River Lodge, the more we realize that doing nothing is the point.

Our plans to head right out for a hike are swallowed up by the plush couches in our cabin, where we end up lazing and reading for an hour or so. The cabin’s white-pine interior seems to glow in the afternoon light, and the gas fireplace gives off such warmth on this chilly day, we feel we have no choice but to keep postponing the trip outside.

When we finally do head out for a quick hike, it’s nearly dusk. We choose a wide, well-maintained path, one of several options in the trail network that starts just yards from our cabin. As serious backpackers, we initially view its ease as a bit of a disappointment. But as darkness descends, we’re grateful for the trail’s relative smoothness as we stumble along, necks craned to see the stars in the deep-blue sky.

Back in our cabin, we find the bathroom both rustic and luxurious, with an oversized tub, plush towels and fancy, cedar-scented bath goodies. Cabins do not have televisions, but they do have spacious front porches with rocking chairs, a stash of gourmet coffee and teas next to the coffee maker, and small refrigerators for wine or leftovers from dinner. Our pillow-soft, queen-size bed, covered by a fluffy down comforter, is perched on the second-story loft, up a modern-looking, open staircase.

The overall effect is Little House on the Prairie with electricity and gourmet coffee, or camping without the bugs and tents. We have a hard time wresting ourselves from the cabin to head to dinner. But as we set out, the lodge glows like a beacon in the dark woods.

The building’s interior looks like a posh version of a ski lodge, minus the overpriced french fries and screaming kids. Antique snow-sports equipment such as wooden skis and snowshoes adorn the walls. Several couples lounge on couches, nursing glasses of wine as they play board games or contribute to a puzzle set up on a coffee table near the fireplace.

The restaurant, which is open to both overnight guests and the public, is a warm, cozy room with an open kitchen and huge, wood-burning oven. In the summer, a large, multilevel porch offers outside dining.

Southern Living and Fodor’s travel guides have praised the restaurant, and its wine list has earned the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence each year since 2003. It becomes immediately clear that eating here, and then capping off a day of relaxation with a five-minute stroll back to our cabin, is half the fun of a lodge visit.

I order a salad of greens topped with grapes, walnuts and a thick, chunky blue cheese dressing. My pan-fried rockfish is elevated by a rich, creamy crab Alfredo sauce. The menu notes that dessert options change frequently. But if peanut-butter pie is listed, order it. The smooth, sweet peanut-butter filling, sandwiched between a chocolate cookie-crumb crust and dark-chocolate ganache, is worth the trip alone.

At even the ritziest hotels, mornings can be a letdown, with the frenzy of packing up and checking out. At Savage River Lodge, morning means that picnic basket urging us to linger.

Later, there will be trails to hike (we’ll eventually make a two-hour circuit and discover steep, rocky trails to complement the smoother options) and grounds to explore (we’ll find the forest as lovely as the lodge itself, with its clear mountain stream and thick tree canopy). Eventually we’ll have lunch, with a butternut squash soup providing a creamy, delicious follow-up to the previous night’s feast.

But for now, there’s a picnic basket full of breakfast goodies and the Sunday paper to occupy us. We spread the contents of our basket onto the rumpled down comforter, grab sections of the paper and accept the invitation to relax.