Saturday, June 28, 2014

Go Big or Go Home!

One would not expect to find a resort as posh as The Greenbrier nestled in the mountains of wild and wonderful West Virginia, but you round a bend in the road and there it is.

One would not expect to find a teacher and occasional writer in a resort as posh as the Greenbrier, but I guess life is just full of surprises.

My good friend, Linda, has an autistic son who spends part of his summer at Camp Easter Seals in Virginia. About a month ago, she hatched a plan to spend a day and a night at The Greenbrier on her way to pick up Matthew from camp. She needed someone to wallow in the lap of luxury with her, and naturally, invited me.

After being plied with champagne at check-in and assaulted by the Dorothy Draper décor in both the hallway…

…and the room…

…we adopted the motto, GO BIG OR GO HOME!

Seriously, the bold use of pattern stopped me in my tracks on multiple occasions.

Yes, this is the ladies room, but seriously, check it out!

The spaces that didn’t use bold patterns, opted instead for bold color. This is the Café Carleton where we had lunch. When I posted this pic of Linda on Facebook, I described it as tasteful bordello.

The plush red velvet décor was accentuated by photographs of Norman Rockwell and Hillary Clinton during their respective visits to The Greenbrier. The café also included a scenic overlook of the casino. 

When we received our three-figure check for LUNCH we said “Go big or go home!” Actually, we said some other things that I won’t include on a family blog, and then we said, “Go big or go home!”

We decided to work off our gold-plated lunch with a walking tour of the grounds. Strolling through the well-manicured lawns and flower gardens felt like stepping through the looking glass into a world where people routinely eat very expensive sandwiches without a second thought.

We re-entered the building through the billiards room…

…checked out the pool…

I'm doing my best Vanna White.

Linda is doing her best Where's Waldo.

…and then headed to the spa. We didn’t make use of it, but I did note this book for sale. Word to my single friends: The Greenbrier might be the kind of place where you can find a rich, old man (or woman) with a cough.

Late afternoon found us in the bar. I didn’t take any pictures here, although later I wished I had. The painting over the fireplace was part of the set decoration for the 1939 film production of Gone with the Wind. We discovered this note of interest during our bunker tour the next morning after our phones and other electronic devices had been confiscated. (More on that to come.)

We chatted with the bartenders and discovered that the extra 6% added to every purchase is a historic building preservation tax. Our gold-plated lunch was starting to make more sense. With the preservation tax, sales tax and the automatic gratuity added to the check, everything you order actually costs 30% or so more than what is listed on the menu. News to use.

In spite of the hefty surcharge, we ordered a couple of glasses of wine because GO BIG OR GO HOME! We got directions from the bartender to the Presidential Cottage and took another walk. Ridiculous cost aside, the place is truly beautiful. We arrived too late to take the tour of the cottage, but it wasn’t a wasted trip. We sat on the porch where 26 US presidents have trod, drank our wine, and enjoyed the view.

The hour we spent rocking on the President’s porch may have been my favorite hour of the trip. The weather was perfect, the wine, though pricey, was delicious, and the company was the best. We discussed history, our lives, and even sang a little Alanis when a black fly found its way into my chardonnay.

Before we left, we took a patriotic selfie.

God bless America.

 We stopped by the springhouse on the way back to the main building. This is the White Sulphur spring that gives The Greenbrier’s location its name. This stinky little hole in the ground is what brought the resort here in the first place. The white sulphur tendrils leaching into the spring give the waters restorative power…or so they say. I can offer no anecdotal evidence of my own.

We retired to our daffodil-bedecked walls to rest until dinner.

Dinner was AMAZING! The Greenbrier boasts its own culinary institute, and when I say amazing, I mean order-it-as-your-last-meal amazing. I started with cream of five onion soup followed by cumin seared rainbow trout with curried polenta fries and sugar snap peas. The soup was so rich I wanted to lick the bowl, but the general atmosphere of the dining room discouraged it. Even so, Linda and I ate off each other’s plates like we were at Shoney’s. Her beef tenderloin actually did melt in my mouth, and if I could make fish taste like that trout, I would eat it every day.

