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Horseshoes and straw hats: a day of polo in Connecticut

Alan Behr, Tribune News Service on

Published in Travel News

New England starts just south of Greenwich, Conn., but luxury, which is the town's birthright, honors no borders, remembers no beginning and anticipates no end. In New England, wealth, like so many other regional features, is practiced with deference. It is a style of fine living that does not shout, "Look at me," but says, "Perhaps I do live rather better than you; please don't take it personally."

As statistics have shown so many times, the really fun thing about having money is enjoying what you can buy with it. The main shopping street, Greenwich Avenue, is providentially helpful in that regard, and it has, in jewel-box form, many of the same shops as my hometown, Manhattan. Although Ralph Lauren has vacated a purpose-built facility, leaving a large, vacant premises and much collective regret, local branches of two of my regular emporia, Saks Fifth Avenue and Brooks Brothers, are in good working order. I respectfully toured the former and, with my son having just started fifth grade, I bought him a shirt at the latter, sold to me by the kind of well-spoken woman who can wear the brand's two centuries of retail tradition as naturally as if it were a single strand of pearls. Nearby stands a Tiffany & Co., the jeweler that defines American style in precious metals, and a place I have visited during fleeting, memorable moments of personal prosperity.

Wealthy people being uniquely capable of turning over their wardrobes, the area has a number of consignment shops. I stopped in at COUTUREDossier (CODO for short), which is owned by Yulia Omelich and her husband, Andrey. As Yulia sold a pair of blue Salvatore Ferragamo pumps that were the feminine mirror for the blue Ferragamo loafers I was wearing, we got into a discussion on how to spot a fake second-hand Hermes bag. Three young shoppers listened in, taking mental notes. (Highlights: watch for the unique Hermes nails and check if the leather has no uncharacteristic odor and has the expected softness to the touch.)

For a boutique hotel to qualify as a member of the French-based Relais & Chateaux group, it has to display a sense of intimate refinement that is hard to acquire and even harder to sustain with consistency -- all while supporting a fine kitchen. The Homestead Inn is one of only 13 hotels in New England to hold membership, and for my stay that evening, it was easy to see why it could. The wood-framed main house was built in 1799 and had been reworked in the Italianate style during the 19th century. The staff bring in a relaxed American take on luxury, giving you the feeling of staying at the house of a wealthy friend who knows how to cook.

I checked into a comfortable suite in the carriage house annex. You know you are not in a chain hotel when you get a four-poster bed the size of a Buick, the room's windows really open, and the back door lets out upon a long, shared porch.

At the Thomas Henkelmann restaurant that evening, its chef and namesake came over to my table and introduced himself. Working with his charming business partner, Theresa Carroll, Chef Henkelmann has been the star attraction of the hotel since they purchased it together in 1997. He comes from the Black Forest, in Germany, which is a center of culinary expertise in Central Europe, but he was trained in Alsace (variously French and German throughout history, but now solidly part of France). His cooking is recognizably contemporary French in spirit and execution, but he is also faithful to local ingredients. Autumn is game season, so you can expect to see pheasant in puff pastry back on the menu.


As sporting events go, professional tennis matches are unusually refined. Where else would an umpire call out "thank you" to a disapproving cluster in the crowd as a euphemism for "do shut up"? Even tennis can look raucous, however, compared to polo. The actual game is more dynamic than most. The field is the largest in professional sports (10 acres in area), and play typically involves eight riders on full-sized horses (called ponies by convention) smacking violently at a small white ball with weapons-grade mallets.

The sidelines at the Greenwich Polo Club, however, could not be more refined. The entry fee is paid per vehicle -- whether you park it or are dropped off. I chose to add a supplement to sit in the shaded lower grandstand, where you just find a comfortable place and sit down, without assigned seating. Many who came to the match did so while picnicking on blankets; another, even more comfortable contingent sipped cocktails on folding chairs set up under spreading canopies in roped-off areas sold at premium prices.

Ticketing in such a noticeably tiered manner is relatively new at the club, and it has caused some controversy among the locals, who are used to fairly well having the run of the place, without great distinctions based on cost. Think of a minor-league ball park in a comparably sized town of more humble zoning, and that is rather how the locals see their polo field. Consider as well the egalitarianism represented halftime entertainment, which is a divot stomp. That is, everyone is invited onto the field in his or her Ferragamos (or simply barefoot) to stamp down the clumps of turf churned up by the horses' hooves.

You can come as you are to a polo match, and if who you happen to be stylish, all the better. I managed to blend in with a new jacket of rare navy-blue seersucker wool custom-made for me by the American designer Alan Flusser -- over a regulation Brooks Brothers oxford shirt and Ralph Lauren Purple Label chinos. Attractive young women sported trim Eric Javits hats, escorted by men variously attired in rolled-sleeve open-collared shirts, khaki shorts and, rather ubiquitously, straw fedoras and boaters. The New York custom menswear brand Knot Standard handed out free pocket squares at the entrance to the Players' Lounge.


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