A family visit to make memories at the Greenbrier

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A visit to the historic West Virginia resort steeped in tradition, where families come together to enjoy the grandest things in life

Our Greenbrier adventure began with a bit more excitement than our family had anticipated, when we voyaged to the world-renowned resort on a dark and blustery night.

We decided it was best to travel a day earlier than scheduled, since weather forecasters were predicting a windstorm with 50 mph gusts on the day we had planned to drive. Luckily, the Greenbrier was able to accommodate our request for a day-early arrival, so we headed out at 8:30 PM on a three-and-a-half-hour journey through the Allegheny mountains, from Northern Virginia to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

The route past my alma mater James Madison University on Interstate 81 and over the alpine thoroughfares was a bit treacherous, with the gale-force winds pushing our car out of our lane several times, but even more frightening was the caravan of 18-wheeler big rigs passing us, swerving on the verge of tipping from the gusts.

A welcoming to remember

After our harrowing drive, the small quiet town of Sulfur Springs was a welcome sight. As we pulled into the gated entrance to the Greenbrier, the magic began. It was the first day of March, but still the resort was dressed in its winter splendor.

Tree branches aligning the gardens in front of the hotel were adorned with tiny sparkling white lights, giving the hotel the appearance of an enchanted palace. As we cruised into the front roundabout, road-weary and wind-battered, we were greeted warmly by the valet, whose energy seemed unaffected by the squall and the late hour.

The check-in staff facilitated a quick registration and off we went, following the valet’s Lincoln Town Car as he led us through the village of white wooden cottages to our accommodations. Upon entering the cottage, we could not contain our oohs and ahhs. The Legacy Florida Cottage, one of the original guest villas on the perimeter of the main resort building, was a spacious and stately yet an inviting home-away-from-home.

Our intergenerational party, spanning eight decades, from two pre-teen boys to an octogenarian grandmother, all found something – in fact many somethings – of delight.

The housekeeping staff had prepared for our arrival by warming the home to a comfortable temperature and turning on lamps in every room, illuminating the charm and hominess of the residence. After the boys did a quick survey of rooms to pick their favorite — a corner king suite with wild jungle-like draperies with a matching bedspread and upholstered chairs, the adults choose their rooms.

Each of the rooms was distinct in its decor, with vibrant colors, like carpets in hues of fairway-green, velvety purple and royal red, paired with bold and bright stripped, plaid and floral bedding and lounge chairs, each with its own strong character and unique appeal.

 

Worth the drive

Even though it was approaching 1 AM by the time we settled in our cottage, the family sat down at the green-lacquered dining room table for a late-night snack of kettle corn and brownies, that my mom had brought along.

The sugar boost was a guarantee the boys would not be going to sleep anytime soon, so despite the night slipping into early morning hours, we sat and chatted at the table, reliving our treacherous trek to the hotel, relieved now that the storm was in our rearview mirror.  We sat up talking and laughing, relating stories of other memorable road trips, and marveling at our surroundings. It was the kind of stuff that family memories are made of, and the preciousness of those moments did not escape me.

The Greenbrier symbolizes this to me, and I’m sure to many. It is a place that families go to spend quality time, to bond, relax, dine out, play, and just be together, sharing and creating  memories in a beautiful and elegant-yet-approachable environment.

Everywhere around the hotel are sitting spaces that encourage gathering and socializing. These lounge spots come in every variety, from sunny alcoves with floral high-back chairs to dimly lit nooks where masculine leather club chairs surround backgammon tables and chessboards.

 

Strolling the grounds and exploring the massive corridors, elegant parlors and ubiquitous lounges and sitting areas of this old-school resort, built in 1778, one feels transported to another time and place.  Here it would not seem out of the ordinary to see a princess ambling in the garden or strolling the hallowed halls, as in fact Princess Grace of Monaco did, when she visited for an impromptu summer vacation, commemorated by a portrait of her in one of the many great rooms of the hotel.

The active life

While the Greenbrier is drenched in opulence, it still presents a relaxing environment for its guests, especially for families. As a place where wellness seekers once flocked to bathe in and imbibe the area’s natural mineral springs, believed to contain healing properties, the resort, while giving way to modest modernization, retains its intention to provide a setting for restoration of mind and body.

The activities around the hotel are designed to promote recreation and enjoyment, from the spa, salon and shopping plaza to the seasonal ice skating rink, bowling alley and arcade.

As an ex-pat from Los Angeles, where many ultramodern hotels are steeled in chrome and glass, exuding a hardness and coolness that pervades even the people that inhabit them, I relished the aura of the Greenbrier, where a soul can meld with its beauty and feel at ease, in laid-back luxury.

The small gymnasium overlooking the indoor swimming pool was a place I keenly felt this sense of ease. There a person could exercise and watch children play in the pool, as parents with averagely toned bodies walked comfortably in their swim suits, in a tranquil setting, without the bombardment of loud music and the intimidation of hard-bodied models parading about in bikinis; but, perhaps I am extrapolating too much from my last Palm Springs vacation.

 

Living history

As a historic landmark, there is plenty to see at the Greenbrier, from galleries of fine artwork and portraits of presidents, royalty, celebrities, sports stars and other distinguished Greenbrier guests, to salons designed by the legendary Dorothy Draper and remnants of political and social history, including a cold-war bunker, which is the subject of one of the most popular tours on the property.

