Romantic Country Retreats

A February weekend is the perfect time to drop in on two of America’s grandest old ladies. These are ladies with the wisdom and experience of long maturity as well as the fresh look of a Madison Avenue facelift — you know, the super expensive kind that actually looks good. These classy old dames will welcome you with chintz and china, sweeping staircases and strawberry scones. They are the original spas, the ones who set the standard for American resorts, the Homestead and the Greenbrier.

To visit them, you have to drive past a lot of cows. Then, there’s the roller coaster up and downs through the hills, down into the valley, and there she sits. The Homestead. For old school WASPs like me, it looks familiar even if you’ve never been there before. My mother used to take me to a giant pile in Florida called the Bellevue Biltmore that carried exactly the same vibe. Nothing bad could happen to you in the comfy old rooms, you could get lost for days in the endless corridors, it matters if you have a decent backhand. Families, including grandparents, play cards in front of the fire. Gin and tonics outsell umbrella drinks four to one. Pinot noir is considered exotic.

Just a hop into West Virginia, and the Greenbrier offers the same genteel feel, underlined by the resort’s tagline, “When you’re at the Greenbrier, you’ll know you’ve arrived.” It refers to its on-site eateries as The Restaurant Collection, as if they were gathered up fully formed and placed here. And the Greenbrier offers weeklong interior decorating courses, by Dorothy Draper Decorating, which is advertised in a kind of loopy 1950s’ font. Lots of oranges mixed with crimson. Sometimes, what you really need a little dose of old-school. You can get it here, along with bridge mix and a spritzer.

Both resorts have been around for a while and want you to know it. The Homestead’s website offers a rather charming timeline that starts in 7,000 B.C., when people first discovered the local hot springs, but things don’t really get going until George Washington hits the scene. After that, it is a parade of presidents — golfing presidents — and the Homestead hits its stride in the 20th century. Everybody from Calvin Coolidge to Bill Clinton puts in an appearance. The Greenbrier promotes its ties to royalty, having hosted the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for some international notoriety.

The real reason to go to either place, although they don’t advertise it enough, is breakfast. The breakfast at both places will forever remain the Platonic ideal of the meal: homemade sugar doughnuts, piles of silky scrambled eggs, yogurt and granola for the abstemious types. Table after table of excited kids sneaking Danishes. Trim ladies eating corn flakes. Dads going all out with sausages and grits (Did I mention that you’re in the south?). The trouble with breakfast is, if you have no willpower, you eat so much that you then need to loll around feeling slightly remorseful. And it takes a while to get excited about lunch.

But your options are many. You can sit by the fire and read a book. I recommend something gritty and urban, like Richard Price’s “Lush Life,” about cops in lower Manhattan, to remind you how nice it is to be just where you are. Or you can just embrace it and bring along some Edna St Vincent de Millay and daydream the morning away.

Activities-wise, the indoor options are plentiful. Shop in the resorts’ plentiful boutiques, where most of the offerings relate to golf. And Virginia peanuts. Or you can spa it. Both resorts tout their spa services (not that I’ve ever sampled any, alas), and are, of course, built around the original spas — hot springs. At the Homestead, if the weather isn’t great, you can bowl in the eight-lane bowling alley, which is next to the large indoor pool. At the Greenbrier, the indoor offerings include bowling, billiards and a tour of the bunker, to which the political leadership could flee to in times of crisis, leaving the rest of us Washingtonians to go up in smoke. The Greenbrier also has an extensive health and wellness program, if you want to recover from the stress of thinking about what will happen when something catastrophic sends the politicians running for their bunkers.

Or, better still, in keeping with the ADHD list of activities offered, you can go outside.

In the winter, there are nice hikes in the woods. Or go for a walk (or run) along the golf courses, though if there the weather isn’t too cold, there are likely to be actual golfers out, doing their thing with their deadly little white balls. The Greenbrier offers a “meditation trail,” but I suppose any trail could serve in a pinch. Mountain biking is also an option; the resorts will rent you a bike and a helmet or you could bring your own. Some of the single-track bike trails are not for the timid. And some of them go up up up. Yet the Allegheny Mountains are beautiful, even in winter.

Skiing and snowboarding at the Homestead and skating at both are some of the typical winter sports offered. They both have paintball battlefields, which would blow the socks off your favorite 12-year-old. The running around will help with the breakfast digestion. In my limited experience, paintball seems a lot like real war. Long moments of boredom and ill-defined paranoia followed by bursts of excitement and extreme apprehension. You worry about what could happen, and then it happens. And then, thankfully, unlike real war, it is over and you get to take a shower and eat dinner.

The Greenbrier also boasts an off-road driving school (which would be awesome for working through road rage) and falconry, to get you in touch with your inner Middle Eastern sheik. Carriage rides, sleigh rides, all manner of things to do with horses, and after all that, hot tea by the fire.

There are also gun clubs for those who are working on their shooting skills (perhaps for paintball), with instructors if you want them. There are clays courses, skeet shooting, simulated wild creatures to shoot at, ear plugs, ammo, and a trap and five stand, though, living in the wilds of Georgetown, I have no idea what that actually means. But the idea of shooting anything, even a small clay disk as it flies through the air, would help me manage my stress. I’ll have something to dream about when I am thinking about killing all the people who block traffic on Wisconsin by turning left into the Safeway during rush hour.

Perhaps, most importantly, for you harried citizens of the real world and for overworked parents of kids, both resorts offer plenty of supervised action. Little ones can join the Kids’ Club. They’ll be pleasantly exhausted when you fetch them at the end of the day and will have lots of adventures to share. There are movies, on real screens, not TV sets, at night for everybody to fall asleep to.

Finally, none of this is terribly cheap. But you can drive to both the Homestead and the Greenbrier, and that helps a little. These are the sort of classic resorts that don’t really exist anymore — no poured concrete, no modern art, not much sign of the 21st century. And that’s pretty great for a weekend — a real retreat from the pressing, pulsing world of cities.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” So, do something with it. February is kind of a downer. Don’t spend it online shopping or watching college basketball on TV. Go visit one of these stately old ladies and learn from the past. Spend this very good time taking a walk in the woods.


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