When Nature Calls: How to spend a perfect day at Ipswich’s Crane Estate.
The Cranes could’ve been the protagonists of a Wes Anderson film—quirky, charming and appallingly wealthy. Their estate—a 2,100-acre spread on the Ipswich coast that the family gifted to the Trustees of the Reservations in the mid-20th century—has an elaborate but enchanting history. It includes a mansion (twice built), an inn, seven islands, miles of white-sand beaches, acres of dunes and a wildlife refuge—all of which, as a guest at the Inn at Castle Hill, feel like yours.
The inn, built in 1843 as a farmhouse, is the oldest structure at the Crane Estate. Today, this 10-room bed-and-breakfast offers comfortable, modern accommodations and unobtrusive service, complementing the luxury of the grounds. Rooms, named for members of the Crane family, are located on all three levels. Make a point of requesting Higinbotham for third-floor views of the Atlantic and surrounding marsh and woodlands, or Miné for those same views at the second level, plus a fireplace. Or go all out and rent the entire inn for a Crane-scale sleepover.
Although the inn doesn’t have a restaurant or permit food in the rooms, its kitchen offers daily teatime as well as a full-service breakfast—and not the continental kind. Think vegetable quiche made with produce from the on-site gardens and eggs from nearby Appleton Farms, which the Trustees also own.
For a picturesque (indeed, perfect) day, follow breakfast up with a tour of the Great House, a Stuart-style manor designed for the family in 1924 by Chicago architect David Adler. Even if you’re not into museums, this indoor excursion is a must. It’s less a stodgy trawl through history than it is a peek into an odd yet intriguing family. Plus it’s the only way to poke around this 59-room mansion unless you attend a wedding there (which people do) or film a movie on the grounds (see Matthew McConaughey in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past—actually, don’t).
Look for the original Earls of Essex crests that hang high on the library’s walls, which were brought from the earls’ manor. Keep your gaze high in the rotunda as well, to see a painting by Chicago artist Abram Poole, composed in mimicry of one of Mrs. Crane’s favorite works seen on a European tour, but with custom alterations adding esteemed members of the service staff and the house Siamese cat.
After touring the mansion, make sure to stroll the grounds. Start at the back of the house, between the two griffins—a gift to the Cranes from former employees—for a look down the Grand Allée. Designed by landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff in 1914, it’s a half-mile stretch of lawn spread over three man-made rolling hills with 700 Norway spruces and 14 statues lining the trek. On a clear day, the Allée perfectly frames the Isles of Shoals, 18 miles out. This vista, sandwiched by oblique coastal views, typifies the estate’s landscape design, a juxtaposition of natural and manicured beauty.
Borrow a mountain bike from the inn and continue your exploration of the grounds with a quick trip to Crane Beach. Time the outing with low tide to wade through the warm, ankle-deep pools, scattering tiny fish with your feet as you go.
Start your return journey just as the sun begins its descent. Follow signs for the exit, but veer right down a Secret Garden–looking path, overgrown and somewhat rocky, letting the mountain bike do the work. This ride, though maze-like (stay left at the first fork, right at the second, and take a hard right when the path becomes a road again), lands at the bottom of the last hill in the Grand Allée. Head up to the crest to watch the sun set over the Great House, a half-mile behind you, with the sky burnishing the European-inspired landscape into a Disney-style fantasy. Remember to breathe.
While there’s still a glimmer of light, follow the trail around the east side of the grounds back to the inn. Just as dusk settles, cozy up in a rocking chair on the patio, blanket in lap and complimentary glass of wine in hand, while deer graze at the base of a tree not 10 yards away. It’s an experience the Cranes would’ve known. And as the mosquitoes begin their evening gyre, it’s worth remembering that the simple pleasures of 100 years ago remain just as pleasurable today.
– See how the 99 percent lived on the Hot and Cold Tour, which includes a look at the Great House’s roof.
– For a tasty lunch or dinner, visit Spice Thai Kitchen in Ipswich for surprisingly authentic cuisine.
– There are reusable aluminum water bottles in every room at the inn, stamped with the Trustees’ logo and available to you at cost ($6).
– Stop at Ipswich’s Russell Orchards on your way home for fresh apple-cider donuts and fruit picking.