2008: best dining-lodging combos

Rare is the destination that offers lodging and dining that are both distinctive and outstanding in quality. Here are six places that were delightful surprises in 2008.

Most noticeable is the dinnerware, an odd but lovely assortment of colorful, antique styles. It goes well with the mismatched furniture, tucked into intimate, shadowy nooks and a window-filled wall that overlooks Lake Wales, Fla., about one hour southeast of Orlando.

Order the traditional, five-course dinner at Chalet Suzanne – a fourth-generation family business, and the eating begins with broiled grapefruit, topped with a sautéed chicken liver. It is yet another indication of the creativity and flair that has been a part of this property since 1931.

The theme continues in lodging. All of the 30 guest rooms seem comfortable but none is decorated alike. Most unusual onsite attraction: the soup cannery, where choices include Romaine Soup, with spinach and mushrooms; it also is known as Moon Soup because Apollo astronauts ate it during space flights.

Nobody can duplicate the spirit or ingenuity of this place, which is truly a treasure.

For more about Chalet Suzanne, 3800 Chalet Suzanne Dr., Lake Wales: www.chaletsuzanne.com, 800-433-6011. Room rates start at $169.

Jeremy Thoren says he has the best of two worlds. The hunter and nature lover also is executive chef of Buck Rub Restaurant at Pine Ridge of Wautoma, Wis. Maybe you’ve seen him cooking on Hunters Exchange Television, a satellite channel?

The chef’s specialty is gourmet preparation of wild game, which makes his restaurant highly unusual in Wisconsin. Examples: Ostrich Loin Steak, Antelope Parmesan, Wild Boar Ribs, Sauteed Breast of Pheasant. For breakfast: Elk Benedict. More traditional entrees also are served.

The setting is woodsy and relaxed, much like the overnight accommodations, which range from romantic to “bunkhouse” (four bedrooms with modern amenities). Linger at the lobby’s stone fireplace, or in the atrium hot tub.

For more about Pine Ridge of Wautoma, N3387 Hwy. 73, Wautoma: www.pineridgeofwautoma.com, 920-787-5519. Room rates start at $85.

When Beatle Paul McCartney got married, the second time, the ceremony took place at Castle Leslie, a 17th century Irish estate northeast of Dublin. Visit near sunset, and you’ll hear thousands of rooks (crows) screech as they scatter for the day.

The best way to get a glimpse inside is to take a cooking class in the castle’s restored kitchen. Chef Gerald Molloy presents demonstration and hands-on classes: topic range from one-dish meal advice to elaborate dinner party preparation.

An overnight castle stay is an all-or-nothing proposition: Pay 5,000 euro (about $6,600) per night to rent 20 bedrooms in the 70-room building.

Another option is to book a stay at the Hunting Lodge. Ask for a room that overlooks the stables, which means being able to watch horse feedings and bridling just a few yards from your window.

For more about Çastle Leslie, which the town of Glaslough was built around: www.castleleslie.com, 353-478-8100. Room rates at the Hunting Lodge start at $260.

What began in 1890 as a one-story summer log cabin in the Canadian Rockies today is a luxury resort that revels in the change of seasons from its remote location, inside of Banff National Park, two hours from Calgary.

The now-massive Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is located a couple of miles from the nothing-fancy community of Lake Louise, population 1,000 during winter.

Yes, this is isolation, but even wintertime diversions are plentiful. Think sleigh rides, dog sledding, ice skating, skiing, hiking and lounging in a warm, roomy, sunlight-filled lodge. Nibble on scones, fruit and finger sandwiches during afternoon tea, while absorbing mountaintop views. No one blinks if you substitute a glass of champagne for a spot of tea.

For more about the Chateau Lake Louise, 111 Lake Louise Dr., Lake Louise: www.fairmont.com, 866-540-4413. Room rates start at $245.

The biggest surprise at Gilbert’s, an 1885 hilltop mansion in Lake Geneva, Wis., is the discovery that select customers will stay there after indulging in an exquisite meal.

Thirteen hand-carved fireplaces and a wide mix of woods – mahogany to walnut – are among the fine touches that impress diners in this 30-room house, which was built for a millionaire industrialist. Chef Ken Hnilo changes his menu daily; expect choices such as wild Alaskan halibut with eggplant caviar and braised artichokes.

A cherry staircase leads to a four-bedroom suite (with kitchen, plus cozy fourth-floor loft) that offers dramatic views of Geneva Lake and ultimate privacy. Rental sometimes is negotiated into wedding reception packages, although girlfriend getaways also can be arranged for a flat fee. The space is meant to be rented as one unit.

For more about Gilbert’s, 327 Wrigley Dr., Lake Geneva: www.gilbertsrestaurant.com, 262-248-6680.

Thousands of guest rooms fill the 60-mile stretch of beachfront that defines Myrtle Beach, S.C., and having this many choices might seem overwhelming. Where you want to land will depend upon whether you’re traveling as a family on a budget, a couple eager for romance or friends in search of amusements (including golf – more than 100 courses operate in the area).

I liked the location and style of Grande Dunes, modern hotel rooms to condos on 2,200 acres of woods and water. Within a leisurely stroll or short drive is a mind-boggling array of theater, restaurant, shopping and nightclub options.

Executive Chef James Clark whips up attention from Bon Appetite and other national food publications. Using locally harvested ingredients is a priority; in this part of the world that means fresh seafood as well as farmed muscovy duck and black angus beef.

For more about Grande Dunes, 1000 Grande Dunes Rd., Myrtle Beach: www.grandedunes.com, 877-347-2633. Room rates start at $125.

Observations are the result of independent travel, conferences of travel writers and press trips. Recommendations include, but are not limited to, subsidized and complimentary accommodations/meals. Room rates are subject to change.