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  • Writer's pictureJoe Strider

INNESS: A Promising Work in Progress

Updated: Feb 17

By Joe Strider

July 17th, 2022

The 12-room farmhouse at INNESS.

When I first heard about INNESS back in February of 2020 my wife and I had recently fled the drafty confines of our Upper West Side apartment to enjoy a weekend away in Upstate New York, a liberating pilgrimage which every New Yorker eventually comes to cherish whenever they have the chance. It was her birthday and I had surprised her with a two-night stay at Hotel Kinsley, a boutique hotel which had quietly popped up in the small town of Kingston, less than two hours north of Manhattan. Like many new discoveries these days, this one had suspiciously appeared on my Instagram feed after searching online for "cool places to stay upstate" and immediately I was drawn to the hotel's colorful and stylish interior, as well as the compelling uniqueness of the building itself – an old converted bank. Apart from the words "State of New York National Bank" which were still carved into the building's facade, there was only one other remaining feature which hinted at its financial past, though it was certainly enough to confirm its history while also leaving a lasting impression on its guests. The front desk, amusingly, was located inside of the bank’s vault.

We had no more than flapped the snow from our coats and collected our room key from the vault before we both decided that we were in love with the place, citing upon further inspection the playful yet expertly tasteful décor and a delightful contrast of old and new, bright and dark, and big and small. For example, the hotel bar was intimately positioned in a small, dimly-lit space between the front desk area and the restaurant. The entire room, including the bar itself, was paneled in richly colored wood with ceilings low enough to touch with an effortlessly raised hand. The restaurant just beside it, however, opened into a brighter, larger, and more airy room, with high vaulted ceilings, tall potted plants, and relaxing hand-painted wall murals which looked as if they had been lovingly scrawled by a local artist.

Later at dinner, as we waited for our food to arrive, I quickly Googled who was responsible for bringing such a chic and cozy attraction to this tiny Hudson Valley town, which could easily be covered on foot in a matter of minutes, and repeatedly scrolled past the same name: Robert McKinley. Satisfied, I put my phone back in my jacket, sipped my wine, and chatted pleasantly with my wife as we waited for our server to return. When he did, I wasted no time offering my compliments to Robert, acting as if I had known about him all along, and asked if he owned any other hotels in the area.

“Oh, no,” our server replied. “Robert isn’t the owner. He’s the interior designer. But yes, he did a great job!”

Ignoring the snicker that fired across the table from my wife, who knows first-hand what a know-it-all I can be sometimes, I humbly accepted that my confidence had been politely unmasked as arrogance and quickly asked the burning question which had reignited inside my head – who’s the owner?

The name Taavo Somer was unfamiliar to me at the time but his work most certainly was not, nor should it be to anyone who can call themselves a true New Yorker. “You might know about his restaurant in the city,” our waiter added. “Freemans.” Even if you’ve never dined at Freemans there’s a very good chance you've at least heard of it, or would recognize it if you saw it. Located at the back of a random and unassuming alleyway on the Lower East Side, the restaurant warmly invites passersby off of Rivington Street and toward a string of fairy lights which twinkle softly above a robin’s egg door. The sight, which has been posted across the internet and social media countless times, is both intensely charming and highly unexpected, considering that dark alleyways are typically avoided with caution by the general public. This one, however, couldn't look or feel more different from the norm. Once inside, the rustic and antler-filled motif transports you even further from the busy streets of New York and wraps you in the calm and cozy atmosphere of a mountain house lodge.

As our server returned to the kitchen, it began to make perfect sense to me that Somer was the man behind Hotel Kinsley. Personally, I regarded Freemans as the type of place that someone could only dream of stumbling upon during an aimless wander around the city, knowing instantly that it's a gem of a find, so as my wife and I continued our lovely dinner in Kingston I realized that it should come as no surprise that this hotel had made me feel the exact same way. Later that night, one of the bartenders added to my excitement when he informed us that Somer was currently working on a new project just thirty minutes away, outside the town of Accord. It was an upscale country retreat, the bartender told us, complete with private cabins, a farmhouse and a 9-hole golf course. "Keep an eye out for it," he advised. "It's called INNESS."

A set of Willow trees and the dining room building at INNESS.

