Appeared in September/October 2005 LINKS
Like two vast cruise ships moored in the Allegheny foothills, The Homestead and The Greenbrier embody the jarring but wonderful concept of elegance amid wilderness. Resembling one another more than they resemble any other American resorts, these two institutions evoke a rivalry akin to Athens-Sparta, Oxford-Cambridge or even Coke-Pepsi.
I’ve had the good fortune to stay at both pleasure palaces multiple times over the past decade, almost always following up a Homestead stay with an immediate trip across the Virginia-West Virginia border to The Greenbrier. Not officially, not even consciously, I’ve been at work on a which-takes-the-cake comparison article this whole time. Even fledgling resort-ologists naturally study the two landmarks side by side and begin looking for slight edges in one department or the other. That curiosity is what sends us out for an extra nine holes in the late afternoon, or scanning back through the wine list a third or fourth time
Certainly, back up to the dessert buffet.
Moments of rare enjoyment pile up in my mind from these visits. I’ve had a golden eagle fly 15 feet from my head while on the Cascades Hike at The Homestead. I’ve taken a mind-boggling tour of the government’s Cold War evacuation facility at The Greenbrier. I’ve played a combined dozen-plus rounds of golf at the two properties. I have seen—at near-completion stage—the nationally celebrated Greenbrier Sporting Club, a separate entity from The Greenbrier that extends its famous brand name into the heady world of high-end real estate. I’ve checked out the cool little ski hill behind The Homestead and bowled my personal-best string in The Greenbrier’s posh little bowling center—without even using the gutter tubes.
All this grueling field work along with unswerving journalistic objectivity qualifies me to analyze the two icons in detail, add up all the style points and offer an honest summation. The battle for bragging rights in the Allegheny Mountains now commences.
In aerial photographs, the white-columned grandeur of The Greenbrier and the red-brick beauty of The Homestead are equally bewitching. When you arrive in person, however, that road into The Homestead climbs up a rise then curves downhill at an ideal angle to reveal the hotel’s majestic central tower and its adjoining wings—glimpses of golf to the right, rocking chairs on the porch, Jeeves-like bellmen always ready to greet and serve. Arriving at The Greenbrier, you don’t get the same visual sweep or comparable elbow room to load and unload.
Old-World Golf Course
Many of you know that the first tee of The Homestead’s Old Course has been in continuous operation longer than any other first tee in America. That obscures the fact that it’s an awkward, low-lying tee box on a dodgy opening hole. Having offered that flash of cold criticism, I now freely profess my undying love for this 113-year-old golf course (Donald Ross and William S. Flynn are your layout men), which takes its players on a swift, spirited ramble up and down valley slopes. That said, there’s no denying that the Old White, designed by C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor and beloved by Greenbrier visitors since 1913, is a more solid design and a more demanding test of skill than the Old Course at The Homestead.
Overall Golf Course
Brochures on golf at The Homestead call Flynn’s 1923 Cascades Course the “finest mountain golf course in the U.S.” I freely concur. When I dream about golf, in my dream I’m hitting a pure shot into the par-3 fourth, putting out then crossing the street to start pounding my way over the mysterious, mountainous, wide, wonderful, slightly blind par-5 fifth. At The Greenbrier, there is first-class golf. There’s a Seth Raynor course (The Greenbrier 18) that became a Nicklaus redesign where they played the 1979 Ryder Cup. There’s a sporty, modern Bob Cupp-redesigned course (The Meadows) on which I’ve played an interesting match or two. And now there’s a swank Fazio installation, down the road at the Sporting Club. But there’s no Cascades.
Post-Round Libation Setting
The 19th hole at the The Greenbrier’s main golf clubhouse (named for Sam Snead and decorated appropriately) has seating you sink thankfully into, large but unobtrusive TVs and free-pouring bartenders who can tell in a glance if you shot a nice number or played like crap. Homestead golfers can do the drink-and-square-up ritual immediately after golf at the Cascades or Lower Cascades, but there is so much to do back at the main hotel one tends to scrape the spikes clean and jump right into a Homestead shuttle. Most Homestead regulars, arriving at the hotel in early evening, pop straight into Sam Snead’s Tavern, where the memorabilia, the buzz and the village-pub setting of the place will provide as fine a setting for tale-swapping as any golfer requires.
