Resorts offer revival for Capitol Hill weary

D.C. isn’t much of a resort destination. That much is clear.

Anyone jetting into our fair city is likely to be spending more time lobbying or ogling at artifacts of democracy than squeezing in 36 holes or enjoying a hot-stone massage.

But those of us who live here do have access to three of the country’s top mountain resorts. Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, the Homestead and Greenbrier — situated along the Allegheny Mountain range — all reside within a four-hour drive of D.C.

After a series of ribbon-cuttings, renovations and additions, these playgrounds of the powerful are engaged in a high-stakes game of “can you top this?” in an effort to compete for the dollars of not only affluent families but politicians as well. In luring PAC fundraisers, congressional retreats, campaign committee meetings, even avid golfers (Mr. Boehner, call on line 1), they’ve pulled out all the stops when it comes to activities and amenities.

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
Nemacolin is the newest kid on the block, a mere pup in resort years.

“As a luxury property, we’re only 8 years old, [and] we’ve only really built the culture over the last four years,” said Trey Matheu, director of resort operations.

Not that nothing was there before. In the decade after buying the 2,800-acre property in 1987, owner Joseph Hardy built 36 holes of golf, a ski resort, a Tudor-style golf lodge and a state-of-the-art equestrian center.

But it wasn’t until the Chateau LaFayette, a 125-room French Renaissance-style hotel, was completed in 1997 that the resort really took shape.

The culture that Matheu speaks of skews a bit younger, more casual, even edgier than its older counterparts. At some other resorts, Matheu said, you walk into a beautiful lobby “and the first thing it says is you must put on a jacket and tie. That’s not us.”

Indeed, the 335-room Nemacolin, named after a Delaware Indian chief who blazed trails in the area later used by George Washington, seems to revel in its ability to anticipate trends and, by extension, the expectations of its guests.

The ultramodern spa, named one of Travel & Leisure’s top 10, offers couples massages as well as all manner of Eastern-inspired treatments. The chateau includes a cigar bar. Haute cuisine is always on the menu, whether it’s French fusion at the Lautrec restaurant, where chef Brad Kelly has earned chef-of-the-year distinctions from Pittsburgh magazine two years running, or the more avant garde Aqueous, in the nearby Falling Rock hotel.

Falling Rock was added to the property as a way to cement the resort’s status as a PGA Tour stop (its Mystic Rock course hosts the 84 Lumber Classic, which will soon supplant D.C.’s own Booz Allen Classic on the golf calendar).

The 42-room ode to Frank Lloyd Wright, just off the 18th green, features a bath menu, pillow menu and — most notably — 24-hour English-style butler service.

Not that the resort lacks some elements of family-friendly resort kitsch: A replica 1950s soda counter, an arcade and indoor and outdoor kids’ recreation centers satisfy anyone who’d rather be on a cruise. But the real fun is adult recreation.

Here the vehicle of choice is the Hummer H1, rare on the roads here but quite common in Iraq. The resort’s man-made obstacle course is designed to push the $130,000 machine to the limit of its capabilities. Think fording 30 inches of water, climbing 60 percent inclines and tackling 40 percent side slopes. But the most impressive: ascending a 22-inch vertical wall.

Outdoor enthusiasts also love the Shooting Academy, one of the country’s top facilities for sporting clay shooting, with 30 stations for all skill levels. There’s also a climbing wall, a dinosaur dig for kids, dog-sledding in the winter, even bear and elk habitats, to name a few.

Any of the above makes for a unique fundraiser or retreat. Just ask Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), the Democratic Caucus, the Republican National Committee and the Latham and Watkins law firm, all of which have held events here in recent years.

The Greenbrier
The Greenbrier, some 200 miles south, claims a bit more history than Nemacolin: 220 years, to be exact.

The resort even boasts its own on-staff historian, Robert Conte, a Ph.D. who has been there 27 years after moving from Northeast Capitol Hill.

It’s easy to see why they need him. The privileged and powerful have been coming to what is now White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., since the late 1700s to “take the waters” for their various ailments. Soaking in the hot springs was viewed as a restorative, while drinking the sulfuric water had an effect of, shall we say, flushing out the system.

At that time, visitors stayed in tents. But beginning in the early 1800s, a succession of increasingly luxurious buildings replaced them until the current structure was completed in 1913. A massive neo-Georgian building reminiscent of a Southern plantation, it now contains 520 rooms. Rows of private cottages and estate houses on the property add nearly 300 more rooms.

