The occasion for the trip to Sandanona (as if you really need an excuse) was the back-to-back Orvis Shotgun Classic and Orvis Cup 2008.
The Shotgun Classic is a two-day round robin of small-group instructions by some of the best sporting clays and wingshooting teachers on both sides of the Atlantic. You could get hands-on training by the British greats Chris Batha, John Higgins, and Roddy Watson and Alan Rose from the West London Shooting School. The day's activities were followed by cocktails under the tent and an impressive banquet.
The Orvis Cup, meanwhile, featured a traditional game fair and an open side-by-side event. The two-day affair started after the Shotgun Classic. The festive air would be amplified by the 40 upscale vendors in tents, including Griffin & Howe, Classic Upland Supply, Barbour, Holland & Holland, British Sporting Arms, Robin Hollow Outfitters and others.
There were other events as well, including dog-training demonstrations and fly-fishing demonstrations and instructions.
It was all very traditional and very British. You could easily make a case that there was no place more apropos for Orvis Sandanona than a county named Dutchess.
Orvis Sandanona is arguably the oldest shooting institution in the country. The original main lodge was built during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson in the forests of upstate New York. While our founding fathers went to great pains to distance the new colony from ye auld sod, Orvis Sandanona presents an enclave of British shooting that's a 90-minute drive from Wall Street.
Once there, you can stop in the Orvis store and purchase the Sandanona Scottish Tweed Shooting Jacket, the Sandanona Tweed Breeks or the Sandanona Tweed Vest -- with tweed being the code word for British. You can also have an Orvis side-by-side custom fitted in the tradition of English bespoke shotguns.
The Orvis Shooting Schools teach the English Churchill method -- an instinctive approach to shotgunning. Developed for wingshooting, the Churchill method is also highly successful for sporting clays, which for many shooters serves as a surrogate for upland hunting.
The British style was a welcome change for us.
After a sweltering summer south of the Mason-Dixon Line, we were simply looking forward to a delightful, autumn weekend of Anglican cool. It was time to trade in the mint juleps for a lovely single-malt scotch by the fire.
Our information packet from Orvis included a roster of hotels and B&Bs, and we opted for a B&B as close as possible to the shooting grounds.
We had found a lovely B&B on the Internet, but when we arrived the sprawling Victorian home looked like The House of Plumbing Horrors. (When will we ever learn?)
We pushed open the front door with the trepidation of expecting to find a dead body on the other side. As we waited to be greeted, it was impossible to ignore the old family photos on the credenza in the hallway. They were once a sturdy and handsome clan, but after driving five hours we did not relish the idea of occupying a room that once belonged to junior in his full hormonal bloom.
We were assigned room A, up the stairs and toward the front of the house.
The original, narrow staircase has been modified with one of those motorized chair lifts, making it cumbersome to lug our bags and shotguns up the landing. At first we thought the contraption had been required by law. We were to discover later, though, that the octogenarian owner and his ailing wife still lived there and slept in the room at the top of the stairs.
I shouldered open the door to our room and the bunched up Oriental rugs immediately tried to trip me up -- the problem was old double-sided tape rather than mischievous spirits. The four-poster bed, the nightstands, the club chair and the desk were a mish-mash of rummage furniture that the owner condescended to think could be passed off as dreamy antiques. It was only about 4:00 but we could've sworn we heard snoring through the walls.
It was all we could do to get out of there and hunt down a restaurant that mixed a decent martini.
We decided to hit downtown Millbrook -- about 20 minutes away. Franklin Street ran through the center of the quaint village tastefully adorned with antique shops, restaurants, the local grocer and the public library. With its lush trees and historic storefronts, Millbrook was just the kind of place where you could buy homemade soaps and doll houses.
Our restaurant vibes led us to an expansive deck with tables and chairs on Franklin. The waitress came out, dressed in black. She sort of looked like Mick Jagger. Talkative and friendly, we learned that she lived on the old compound once occupied by Timothy Leary.
