HOT SPRINGS, Va. — Coming around the last bend in the mountain road, just beyond the horse-and-buggy crossing sign, you see it. Rising above a vast thicket of trees and with the mountain as a backdrop sits a fairy-tale castle with a distinctly American slant: the Alhambra of the Alleghenies, or perhaps Virginia's Versailles palace.
Although not an actual palace, The Homestead is palatial. It takes its place alongside a handful of hotels that have become American icons: San Diego's Del Coronado; the two Grand Hotels, in Point Clear, Ala., and Mackinaw Island, Mich.; and The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
Placed in a purely historical context, however, The Homestead outshines them all. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson bathed in the area's rejuvenating pools, as did the arthritic wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee. William McKinley became the first American president to play golf when he teed off on the resort's Old Course in 1899.
The Duke of Windsor vacated the hotel without paying the tab for his 30-day stay. When presented his bill by then-owner Fay Ingalls, who had followed him to the train station, the Duke, clearly unaccustomed to monetary transactions, asked, "What do you expect me to do with this?"
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John D. Rockefeller Sr., accompanying his son, John Jr., on one of the latter's frequent visits, amused himself by tossing rolls of dimes into the water hazards on the golf course to see whether the caddies would scramble for them — proving that billionaires are no different than anyone else when it comes to embarrassing their children.
Visitors to The Homestead can become a part of this illustrious past with a stroll through the library's photo gallery. Many of the famous guests are here, including captains of industry (Vanderbilts, Morgans and Mellons all made it their summer home) and the 22 presidents who have been guests at the resort.
If you'd like a more formal history lesson, take the 90-minute hotel history tour. A marvelous film in the theater covers the resort's 245 years, from its founding in 1766 to the present, highlighting the famous folks who have checked in over the years. My favorite snapshot was of a smiling "Black Jack" Bouvier escorting his two young daughters, who grew up to be Jacqueline Kennedy and Lee Radziwill.
You could spend days immersing yourself in history, but there's too much else to do on the resort's 3,000 acres: swimming (in indoor and outdoor pools); archery; fly-fishing; horseback riding; croquet; hiking (the 2-mile Gorge Hike is the preferred jaunt); tennis; bowling on an eight-lane alley (thought to be the country's first); canoeing and kayaking, skeet, trap and sporting clays at the Shooting Club; falconry; and in winter, ice skating and skiing at the South's first downhill ski area.
For golfers, The Homestead is nirvana. More U.S. Opens have been held here than anywhere else, and the LPGA was founded here in 1950. Today's duffers have a choice of three championship courses: the Cascades Course, generally considered the finest mountain course in America; the Robert Trent Jones-designed Lower Cascades; and the Old Course, the only one open all year (weather permitting), and boasting the nation's oldest tee in continuous use.
One activity nearly every guest indulges in is "taking the waters" at the nearby Jefferson Pools, now owned by the resort. The first people thought to have made use of the natural springs were the Shawnee Indians in the 16th century, and by the time the Gentlemen's Pool House was built in 1761, five years before the first Homestead building, it had become a regular gathering place.
Thomas Jefferson didn't sleep here, but he did soak here in 1818, thus giving the pool its name. Holding 40,000 gallons of constantly flowing, crystal-clear mineral spring water, it is thought to be the oldest spa structure in America.
It was considered unseemly for refined ladies to bathe with gentlemen, so in 1836, a separate pool house for women was built next to the Gentlemen's. The two pools, open seasonally from June to October, remain largely the same today as when they debuted, so if you're looking for something a bit more 21st-century, the European-style Spa at the Homestead might be more tempting. Beautifully situated in a lush garden setting, the spa has a full menu of services, and an unusual offering is the KidSpa, reserved for children younger than 16.
One of the things I like most about The Homestead is its air of gentility. Even during the Depression, when well-heeled guests would adjourn to Miss Ruby's Speakeasy in town in search of bootleg whiskey, they would sip it from demitasse cups.
The bootleg whiskey is gone, but the gentility remains. Tea is served by tuxedoed waiters from 4 to 5 p.m. every afternoon in the Great Hall. You can sip while a pianist plays, with an occasional solo by a child who has temporarily misplaced his parents.
The Main Dining Room, with its chandeliers and marble columns, is a monument to a time when dining was an art and not a hastily assembled meal on a tray in front of the TV. Everything about it whispers quiet elegance, including the orchestra, which plays for dancing, to maitre d' Woody Pettus, who has been on the job for half a century.
Best of all are the rocking chairs lining the expansive front porch. I liked to imagine President William Howard Taft, as he was said to have done, campaigning for the presidency from one of the chairs, or Woodrow Wilson and his bride, Edith, toasting the sunset during their honeymoon here.
On my last night, I toasted that sunset with a glass of wine in my own rocking chair while carrying on a conversation with a delightful couple rocking away next to me. Halfway through our conversation, I discovered that my newfound friends were Merl Hackbart, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Business, and his wife, Maxine.
You just never know who you'll meet at The Homestead.