Saturday, January 02, 2010

[Travel] Dressing for Dinner

Dressing for Dinner: What's most astounding about this trip is that nothing went wrong. The travel plans were to fly out to DC on Christmas Eve (Thursday), drive 4 hours into the West Virginia mountains on Christmas Day, drive back then fly home on Sunday. In that span of days, apart from the standard holiday madness, there was a terrorist bombing attempt and a quasi-riot at JFK airport yet I skated through both ends of my air travels with nary an incident. That includes flying Delta (the airline in both the attempted bombing and riot incidents) in and out of Detroit (the destination of the would-be bomber). I must say, I noticed no security histrionics except for a polite TSA officer checking IDs and boarding passes at the gate, with an obvious goal of visibility rather than any sort of rule enforcement. I'm may be in the minority, but I think TSA did OK this time around.

The Greenbrier is a storied and venerable luxury resort in the Appalachians just across the border form regular Virginia into West Virginia, in the remote town of White Sulphur Springs. The name should tell you that mineral baths were how the town got its start back all the way back in the late 18th century. It's a small town; approximately two-thirds of the local residents are employed by The Greenbrier which was, and probably still is, the most high-society destination in the South and it is consistently revered by eminent luminaries and various species of the Southern hoi-polloi.

There's a fascinating social dynamic behind this long-term hospitality excellence. It's not easy for an organization to maintain stratospheric levels of service for decades on end. You can probably count the number of such places in the world on your fingers (and maybe toes). One strategy for doing so is to create an entire community, including history and culture, dedicated to the mission. Think of Disney essentially building Orlando in their image of service and magic (although the city has progressed way beyond just Disney). The relationship between the Greenbrier and White Sulphur Springs is almost the same, except that it arose organically and locally over more than a century. Generations of solid West Virginians in the area have devoted healthy portions of their lives to The Greenbrier and have never misstepped to the point of allowing it decay or even fall out of favor. That's a remarkable achievement.

This motivation to service apparently extends beyond the functioning of the resort since the Greenbrier was retasked as an Army hospital throughout WW2 and subsequently was the site of a top secret fallout shelter during the Cold War years (more on that later).

What's it like to stay at Greenbrier? It's nice. Very nice. But you must be comfortable with a certain old world formality in the atmosphere. This is reinforced from the moment you enter the grounds. The main building is an enormous antebellum castle of a structure. Horse drawn carriages would not be out of place pulling up to the entrance. The furnishings are ornate, gilded, and garishly colorful. The interior was designed by Dorothy Draper, who also did the similar Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. You won't see a lot of plastic or aluminum or kid safe decor.

Like most historic properties, the rooms are outdated and a bit worn; there is only so much you can do to renovate centuries-old architecture and plumbing. Water pressure is anemic and electrical outlets are dear. But unlike some such rooms I have stayed in, the heat functions well and there doesn't seem to be a problem with noise (although that may be because of the high-end patronage). The bed is plush and comfortable and there is a walk-in closet. All in all, about as good as you can expect from a historic property.

The indoor pool is another beauty. (There is an outdoor infinity pool too, but of no use in December.) It is Olympic-sized with a deep-end depth of nine feet. And it is tiled -- not concrete, with stair step platforms into the water. The only thing missing for a full-on 1930's era swim experience were full coverage bathing suits and shower caps on the women. That and a diving board. I absolutely hate that lawyers have done away with diving boards and criminalized diving in general, so I took the opportunity for a few head first plunges into the nine foot end when the lifeguard's back was turned. There is a sort of faux sun-deck with lounge chairs and a separate area for patio furniture style chairs and tables where you can dine from the uncharacteristically substandard snack bar. There are fine locker room facilities available, associated with the spa, which is important because the idea is to bring your swimwear to the pool area and change there as opposed to wandering through the lobby in your bathing suit like common rabble. Anyway, I was really digging on the pool.

The grounds are lovely and roll gently through the Old South round-top mountains with footbridges across broad and shallow streams. One suspects fall and spring are stunning. In the current day, that spells real estate opportunity and the surrounding areas are filling up with tasteful rental properties starting at around $2 million and going up as high as you like from there. What real estate crash are you talking about?

