Another offering in an occasional series about travel and travel photography. This post features The Marriott Ranch in Hume, VA.
TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY: The Marriott Ranch, Hume, VA
A gift of a stay at the Marriott Ranch and dinner at the historic Inn at Little Washington took us west on a brief holiday just before Christmas Day.
We arrived at the Inn at Fairfield (aka The Marriott Ranch) in the early evening on a Friday afternoon in December, as ominous deep blue-black clouds of a gathering storm swirled around the ranch as far as the eye could see. The 65 mile trip from our home in Old Towne Alexandria had taken more than 2 hours. Traffic in Washington, DC is never good, but on Friday afternoon it is at its very wrost. The transition from a bustling urban scene to a primitive rural setting was welcomed. We were looking forward to this respite from the city, however brief. Although our destination, Hume, VA, was new to us, the trip through Fauquier County, VA was not. For nearly 7 years we had lived in Warrenton, VA, a sleepy southern town once The Seat of The Confederacy.
It was familiar territory.
Once voted ‘One of The 10 Best Rural Counties to Live In in America’, Fauquier County has since experienced considerable growth and development, particularly in the northern regions near the suburban counties bordering Washington, DC. But that development has yet to reach the western areas of Fauquier County, which retains it’s simple, primitive beauty, born of rolling hills, horse farms and unobstructed views of the Blueridge Mountains.
The 4,200 acre Marriott Ranch lies at the foot of that mountain range, only 18 miles from scenic Skyline Drive.
Once inside the Inn, we were greeted by Caroline, the concierge, a pleasant young lady dressed in jeans, blue denim shirt and work boots. She checked her laptop, confirmed our reservation and checked us in. Next up was a brief tour of the Inn and that ended in our spacious room overlooking those rolling hills. Done for the day, Caroline said good bye, left the building and left us alone. Literally. Alone. This was the Friday before Christmas. Clearly not a peak time for visitors. As odd as the timing may seem. it was perfect for us.
Except for the permanent staff (2) and a caretaker living in an outbuilding, we were completely alone at The Fairfield Inn.
We settled in, refreshed ourselves and confirmed our reservations for what we anticipated would be the highlight of the weekend; dinner for two at The Inn at Little Washington. Once an average dining experience at a quaint country inn, a meal at the Inn at Little Washington is now the stuff of legend. The Inn’s culinary curriculum is the province of award winning chef Patrick O’Connell, a true artiste’ with an avocado, or any perishable fit to eat. And if not fit to eat, fit to photograph. O’Connell approaches food preparation much like David Lynch approaches film making, creating things that are unique, strange and exciting all at once. At $450 a couple, to start, the experience could easily disappoint.
It does not.
Even for an ascetic non-dairy eating, vegetarian, tree hugging type like me, this was an event to remember. It made my wife proud to see me leave my culinary comfort zone and venture into the wilds of Chef O’Connell’s world.
With dinner in the books, the 20 minute trip from Little Washington back to the Marriott Ranch was uneventful, but the gathering storm was looking ever more ominous. High winds, heavy rain and dropping temperatures meant we were in for an eventful night at The Inn at Fairfield Farm. Fortunately, we were exhausted enough to sleep through the night and miss the excitement of falling trees, flying shingles and power outages that surrounded us.
The next morning arrived all too soon.
We fully expected to be alone at breakfast, but we were surprised to find 5 new guests had joined us during the night. A family from Bakersfield, CA had come to visit Elizabeth, the resident horse trainer and keeper of the hounds. Yes, Fox hounds. So, over a traditional Southern style breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, biscuits, coffee and orange juice, they filled the time with stories of Fox chases, runaway horses and driven Hound Masters (or is it Hunt Masters…) reveling in the thrill of the hunt. So that’s why people flocked to the ranch during the hunting season. Fox hunts in the tradition of the landed gentry. ‘Full Cry’ and all that. If Fox Hunts are your passion, this is your place.
Breakfast done (I had the juice and a wondeful bagel-like thing) and stories of The Hunt behind us, we packed our gear and set out to have a longer look around. It wuld be our first in daylight.
Experienced travelers today will know that a stay at a Marriott facility can be a rather spartan experience. Well, it all started here. Clean, simple, utilitarian. The J. Willard Marriot signatur experience. Add WiFi and a semi-soft pillow and that’s the Marriott of today. Not far removed from the Inn at Fairfield Farm. What you need, but little more. The single concession to modernity at the Inn is the Common Room, where you’ll find a few board games, magazines (notably ‘Wine’ and ‘Virginia Horseman’ ) and a flat screen connected to satellite TV. With the exception of updated appliances, much at the Inn is like it may have been when J. Willard bought the place.
We stopped on our personal tour to chat with the ‘housekeeper’. She shared that, although J. Willard loved to spend time at the ranch, he never stayed in the Inn itself. Instead, he kept a trailer on the grounds, where he would camp on his visits. Even when Ronald Reagan visited, J. Willard camped in his trailer. Clean, simple, utilitarian. It all started here.
J. Willard was clearly an admirer of photography. Family photography and images of himself abound. Framed black and white images of Marriott, alone and with his considerable family, adorn the walls of the Inn. Little else does. The first floor Library is an historical gallery of photographs taken of the Marriotts over a stretch of many years. Reagan on horseback, Marriott on horseback, everyone on horseback. The family portraits are quite well done. Traditional poses, as you might expect, but composed, lit and captured in a timeless fashion.
As we walked, I looked up. Time and light was fading.
If I was going to capture any images of this place, it would have to be now. I had packed a basic travel kit- a Nikon FX DSLR and a couple of lenses. Always have that with me. Realizing that travel photography can often be a victim of circumstance (you often shoot images of where you are, without much preparation and with guests along), I decided to turn this shoot into an exercise; a teachable moment in travel photography. I would shoot like the average traveler might. One lens. One setting. Usually Auto, right. This could be a challenge. The skies had gone Gothic and greay and the light followed. Here comes the rain.
Get to it!
Twenty minutes later I was done.
I chose the my Nikkor 50mm 1.4G for this exercise. Great all around lens and perfect for low light. Nikon pro bodies, like my D4, don’t have an Auto setting, so I shifted into Program mode, which is professional jargon for Auto. Program just sounds better. Shooting in Program mode is a lot like listening to elevator music. All the highs and lows are compressed into an average mid tone that offends no one, but neither does it excite. The camera decides what’s best for the image. Usually f/5.6 and a shutter speed that will render the image with 18% grey as the target tone. Safe, but bland. But I pressed on. I tried to recall the last time I shot in Program mode. I could not. My first choice is Manual mode, then Aperture, then Shutter for action (AV and TV for Canon shooters), but for this exercise Program mode it would be.
Final tour and vacation photos done, we packed our gear and headed home, as the skies grew darker, the winds rose and the rain began to fall heavily.
Travel Photography: The Marriott Ranch in Hume, VA