I expected to be slightly intimidated by The Greenbrier (800-624-6070 or greenbrier.com ). A dazzling white hotel with gigantic columns in West Virginia, this infinitely gracious National Historic Landmark has hosted 26 presidents. When I toured the Presidential Suite (seven bedrooms!), Tom Cruise and his entourage had recently visited. I thought I'd feel like a wannabe Scarlett O'Hara playing dress-up on a big ol' stage set, but I was transported. For two days, I walked the stunning grounds, cantered on horseback in the Allegheny Mountains, encountered actual "greenbrier," ate gourmet food amid breathtaking surroundings and forgot about my own zany, less-than-perfect life.
My boyfriend, Russ, and I meandered on scenic Routes 220 and 60 with the sunroof open for the entire gorgeous trip to White Sulphur Springs, stopping overnight in neighboring Hot Springs. We stayed at the Inn at Gristmill Square (540-839-2231 or gristmillsquare.com ), a B&B with a restaurant housed in a converted gristmill. (On the way back, we were less leisurely, high-tailing it to Richmond on I-64 under a dramatic full moon, making it home in just over three hours.) The Greenbrier is paradise — a sanctuary of trained falcons, a state-of-the-art spa and a Cold War-era underground bunker big enough to house the United States Congress, not to mention aboveground accommodations fit for a princess. Despite losses that led its former owner, CSX Corp., to place the resort in bankruptcy in 2009, this gem has remained a symbol of style and elegance, retaining its AAA Five Diamond status for the past 32 years. (And the Dorothy Draper décor still works beautifully — but more on that in a bit). When local entrepreneur Jim Justice swooped in to save the struggling complex, new projects were initiated almost from the get-go, from the addition of a casino to the successful wooing of a PGA Tour event, the Greenbrier Classic, which begins this month, on July 26. As for the accommodations, the recent extensive, multiphase renovation included the creation of marble bathrooms with soaking tubs in 63 guest rooms. Every room got new cushy-mushy linens, as well as a large plasma-screen TV.
Earlier this year, Prime 44 West — one of the most sophisticated steakhouses I have ever visited — opened as part of the renovation, providing an exciting counterpoint to the grandiose formal dining rooms that hearken to a bygone era. The name and décor reference NBA legend (and West Virginia native) Jerry West. Cathedral ceilings, dripping chandeliers and tuxedoed servers make dinner in the elegant, original Main Dining Room a truly special occasion. A crispy soft-shell crab came with creamy herb and garlic polenta and was drizzled with warm tomato and caper dressing. Be sure to enjoy a tradition that's included as part of your stay — afternoon tea. Served every day starting at 4:15 p.m, it is quite civilized. Younger guests can practice their manners (and play backgammon!) while enjoying miniature confections like lemon-curd tartlets topped with one perfect blueberry. The new 89,000-square-foot casino complex (adults only; opening July 2) also features a variety of restaurants and lounges. Full disclosure: Dining (and therefore staying) at The Greenbrier is not inexpensive. An 8-ounce Wagyu tenderloin at Prime 44, while out of this world, will set you back $47.
The centerpiece of the resort's 40,000-square-foot Greenbrier Spa is an indoor pool featuring elaborate mosaic tiling and medicinal waters from the warm springs that first made the area famous. First discovered in 1778, these mineral waters have been part of an extensive offering of special spa treatments since the 1920s. A personal highlight was the "Vichy shower," a decadent treat that can only be described as a warm, directed rain falling as I lay blissfully on a special massage table. After the hydrotherapy tub and an exfoliating scrub, I floated back to my suite, lotioned and potioned, collapsing into our king-sized bed for the best nap I've had in 20 years.
Part of the new expansion associated with the casino is called Greenbrier Avenue — a row of upscale retail boutiques including St. John and Badgley Mischka for the ladies and Brioni and Robert Talbott for the gentlemen, to name just a few. Beyond that welcome addition, there are enough amenities here to keep guests of all generations delightfully occupied. An off-road driving school, an indoor and an outdoor pool, croquet, skeet shooting, three championship golf courses, fishing, bowling, and a movie theater are just a few examples of the exhaustive list of offerings sure to please any visitor, and that was before they added The Casino. The resort's new owner, Jim Justice, is so powerful and popular that state laws were literally changed to accommodate this addition to The Greenbrier's already extensive holdings. The décor is by Carleston Varney of Dorothy Draper and Co., so it's consistent with the rest of the stately property. The facility is nonsmoking, and a dress code applies.
Get a tour of The Greenbrier's interior public rooms (offered daily at 10:30 a.m.) for a true appreciation of the genius of celebrated designer Dorothy Draper, whose 1940s redecoration of the resort was a signature project. Her vision was to not make you feel like a visitor at a fancy hotel. You can actually pretend to be landed gentry or a distant relative of some terribly rich, eccentric great-aunt hanging out in her 802-room mansion. With cozy areas for reading designed into the common spaces, the enormity of the property doesn't distract from the relaxed elegance of the surroundings. Repeated motifs of mountain laurel (the state flower), cabbage roses and bright colors — true blue, Crayola green, red, white and sunny yellow — bring the whole vibrant cacophony together. What Ms. Draper accomplished in only 24 months is truly mind-boggling.