The Town They Didn't Want You To Find
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
The Greenbrier resort has been keeping secrets again.
And I'm not talking about the super-clandestine bunker built under the hotel as a place to hide Congress in case of nuclear war. That's an old secret. (In fact, the Greenbrier just reopened the decommissioned bunker as a sort of Cold War preserve. More about that later.)
But old habits die hard, and there's something else the Greenbrier hasn't been telling us. Lewisburg, a fabulous visitor-friendly mountain town 10 minutes from the resort's front gate, may be a bigger secret than the bunker.
West Virginia's four-star Greenbrier is famous for being a recreational black hole -- once you go in, there's no breaking free of the all-inclusive pull of prepaid meals, in-house shopping, bars, movie theater, bowling alley, spa, etc. The Greenbrier is a posh world unto itself, the surrounding area just something you have to drive through to get there. I've been twice and never set foot off the property.
They never mentioned Lewisburg.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to the Greenbrier last week to take the new bunker tour and for the first time drove eight miles down the road to Lewisburg. Wow. I haven't had such a positive first impression of a town since hitchhiking into Christchurch, New Zealand, 20 years ago.
Drive the back road in (Route 60, rather than parallel Interstate 64) and you enter the town along a corridor of fine old frame houses, a tidy foyer for the showpiece downtown that appears over the final hill. In a shady little tuck of the mountainside, Lewisburg is built around a stock of intact 19th-century masonry, a Main Streety row of banks, courthouses and other hearty architecture from a more civic age.
But this is a Mayberry setting with a Santa Fe soul. Most of it has been given over to a thriving stroll-about tourist quarter of martini bars, coffee shops, Irish pubs, art galleries, funky boutiques, a professional playhouse and the best kind of antiques stores (i.e., those with prices that make us city folk feel we're getting away with something). Heck, the place is home to its own working Carnegie Hall, one of only four left in the world.
Lewisburg may have been news to me, but it's been packing them in lately. A boom in vacation home sales has pumped up the tourist traffic. And judging from the storekeepers you meet, lots of expat New Yorkers and Bostonians have come to satisfy a growing local taste for latte and WiFi.
It has really taken off in the past few years, according to Stephen Jackendoff. A New York native, he has been in Lewisburg since coming for what was meant to be a brief visit 31 years ago. His restaurant, Julian's -- where he serves nightly as owner, chef, maitre d', waiter and sommelier -- has been thriving for 14 years. In that time, he has served a lot of Greenbrier chefs and executives, but not many guests.
The fact is, you can take the Greenbrier out of the equation and still declare this a great hotel town, thanks largely to the delightful General Lewis Inn. It sits just above the cocktail buzz of downtown like an indulgent uncle, a blocky white hotel of mismatched chairs and curiosity-shop clutter.