By Victor Block
Let's take a walk through history. In 1740, a Native American chieftain helped lay out a much-needed east-to-west route through Great Britain's Maryland and Pennsylvania colonies. Later, if America's Founding Fathers had sought a retreat to celebrate victory over England, they could have partied at the Homestead, a humble 18-room lodge in what then was the Virginia colony.
Two years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, the first guests traveled to White Sulphur Springs in present-day West Virginia to restore their health by "taking the waters."
These historic episodes are associated with three of the most outstanding resorts in the country. My personal favorite is revealed below.
The Omni Homestead Resort is nestled in rolling hills around Hot Springs, Virginia. The Greenbrier resides among dense forests that blanket West Virginia's Allegheny Mountains. Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, which is named for the Native American trailblazer, lies in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands, not far from where that early path was marked.
Each of these venerable vacation venues offers the extensive array of facilities and choice of activities that guests expect at upscale resorts. At the same time they keep one foot firmly planted in their storied past.
Many attractions show up at all three. They include accommodations fit for a president, king and luminaries from other walks of life. A number of presidents and other dignitaries have graced the resorts' premises.
When feeding royalty, a president or member of high society, the goal is to satisfy palates that are used to the finest in cuisine. This challenge is met and exceeded in both formal dining rooms and casual eateries. For example, Nemacolin offers food options ranging from an old-fashioned ice cream and snack bar to the luxurious Lautrec, one of only 25 restaurants in the world to have simultaneous Forbes Five Star and AAA Five Diamond rankings.
The list of other common offerings shared by these esteemed destination resorts continues well beyond food and board. Outstanding facilities for golf and tennis? Check. Indoor and outdoor swimming pools? Of course. Archery and fishing? Natch.
But that list is just for starters. There also are unique activities and attributes that help each resort stand out not only from one other, but also in comparison with many other top-notch vacation properties around the country.
The setting at the Omni Homestead, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, is very different from what greeted guests in the past. The complex now sprawls across some 2,300 acres, and its year-round offerings range from snow-skiing, snow-tubing and ice-skating to warm-weather hiking and biking, fishing, swimming, canoeing and horseback-riding. An expansive fitness center and spa appeal to those seeking to enhance themselves both inside and outside.
There also are some welcome surprises. The Homestead, like the Greenbrier, has a falconry facility where guests may learn to interact with trained falcons, hawks and other birds of prey. Resort tours are available by Segway, hayride and horse-drawn carriage.
Then there are "the waters." Native Americans discovered natural warm springs in the area hundreds of years ago. The Jefferson Pools in which guests soak today were so named after Tom spent three weeks enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of the Homestead and its mineral baths.
Were he to visit today, Jefferson also would find other appeals to his liking. Given his fondness for haute cuisine, which prompted one biographer to call him "America's first foodie," the country's third president doubtless would find much to enjoy in the elegant Main Dining Room, which features multicourse continental fare "with regional influences." He also would be pleased that an alternative eatery that focuses on farm-to-table ingredients is named Jefferson's Restaurant.
While the Homestead continues to offer guests the relaxing and restorative properties of its mineral spring waters, the Greenbrier has taken that feature a step further. The Greenbrier Clinic has been practicing diagnostic medicine since 1948 and in 2014 was expanded to include a full-service MedSpa and Plastic Surgery Center. The facility offers a range of beauty, dermatological and other services.
However, don't let that lead you to conclude that the Greenbrier is anything except a full-service, top-of-the-line resort. Some guests seek to challenge their skills behind a steering wheel headed for the off-road driving course, while huntsmen take advantage of the fall-to-winter bird-hunting season.
When Old Man Winter blows in, activities such as ice-skating and snowmobiling are added to the mix. Wannabe chefs may attend culinary demonstrations to learn step-by-step preparation of dishes they can serve up at home.
Like the Homestead, the Greenbrier has a long history of attracting guests who seek a soothing soak in natural sulphur mineral waters. In addition, its story includes interesting historical tidbits.
In 1942 the hotel was transformed into an Army hospital that operated throughout World War II. And for 30 years beginning in the 1950s, the Greenbrier was the site of a secret underground bunker that would be occupied by the U.S. Congress in case the nation were attacked. Resort-goers today may tour this once off-limits facility.
More than most resorts, Nemacolin reflects the whims and wishes of one man. Established in 1970 as a 12-room inn, the property was purchased at auction in 1987 by Joseph A. Hardy III, the owner of a profitable lumber company who immediately set about upgrading and expanding it. Since then it has evolved into a first-class full-service resort and then some — and ranks No. 1 with me.
At the same time the usual — and some unusual — features have been added, the property has continued to present Hardy's whimsical sense of humor and, recently, of his daughter Maggie, who has taken over as owner.
One example is a world-class collection of art, consisting of about 1,000 pieces valued at $45 million. The works have been gathered over three decades as Hardy purchased items that struck his fancy. As a result, the buildings and grounds resemble a gallery and sculpture garden, with something beautiful or humorous, sophisticated or sassy around every turn, down every hall and sprinkled throughout the grounds.
The treasures also include original Tiffany lamps and Baccarat chandeliers, an extensive seashell and fossil collection, and displays of antique automobiles and airplanes. So varied and extensive is the hoard that the resort recently hired a full-time curator who, among other things, leads art tours.
Another unusual collection is a virtual zoo's worth of animals that make their home at Nemacolin's Wildlife Academy. Close to 100 species of wildlife reside in large natural settings on the resort grounds. The menagerie ranges from such species as sheep, donkeys and miniature longhorn cattle to more exotic residents that include the African lion, Bengal and white tigers, and endangered Iranian red sheep.
Along with viewing wildlife, guests may opt for a wild and wet off-road driving experience. After a hands-on tutorial in a specially built Jeep Rubicon, my wife and I steered the vehicle along rugged trails, over massive rocks that tilted us to near-tipping angles and through mud holes so deep that sludge oozed in through the doors.
Our instructor was not exaggerating when he said, "At times you may be going only five miles an hour, but they'll be the most exciting five miles you'll ever drive." That comment also related to our entire stay at Nemacolin, one of three of the most exceptionally inviting and delighting resorts anywhere.
WHEN YOU GO
Omni Homestead Resort: 800-838-1766 or www.omnihotels.com/hotels/homestead-virginia
The Greenbrier: 855-453-4858 or www.greenbrier.com
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort: 866-344-6957 or www.nemacolin.com
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.