It's evident that almost everyone has heard of the Old Tavern in the enchanted restored village of Grafton, Vt., if the numbers who come to this remote mountain hamlet, especially in foliage season, are any indication. They obviously concur with one writer who called Grafton ''as exquisite an example of New England picturesque as exists'' and others who have spoken of the Old Tavern as the town's ''centerpiece.''
First opened in 1801, the Old Tavern has attracted the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Ulysses S. Grant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson and Kipling. I love it, and I stay there whenever I have the forethought to arrange it well in advance. And that's the problem.
Even though this inn has annexed many of the fine old Grafton homes and offers 36 double rooms as well as four complete houses, there can never be enough rooms to accommodate every charm seeker and leaf peeper in the Northeast at a moment's notice. On a typical fall evening much weeping and gnashing of teeth goes on at the front desk as party after party is turned away.
The Old Tavern numbers among multiple enticements its gracious antique-filled public rooms, like the lovely formal Chippendale Dining Room, where guests dine on reproduction Canton china with English silver; the warm, candlelit Pine Dining Room; and the cozy, paneled Kipling Library. For the contemplative, there are rocking chairs on the long front porch. For the energetic, a natural swimming pond, tennis and shuffleboard courts, and a game room with billiards and table tennis have been provided. The bedrooms ($35 to $70, but closer to $70 ) have canopied, four-poster and cannonball beds, wing chairs, bay windows, and hooked or Oriental rugs. Each room is an individual treasure.
The inn's new stable offers elegant overnight accommodations for any equine friends you may want to bring along ($10 a night) to explore the miles of unpaved roads and trails in and around Grafton. In winter, there are sleds, toboggans, and snowshoes available.
So, knowing that you may be cast into the outer darkness and have to push on to some new destination, perhaps ending up in a plastic motel, is a crushing disappointment. But all is not lost. Even if the Old Tavern is filled to the brim, there is the possibility of staying in one of Grafton's three choice little guesthouses. And their low rates all include breakfast!
The oldest and best-known of the three is the Gabriel's Woodchuck Hill Farm, a two-mile drive up a tree-lined dirt road and well worth looking for. This 200 -year-old farmhouse is completely furnished with antiques, and has four beautiful corner guest rooms, two with fireplaces, for $38 each. The bath is shared. A private studio apartment in the barn by the apple orchard goes for $65 a night.
It's a pleasure here to order afternoon tea, which will be served ($2.75) on fine bone china (and include good-sized tea sandwiches on homemade fruit and nut breads) in front of a blazing fire or on the large open wicker-filled porch. A five-course gourmet dinner is also available for $15 a person by prior arrangement.
Most of Anne and Frank Gabriel's guests return year after year and are welcomed back as dear, old friends. When I was staying here all of the other rooms were filled with returning guests, and one couple was trying each of the bedrooms, which are decorated in each of the four seasons, to see which one they preferred.
The Hayes Guest House on Water Street by the covered bridge is another gem. The four-poster bed in one of the first-floor rooms is so high that a stool has been provided to climb into it. This room also has a private bath and fireplace. Upstairs there are three more guest rooms, double and single, and a book-lined hallway. ''We're not very large,'' staff say - ''We're more like a private club.'' A Continental breakfast, featuring homemade breads, is included for, as the genial host puts it, ''$35 down'' (to $20).
Grafton's newest guesthouse, opened three years ago by Obie McMann and his wife, is the Stronghold Guest House on the edge of the village. I saw their handwritten notice on the town bulletin board, drove out to see the place, and was delighted with it. This white clapboard house with the 12-over-12 windows is the sort that graces magazine covers, and the McManns, like most guesthouse owners, enjoy sharing it. They were captivated by the English-style bed-and-breakfast idea, and they have thrown themselves into it with enthusiastic remodeling. There are four guest rooms, two with baths and fireplaces. Rates are $20 to $35 here, including a full breakfast of eggs, homemade muffins, and juice.
Should you be unable to bespeak a room in any of these gest houses, there's a talented young sculptor named Judd Hartmann who rents entire houses for not unreasonable sums - like four bedrooms for $100 a day, complete with dry firewood and a well-equipped kitchen. When I, a stranger from New York, called him last year in the off-season, he kindly offered to track down two of the guesthouse owners for me, and called me back with the results at his own expense. In the end, unable to find single rooms (many Vermont inns are closed in November), he rented our group of four a handsome ski lodge with more of the comforts of home than home for only $75.
So don't deny yourself the pleasures of Grafton in the fall just because you were thinking about something else last winter when you ought to have been making reservations. Remember, too, that fall is not the only season to visit Grafton - it is charming all year round.
The Hayes and Stronghold Guest Houses are open year-round and the Old Tavern only closes during April and on Christmas Day. The Woodchuck Hill Farm is open May 1 to Nov. 1.
But what else is there to do in Grafton when you're not peeping at leaves, you might ask? Over at the Old Tavern their answer is, ''Hardly anything at all. There wasn't much to do a hundred years ago. Appropriately, there isn't much to do today. If Grafton were to be filled with typical tourist attractions, it wouldn't be Grafton anymore.''
Very true. Nevertheless, there are quite a few distractions to be discovered in the immediate neighborhood. For instance - the Grafton Village Cheese Company , where you can watch Vermont cheddar being made(open Monday through Friday, 8: 30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays, June 1 to Oct. 31, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), the Grafton Historical Society Museum (open Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day, 2: 30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.), the Windham Foundation exhibits of the town's restoration , two covered bridges, two art galleries, two gift shops, six antique shops, a printmaking workshop, a cross-country ski shop and trail system with 40 kilometers of marked trails, a country store, a nursery, and a carriage ride around the village behind ''Seattle Slow.''
Further afield, it's less than 10 miles to Steamtown USA, a steam train museum in Bellows Falls, and about 12 miles to Weston, where there's a well-known summer playhouse, a bowl mill with Vermont-made wood products at mill prices, and the wonderful Vermont Country Store. Practical Information:
This southeast corner of Vermont is not only a delight to explore, but easily accessible from New England metropolitan areas via the Massachusetts Turnpike and Interstates 91 and 89.
To make reservations at one of the inns, call these numbers: The Old Tavern ( 802) 843-2375; Gabriel's Woodchuck Hill Farm (802) 843-2398; Hayes Guest House ( 802) 843-2461; Stronghold Guest House (802) 843-2203; and Judd Hartmann (802) 843-2234.