On the Bunker Tour, guests can explore the once top-secret fall-out shelter under a wing of the hotel, comprised of spartan barracks and living quarters created for Congress in the 1950s, in the case of a nuclear attack on the nation’s capital.

Among the most popular activities and a Greenbrier tradition since the 1930s is afternoon tea, served daily in the grand upper lobby, where guests can enjoy a sophisticated tête-à-tête while nibbling gourmet pastries and listening to the soft strains of live classical piano music.

Other favorite experiences include rides in a horse-drawn carriage around the property, cooking, painting and knitting workshops, or, for the athletic, sporting activities at world-class facilities for golf and tennis – which have hosted sports greats such as tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams and the late golf legend Sam Sneed, who served at the pro emeritus in his last years.

Other resort activities include adventure offerings, such as horseback riding, falconry, skeet shooting, fishing, kayaking, and paddle boarding. For those who want to try their luck at gaming, the resort hosts the world-class Casino Club, where guests are treated to a champagne toast and a choreographed waltz performance at 10 pm nightly, and guests and bust a move themselves at the 42 Below dance club.

For kids, there’s a plethora of activities, from laser tag in the Bunker space to family friendly movies in the on-property cinema. The Adventure Zone center provides a number of experiences, such as an Alpine Tower for climbing and an Aerial Adventure Course, which we braved as a family activity, tight-rope walking and crossing a series of swinging and dangling challenges 60-feet in the air, with safety harnesses, of course.

In all, there are about 55 activities at the Greenbrier, so it would be hard to find yourself doing nothing at all, unless that is what you choose, which is also a popular option at the resort.

Dining to celebrate

Of course, one of the most celebrated activities at the Greenbrier is dining. The resort features six restaurants and three seasonal restaurants and cafés and five bars and lounges, along with 24-hour room service.

Each day of our visit we enjoyed the lavish breakfast buffet, which included omelet and Belgian waffle stations and just about every breakfast entrée imaginable, from the basics of fruit and yogurt to egg casseroles, keeping trays of bacon and sausage, and a good southern standby of chipped beef gravy and biscuits.

The former Main Dining Room, for which guests must adhere to the resort’s dress code, i.e., jackets and ties for the gentlemen and cocktail attire for the ladies, is known for its exquisite service and menu.  Certainly, the five-star service and the famed Prime Filet of Beef Tenderloin should not be missed in the Main Dining Room, though several other restaurants on the property have outstanding fare.

Our party was most impressed with our delectable meal at Prime 44 West, the high-end sports restaurant and steakhouse named after the legendary West Virginian NBA player Jerry West, who wore the namesake’s number on his uniform. The atmosphere, service and our meal at 44 West was extraordinary from start to end, beginning with the Seafood Platter, progressing to the perfectly cooked Bone-in Rib-Eye and Lobster Mash Potatoes, to the big finish of the flaming Dark Cherry Flambé with Kirsh, prepared tableside.

 

The kids loved the causal Draper’s cafe, not just for the generous frozen scoops of heaven at the ice cream bar, but also because they serve the best Fried Green Tomato Sandwich and Creamy Chicken Pot Pie this side of anywhere. There’s plenty excellent offerings there for adults as well, like the signature Dorothy’s Chicken Salad and the comforting Country Shrimp and Grits. Besides the food, the atmosphere and décor is pure fun, featuring high-backed pink-and-white-striped booths, an homage to Dorothy Draper, the designer whose audacious color schemes give the resort its distinctive flair.

Service with a smile

At the restaurants and at every venue within the resort, the service was exceptional, attentive and friendly. In speaking to the staff, many voluntarily expressed their pleasure to work at the Greenbrier, where they said they were treated like family.

One of the maîtres told us she had been with the Greenbrier just three months, which made her a “embryo” compared to the staff who had been there for decades, some for generations, following in the footsteps of their parents, and their parents before them.

I told her the Greenbrier reminded me of Downton Abbey, the fictitious British castle featured in one of my favorite TV shows, in which the loyal employees-for-life were an intrinsic part of the estate. The analogy made her smile widely.  “I love that comparison,” she said. “The people who work here feel that same kind of love for the Greenbrier.”

A few days at the Greenbrier is not enough to fully explore and appreciate all that the destination called “America’s Resort” has to offer, but it was a good start.

Our last night, after a wonderful, leisurely dinner in the Main Dining Room, at nearly 10 pm, we called up the porter to help light our fireplace. It was late to start a fire, which we would have to stay awake to tend until it burned out, but we wanted to make the night last.  And so, we did.  We stayed up all night, relaxing by the hearth, retelling stories of our adventures of the past days, into the next day.

As we were checking out the next day, I picked up brochure in the lobby.  It described the Greenbrier, as “Life as few know it.” I would have to agree that the splendid experience of a Greenbrier getaway is not something that everyone can do all the time, just as we cannot, and would not want to, eat caviar every day, or it would lose its specialness; but it is an extraordinary treat. 

A visit to the Greenbrier is among those experiences that one can truly call marvelous, and one that our family will always remember, and hopefully come back to enjoy, again, and again.