The food turned out to be great and the waitress had time to kill before the dinner rush. She hung out as we talked. We told her we were here for Orvis. I asked if she shot. She said she used to, with a shotgun bequeathed by her deceased brother.
"What kind of gun is it?" I asked.
"Oh, I think it's a Holland," she said. "I haven't shot it in years.
"Really?" I said. "Would you like to sell it?"
"It's in the city, at my father's house. I'll get you some pictures."
I gave her my card. Naturally, I left a generous tip with full intentions of returning before we hit the road home.
The following morning, breakfast was served in the dining room. The pink, floral wallpaper was water-stained, revealing old glue reminiscent of periodontal disease. The chandelier somehow reminded me of a grande dame who overstayed her welcome at the soirée. A looming breakfront was stuffed with crystal and porcelain bric-a-brac -- the clutter really starting to creep me out.
But we stoically munched away on some sort of cupcake/muffin spongy thing, washed down by prison coffee, when another couple entered all smiles and decided to sit directly across from us. Just as they cranked up the small talk I tapped my watch, smiled and we took our leave.
We set out for our first day of the Shotgun Classic. It would be a marvelous round of instructions. The classes were limited to five shooters and took place on different stations of the course. The Sandanona sporting clays course is comprised of 16 stations. It's organically integrated into the forested terrain, with expertly set traps throwing birds across ravines, hills and meadows.
Other classes were held on the modern-skeet field, 5-stand course and other shooting venues on the grounds.
All sorts of difficult targets were thrown throughout the day, with the instructors showing each participant how to break it as an object lesson for the rest of us. There was a wonderful feeling of camaraderie with all our competitive instincts kept at bay.
We had to rush back to the B&B for a quick change to make our dinner reservations at the CIA. We had already tried the CIA restaurants in Napa Valley, and since we were in the area leapt at the chance to make the comparison with the Hyde Park talent.
The CIA is probably the leading culinary school in America. Hyde Park, the largest of the three campuses, featured 41 kitchens and bakeshops, five public restaurants and an enormous culinary library. The CIA has illustrious alumni of chefs and writers ho regularly appear on cable TV and the 10-best lists.
Of the five restaurants, American Bounty came highly recommended. We were absolutely starving and decided to show up 45-minutes early with the hope of finessing a table. But the student who was appointed maitre d that night would have none of it. Instead, we were shown to the bar where we wiled away the time with some magnificent Manhattans and first-class munchies.
Right on the appointed hour, the young man approached with a pair of menus tucked against his chest and escorted us to a small table against a wall. The décor was somewhat disappointing, evoking a Greek restaurant remodeled by the extended family. The massive exposed kitchen revealed students hard at work.
Overall, the meal was mediocre either through seasoning or serving temperature. And our youthful waiter, while quite charming, would tend to disappear for uncomfortable stretches of time. One thing to bear in mind, however, is that the CIA restaurants are remarkably affordable.
In the end, the final score was Napa Valley 1, Hyde Park 0.
With the start of the Orvis Cup, my 45-year-old Beretta Silver Hawk side-by-side swung into action. Many collectors and side-by-side shooters would pooh-pooh it as too pedestrian, but the gun possesses a working-class authenticity that always takes me back to Tuscany.
The course was a joy to shoot, and of course I wish my score would've been higher. But how can you complain after 100 rounds on this splendid sporting clays course? Just navigating the rustic trails on the cart was a pleasure unto itself.
After the side-by-side shoot, we crossed the property to the flurry course, which simulates driven shoots of high-flying birds. The trap machines are hidden in the trees and continuously throw targets like wave after wave of birds. A good lesson in the Churchill method would have surely helped. Still, flurry shooting has to be one of the best forms of clays shooting available.
Before driving home, we made a dinner stop at that Mediterranean restaurant in Millbrook. I was very anxious to find out more about that Holland, as the waitress called it. She immediately recognized us and we became fast and famous friends. And that Holland? No word on it yet.