Two and a half years later, my wife and I (and our dog, Lola) found ourselves fleeing Manhattan once again, this time escaping the thick and sultry heat of a New York City summer, and followed our GPS two hours north toward the town of Accord. During that time, ever since our stay in Kingston, I had witnessed the construction of INNESS through the lens of their social media account, as well as through Taavo's own personal account, and had been steadily persuaded by each new post that Somer had worked his magic yet again. Ultimately, I was convinced of this by the launch of their website, which features some truly stunning photography of the property along with the polished tagline, "where cultivated meets wild", as well as from the trove of shining reviews that it received shortly after its opening, offered impressively from publications like Vogue and Architectural Digest. I was also pleased to see that many of the personalities that I follow on Instagram - ones who I admire as some of the most stylish and authentic tastemakers on social media, such as Matt Hranek and Yolanda Edwards (WM Brown Magazine and Yolo Journal, respectively), Emilie Rose Hawtin (J. Crew), David Coggins (Men and Style), and Bruce Pask (Bergdorf Goodman) - all seemed to have enjoyed early stays there.

As I followed the long gravel drive up to the property's highest point, leaving a plume of dust billowing sideways into the open and sun-drenched fields surrounding us, I was thrilled to finally experience Somer's latest creation first hand. After two years of anticipation and knowing very well at this point what he was capable of, I had packed high hopes and expectations along with my bathing suit and toothbrush and was confident that they would either be met or exceeded with stylish ease. Right away, when we reached the check-in area at the top, a spectacular sweeping view of the nearby mountain range affirmed my steady confidence, quickly christening our two-night stay with resounding ooh's and ahh's. Sadly, however, I would soon learn that INNESS' wow-factor peaks right there in the parking lot.

Our dog, Lola, inside the Farmhouse.

Next to the parking lot, signs for check-in pointed me into a greenhouse-style building which was neatly filled with artesian home goods, thick coffee table books, some snacks, and a bit of merch. "You'll need to leave your car in the parking lot during your stay," the front desk informed me, handing me our keycards, a map of the property, and the first indication that its sprawling layout would be somewhat inconvenient. We were staying at INNESS' 12-room farmhouse, which could easily be seen from the carefully curated shop but was certainly too far to walk to with an armful of luggage, so this bit of information definitely took me by surprise. However, as if they could read the expression on my face like a book, they quickly offered me further clarification. "Transportation can be provided to and from the farmhouse whenever you need it," they said. After confirming that I would need it, I followed a porter back to the parking lot and began to unpack our car, silently regarding this required service as less of a luxury and more of an unnecessary burden. Could guests not be trusted to drive to and from their accommodations? Were we meant to prefer this? Had there been some sort of accident which had prompted such a decision? I wasn't entirely sure, and to be honest it was never explained to me. However, after a comically short shuttle over to the farmhouse, passing a long line of private cabins along the way, it seemed clear to me that the decision had been deliberately planned, noting that neither the cabins nor the farmhouse had been built with adequate parking in mind. Regardless of the reason, being chauffeured meant unloading and loading all of your luggage twice - first to transfer everything from the trunk of your car into one of the Jeeps, and then again to transfer everything from the Jeep into your room. We had packed heavy for this trip, with our travels upstate extending well beyond INNESS, so this extra step was thoroughly unwelcome. However, I will say that the cars arrived promptly when called and the drivers were kind, professional and helpful.

When it came time to eat, the awkwardness of the property's footprint became obvious once again. The dining room, which stood just behind the check-in building, was no more than a quarter of a mile from the farmhouse, making a call for a Jeep seem totally silly and unnecessary. Hell, we thought, by the time a Jeep actually gets here and then drops us off, we could already be there. However, after summiting the steep hill on foot and sitting down at our table, we found ourselves panting heavily and wiping beads of sweat from our brows, wishing we had called for a Jeep.

The adults-only pool at INNESS, located next to the farmhouse.