I can easily see the attraction of a home in the area, especially a vacation home or summer estate, thanks to the activities available at The Greenbrier. These include: fly-fishing, skeet shooting, wing shooting, off-road driving, falconry (yes, the big scary birds that can peck your eyes out), hiking, biking...all offered with tours and instruction as needed. Tennis is big, but even bigger is golf, what with the Greenbrier hosting a PGA tournament. It is clearly a place you could go year after year to get your recreational fix. The Snowshoe skiing resort is a little over an hour away, but I suspect the warm months are prime time here. For an empty nester with means, not only would this be a fine semi-retirement but it would serve as a draw to get a far-flung family together every now and then.

Sadly, holiday scheduling and time constraints kept us from doing any of the activities, but we were able to take a fascinating tour of the bunker. What is the bunker you ask? The story is that back in the duck-and-cover fifties, President Ike determined that in the event of a nuclear attack, an effort should be made to save the legislative branch of government and keep it functioning in the post-apocalyptic world. Nowadays we know better and would readily offer them up as sacrificial lambs, but it was a simpler time. Plans were laid and palms were greased and construction of said fallout shelter began at the Greenbrier under the auspices of adding a new wing to the resort.

It was quite an undertaking and scores of Greenbrier employees had to be in on the secret to keep it going. After it was complete the fallout shelter's service staff doubled as Greenbrier staff to maintain the charade. Cover was finally blown in 1992 in a hubristic report in the Washington Post that justified itself by claiming the shelter was insufficient and needed to be exposed as such. The tour guides proudly point out that no Greenbrier employees had broken under questioning, it was a unnamed former government functionary who coughed up the validation.

The tour itself is interesting as a window on to how the government thought about survival back then. There was only room for legislators -- no families, and the military was empowered to forcibly remove the legislators and leave their families to deal with the apocalypse on their own if need be. The congresscritters would then be ensconced in dormitory style bunks, 60 to a room, fed military rations, and be serviced by a single assistant each until it was presumed safe to exit. Tellingly, at some point in the seventies, the leaders of both chambers contrived to have VIP suites where they could stay in a modicum of comfort while the rest lived on like college freshmen. No reason status symbolism should be affected by a little thing like nuclear war, after all.

The tour is loaded with little gems of information, especially for those of us who lived through those times. (It remains unsettling for me to hear events I have lived through and recall referred to in historic tones.) I highly recommend the tour. It's an interesting little distillation of a Cold War vignette.

One question that can be reasonably asked about The Greenbrier is whether it is timeless, or merely nostalgic. I'm not sure, but I'm leaning toward timeless. I don't think they set their policies based on a desire to reproduce the thirties, either 19- or 18-, they just seem to like the genteel formality of it all. Dressing for dinner is a perfect example. There is no attempt as far as I can see to generate some sort of old school dining experience. The waiters don't display any antebellum affectations and they don't force their employees into any of those embarrassing historically accurate costumes. Wi-fi is ubiquitous, though there are draconian filters in place. The main bar is no different from a nice comfy lounge you might find in any better hotel in NYC, except everyone is wearing coat and tie instead of metrosexual gear. They certainly don't stop folks from getting tipsy. One particularly sloshed woman attempted to engage me in conversation by asking, "So what's your fancy pants?" I plan to use that question on future job interviewees to see how they react to confusion. Turns out this woman was drinking herself silly in the bar while her husband was off in the casino losing a small fortune. Oh yes, there's a casino (coat and tie recommended). What could be more timeless?

One area where they keep scrupulously modern is food prices. Sweet Fancy Moses! You'd think you were at Wynn Las Vegas. A bottle of water is $2.50, entrees in the cheapest restaurant start at $20, and a mixed drink will run you around $15. And there is really no opportunity to be fugal since the nearest restaurants outside the resort are a significant drive off. I would rate the food good (in the cafe) to excellent (the main dining room), the service average but consistent.

Between the price and the formality, Greenbrier will only appeal to a select audience. If you can afford it, Greenbrier is a fine experience. It would work best if you could sync it up with your love of golf or tennis or fishing or wing shooting. Or at least you should give yourself enough time to sample the activities. It makes a great respite from the commotion and strife of the uncouth modern world. Just don't forget your Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. And your wallet.