Like many of you, I woke up the day after Election Day realizing that I didn’t know my country. Being a travel writer, it was easier for me than most to rectify the situation. My first stop on the “Get to Know My Country” tour was the storied Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. As a Bloomberg reporter explained to me before I left, “The Greenbrier is to West Virginia as Manhattan is to New York State.” In a plot twist ripped from current national headlines, the hotel, which has hosted 26 presidents, many GOP congressional retreats, and was vital to the nation’s national security, is now owned by the family of the current governor of West Virginia.
There are no direct flights from the Northeast to the resort so I decided to train it. Since The Greenbrier originally was built by the railway company C&O, not surprisingly the White Sulphur Springs train stop is directly across the street from the resort. I am glad I traveled by rail because fellow passengers filled me on some of the history of the state and the resort while enjoying beautiful countryside out the window. One female passenger, who works as a cashier in a coal mining town, said, “I really like Governor Justice. He bought the Greenbrier in 2009 and saved 2,000 jobs in the county. During the terrible floods last year, he closed the hotel to paying guests and let West Virginians who lost their homes in the flooding stay there.” While I am not ready to nominate Governor Jim Justice, formerly a billionaire coal magnate, for sainthood yet, another passenger proudly mentioned that he coaches the local high school girls’ and boys’ basketball team.
Erik Hastings, the director of communications for The Greenbrier, tells guests “time stands still at The Greenbrier.” The décor originally created in the 1940’s by Dorothy Draper, a NY socialite cum decorator who established the first interior design firm in the country and created the bold Hollywood Regency style, is lovingly maintained by her protégé Carleton Varney. The smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven greets guests as they enter the hotel lobby. Guests gather in the lobby of the hotel for high tea every afternoon that begins with a waltz performed by the Springhouse entertainers. While there is a strict resort dress code requiring male guests to wear a jacket at dinner and forbidding the wearing of jeans at meals, the beauty of the chandelier laden dining room and the groaning breakfast buffet table make it easy to comply.
In many ways, the history of The Greenbrier is the history of America. The Greenbrier likes to boast that it is the only resort in America that employs a full time historian. Dr. Robert Conte, who has worked at the hotel for 37 years, displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the resort during the nearly 2 hour tour of the property that is offered gratis daily to all hotel guests. So powerful was his storytelling that not one of the guests left the tour early to participate in the other 55 activities available at the resort. Some of the fascinating nuggets of history that Conte dropped included gossip about then General Eisenhower’s time there when the hotel was turned into an army hospital for the wounded of World War II. Movie buffs will be delighted to learn that during one of the hotel’s refurbishments interior decorator Carleton Varney bought the chandeliers used on the set of “Gone with the Wind” from Debbie Reynolds.
“America’s Resort” is so steeped in our nation’s history that it offers not one but two historical tours. “Declassified The Bunker at the Greenbrier tells the story behind the secret bunker built at the Greenbrier to house Congress in the case of a nuclear attack.
The Justice family instituted some changes when they bought the property in 2009. Most notably, they won approval for and built a casino on the property. They created a shrine for West Virginia University graduate and LA Lakers legend Jerry West in the form of a luxurious steakhouse called Prime 44 West. They beefed up the Greenbrier Clinic and built The Greenbrier sports performance center, which now attracts the summer training camp of the Houston Texans NFL football team and previously the New Orleans Saints. Guests, especially regulars drawn from Southern aristocracy, have credited the clinic with saving their lives. Jim Justice built a beautiful church for his daughter’s wedding at cost of $5 million.
Paraphrasing Saint Ambrose, when in the South, do as the Southerners do is the best way to experience The Greenbrier. In that spirit, I decided to try falconry, hunting with falcons with small animals. As a confirmed city slicker, I had some last minute doubt. I woke up in the middle of the night wondering if I was about to experience a scene similar to the one that Tippy Hedren experience in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Birds”. Instead I experienced a life altering event that left me in awe of the majesty of nature and convinced me of its recuperative powers. I left the woods feeling more confident after facing down a fear and with a better understanding of my fellow Americans who vigorously support gun rights.
Offering 55 activities, The Greenbrier literally has something for everyone. For those more adventurous, The Greenbrier offers trap, skeet, and sporting clays and off road driving. Of course, there is a bowling alley, 3 golf courses, tennis courts and clinics, indoor and outdoor pools, and an ice cream parlor. The Greenbrier Spa offers several unique treatments including one that utilizes the healing waters from the nearby White Sulphur Springs.
For those for whom a week at The Greenbrier is not enough, the resort sells plots of land for home building attached to the members only Greenbrier Sporting Club. NFL coaches as well as the financial elite have flocked to buy homes adjacent to the championship golf course where Lee Trevino is the golf professional emeritus. My tour of the entire property helped me become better acquainted with the area and better understand some of the unique problems that have beset West Virginia. Standing on top of the mountain, I could see green as far as the eye I could see. I couldn’t see malls, gas stations, or convenience stores that would require workers.
The employees are the secret sauce of The Greenbrier. Many are the second, third and even fifth generation of their family, in the case of the 84 year old Frank Mosley, to work at the hotel. My bellman thanked me for coming to The Greenbrier. He said, “If you weren’t here, I would have leave home to find work now that they have closed the coal mines in the Southern part of the county.” His plain speaking gratitude is why you should care about The Greenbrier and its continued success.