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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 5)

The old swimming pool was replaced last year by an infinity pool—with underwater rock music—that directly abuts the 18th green of one of the golf courses. New homes built along the course and beyond are part of the Greenbrier community. Even the 1830s-era cottages, which line the lawn behind the stately main building like the world's most appealing writer's colony, have wireless Internet access. The integration has been seamless. "Time has greatly changed the White Sulphur; doubtless in its physical aspect it never was so beautiful and attractive as it is today, but all the modern improvements have not destroyed the character of the resort," wrote Charles Dudley Warner in his 1886 novel Their Pilgrimage, and the same sentiment remains true in 2006.

The feel of the hotel continues to evolve as the clientele changes. Today's executives are more likely to come with spouse and family—and are less inclined to wear a business suit on a weekend evening. "The Greenbrier remains a very formal, very genteel resort," says Conte, sitting in an ornate side parlor that has hardly changed since the 1940s. As he says it, however, a guest clad only in a bathing suit and sneakers walks through the room and out onto the second-story porch. "You never would have seen that even a few years ago," Conte admits.

After more than a century of welcoming guests on the Modified American Plan, à la carte dining arrived at the beginning of this year. "I believe we were a bit behind the curve when it came to that particular element," says Kleisner. "We intend to fast-forward rather quickly." Kleisner envisions a half dozen or so restaurants of varying types, offering varying levels of formality. Not having to serve hundreds of guests simultaneously from the same kitchen can't help but raise the level of the food, though it's likely the existing formal dinner service—offered to guests in a Carleton Varney dining room festooned with nineteenth-century portraits—will survive in some fashion. "For many guests," Conte says, "part of the whole Greenbrier fantasy is the idea of dressing for dinner."

Conte has been employed by the hotel for a quarter century, in part to insure that the rate of change isn't too rapid. The resort remains the property of the railroad, which is now called CSX Corp., offering a continuity of ownership all but unmatched in North American resorts. Each month, Kleisner meets with a group representing employees of 25 years or more of service to make sure that the hotel's long-term interests are being prioritized.

In addition, consumers are constantly polled for their reaction to every aspect of the Greenbrier experience. Stay just once, and you'll get questionnaires on why you came or why you have stopped coming for five years. Within the first few hours of each first-timer's arrival on the property, a member of the concierge staff will call to facilitate any needs. "We're trying to be all things to all people over a 12-month season," Kleisner says.

Not that you'd call the clientele eclectic. Recently, a dozen or so Republican senators convened for a political strategy session. After dinner, several of them—including Richard Shelby of Alabama, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia—wandered upstairs to the Old White Lounge.

You had to be a C-SPAN junkie to know which ones they were, however. Nearly every man in the room that night was middle-aged, with white or gray hair, and wore a conservative business suit. If each wasn't a Republican senator, he sure could have passed for one.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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