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LUXURY HOTELS: The Greenbrier, West Virginia, USA

Style: Old money glamour.
Scene: A vast and iconic historic property set in a 6,500-acre estate.
Seen in the lobby: Impeccably groomed women mingle with well-to-do golfers and corporate expense account guests, and with a visitor list stretching to 26 US presidents, royalty, movie stars and captains of industry you never know who you might spot.

"Would you prefer black or white?" asks the waitress. A fairly standard question you might think, but in this case she wasn't talking about coffee but whether I prefer to have a crisp black or white napkin placed on my lap.

I opt for the former, a decision I confess that is based more on the fact that it will hide any tell-tale food to mouth malfunctions rather than blending in with my LBD. It is just one of the many things, from the thoughtful to the unexpected and downright quirky, that make this huge luxury hotel stand out from the crowd.

front entrance
front entrance
presidential suite
deluxe suite
pool
cameo ballroom
springhouse

A landmark institution with a history going back to 1778, the 710 room property set in 6,750 acres and divided between guest rooms in the main neoclassical building and suites and cottages in the ground. The 26 newly refurbished rooms in the two-storey Windsor Club section of the hotel include smart room technology that remembers in-room lighting, favourite TV channel and wakeup call settings. And if you ask for it there's a free car wash service.

As The Luxury Travel Bible  readers well know, first impressions are everything. As I walk into the main lobby it's also a case of my eyes being drawn everywhere.

The most noticeable standout feature of The Greenbrier is its decor. Totally over the top, to the uninitiated it's a cocktail of eye-popping clashing colours and design styles. In my case it grew on me, in every sense of the word. It is decked out in Dorothy Draper's signature 'romance and rhododendrons' style. In 1925 the ground-breaking high society interior designer began challenging decorating trends with her use of colour and oversized patterns. She was called in to make her mark on The Greenbrier after it was used as a hospital during the Second World War and her influence remains boldly in place today.

If you don't want full-on Draper design 24/7 you can opt for rooms decked out in more muted shades. My double aspect deluxe room is easy on the eye with its small floral print curtains, restful plain walls and ice blue carpet. TLTB particularly liked the proper hairdryer in the cool marble bathroom, spacious walk-in wardrobe and free Wi-Fi.

In a hotel of this size it's easy to see why you get a map when you check in, and it's well worth just walking around (and getting lost) to take in the amazing architecture and decoration.  A self-contained resort - it even has its own medical centre and fire station - I'm sure some people never leave the property at all during their stay.

Whiling away time before dinner I wander through the exquisite and restful indoor swimming pool with its ornate mosaics and browse around the hotel's collection of nearly 30 shops. Handmade chocolates, jewellery, flowers, golf clubs, giant ornaments that can be shipped home and seriously luxe designer clothes; you name it you can probably get it here. There's even a clothing collection inspired by Elizabeth Taylor, one of The Greenbrier's string of illustrious guests. And if you find the perfect outfit and it doesn't fit, no problem. Garments can be altered on-site.

For more than 230 years people have travelled to White Sulphur Springs, where The Greenbrier is located, to 'take the waters' and the 40,000 square foot spa takes the wellness and pampering tradition to new heights. The only Forbes Travel Guide five-star rated mineral spa in the world, treatments include time-honoured sulphur water soaks, in TLTB's view, more tempting baths laced with real fruit and powdered silk.

When it's time to eat the main dining room is a grand affair, and once I'd picked my napkin of choice I was faced with more decisions regarding the menu. Talk about spoilt for choice. Lamb served three ways, farm-raised suckling calf and Atlantic salmon, served with pesticide free vegetables from the hotel's 40-acre farm, were just some of the choices along with a decent selection of vegetarian dishes and a new tasting menu, with optional wine pairing, launched in 2012. For those, like me, dithering between the two you can pick from both menus. Service is friendly and impeccable, combining some old fashioned restaurant theatrics like a cheese trolley and run down of what's on board and the hugely knowledgeable young sommelier Kristal Kinney who served the wine with poise.

For most of its history the hotel was owned by a railway company and in recent years it has been given a new lease of life by larger-than-life local entrepreneur Jim Justice who has invested millions of dollars in the golf club and opened new facilities such as a swanky casino, albeit old school guests who don't approve of such things don't even need to venture there as it's discreetly tucked away albeit accessed via a sweeping double staircase.

Even more hidden, and for more than 30 years totally unknown to all but a few politicians, government officials and Greenbrier employees, is the bunker. Built as an emergency Cold War fallout shelter, under the cover of a new hotel wing built above ground, work on the shelter built 720ft into the hillside began in 1958 and after it was completed in 1961 the facility was maintained in a constant state of readiness by a small group of government employees working undercover. In 1992 the secret was exposed in the Washington Post and today the declassified bunker has become the hotel's most unique attraction, open to guests and the general public. I joined one of the fascinating tours, and walked through one of the huge 25-ton blast doors to explore the underground labyrinth that was built to accommodate over 1,100 people complete decontamination chambers, a hospital, meeting rooms and a television studio with backdrops of the White House and Capitol building to make it look as if sheltering politicians were broadcasting from Washington DC.
Back at ground level a daily custom at the Greenbrier is afternoon tea, free to all guests. With live piano music, dainty little biscuits, strawberries and cream and other confections it's a sophisticated and pleasurable way to while away an hour or so, although British traditionalists might wince at being offered iced tea as well as 'hot' tea.
Similarly, the luxury hotel isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea - and Philippe Starck fans and minimalists will probably want to lie down in a semi-darkened room with soothing cucumber eye patches to get over the assault on their visual senses - however, what it does offer is a luxurious taste of a bygone era with all the modern trappings demanded by today's traveller.
Check in: The Greenbrier, 300 West Main Street, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia 24986, USA.
Tel: 855-428-5476
Ultimate Luxury:  The four-bedroom Greenbrier Suite, with its huge 48ft by 49ft rooftop terrace, parlour and bar can host parties for up to 100 people. And if it's simply too hard to tear yourself away then buy into the legend with some real estate. Homes overlooking the golf course start from US$ one million and counting.
Most Indulgent Moment: A glass of complimentary champagne served guests in the casino to toast the dancers who swirl down the stairs each night to the sound of the hotel's very own Greenbrier Waltz.
Insider Secrets: Since the 1940s romantic guests have put notes into the secret compartment of the antique 'love clock' in one of the Greenbrier's discreet public rooms. Originally used to exchange clandestine messages, today it is more generally used to make a wish.
The Little Things: Daily in-room newsletter so you can plan the perfect day from 6am complimentary coffee through to the casino closing at 3am, cosy gowns that are soft touch cotton on the outside and terry towelling inside and extra touches like an umbrella in the closet.
Junior Luxies: The Adventure Zone, with half-day, day and evening packages for different ages taking in exciting sports and activities, including scavenger hunts, laser tag, kayaking and horse riding, plus dinner in one of the restaurants, will keep any youngster occupied for hours on end and allow parents to enjoy their own guilt-free playtime. There are also spa treatments for youngsters aged six and upwards.
Dress code: Tasteful and elegant, err on the side of understatement rather than full-on bling.
Perfect luggage: Discreet designer or well-travelled and equally well-worn leather.
Dent in the platinum:
Luxury Hotel Link: www.greenbrier.com
 

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