I took these pictures of the dining room earlier in the day.

It was even lovelier in the evening with the chandeliers and candles. Linda said she felt like she was on the Titanic. Doomed journey metaphors aside, it was an apt description. I could easily believe it was 1912. All of the diners were adhering to the strict dress code and the strongly-worded notice in the menu to keep cell phones put away. Even the teenage boy at a nearby table was wearing a jacket and using the tablecloth to conceal his texting.

We left the dining room miserable. In spite of being stuffed, we felt an obligation to sample dessert. Five-star meals don’t factor into my world very often, so I wasn’t leaving without ordering my favorite course. I ate a few sinful bites of something with peaches, crème fresh and macaroons and threw in the towel. Linda had her arms raised over her head because she said it was the only way she could breathe.

We sat and listened to some live music in one of the parlors…here we are…but left after a few minutes.

You know you’ve committed the deadly sin of gluttony when you have to lay down because remaining upright is untenable. Even though we spent the rest of the evening watching TV in a food coma, I don’t regret it. I don’t regret it at all.

We finished our time at The Greenbrier the next morning in the bunker. One of the resort’s claims to fame is that it sat on top of the secret relocation bunker for Congress in the event of nuclear war. It was exposed in 1992 by a reporter for the Washington Post and subsequently shut down (although it’s likely that the expose was orchestrated by government officials looking to dump an expensive, obsolete facility).

The tour was interesting, but I have no pictures to share with you other than the ones you can find at this website. We had to relinquish our phones and any other electronic devices we were carrying. We were warned that if we photographed anything, we would be committing a felony. During the tour, our guide pointed out the cameras that were watching our every move. It seemed excessive…all this security for a defunct fallout shelter. Turns out, the security is not for the old bunker, but the data storage by CSXIP…CSX Intellectual Property. Corporate secrets rule the day. Frankly, I don’t know what we could have photographed that would have helped anyone steal something since all we saw were locked doors, but whatever.

About half the space is used by CSX. The rest is open to the public. Interestingly, big chunks of the space always were. Where is the best place to hide something? In plain sight, of course. All that busy wallpaper kept guests from looking too closely at the walls where the blast doors were hidden. The space designated for Congressional offices if the bunker was activated was used as an exhibition hall for conventions. The first event ever held there was a pharmaceutical convention where the anti-depressant, Elavil was introduced. (There was more Elavil stored in the bunker than any other drug.) Even the House and Senate chambers were used as meeting rooms during these conventions. No one suspected as they dozed off during a meeting that they were dozing on the site where Congress would soldier on when the world ended.

The most impressive sight in the bunker was the east-facing blast door. Washington was expected to be the primary target of a nuclear strike, so the door facing that direction was massive. Our guide told us it was the same door they have at the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. More than anything else in the bunker, that door spoke volumes about the true purpose of the space. The closest the bunker ever came to being activated was in the first year of its existence during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although no one wanted to admit it, the plan to relocate Congress to the mountains of West Virginia was obsolete almost as soon as it was completed. Atomic bombs were delivered by planes when the bunker was conceived. By the time it was complete, intercontinental ballistic missiles had reduced the time Congress would have to get to the bunker from six hours to twenty minutes. So that was a problem.

I do recommend the tour if you are interested in history. Also, when the zombie apocalypse finally occurs, you can put West Virginia on your list of possible rallying points to ensure the continuity of the human race.

We left The Greenbrier shortly after the tour and thus ended our brief time in the land of the 1%. It’s a nice place to visit, but you better have the green if you want to live there.

We picked up Matthew from camp and made three ritual stops on our way home: the Dollar Store to add to his umbrella collection, McDonald’s for some chicken nuggets and a diet coke, and Books-a-Million to add to his storybook collection. I like Matthew’s world. At the very least, I can afford it.