By Lisa Green
Photo courtesy of the Olde Rhinebeck Inn.
When she started reading, Jonna Paolella couldn’t have cared less about Amelia Bedelia or Pippi Longstocking. She was obsessed with Country Inns and Back Roads,
by Norman T. Simpson.
“I’ve known since age seven that I wanted to be an innkeeper," she says.
There aren’t many kids who dream of a career at such a tender age — and then go on to fulfill that dream. But Paolella did, by establishing the Olde Rhinebeck Inn
in Dutchess County. At the time, she was the youngest innkeeper in America.
That motivation didn’t come out of thin air. Her mother had turned their home in Park Slope (Brooklyn) into a bed and breakfast. Paolella’s favorite book, which included bits about historic lodgings in the Hudson Valley, led her to Rhinebeck 18 years ago, when she opened the bed and breakfast in a house that dates back to 1738. (You can feel its age in its unplumbed walls, listing floors and steep stairway, but the amenities are about as modern as you can get.)
Dining room, photo courtesy of the Olde Rhinebeck Inn.
Paolella clearly loves the innkeeper life. You can tell it by the conversation she keeps. Talking a mile a minute, she tells guests about the history of the house, its many additions, and changes she’s brought to it over the years, interspersed with her musings about Airbnb's effects on the hospitality industry and which of the restaurants at the nearby CIA are the best.
But as anyone who’s ever stayed at a B&B has observed, this innkeeping thing is rough, basically a 24/7 proposition with little, if any, time off. You really have to be devoted to the business to be so tied into it.
And that’s a bit of a problem for Paolella, who suffers from wanderlust just about as much as many of her guests. And besides that, getting away is essential to avoid burnout in an industry where innkeepers hang on an average of 5 to 7 years. She knew what she was getting into, but she also knew that sharing the responsibilities didn’t make her seem incapable of handling the business.
Innkeepers Cindy Curnan and Jonna Paolella.
Enter Cindy Curnan, who had owned The Gables in Rhinebeck, but sold it to move to Hawaii. She’s a wanderluster, too, but she was ready to return to where she grew up. She was looking to open another Hudson Valley B&B, and initial plans were to do it with Paolella backing her. But when a discussion about the financial and time commitments involved turned into a seven-hour conversation (with both of their husbands included), the result was a partnership of the Olde Rhinebeck Inn.
There is a Byzantine web of connections between Curnan, the house and Paolella. Curnan actually lived there as a teenager; her mother owned the house — not as an inn but antiques store, for a while — and she lived across the road from the inn when Paolella moved in. Neighbors kept telling Paolella that she needed to meet Curnan; they both owned inns and were so much alike.
The original stairway is extremely steep with narrow treads. "Best to scale it sort of sideways," Curnan advises.
“I saw activity going on and just walked over to introduce myself," says Curnan. A BFF was born.
The women have crafted out the ideal job sharing arrangement and — what do you know — a balanced life, by the sharing the duties. So now Paolella can take a lengthy vacation (or, at this point, take the time she needs to help her aging mother) and Curnan will not miss enjoying the perks of being a first-time grandmother. They can finally experience all the culture, restaurants and historic properties they prescribe for their guests. And they can spend some quality time with their husbands.
“There’s a real benefit to be had to sharing the resources and burdens of this business," Paolella says. “I had another property, a vacation rental, and I knew it was just too much for one person. Our arrangement allows us to have a better quality of life, better marriages. The nice thing is, we have a schedule, but we have flexibility and the built-in trust that we can be away and the place won’t fall apart. And Cindy is a clone of me, so we really work well together."
The Spirited Dove room. Photo courtesy of the Olde Rhinebeck Inn.
Indeed. They practically finish each other’s sentences. They’re a lovely portrait of women’s friendship, too. Recently, while Curnan took a few weeks off, Paolella surprised her by creating a loft bedroom above the dining room so Curnan would have a place to stay when she’s on duty (Paolella and her husband live at the inn).
And what a welcoming destination they’ve created. Spacious rooms filled with antiques, but updated with fancy showers and flat screen tv’s so embedded in the old walls you barely even notice them. There’s an “amenity plate" of homemade cookies, fruit and chocolates to greet guests in their room, and a pond to reflect upon from the porch. A gourmet breakfast is included, of course, with organic milk and eggs (courtesy of their own hormone-free hens) and, best of all, the lively chatter between innkeepers and guests. The inn is just three-and-a-half miles from Rhinebeck’s main street and close to Hyde Park (and many other historic properties), Walkway Over the Hudson, the Dutchess County fairgrounds, and Bard and Vassar colleges.
“They say you shouldn’t go into business with your friends," Paolella says, “and we do have a business agreement. But it works for us."
Which brings comfort all around, to innkeepers and guests alike.
Olde Rhinebeck Inn
340 Wurtemburg Rd., Rhinebeck, NY