It’s often been said that The Greenbrier is much more a draw for the white-shoe, Social Register type of patron than The Homestead is. Which is why my wife—whose favorite indoor sport is watching people pay full retail in exclusive boutiques without giving it much thought—prefers prowling The Greenbrier’s concourse of shops more than The Homestead’s. The Homestead’s main gathering space is grander and more relaxing, yes, but The Greenbrier’s is livelier and better for people-watching.
Registration & Check-Out
Actually, I’m placing the contestants in a two-way tie for last place on this point. Greenbrier check-in takes place in a dim section of lobby with poor feng shui and lots of commercial signage promoting real estate sales and whatnot. Taking care of business at The Homestead front desk can involve lengthy waits and uncomfortably public interchanges about issues like disputed charges or delayed room availability.
At The Homestead, our family of four once took a pair of adjoining rooms right on the main level, with its own screen porch looking onto the hotel’s tower façade; we still talk about that stroke of fine luck. And if you want modern contours and design touches, The Homestead does boast a new guest-room wing that also contains its important meeting spaces. Have to say, however, that in general my guest rooms at The Greenbrier have been a little bit bigger and a little more deluxe. I tend to make my peace with (more than embrace) the famous Dorothy Draper décor, but that “Sleepy Time Down South” sign they post, asking for quiet in the hallways, is an all-time great Greenbrier touch.
Dining (Part I, country breakfast)
The Homestead breakfast buffet is the only setting in which I have: eaten grits; eaten fish before noon; eaten six different breakfasts in one sitting. At The Greenbrier you order a very fine breakfast off a menu. It just ain’t the same.
Dining (Part II, main-room dinner)
There is perfect scale and an urbane tone to the evening meal at the 1766 Grille at The Homestead. After many an impressive dinner in the immense main dining rooms of both resorts, I had an “aha” moment one night in the 1766, selecting this beautifully lit room as the dinnertime winner at either property. Then a few nights later I made my first visit to The Greenbrier’s Tavern Room, and found it equally elegant, with excellent service and splendidly prepared meals. Plus a top-notch wine bar and cellar. Dead heat?
Dining (Part III, side rooms)
The pulse of The Greenbrier is indeed its concourse of lobby shops leading around to the Dorothy Draper room, which with its white wicker and black-and-white tile floor is hardly your oak-paneled masculine setting. And so, for me to say it’s a fun place to eat a very good lunch must be categorized a confession. So be it. There is no correlative facility at The Homestead—its casual lunch offering is out of the main hotel by the golf practice range and the outdoor pool.
The Jefferson Pools at The Homestead constitute perhaps the best-preserved “archive spa” in the U.S. A long float there is guaranteed to relieve stress in part because it takes you back in time a couple of centuries. I rank it as the definitive pre-modern amenity at either property. At The Greenbrier, the original glory of the Harris & Richards designed Bath Wing is retained some 90 years later in the resort’s main indoor pool, with its substantial columns and arches and its seductive natural lighting. True to The Greenbrier’s inclination towards chintz and glitz, those neoclassical architectural elements are painted a soft, boudoir pink courtesy of the Dorothy Draper redesign of the late 1940s (after the Army decommissioned the military hospital this great resort had been converted to during World War II).
For all the intense Early American history embodied at these two institutions—which date back to the 18th century and involved visits by seemingly every U.S. president who wore facial hair—the most meaningful historical element at either The Greenbrier or The Homestead stretches less than five decades into the past. In our post-9/11 world, the Greenbrier Bunker, the once-secret relocation facility for the U.S. Congress in the event of nuclear attack, is one of the most poignant, stirring and significant living-history sites anywhere in the country. Due to reopen next year, this huge, Cold War lair built in the name of “government continuity” absolutely requires a visit. (My recent tour of the London underground War Rooms and the new Churchill Museum adjacent to it—two weeks before the July terrorist bombings there—only deepens that conviction.)
So, if you haven’t been to either resort, the Bunker Factor tilts the balance toward The Greenbrier. If you’ve already had that gasp-inducing experience, and you’re weighing these two Allegheny options on their merits, I would point you to The Homestead. It’s less buttoned-up and a bit less of an acquired taste. Its golf experience has more of a pilgrimage feel—whereas the Greenbrier setup can feel not unlike an excellent suburban club.
When you’ve been to one of these great resorts you are obliged to go to the other before you return to the first. If you’re headed that way before the bunker tours start up again, try The Homestead. If not, book a stay at The Greenbrier.