Top dining-lodging picks: distillery, parador

One last round of accolades before I get on with the new year: These businesses provided stimulating dining and lodging during 2009, which means they were excellent getaway destinations all on their own.

What could be finer than an escape with longtime but seldom-seen friends, and what a shame to let the layout of traditional hotel rooms compromise group comfort and conversation. I consider a villa rental at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, six miles from Galena, Ill., a wise match during any time of year.

On the resort’s 6,800 acres are 63 holes of golf (now camouflaged as 45 kilometers of cross-country ski trails, plus a sledding hill) and a manmade lake (used for ice skating). No need to bring skis, skates or sleds; overnight guests gain free access to all.

So the remote and pretty location fits groups with children, as well as couples and gatherings of friends. At rental spectrum extremes are amenity-rich rooms in the main lodge and eight-bedroom houses. Our roomy, three-bedroom unit – with fireplaces and screened porch – felt like a home and could handle up to eight adults for $350-450 per night, depending upon time of year.

We could save money by cooking in the villa’s nifty kitchen, or live it up by having a resort cook prepare a private meal. Fun in summer: Spikes Bar & Grill, fine dining in a casual setting outdoors, overlooking hills, hot air balloons and golf greens.

For more about Eagle Ridge Resort, 444 Eagle Ridge Dr.: www.eagleridge.com, 800-892-2269. Room rates start at $129.

Down-home Paula Deen’s self-described “country cuisine” makes Savannah, Ga., a place of pilgrimage for Southern cooking fans, who visit her Lady and Sons restaurant during the city’s seven-stop food tour (www.savannahtours.us).

End the day with a stay at the Mansion on Forsyth Park, an 1888 luxury hotel with marble garden courtyard and crystal doorknobs, in a quiet and historically lush part of Savannah. Much of the property resembles an art gallery or museum; displays include a century of vintage hats, dating back to the 1860s (and collected/curated by a Wisconsin woman – Gail Christensen of GC Millinery and Tea, Lake Mills).

Add a class at the hotel’s 700 Kitchen Cooking School, which can be as hands-on or hands-off as you’d like. Our time with chef Darin Sehnert was a mix of good wine, dry humor, sound cooking techniques and insight about Low Country regional cuisine.

“Restaurant cooking is not what people do at home,” Darin told us, so his class themes don’t duplicate the hotel restaurant’s menu. All are welcome: “There is no expectation of knowledge,” he says.

For more about the classes and Mansion on Forsyth Park, 700 Drayton St.: www.mansiononforsythpark.com, 888-711-5114. Room rates start at $149.

History defines Old Quebec, but count the Auberge Saint-Antoine as a formidable and creative leader in its modern-day preservation.

The hotel site was under water in the late 1600s, then used as a landfill before supporting a wharf, cannon battery, warehouse and house. “What they called ‘garbage’ we call ‘treasures’,” says David Mounteer, general manager, about the 5,000-plus items unearthed during hotel expansion in 1992. More than 700 cataloged artifacts are treated like fine art and adorn the premises.

Architecture blends contemporary style with respect for centuries-old bricks and mortar. So a hotel stay is incomplete unless you take time to tour the building as a place of preservation. Meals at Panache, the hotel restaurant, showcase local and quality ingredients in a similarly artistic and inventive way.

For more about the Auberge Saint-Antoine, 8 Saint-Antoine: www.saint-antoine.com, 888-692-2211. Room rates start at $200.

Tired of the typical fermentation tour? Head to Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, where a visit to Glenora Distillery also can involve countryside dining, entertainment and lodging.

Consider this 300-acre roost in the Mabou Highlands as your reward for a day of driving and hiking along the renowned Cabot Trail. Order Digby scallops or a rack of lamb, then a flight of aged whiskys while listening to the Celtic music of local performers in the adjacent pub.

Glenora is the only single malt whisky maker in Canada, and distillery tours occur hourly during the day. Expect comfortable and peaceful lodging, since music ends at 10 p.m.

For more about Glenora Inn & Distillery, Route 19 on the Ceilidh Trail, near Glenville: www.glenoradistillery.com, 800-839-0491. Room rates start at $120.

Perish the thought of government-run lodging – what an antiseptic and institutional turnoff, right? Wrong, if we’re talking about the paradores of Spain.

The Spanish government oversees the operation of almost 100 historic hotels with modern amenities, in quaint and/or stunning locations. The program gives a new purpose to old buildings and an attractive way to teach travelers about history and heritage. It’s not a cookie-cutter endeavor, standards for quality are high and eco-friendly procedures are a priority.

Our stay at Alcala de Henares, 16 miles from Madrid and accessible via public transportation, was at one of the country’s newest paradores, in a repurposed 1510 convent complex on a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The balance between historic structure and sleek, modern décor was unusual and enticing.

Sample regional cuisine – roasted meats to almond pastries – at the soothing in-house restaurant, but save room for the fat and scrumptious breakfast buffet.

For more about Spain’s parador lodging: www.paradores-spain.com, 351-258-820-150. Rates at Paradores Alcala de Henares start at $150.

Observations are the result of independent travel, conferences of travel writers and press trips. Recommendations include, but are not limited to, subsidized and complimentary meals.