July 17, 2014

A dignified inn, minus the starch

“Do you think you'll need a sportcoat?” I ask as we get ready for dinner at the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club.

“Do you think you'll need a sportcoat?” I ask as we get ready for dinner at the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club.

“I don’t know, but I plan to wear one,” my husband responds.

“Yes, good.” I nod affirmingly. After all, we’re in Durham, North Carolina, at a somewhat pricey hotel and golf resort. Surely it’s the kind of place that might still have some rules about appropriate attire in the fancy white-tablecloth restaurant. I, for one, am wearing a nice dress and heels.

And I’m sure, when we enter the Fairview, in a distant wing of the sprawling hotel across the road from Duke University, that we’ve been wise to follow old-fashioned protocol. The restaurant’s all chandeliered and carpeted and bouqueted elegance, softly lit and quiet, as old-school and stuffy-seeming as my proper Virginian spouse and I could have hoped for.

But two seconds after we’re seated, in comes a gaggle of 20-somethings dressed in flip-flops, shorts and T-shirts and teeny-tiny tank tops and skirts way up to here.

So much for a dress code.

Well, this is a college campus. Of which we are nicely reminded when our waitress brings the martinis we’ve ordered. In the low light, we can’t quite make out the color of the glasses’ dark stems, and being martini-glass collectors, we’re curious.

“Is that blue or green?” we ask simultaneously.

“Blue,” says the smiling waitress. “Duke blue.”


“You’re in Duke country now,” she adds genially.

Not only is the 271-room, English-country-style inn obviously the landing place for all Duke parents and visitors, it’s something of a shrine to the Dukes, the Carolina first family who made a fortune in tobacco and energy and gave the university its name. Plus a whole passel of money, of course.

The Washington Duke, which opened in 1988, is a rainbow-splashed throwback to a more formal era, when luxury equaled opulence and a kind of lush beauty. Our room is a study in blue (of course) and gold; yes, the white comforter on the bed is half-covered by a satiny blue-and-gold spread. The bathroom’s done in brown marble, with a beautiful basket-weave design on the floor and the shower wall. I feel rich just standing in it.

The next day, we set off down the paved path leading into the depths of the golf course, but uh-oh. A golf-cart-driving staffer stops us partway, cheerfully informing us that walking on the course is a no-no. But there’s a public trail that runs all around it if we’re looking for a stroll, he says.

We head back through the hotel and out the front in search of the trailhead. We make our way around the curved drive, lined with yellow and purple pansies and tall posts bearing banners that proclaim, “Celebrating 25 years of tradition.” When I point this out, my husband laughs. “In Virginia, you have to have at least 300 years before you can call it a tradition,” he says.

Which may be true. But it’s nice to be in a place that still appreciates the concept. Even if they don’t have a dress code.

•  Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club, 3001 Cameron Blvd., Durham; 919-490-0999; Rooms from $199.

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