March-April 2011

The Last Resorts

Two recently refurbished behemoths of a bygone era, The Homestead and The Greenbrier, lure visitors with everything from fly-fishing to slots.

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The back of The Homestead resort and spa suddenly looms atop a hillside as you drive along Sam Snead Highway in Hot Springs, Va. Red brick with a clock tower, it looks a bit institutional from behind. But as you approach the front, you see the porch that rambles across the massive façade, with rocking chairs and wicker couches lending a welcoming, homey feel.

Inside, a grand lobby is sectioned into intimate seating areas with couches and comfy, upholstered chairs. And in the mornings, a sumptuous breakfast buffet, including all manner of meats and fish, is spread throughout a grand dining room, where Palladian floor-to-ceiling windows overlook manicured gardens.

In days gone by, The Homestead has hosted the Windsors, the Astors, the Rockefellers and the du Ponts, to name a few. Now, the Looses have arrived.

I’ve come with my husband to spend two days before driving 38 miles along a mountainous road overlooking unspoiled valleys to visit The Homestead’s competitor, The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Like The Homestead, The Greenbrier is a National Historic Landmark with a storied past. The two resorts—The Homestead, with its four diamonds from AAA, and The Greenbrier, with its five—are often compared. But which is the better place to visit? That’s what I’m here to find out.

Last year, The Homestead completed renovations to the 90 guest rooms in the hotel’s West Wing and to the 67 suites in The Tower, including luxurious suites named after some of the 22 presidents who have stayed at the resort, beginning with George Washington. I’m satisfied with a double room and a before-dinner drink in the Presidents Lounge, where portraits of visiting presidents line the walls.

The next morning, after breakfast, I mount a black steed and gallop through some of the estate’s 4,000 wooded acres. Actually, the horse—with the notably unromantic name of Fred—barely breaks a trot during the trail ride. Nonetheless, I feel as if I’m to the manor born.

My riding clothes of jeans and a sweatshirt don’t raise a single eyebrow when I appear for lunch in a restaurant at the edge of one of the resort’s three championship golf courses. A little later I’m hip deep in rubber boots, trying fly-fishing for the second time in my life. This time, I get hooked.

Perhaps this teacher is better than my first, but for whatever reason I totally get the sport. I’m not tangling my line in trees every other cast; I’m putting my lure exactly where I want it to go. And when I hook the first rainbow trout of the day, I play him or her—it’s hard to tell which—perfectly before returning the shimmering but now tired creature to the crystal stream.

A long, elegant solarium lined with window seats leads to the spa. When I go there the next day, I’m alternately slathered with mineral spring mud and buttercup cream, both concoctions made from natural products found at the resort. But my favorite experience—and the thing that makes The Homestead unique—is going to the Jefferson Pools.

The pools, a two-minute shuttle from the hotel, are named for Thomas Jefferson, who visited The Homestead in 1818 and soaked in the naturally warm spring inside the Gentlemen’s Pool House, built in 1761. I head to the Ladies’ Pool House, built around a hot spring in 1836. The two buildings are still sex-segregated except during special family hours.

Both are rough wooden structures, dimly illuminated by skylights at the peak of the roofs. You can wear your own suit—the one you’ve brought or the one you were born in—but I like the old-fashioned one-piece made of thin cotton and offered at the door.

Rugged wooden steps lead into mineral water that springs from the earth at 98 degrees year-round. You can float on several feet of water in the pool, which is about half as big as an Olympic-sized, or stand on a sand-and-rock covered bottom. Nothing fancy, but totally authentic and, to my mind, fantastic.

Afterward I take part in a mud-splattering, bone-jarring all-terrain vehicle race along rough, wooded trails. It’s rainy and cold, and I have to rush back to my room in time to dress for dinner. The experience reminds me of young British aristocrats who bash each other on the rugby fields of Eton, then transform themselves into perfect gentlemen in time for the evening ball.

I dine on perfectly roasted beef beneath the rotunda of the Main Dining Room, where a live band plays at the edge of a gleaming parquet dance floor. The next day, I head for West Virginia.

The “wow” factor hits you the moment you enter the driveway and face the elegant, gleaming white façade and graceful columns of The Greenbrier. Like The Homestead, The Greenbrier underwent a major face-lift last year. Among the improvements are massive flower gardens honeycombed with walkways in front of the main building.

Although the resort retains its historic architectural integrity, decorators with a modern sensibility have renovated beautifully inside. One wall painted a vibrant pastel, for instance, meets another in a brilliant hue, neither of them from the Historic Williamsburg color wheel.

Opened in 1776 and visited by 22 presidents, The Homestead offers intimate seating areas in its grand lobby. Photo courtesy: The HomesteadThe Greenbrier offers rooms, suites and cottages of various sizes. I love everything Marimekko, and though I could be wrong, the bedroom in our cottage looked as if the Finnish company had played a big role in its design.

Last July, The Greenbrier distinguished itself by creating a casino with an upscale, genteel feel in the main hotel. Even the penny slot machines offer petty gamblers white leather chairs. I’m partial to the dollar machines, which use real Eisenhower dollar coins, the heft of which makes even a small win feel substantial.

Dwight D. Eisenhower also played a role in planning the most unique feature of The Greenbrier: the secret bunker built to house Congress in the event of nuclear war. The Greenbrier’s location made it a good choice not only because it was close, but not too close, to the District, but because the bunker could be built into a hillside. It probably didn’t hurt that both Dwight and his wife, Mamie, loved The Greenbrier and visited frequently.

The bunker—whose existence wasn’t known publicly until a Washington Post article in 1992—lies behind three radiation-proof blast doors, the heaviest of which weighs 60,000 pounds. For 30 years, people attended conventions in part of the 112,000-square-foot bunker without knowing it. The blast doors were hidden behind folding doors and wallpapered over. And two auditoriums intended as temporary House and Senate chambers in the event of nuclear war also were used by an unsuspecting public. The public areas were a convenient ruse to explain the building of the addition.

Today, both resort guests and day visitors can tour the bunker. Kept in a state of readiness from 1962 until 1992, it was stocked with provisions for 1,156 people—578 members of Congress and an equal number of staff—for 60 days. For 30 years, perishables were rotated in and out on a regular basis by trucks that arrived on moonless nights. Food close to its expiration date was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C.

After every election, unbeknownst to all but the two top leaders in the House and Senate, bunk beds were reassigned in dorm rooms. (Although plans allowed for family members to hunker down in regular rooms on the property and hope to survive, no room was allotted for them in the bunker.) And every 30 days for 30 years, House and Senate majority and minority leaders shipped to The Greenbrier current documents they felt would be needed if war broke out, while old documents no longer relevant were destroyed.

Little things—such as the stationary bikes with cigarette ashtrays attached—speak volumes about a recent time.

An old saying is often applied to both The Homestead and The Greenbrier: “For the newly wed and nearly dead.” Although both are perfect settings for a grand wedding, I find the second part just plain wrong. In addition to couples of all ages and families with young children, I spotted quite a few college-age kids with their parents, including young men who appeared to be the trust-fund babies I’ve dreamed my daughter might marry one day.

Like The Homestead, The Greenbrier offers a number of restaurants with a range of prices. Though most of the dining rooms at both resorts are traditional, The Greenbrier’s In-Fusion has a contemporary feel, and the pot stickers were the best I’ve ever had.

So which resort would I visit again? In truth, I loved both and am grateful they’ve survived well over two centuries. We’re lucky to have two historic, world-class resorts within driving range. Though The Greenbrier seems a tad more upscale, The Homestead is homier, but with plenty of class. To decide which is your favorite, there’s really only one thing to do: Visit both.