In 1986, Mark and Gayle Hamlin bought a barn. It was old. They were young. It was empty and surrounded by, actually, not much. They were full of energy and, actually, saw potential everywhere.
From such matches come great things. Such matches produce plenty of disasters, too, but in this case, score one for youthful energy, innocent optimism and a ton, I mean a ton, of work.
So where there once was that brown, beaten building sitting among rocks, there is now a lush, picturesque inn surrounded by trees, filled with light and with graceful rooms, and sitting on 10 acres with gardens, flowers, a pretty pond and quirky, amusing art.
The Hamlins opened Eden Vale Inn near Coloma a year ago. It's already one of the premier inns of the foothills and a postcard for what a modern country bed-and-breakfast can be.
What it took to build the place, open the inn and run the B&B amounts to a model of a different sort: It shows how much time, sweat and planning goes into that happy little notion of the tranquil, romantic innkeeper life.
"We had a couple from Reno who stayed here a few months ago," Mark said. "They took a blanket with them and sat on a bench by the pond for hours. It was great to see them relax like that. I was also thinking, 'I wish I had time to do that.' "
So the romance and, even more, the tranquility are for the guests. Actually running an inn? Not for wimps.
You won't hear that complaint in any way from either Hamlin. If you get Mark started on it, he can get almost starry-eyed.
"This is the best job I've ever had," he said, and this from a man who's had a few. "Everything else I've ever done has been about dollars and cents. This is about heart."
And about hospitality and gardens and patios and bonfires and art and food and conversation and wine tasting and people and congeniality.
It's also about carpentry and plumbing and design and marketing and people skills and zoning and permits and laundry and cooking and cleaning and always being cheerful and always just being there.
"It's a great life, but it's busy, and it's not really for a young person," Mark says. "You need a lot of skills, and you have to be committed to a place."
Before we get too far, you should know more about Eden Vale Inn, because then you'll know that even as short-time innkeepers, the Hamlins are pretty good at this.
The inn feels more like a resort than a bed-and-breakfast, except for the immediate casual, congenial air that sometimes starts with greetings from Pepper, the gentle black dog, or Bushwhack, the can't-get-enough- petting cat.
From the outside, the rich, earthy reds and browns and the greenery make it hard to imagine that this was once a barn. Inside, the vaulted ceilings, natural colors and thick beams show what were the bones of the 1918-vintage barn. It's airy and open in there, with windows looking out over gardens and decks and hills.
This is not a place for gingham and doilies. "Country elegance" is a better description, but that downplays the easy comfort, the understated gracefulness and the playful character woven through the rooms, architecture and grounds. The art's a bit Asian, a bit African and, in some cases, clearly Californian (like the shovel heads on a fence above the pond).
The grass and gardens are lush without being manicured. There's a swing looking out to a distant hill, statues hidden in corners, decks and patios with shade, and what they call Big Dipper Pond for its stargazing potential.
The notion of transformation applies as much to the Hamlins as to their building. Mark has degrees in applied behavioral science and forestry, and worked as, among other things, a finance guy, a tech guy and a small- business guy. Gayle, who has a master's in public administration, was a scientist, ran the Fat City Cafe in Stockton and is now the chief administrative officer of El Dorado County.
They don't right off sound like a couple looking for serenity in the foothills, or like the homespun characters you expect to be running inns. On the other hand, from their disarming personalities to his carpentry and her gardening, they bring the real skills this job needs, not to mention some long-range vision. You see proof of that vision from the deck outside the sunny breakfast room.
Straight out, on the outer rim of the garden, there's a 30-foot-tall Italian stone pine. "That was our first Christmas tree," Mark said.
When the Hamlins bought the barn in 1986, they were newlyweds. They wanted to live in the country, to be connected to a place, to put their souls into their property. An empty barn with natural springs on its land seemed like a good start.
This wasn't about opening an inn, it was about a place to live. They were both professionals, and for the first five years, they spent most weekends and vacations getting up early, cleaning up late and turning the barn into a open, amiable building and the grounds into a cheerful wonderland.
Fast-forward 21 years, through continued weekend work and a couple of career changes. Friends and family kept telling them they could rent out rooms. After years, the drumbeat began to resonate. In 2006, they started thinking, you know, maybe we should.
But it was a "So You Want To Be an Innkeeper" seminar in January 2007, put on by the California Association of Bed & Breakfast Inns, that really got them jazzed.
"Everyone was so personable and friendly and loved what they did," Mark said. "It was infectious. Of course, the ones who failed or are struggling don't go to those things."
And they were off down a new road. Saner friends asked if maybe they should rethink the workload. Gayle explained that's not part of their makeup. As a couple, she said, they're just equipped with an accelerator and no brake.
So they were off learning new skills and info. The B&B association offers help with everything from accounting to meal planning to speed cleaning (hint: pick everything up just once). But that was just warm-up.
The Hamlins went to a pack of agencies, including the county Gayle works for that didn't speed up anything to get use permits and zoning changes, find water requirements. They went through building, environmental, transportation and fire permits. They put in a sprinkler system, 180,000 gallons of water storage and fire alarms. They made the building handicap-accessible, built an outdoor pizza oven and hired a biologist so their pond would be a functioning ecosystem and not just a giant mud puddle.
They went back to doing more work on the place they'd been building for two decades.
Meanwhile, they took wine classes, planned for the food and hired Bill Bullard, a consultant and former owner of the Inn at Occidental. He told them two key things: They have 24 to 48 hours to get their guests to relax, so make everything easy. And even more simply: "You're selling romance," he said.
With the building and the grounds, the romance part was not hard. As for making every little thing easy for guests, Mark and Gayle went on a tour of B&Bs in Napa, taking note of all the details they didn't like.
"That," said Mark, "was one of best ideas we had."
They found themselves looking for light switches, trying to figure out how to work heaters, stumped for suitcase storage or bathroom counter space. Sometimes in the morning, it was hard to find anyone for travel advice.
None of that is a problem at Eden Vale. They designed with Bullard's advice and their experience in mind. They hired Kirsten Prince as their morning innkeeper, although Mark is often around. The B&B association and others in the business say it usually takes six to eight rooms to generate enough revenue for the owners to afford help, but Mark said, "We figured we needed to make guests happy now, or we'd never be able to afford eight rooms."
They opened in May 2009 with two rooms and now have five. They'll expand to seven by midsummer and eventually plan to build four more in another building. They're covering costs and paying down their loans, but they'll be at that a while.
So there see how easy it is to run an inn? The beauty of every good B&B is you can't tell that any of that time, sweat or planning is going on. Guests at a place like Eden Vale get to plop on a bench by the pond for hours and get absorbed by the landscape or the quiet. Mark's advice to guests is pay no attention to the innkeepers running around madly behind the curtain. You're paying for that time on the bench.
And Mark's advice if you want to run an inn?
"Don't build it," he said. "Buy one."