After eating all of our meals on-site at the restaurant I can say that the food at INNESS is absolutely delicious, but the prices are definitely hard to swallow. In fact, when I first laid eyes on the menu my very first thought was, "They must be trying to price out the locals." Funny enough, as I scanned the balcony of the dining room, which luckily provided us with the same fantastic mountain view that we had enjoyed when we first arrived, it seemed to me like that's exactly what was happening here, noting that everyone around us looked as though they had just driven their vintage motorcycles straight up from Brooklyn. Whether this hypothesis was actually correct or not, I was sure that the steep cost of each dish was due in part to their locally sourced ingredients, which, of course, is fantastic. I'm all for using locally sourced ingredients and I completely understand that doing so generally comes with a higher price tag, but at the end of the day if a restaurant is going to charge the prices that were shown on their menu then the service, along with the food, needs to be absolutely stellar. This, unfortunately, was not the case. On both nights, the waitress served our appetizer before delivering our wine - having us wait a good 25-30 minutes for it on the second night - and on both nights the service was exceptionally slow all around. I'll be the first to admit, these are not massive let me speak to the manager issues, but they were highly visible and very unexpected considering the price of the meal and Somer's impeccable reputation for hospitality.

The next morning, I was disappointed to discover that their simple four-item breakfast menu offered little financial relief to its guests. After what I would consider to be a perfectly normal breakfast for two - coffee, orange juice, and one dish each - we left the table each morning having paid about $70. Frankly, it just wasn't worth it, especially considering our dishes came out cold on the second morning.

As far as the hotel service goes, we made only one request to the staff during our time there. Shortly after settling into our room, which I would describe as minimalist farmhouse right down to the broken TV, my wife realized that she had forgotten her toothbrush. She called the front desk asking if they had any extras and they kindly informed her that one would be brought up to our room right away. After waiting for twenty minutes and needing to head up to the dining room for our dinner reservation anyway, we hiked up to the front desk to retrieve the toothbrush ourselves. That, along with housekeeping overlooking our room the next day, left us feeling that the service at INNESS certainly leaves something to be desired.

The living room inside the farmhouse.

Lastly, what disappointed me the most about INNESS was the feeling of incompleteness that surrounded nearly every aspect of the property, which surprised me considering it had been open for nearly a year. The TV not working in our room, for instance, or the dirt road running through the grounds, making it look more like a construction site than a finished product, or even the crooked hinge plates that were already starting to dangle loosely on some of the brand new doors. Even the décor inside the farmhouse, which I had praised so often while looking through their website, seemed wanting somehow. Not that any of it was wrong - what was there was beautiful - it just all looked a bit bare. Almost as if Somer had said, Ok, let's just get enough pieces in here to call it fully furnished and then we'll keep adding to it as time goes on. All of this was disappointing to me and it made me wonder whether Somer had perhaps bitten off a bit more than he can chew. Where Hotel Kinsley and Freemans both provided him with a solid template from which to build - an old bank and a dingy alleyway - INNESS offered him the challenge of a completely blank slate, allowing Somer the opportunity to tout so many of his incredible strengths but also revealing some unexpected weaknesses in the process.

After hauling the last of our bags from the bed of the courtesy Jeep and into the trunk of our car, I loaded our dog into the back seat, confirmed that we hadn't forgotten any phone chargers or toiletries, and slowly pulled onto the long gravel drive which slopes gently away from INNESS. Always eager to recap a new experience, I turned to my wife as we rumbled along and asked her what she thought of the place. She kept her head down, plugging the address of our next destination into her phone, and simply replied: "Eh." Unfortunately, I had to agree. Turning onto the main road, I asked myself whether I was being too harsh of a critic. There was actually a lot that I enjoyed about INNESS - the swimming pools, the tennis courts, the scenery, the food, the aesthetic - but still, I was finding it difficult to get past all of the negatives, as detailed as they might have been, particularly because the cost of everything was so disproportionally high. To be fair, I also recognized that I had entered into the experience with the highest possible expectations, which can result in scrutinizing every little mistake as if it's a glaring error, so maybe that's on me. However, is it really unfair to hope for perfection when you know that the person responsible is capable of delivering that? I don't think so. Frankly, I believe that my criticism is an indication of the respect that I have for Somer and personally I'd like to think that if he ever read this blog post then he would appreciate it. After all, it's not meant to be a hit piece. I'm just providing my honest feedback. Luckily, I believe that the only thing that INNESS needs in order to truly reach its full potential is time. Time to train its staff a bit more, time to settle into its natural landscape, and time to iron out the little details that can truly be the difference between average and exceptional, unjustifiable and justifiable, good and great. In time, I have every confidence that Somer and INNESS will achieve this.

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