Besides the waters, “politics was always part of the mix” in luring visitors, said Conte. The antebellum period “was one of the real peaks,” he said. “This was a Southern resort, and Southerners had power.”

The C&O Railroad Co. sold the hotel to the Army to be used as a hospital during World War II and then bought it back. In part because of the continued military and State Department presence, President Eisenhower and congressional leaders famously chose the site in the late 1950s as the place for Congress’s emergency bunker, in the event of a nuclear attack.

Among the VIPs who have stayed at the 6,500-acre property are 26 presidents, Henry Clay, Robert E. Lee, Mikhail Gorbachev and Princess Grace. The resort is currently owned by the CSX Railroad Co., so wouldn’t you know it, when it inaugurated the Treasury Suite last year, the first guest was none other than former CSX CEO and current Treasury Secretary John Snow.

And on it goes. Greenbrier has hosted 10 congressional retreats over the past 20 years, plus countless fundraisers and PAC events.

Besides politics, many others still come for the spa, where the mineral baths, still pumped directly from the springhouse, remain the main attraction — the sulfur soak, of course, and the mineral mountain bath. But they still do the full complement of modern touches, like body wraps and hot-stone massages.

Golf is also an integral part of the resort’s history. Sam Snead, one of the great players of all time, began his professional career here in 1937 and taught here for many years when he wasn’t touring.

When he died in 2002, he was still golf-professional emeritus — a distinction that now belongs to Tom Watson and his eight major championships. Both men have an array of artifacts displayed around the clubhouse.

As for the courses, there are 54 holes’ worth, including the newly restored Old White Course, which just got a four-year face lift. Golf Digest ranks it the No. 5 golf resort in the country (the fact that there’s a Golf Digest Academy onsite surely doesn’t hurt its ranking).

The resort offers 50 other activities as well, including a Range Rover driving school; bowling; a tennis academy with 10 courts; a gun club that offers trap, skeet and sporting clays; and, certainly the most unique, a falconry academy, which teaches the history of the “sport of kings” and how to interact with trained birds of prey.

Several new additions, such as an infinity-edge pool and an art colony that provides work and exhibit space for several local artists, have been added to keep the experience fresh.

The Homestead
All three of these resorts sprung up in somewhat unlikely locations, but none more so perhaps than the Homestead. Getting there requires turning off the highway and navigating in impossibly long, winding secondary road on which one passes through sleepy Virginia towns and a large industrial plant that looks as if it employs the entirety of one of those towns.

Like Greenbrier, Homestead claims a fair bit of history. By 1750, settlers had constructed cabins here to take in the hot springs in the town that would come to be known, naturally, as Hot Springs, Va. George Washington visited on one of his early campaigns in the Virginia Militia.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would also come to visit, but the mid-1800s saw a period of decline. The resort was rescued by none other than J.P. Morgan, who built the existing structure in 1892, a massive brick building that reminds me of a Congregationalist meeting house, blown up to 2,000 percent. It holds 409 guestrooms and 78 suites.

The Homestead also competes with Greenbrier for the legacy of Sam Snead. The Slammer’s home was on the edge of the Homestead’s Cascades Course. Currently ranked in Golf Digest’s top 100 courses in the nation and the fourth-best public course, it is one of the best mountain golf courses anywhere.

Snead did several stints as golf pro here as well, and like the Greenbrier there’s a restaurant here that bears his name, complete with clubs and other artifacts on display.

The Old Course here boasts the oldest first tee in continuous operation in the United States. President McKinley teed off here in 1899. The Lower Cascades Course rounds out its 54 holes.

Among other activities, the Homestead offers the usual buffet of spa services, an Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing lodge, an ice rink, skiing only minutes away, a bocce court, a 300-seat theater and the Cascades Gorge Walk, a guided nature hike that traverses 13 waterfalls.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) just this weekend held a fundraiser here, the centerpiece of which was a paintball tournament.

While he may be more adventurous than some of his colleagues, fundraisers and retreats are common here. In 2000, President Clinton addressed a luncheon retreat of the House Democratic Caucus.

The Homestead
1766 Homestead Drive
Hot Springs, Va. 24445
(866) 354-4653
About 220 miles from D.C.

The Greenbrier
300 W. Main St.
White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
(800) 453-4858
About 245 miles from D.C.

Nemacolin Woodlands
1001 LaFayette Drive
Farmington, Pa.
(800) 422-2736
About 185 miles from D.C.