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The Grande Dames

America's greatest destination resorts balance the charms of the past with modern amenities
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

(continued from page 4)

In truth, luxury at the Grand takes a back seat to verisimilitude. Televisions weren't added to guest rooms until 11 years ago—and they remain the size of those usually found in hospitals. When a new wing was added in 2001, Musser and his staff took pains to match as many details as possible to those in the existing rooms. It must be the only structure since the Kennedy administration built with exposed sprinkler pipes across the ceiling.

Unlike the vast majority of resorts in North America today, the Grand remains seasonal. (Last year's experimental March opening was the earliest ever, by two months.) Guests eat on the Modified American Plan, with everything but lunch included. Most guests still choose the formal dining room, a long, narrow hall that runs half the length of the hotel. There is something wonderful about gazing down the room at couples and families dressed in their finery, eating prime rib and Lake Michigan perch and vanilla ice cream with pecans, getting emotional as the band plays "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "God Bless America." It's the Music Man, come to life. If the dinner menu seems less ambitious than some, consider the restrictions of cooking for 900. "It opens at 6:30, and it's one push," says Hans Burtscher, who has served as head chef at the Grand for 12 of his 22 years there. "They're looking for quality. But when you do 900 a night, that's not cooking, that's catering." Burtscher notes that he has no gas stoves at the property, only electric.

And the Mackinac atmosphere also tends to limit his creativity. "We had a Mexican restaurant downtown, and it closed," he says. "Same with Italian. It doesn't fit with this island. I'd love to do sushi here, or really upscale Italian, but it's just not going to happen. This is a different world, and it has not changed in the more than 20 years I've been here."

That's not precisely true. When Musser started at his family's hotel in 1986, he expanded the wine list "to maybe 30 bottles," he says. Now there are that many selections available by the glass. He has discreetly added more than 100 rooms without altering the character of the property. This year, he instituted a dignified version of a breakfast buffet, with smoked salmon, Amish ham and other specialties. "Some of our old guests don't even like that it's there," Musser says, but enough do that it will return next summer. Cigars, while always available, really took off in 1996 when a humidor was added to the Audubon Wine Bar. (The selection includes 1940-vintage Gurkha Select Robustos from Cuba at $79 a stick.)

The seasonality of the property gives Musser and his staff ample time to consider every aspect of the operation. Most often, they decide to stay with how things are. The wooden-decked swimming pool, for example, has the feel of a Midwestern swim club during an innocent summer. Freckle-faced boys scoot underfoot, slurping Sno-Cones. It could serve as a microcosm of the entire hotel. "We looked at rebuilding the pool, doing the water park thing," Musser says. "And we ended up saying, 'Why?' We've got something that's a great experience that they're just not going to get anywhere else. And that's exactly what we're trying to do."

The Greenbrier White Sulphur Springs, WV
Nestled in the West Virginia woodlands behind a line of Georgian columns, the resort complex now known as the Greenbrier was already being billed as America's most historic hotel when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway spent $150,000 to purchase it in 1910. Nearly a century before, when the resort was accessible only by stagecoach, the going rates at what was called the White Sulphur Springs resort were $1.15 to $1.50 a day.

Tom Cruise paid a visit in 2003, but the hotel—set near the Virginia border, just a short plane flight from Washington, D.C.—is far more likely to play host to senators, cabinet members, even presidents, than movie stars or other celebrities. History suffuses the halls of this 228-year-old institution. The original outdoor pool, since replaced, was built in the 1950s at the behest of Vice President Richard Nixon, whose daughters, Tricia and Julie, wanted to swim after sunbathing. During the Second World War the hotel was requisitioned for use as an Army hospital. And had nuclear fallout threatened Washington at any time from 1960 through the end of the Cold War, members of Congress would have reconvened inside a secret bunker underneath a wing of the property.

But for the occasional guest, none of this is nearly as important as the role the Greenbrier plays in local history. For generations, it has been the most prestigious—and dependable—employer in a downtrodden region that still looks much as it did in the 1940s. Gardeners, maids or waiters fortunate enough to get a job here don't merely want to hold it, says Ted Kleisner, the hotel's president. "They want their kids to have a good job at the Greenbrier, just like their own mom and dad did." Of the 1,800 employees, more than 250 have been working there at least 25 years. About the same number still have a relative on the payroll. Eighty percent were born and raised in the area.

That gives the Greenbrier a local feel. Your server at breakfast is far more likely to be named Brandi than Pierre. "One of the old traditions that permeates this resort is that of Southern hospitality," says staff historian Robert Conte. "This magnificent place is filled with pretty homey folks, who say things like, 'Need some more coffee, honey?'"

The continuity of staff means that returning guests are greeted by familiar faces, no matter how long they've been away. That helps mitigate the feeling of change in the air. For make no mistake, the Greenbrier is changing. "The pace of change has picked up in the last few years," says Conte. "It used to be that the way we presented ourselves was as a timeless place. Well, that doesn't work anymore."


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