WestSound Home & Garden Magazine, Fall 2006
Text by Rodika Tollefson       Photography by Steve Meltzer
Nestled in the woods and surrounded by five acres of natural beauty, blooming gardens and a pond that's home to koi fish and mallards. Bear's Lair Bed & Breakfast seems miles away from the hum of modern life.
In the summer, dahlia blooms along the long driveway lead visitors to a beautiful cedar and stone home. There, guests are most likely to be greeted by Buddy, the bed and breakfast's friendly "personal greeter" who will be sure to lead the way to one of the hosts, Jen or Giulio Santori.
This charming, romantic getaway is hidden on the edge of the rustic but beautiful Key Peninsula, and only a few minutes away from downtown Gig Harbor. But the illusion that civilization is far removed — neighboring homes are out of sight — does not escape even local residents, who are frequent guests at the private retreat.
The Santoris themselves found their escape on the Key Peninsula after running away from the "rat race" of the Los Angeles area, where Giulio was born and raised by Italian parents.
"If you live in Southern California, there's not a native tree, not a native anything except asphalt," he says. "A friend said, 'Check out Gig Harbor.' We fell in love with the place."
When the Santoris found the property, they could only appreciate it for its trees and natural beauty. After parking their fifth-wheeler there in 1991, the couple and their two teen children settled in for a new life, Northwest style. For more than two years, they literally camped out while building their home from the ground up. Giulio kept busy earning an income through his woodworking skills. Jen was in charge of site preparation, including digging and moving the rocks - she called herself a "roving gopher."
It took about 13 years to finish building everything. Giulio, a master woodworker, built almost every piece of the home. "We can tell you about every nail and piece of wood that went into this place," Jen says.
For years, the first floor of the home was Giulio's workshop. But when their daughter, Lianne, wanted to get married on the property, the bed &' breakfast concept was born. Today, the B&B features three unique rooms on the first floor and a separate Carriage House.
Each of the three rooms — Dahlia, Rose and Patio — has a private bathroom and its own elegant decor. Some guests like to try out a different room each time they stay. The Patio Room, which is the coziest, has a private entrance and a view of the French country patio.
The spacious common area, called the Breakfast Bear Room, is a homey, comfortable space with two elegant dining tables, an antique piano, love seats, games, a movie library, and books. The hosts make sure the refrigerator is stocked with juice and soda, the coffee and tea are hot, and the cookies and biscotti are plentiful.
"It's almost like being at home yet you're not — you don't have to clean up," Giulio says.
The 1,000-square-foot Carriage House (at right), which accommodates four people, features a full kitchen and an enclosed patio perfect for a private dinner. This is the perfect place for lovebirds that has attracted romantic couples as old as 80. It is the only place where catered dinner is offered, and guests have the option of breakfast delivery right to their door.
All the rooms as well as the cottage display Giulio's mastery and attention to detail. Hand-carved woodwork through the buildings, wood beams with exquisite dentil molding, coffered ceiling, custom pine paneling and other details as well as the hand-built furniture in the Carriage House reflect his passion for the craft.
"If I don't get sawdust in me, I'd probably die," he jokes.
And while the house is a reflection of Giulio's work, the extraordinary grounds with their colorful blooms much of the year are Jen's labor of love. An avid gardener, she has at least 60 bushes in her rose garden, and dozens of other plants including native ones all around the grounds.
"I probably have one of everything in this garden," she says.
The garden beds require nearly year-round work, but Jen doesn't mind: She loves what she does. The couple say they feel blessed to be able to provide a true Northwest experience to guests who come from all over the world, and to share with them the results of their labor.
"It's a real thrill for us to have these folks come out and really appreciate the garden and the woodworking," Giulio says. The guests appreciate much more than their magical surroundings. The innkeepers are always around when they have visitors and are a source of information on best restaurants, ferry schedules, places to visit and local happenings. Early in the morning, Jen cooks in her upstairs kitchen, and serves a four-course gourmet breakfast with dishes such as pesto eggs and vegetable frittata, as well as homemade muffins and seasonal fresh fruit. The hosts are delighted to oblige anyone looking for conversation. Many visitors leave behind — or mail in — appreciation gifts in the form of bear-themed nick-knacks, photos they took in the area, and even cross-stitched work.
"We have made many, many good friends," Jen says.
Guests at the Bear's Lair can be found striking up conversations with other guests, scrapbooking, strolling through one of the trails leading to hidden gardens, or just hunkering down with a book. Some retreat to the intimate gazebo (built by Giulio for Lianne's wedding) on the pond, reachable by a footbridge. Others watch birds, paint, or fetch a ball for Buddy, a lovable Retriever mix.
Buddy has a special place in the hearts of the B&B's guests. A gentle and quiet "mascot" who wore a tuxedo and was the ring bearer at the wedding (which also included a horse-drawn carriage for the bride), 10-year-old Buddy loves the busy weekends. "He gets really sad when guests leave," Giulio says. "He's a ham."
The Santoris, too, enjoy their visitors, who come from all walks of life, and their stories. Jen parallels the learning experience they get by meeting their guests with reading a book. An even better part perhaps comes at the end of the visits: "the pages and pages of nice things people say" in the guestbooks. "It's like somebody hands you a shot of oxygen," Giulio says.
Although summers are usually the busy time for the bed & breakfast, the couple has stayed so busy since they opened in 2001 that only recently they took "what you'd call a vacation."
"We get a lot of people all year long. They just come to relax," Jen says. "It's very quiet and peaceful. Everybody needs to get away from the hustle and the bustle."
Fifteen years ago, Jen and Giulio Santori ran off from the hustle and bustle of California and found their peaceful getaway in the Gig Harbor area. Since then, they have opened their home and hearts to many other harried souls, sharing their tranquility and hospitality with people who come as strangers but often leave as friends.
A Visit to Bear's Lair
Accommodations start at $95 plus tax per night (the Patio Room) to $195 plus tax per night (Carriage House). Packages, special rates, and extras such as golf or European skin care arrangements, gifts including Camille Beckman Specialty Baskets, mugs and T-shirts are all available.
The Bear's Lair is rated 3-Diamonds, AAA's highest B&B rating. For more details, visit www.bearslairbb.com or call 253.857-8877 or 877.855-9768.
Card Making Classes
Van Arensbergen grew up in Holland, where Iris folding originated. She studied at the Art Academy in Maastricht, The Netherlands, where the 3D technique is very popular. For class prices and dates, call the Bear's Lair at 523.857-8877.