The Best Chautauqua Bed and Breakfast – The Great Tree Inn

The Great Tree Inn.

Sometimes, wonderful things in life happen to us when we do not expect them. In June 2021, we decided to visit the Chautauqua Institution to attend several end-of-the-season concerts. At that time, it was almost impossible to find a bed and breakfast (B&B) or any other lodging inside the Institution’s territory. Most establishments were filled long before the season was even announced. The remaining ones often required a commitment to seven nights, but we needed only four.

Almost by chance, I stumbled (virtually) upon the Great Tree Inn. One excellent review after another began appearing on my computer screen, enthusiastically recommending this Inn to anyone attracted to wonderful outdoors offerings of Chautauqua County and environs: from the spectacular hiking in Panama Rocks to horseback riding, to Lake Erie wine tasting, or even snowmobiling.  “Great, but not for us,” I thought. I believed we have already paid our annual dues to Mother Nature after visiting the four national parks in California in May. The purpose of our first visit to Chautauqua was the Institution as a cultural and educational center. But then I talked to Mark and Sheila, the owners, and I knew that their Inn and B&B was the right place for us!

Seven years ago, Mark and Sheila, two medical researchers and world travelers, decided that they wanted a parallel career as hoteliers and bought a 170-year-old farm-turned-B&B. The Great Tree Inn and B&B is not your usual rural lodging. The Inn is named after its guardian, an ancient black locust tree. I was told that this giant is especially impressive in the spring when it produces clusters of fragrant white flowers. For a historian in me, that tree had almost a mythical meaning. I read many years ago about the black locust tree being often called a tree that “built America.” Black locust was considered the strongest timber in North America. In the early seventeenth century it was used in building the Jamestown settlement and in the nineteenth, was selected for strengthening the battleships that helped the United States to win in the War of 1812.

The Inn doubles as a farm, and you live there in a timeless environment surrounded by free-range chickens and ducks. Every morning you hear their “conversations.” The birds are often visited by two beautiful proud-looking goats and sturdy Belgian horses. “With so many chickens and ducks wandering around, aren’t you afraid of them being killed by foxes or coyotes?” we asked. “No,” Mark answered. “They have a guardian.” And he was not joking. The “guardian” happened to be the cutest miniature donkey. He kind of looked like Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh stories. “Do not be fooled by his appearance,” said Mark. “When he feels threatened, and he does when the birds are attacked, he turns into a raging beast.” “Oy,” I thought.” I don’t want to be around when that happens.”  “But I do,” said my husband-photographer Alex.

Beautiful Mr. Goat observes us, intruders into his world.
This cute Eeyore donkey will turn into a scary beast when he feels threatened.

The farm, or rather a romantic-looking 19th-century building, is in the center of a large green lawn surrounded by woods. The entire complex – with its giant tree, talkative chickens and ducks, cappuccino-colored horses, Eeyore turning into a fearsome warrior, sleeping cats, and a curious tiny dog watching us through the glass door – seems like a perfect refuge from the avalanche of our projects and deadlines. This was the world presided over by two marvelous hosts, Mark and Sheila: always attentive, sharp, intelligent, and sincerely interested in what their guests wanted to share whether about themselves or their experiences.

Irene Shaland, Mark, and Sheila
The author (right) with Mark (left) and Sheila (center).

Every day in this world began with an amazing breakfast cooked or rather created by Mark. Locally sourced and made with in-season fresh products, each dish looked like an art piece. We especially liked the typical English Yorkshire pudding (often called in this country a popover) served with a beef sauce. Another favorite was a duck-egg omelet roll with grilled zucchini and homemade crispy bacon inside it. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, or have any other dietary requirements, Mark will accommodate your preferences. Forget about losing weight: Mark always has snacks and homemade pastries around the house.

Breakfast room at the Great Tree Inn.
Breakfast room at the Great Tree Inn.

The Inn offers seven comfortable rooms, tastefully furnished with antiques, each with its own theme. We loved ours: located on the ground floor and very private, it was called the “Seventh Heaven.” And it seemed it was, with red and green colors, a queen-size bed in an alcove, and a beautiful armoire.

Room #7
Our room was called the “Seventh Heaven.” 
Living room.
The living room also serves as a game room. 
Living room
Another view of the living room.
Reading room
The reading room.
Stairs to the secon floor of the inn.
Inside the Inn. The staircase to the second floor where six out of seven guest rooms are located. The open door on the left leads to our room.

Just five miles outside the Chautauqua Institution, the Great Tree Inn is perfect not only for hikers, swimmers, and snowmobile riders, but also for culture vultures like us!

The Great Tree Inn.
The Great Tree Inn, a historic farmhouse turned B&B. It is the best lodging in Chautauqua County, whether you came to enjoy the beautiful outdoors or to sample cultural programs at the Chautauqua Institution. 
paddle-wheeler steamboat
This paddle-wheeler steamboat replica takes visitors on historic tours of Chautauqua Lake. 
Alex Shaland
Alex: “Do we have time to go on a lake tour?”
Irene Shaland
Irene: “No time for the boat! We have a lecture to catch!”

