The Hotel Issue

The Greenbrier: Turns out you can afford it . . .

By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Greenbrier had never been on my life list, but now it seems I have some rewriting to do.

It's not that the rarefied resort in the rugged mountains of West Virginia didn't pique my interest. For one thing, no other property in the world features a Cold War-era bunker camouflaged by the drunken Palm Beach decor of Dorothy Draper. Its guest registry draws from the upper echelons of society and politics and has included more than two dozen presidents. And unless you vacation during medieval times, few places offer falconry before lunch. Yet a significant obstacle stood between me and those floral couches and birds of prey -- the expense.

The Greenbrier would have remained someone else's dream trip had Jetsetter not reminded me of what I was missing. The travel Web site, the spawn of luxury goods discounter Gilt Groupe, tempts you to visit places you never intended to, or were too financially strapped to consider. Every week the site, which launched Sept. 30, posts staggered sales on eight to 10 luxury properties or trips around the world. Members, who must be invited to join by other Jetsetters (a growing club of 65,000), have three days to book. The discounts are substantial, from 30 to 60 percent off. For the Greenbrier, that translated to $160 for an intermediate room, compared with the going rate of $345, and $190 for a deluxe room, a savings of $205, according to Jetsetter.

"We're looking for something distinctive and memorable, something you go home and brag to your friends about," said Jetsetter chief executive Drew Patterson, describing the site's offerings, which include high-end resorts, exotic villas, up-and-coming hotels and cruises. When asked about the tick-tock time limit, he explained, "We want to make it feel like a challenge, an urgency."

I succumbed to the pressure, and a few weeks later, I was sipping tea on a couch that looked as if it had been kissed by a flower garden. A pianist performed in a high-ceilinged chamber, the lilting tunes filling the air like birdsong. Observing the animated scene around me -- ladies and gentlemen, many with snow-white hair, seated around the fire, teacups in hand, pastries on laps -- it was hard to imagine the landmark property's recent dark period.

Last March, the hotel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. At the same time, Marriott Hotel Services Inc. signed an asset purchase agreement, offering the community and hotel aficionados a glimmer of hope. In early May, however, West Virginia businessman James C. Justice II bought the stock of the holding company, gaining proprietorship from CSX Corp., a railroad company.

"We went from being owned by a big corporation for 100 years to being owned by one guy," said resort historian Robert Conte, a 31-year employee. "And it's not just any guy; it's local guy makes good."

A big, beaming man of 58, Justice made his fortune in coal mining and agriculture. But he never forgot his humble beginnings or his reverence for the hallowed resort. "My parents instilled in me how proud they were that the Greenbrier was part of West Virginia's history, even if we couldn't afford it," he said from behind his office desk, a bowl of gumballs adding a dash of Drapereseque color. "It's our Emerald City."

To shake off the hotel's elitist reputation, he created the Tribute to the Virginias special, with nightly rates of $59. The four weekends, which run through February, sold out in 48 hours. "I wanted to give people the opportunity to come stay here," he said. "I don't want them to think that it's some gated palace."

In addition to the deal, which demoted my special rate from "exceptional" to "fine," Justice initiated a handful of ambitious projects aimed at ushering in a new era at the Greenbrier. In September, he opened the Tavern Casino, a guests-only venue with an air of exclusivity, although no gambling prowess is required. (I won at the roulette wheel, but only because the dealer, Michael, commandeered my chips.) Upstairs, Prime 44 West is a steakhouse that pays homage to former Los Angeles Laker and West Virginia native Jerry West. The interior design evokes an atmospheric basketball hall of fame.

Coming up the driveway, you can't help noticing a hole that could swallow the Alleghenies. Its future occupant is an underground casino (plus restaurants, shops and a lounge with a horse derby theme) that Justice describes as "James Bond-meets-Monte Carlo-meets-'Gone With the Wind.' " The expansion is scheduled to open April 1. Also on the drawing board: twice-daily nonstop flights between nearby Lewisburg and such cities as Washington, New York, Atlanta and Cleveland, and a luxury train that will run Washingtonians up to the station across the street from the hotel. A horse-drawn carriage will then take over.

"I don't want to lose the high-end luxury," Justice said. "What I want to lose is the snootiness and pomposity."

In spite of the crowd-pleasing expansions, the Greenbrier, whose natural springs attracted visitors as early as 1778, will never sacrifice its past for its future. The resort's history is more valuable than any royal flush.

Three times a week, Conte leads an interior tour, covering the second floor from end (north wing) to end (Main Dining Room). He throws out dates and defining moments, such as the U.S. Army's purchase of the hotel for $3.3 million in 1942, but also highlights the smallest details, such as the restaurant's place settings. (A separate $20-$30 tour explores the secret bunker, which was built during the Eisenhower era to safeguard Congress during a nuclear attack and was exposed by The Post in 1992.) While Conte was describing the hotel's incarnation as a soldiers' hospital during World War II, a petite woman wearing a name tag called out a question:

"Is that where the ice house was?" she asked, as we peered out the window at the North Entrance.

"Well, that's a pretty esoteric reference," responded Conte.

Fran Kimberlin was rummaging around her memory bank, trying to piece together the nine months that her husband, who worked for the Military Police, spent in the World War II rehab facility. As the 17-year-old girlfriend of a soldier, she had visited him once at the hospital, staying at a "rinky-dink" hotel in town. She was not allowed to see his room, though she did eat in the dining room. The married couple returned to the Greenbrier in the 1950s, but they never made it through the gates -- it was too emotional for her husband, she said. Now, the widow had returned with her daughter to fulfill a lifelong desire.

"I just wanted to see more of the buildings and where he stayed," said the 79-year-old from Cincinnati. "This was on my bucket list."

Now the Greenbrier's on my list, too -- with a check after its name.

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