A dark green sedan waited outside our cottage in the misty rain, its driver prepared to whisk us away to dinner as soon as we exchanged jeans for dinner clothes. No matter that the dining room was only a five-minute walk from our door.
After all, this was the Greenbrier, one of the premier resorts in America.
A dental crisis delayed the start of the five-hour drive to White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., forcing my husband and me to reschedule our dinner three times. We arrived 20 minutes after the last seating, kicking ourselves.
Upset turned to relief, then pleasure. "The dining room will be happy to serve you," the concierge assured us, picking up a phone to alert the maitre d' before calling us a car.
Dinner at the Greenbrier lasts two hours, and that night the staff stayed late while we feasted on lamb and peach Melba. Afterward, the limousine deposited us back at the cottage on the green that would be our home for three nights.
Service is the essential secret of this perennial five-star favorite in the Mobil Travel Guide and an AAA Five-Diamond resort. It is impeccable. Neither arrogant nor snooty, but all-knowing, professional and warm. The old-fashioned word is hospitality.
On 6,500 acres in the Allegheny Mountains, the Greenbrier pairs golf and tennis with distinguished gourmet cooking and the best of European spas. A haven for upscale business groups such as the American Bar Association, it is also a beloved destination for family reunions, major occasions and romantic getaways.
The reason: plenty of room to play, a dining experience designed to allow hours of catching up, and great baby sitters. Relaxation is bred in the greens, in the antebellum porticos and certainly in the spa.
The Greenbrier is to the United States what the Carlyle is to Manhattan: an oasis of civility in a world of exciting but perpetual disorder. On the list of great American hotels, no other is a Southern Belle, congenial enough to have played host to Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, albeit in different centuries. Some hotels are Victorian, romantic, and require one to dress for dinner; the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island off Michigan's Upper Peninsula comes to mind. But the Greenbrier's comfortable Southern graciousness, New York flair and European sophistication make it an American treasure.
From plantation days
In the 1840s, the owners of large Southern plantations brought their families here to socialize each summer. It was an elegant camp -- with servants in tow, they stayed a month or more, frolicking on the great lawns and drinking the mineral water for a variety of ailments.
The number of families spending a week here has dropped considerably due to the range of options and the expense. The average family stay, now two nights and three days, costs $1,000 and up. For the same dollars, two people can buy a weekend in Paris.
But at the Greenbrier you don't have to send a bevy of trans-Atlantic faxes to obtain a table at a fine restaurant -- it's part of the deal.
And, if you go in rainy February as we did, the staff happily gives you a triple upgrade -- a cottage with its own parlor, fireplace, porch and patio. Walking in the hotel, you can find yourself listening to a discourse on truffles from the chocolatier or a 20-minute ramble with the hunting guide about the art of spring turkey hunts. For sale are fine specimens of Southern charm: the dried magnolia wreath with a set of four seasonal arrangements and a white-on-white fruit porcelain soup tureen.
April through October, the hotel can serve up to 1,200 people a day; in busy seasons, 60 percent of the guests are conventioneers. The Greenbrier employs a staff of 1,600, including second- and third-generation employees, to expertly manage such details as providing a different view in the dining room each night for each guest to promptly fixing the plumbing in charming, old bathtubs. The staff prefers to light the cottage fireplaces for guests, too, for safety reasons. Response time was about three minutes.
Among the resort's busiest seasons are Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the resort is said to be beautifully decorated. Popularity has its price, however: friends who stayed at Christmas were disappointed to find no openings for massages. Greenbrier officials advise booking services at the time you reserve a room, whether in high season or the dead of winter, when staff is cut back.
A day at the Greenbrier easily passes simply lingering over breakfast, tea, dinner, listening to the piano, viewing the Gilbert Stuart paintings hung in great parlors and living rooms, or reflecting on history -- inspired by pictures of Grace Kelly or the Duke of Windsor in one of the writing rooms overlooking the gardens.