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Learn more about the author Irene Shaland.

Check out Irene Shaland’s Latest book “Shaland’s Jewish Travel Guide to Malta and Corsica.

Learn more about the photographer Alex Shaland.

Take a look at Alex Shaland’s adventure book “Suburbanites on Safari.

Visiting Chautauqua Institution

Bestor Plaza Fountain

Located by the beautiful Chautauqua Lake, Chautauqua Institution has been on our radar for decades. This 150-year old cultural organization in southwestern New York State is only a little over two hours from our home in Cleveland Ohio. However, for many years we have not managed to find a weekend for a visit. Finally, this year, when the international travel world became too stressful to navigate due to ever-changing Covid-related restrictions, we turned to domestic destinations. Attracted by the Chautauqua Institution’s superb performing arts and educational programming, we bought tickets for the last four concerts of the season.

Irene Shaland in Chautauqua Institution
Walking the red brick road inside the Chautauqua Institution.

Chautauqua Institution was envisioned by its founders Lewis Miller, a harvesting combine inventor, and Methodist Bishop John Vincent, as an educational and religious model of a promised land or a spiritual retreat for the faithful. It was initially called the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly. Today, with its resident symphony, opera, and drama theater, the Institution continues to strive toward achieving its initial goal of being a cultural, educational, and spiritual enclave. Inside the Institution, one can find a house of worship for not only every Christian denomination but also several other religions. We came across the Chabad House, and on Friday late afternoon, attended the most delightful Kabbalat Shabbat service of the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, a reformed congregation formed there over thirty years ago.

Smith Wilkes Hall
Smith Wilkes Hall. The Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua meets here in rainy weather.
Clock Tower on Lake Chautauqua
View of the Lake Chautauqua and the Intuition’s renowned Clock Tower. When the weather is good, the Hebrew Congregation celebrates Shabbat services here, right by the Lake. These services attract hundreds of people, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike.  

While in Chautauqua, one of our favorite pastimes was to meet people and talk to them. I am sure there were plenty of first-timers like us. But it just happened that everyone we met and talked to came to Chautauqua Institution almost every year. These were people who have been coming to Chautauqua during summer seasons for two or even three generations. They were staying there for no less than a week and attended lectures, numerous performing-arts offerings, and various classes (from writing poetry to sailing). Laughing, one young man told us that he did not remember a summer without Chautauqua: his mother was there when she was pregnant with him! We had an impression that most people knew each other and delighted in their world of culture and fellowship of minds.

One of our most favorite places to visit before our concerts was the historic Athenaeum Hotel with its wrap-around verandas and soaring columns. Called the “Grand Dame of the Chautauqua Institution,” the Athenaeum has been operating continuously since it was opened in 1881. This iconic structure was envisioned and financed by the Institution’s two initial founders. One of them, the inventor, Lewis Miller, was Thomas Edison’s father-in-law. Edison did some of the hotel’s early electric wiring and had his regular table at the restaurant, still called “the Edison’s Table.” I read that Edison used a nearby window right by his table to escape the autograph-seeking crowd!

Athenaeum Hotel
The historic Athenaeum Hotel, called the “Grand Dame of the Chautauqua Institution,” has been operating continuously since it was opened in 1881.

We delighted in every minute we spent in this timeless world, where every outsider can become an insider…if he or she paid $25 per person per day to get the gate pass!  And yes, with very few exceptions, no cars are allowed inside. The large parking lot is outside the Institution and costs only $10 per day. Shuttle buses are omnipresent and going continuously throughout the day taking people to various parts of the Institution and outside the main gate to the parking lot.

Chautauqua Institution amphitheater
Chautauqua Institution amphitheater

We enjoyed every concert we attended, but our favorites were the first and the last: Brazilian Jazz and legendary Smokey Robinson. Most programs take place in the 5,000 seat amphitheater, so getting the tickets was not a challenge. However, finding a reasonably priced accommodation conveniently located inside the Institution—was. The majority of establishments require a week-long commitment, and most get filled long before the new season is announced and gate passes go on sale.

I was almost desperate: I had our tickets, daily gate passes, and pre-paid parking, but no place to stay! And then, purely by chance, we discovered the Great Tree Inn. Read about that wonderful B&B in our next article.

The Colonnade of Chautauqua Institution
The Colonnade of Chautauqua Institution houses art galleries, boutiques, and cafes.
Moses and the Ten Commandments
Moses and the Ten Commandments as another spiritual symbol for the Institution. 

Learn more about travel writer Irene Shaland.

Check out Irene Shaland’s latest book “Shaland’s Jewish Travel Guide to Malta and Corsica.”