The Greenbrier: golf, falconry and a dress code

Haven: The resort that has it all has catered to the rich and powerful for decades. It even has a bunker built for Cold-War-era politicians.

Destination: West Virginia

November 18, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

The Greenbrier bills itself as "America's Resort," and if that conveys a certain arrogance and where-do-they-get-off hauteur, it's almost understandable.

For one thing, the venerable West Virginia resort dates to the late 18th century, when wealthy visitors came to this isolated part of the Allegheny Mountains seeking the healing powers of its mineral springs.

For another, while that first humble inn near White Sulphur Springs is now a first-class resort spread over 6,500 lush acres complete with a soaring Georgian-style main building and 670 guest rooms, it still attracts the rich, famous and powerful, who come these days for the golf, trout fishing, whitewater rafting and excellent cuisine.

There was even a top-secret Cold War bunker built into the hillside under one wing of the hotel, where U.S. Congress members and their families were to be evacuated in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington.

Now guests can take a 90-minute tour of the bunker, declassified and decommissioned in 1992, for $20 a pop. Even though you might suspect otherwise, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, there has been only a "slight increase" in traffic for the bunker tours, said Lynn Swann, the hotel's manager of public affairs.

Still, the idea of a huge underground emergency shelter expressly set aside for the country's top lawmakers only adds to the aura of the Greenbrier as a haven for the influential.

During our visit, for example, the resort's newsletter printed this item: "On this date in 1972, California Governor Ronald Reagan was attending a Governor's Conference at the Greenbrier."

As a quietly efficient bellhop whisks your bags to the check-in desk and you get a peek at the majestic main lobby with its towering ceiling and riveting artworks, one thing becomes abundantly clear: This ain't exactly the Holiday Inn.

How many resorts, after all, offer falconry? ("Learn the history of the sport of kings and interact with our trained hawks and falcons," reads a hotel brochure.)

And how many offer Land Rover Driving School, where, for $150 an hour, guests can barrel down back-road trails while learning off-road driving techniques at the hands of professional drivers?

Both these pursuits were a little too adventurous for us; after all, we were here to play golf, the sport of, if not kings, masochists (although given the way we played, some off-fairway golf-cart-driving techniques would have been helpful).

The Greenbrier is steeped in golf history; even before hitting my first tee shot, I began thinking of it as a veritable Southern cathedral of the game.

Three championship courses grace the grounds -- President Wilson, in fact, was one of the first golfers to play the Old White Course in April 1914.

And row after row of trophies and photos of the game's legends who have played here (Sam Snead, now the Greenbrier's golf pro emeritus, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and others) line the walls of the clubhouse.

There's enough golf memorabilia here for the Greenbrier to start its own museum, including Snead's green Masters jacket and the display of 36 balls that Slammin' Sammy incredibly knocked in for holes-in-one during his professional career.

We played the famous Cascades course, which was redesigned by Nicklaus for the 1979 Ryder Cup matches, and was also the site for the 1994 Solheim Cup matches.

While mountain courses can leave you muttering to yourself, the Cascades (measuring 6,377 yards from the blue tees) is challenging, but fair.

Unlike the steeply sloping courses of its famous resort neighbor, the Homestead, in nearby Hot Springs, Va., the Greenbrier's fairways are fairly level. Still, almost every hole is a "carry" hole, meaning that if you hit the ball short, there's a good chance it sleeps with the raccoons in the woods or the fish in the ponds.

The Cascades' signature hole, No. 2, a 402-yard par 4 with dark green mountains looming in the background and a glistening pond with twin fountains off to the right, is one of the prettiest holes you could ever play.

If your morning round of golf leaves you feeling jangled -- a normal state of mind for some of us on the course -- you may want to take in the daily tea and concert at midafternoon in the hotel's main lobby; we did and discovered a different (and possibly perverse) form of relaxation.

There we were, sipping hot English tea and munching tasty finger sandwiches, listening to soothing piano music while relaxing on fine furniture under enormous paintings of 18th-century statesmen.

Meanwhile, on a couch not far away, a foursome of obviously frustrated golfers were dissecting what apparently was a recently concluded round filled with snap-hooks off the tee, shanks and double bogeys.

It doesn't get much better than that -- especially if you're a golfer with your own emotional baggage from years of lousy golf shots.

The complimentary afternoon tea is just one of the touches that make the Greenbrier such a wonderful place.

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