The big shiny cars negotiating narrow Virginia Rte. 42 between Harrisonburg and Goshen are mostly pressing the accelerator to reach the Homestead in Hot Springs by lunchtime. And why not? It's a five-star resort with a highly rated golf course, a big deluxe hotel with every possible amenity.
Five miles short of the Homestead in the tiny town of Warm Springs, a few of the cognoscenti drop off. They are headed for the Inn at Gristmill Square, a hostelry which does not advertise and whose prices for charming rooms and wonderful food should make the Homestead blush. This tiny inn and its restaurant, the Waterwheel, have both been awarded only one star less than their better-known neighbors in the Mobile Guide listings.
Ware Springs is another of those famous old spas so fashionable in the 1700s. Once the Virginia aristocracy spent the season traveling en masse from the Warm to the Hot, to the Sweet Springs and the White Springs, making the mineral springs circuit together in a welter of fringed parasols and polite conversation. The bath houses they used at Warm Springs are still there -- a bit aged, it is true, but the same handsome old buildings inspired by Thomas Jefferson, once a devotee of the waters himself. Warm Springs was the first stop on the leisurely circuit through the spas.
Today Warm Springs is little more than a bend in the road, populatiion 320. There are a couple of churches built in the 1850s, a country ham processor, and the chain of brooding Alleghenies on the horizon. And, of course, the Inn at Gristmill Square.
You'll find the Inn off the main road on the right, marked only by an inconspicuous sign. It is part of a newly restored square which is the brain-child of Philip Hirsh, whose roots go deep in Warm Springs. Retiring from his position as chairman of the board of a New Jersey pipe company, he came home to acquire the old mill on Warm Springs Run, the blacksmith shop, hardware shop and stable, and make of them a small recreated village. The centerpiece of this was the Waterwheel Restaurant of which he was the chef.
It didn't take the world long to find him. The customers came and dined and told their friends, and the Waterwheel Restaurant grew. Hirsh considers cooking as much an art as music or architecture, especially for the amateur who can afford to experiment, and the results are grand. He tells inquirers with a straight face that his training as chef was acquired at Shef, Yale's Sheffield Scientific School.
Last July he found David Beier, a chef who met his standards, and now he confines himself to preparing only an occasional dish for the restaurant in the kitchen of his own nearby beautiful old farm house. But the stamp of his personality and that of his wife, Catherine, is everywhere in the Inn. They take their meals in the restaurant, nod to their customers, stop to ask if things are going well, if the food is satisfactory. This is a very personal inn.
The inn rooms are as attractive as the food is good. They are furnished with antiques and even the smallest has a sitting area with comfortable chairs. All but one in the square has a working fireplace. In the Lodge, Hirsh's boyhood home, the guests congregate in the pleasant living room before the fire. The Log Cabin, an 1820 cabin discovered when its Victorian shell was recently torn away, has a porch with a view, a kitchen and living room and a maid to serve breakfast. In this last you must agree to stay at least three days.
Rooms at Gristmill Square range from $39 to $59 double, without meals. Dinner for two at the Waterwheel, for example, with one cocktail and a glass of wine, runs well under $40 with tip. Lunch is about $17 for two. (At the Homestead, a double room including three meals runs $85 to $95 per person.) In all this, there is just one unhappy reality. Hirsh's booking chart is very crowded indeed. Word has spread, and the telephone keeps ringing. One has to think ahead to weekend at the Inn at Gristmill Square.
If you can't get in, you might stay elsewhere -- the Vine Cottage Inn in Hot Springs is attractive -- and eat at the Waterwheel. The specialties are veal and the local fish, and Don, the maitre d, is especially proud of the wine cellar where the prices of a nice selection undercut those of the Homestead. Diners are invited to descend and select their own vintage, cooled by the water of Warm Springs Run flowing past. You can see the axle of the wheel turning above the wine bins.
The Hirshes give meticulous attention to everything at their inn.
"We've got to build a better mousetrap," said Hirsh when he first began, "if we expect guests to drive so far." He apparently succeeded, for 60 percent of his guests are repeaters.
It is a long drive from Washington, 4-1/2 hours if you keep the needle on 55 and allow one stop for coffee. But part of the pleasure is the sense of remoteness. The mountains change color hourly, and if you did nothing but sit by the mill wheel and watch the shadows on the slopes, it would all be worthwhile.
But there is more.
To begin with, one should of course try the mineral baths, if only to see what drew the crowds in the 1700s. They are open till 5 p.m. on Saturday but closed on Sundays -- which I did not discover until too late, so I cannot report. But I dipped a hand in the runoff and, in 42-degree weather, found it warm enough to produce steam. Before World War II, they say, mint juleps on cork trays were floated out to the customers taking their ease in the waters. But these are hard to came by now.
The Jackson River flows through the Hirsh property, stocked by the state with trout and small mouth bass for fishing. The drive to the river is a country idyll. Access is by way of an unpaved road with elderberry nodding over the fence posts and cattle grazing peacefully in the distance. Bath County is postcard beautiful and since Warm Springs is 2,260 feet high, the air is crystal clear. In winter it gets plenty of snow for skiing -- at Snowshoe at Slatyford, W. Va., or nearby at the Homestead.
For mountain trails, follow the Warm Springs Run along the Katydid Trail, which will take you by the base of Little Mountain, backdrop of the inn. Nearby George Washington National Forest is wild and unspoiled and full of trails for serious hikers. Wear warm clothes. Even in early October, Warm Springs was nippy.
You can play golf at the Homestead even if you are not staying there, but the Hirshes have put in their own tennis courts. Or, if you like antiqueing there's an interesting shop near the inn offering everything from a Victorian baby carriage to an ancient muskrat coat. Hot Springs, of course, is loaded with shops.
If you reach Warm Springs by lunch time Saturday, you'll want to drive over to the Hot Springs anyway, since the Waterwheel no longer serves Saturday lunch. Try Sam Snead's Tavern, an attractive restaurant owned by the famous golfer, where the menu is written by hand on a paper bag and a hamburger is first-class. Neither Snead's nor the Vine Cottage Inn serve Sunday lunch, yet the Waterwheel does. The Cottage rents its double rooms for $26 to $30.
The drive to Warm Springs is a treat all the way, dipping and climbing through the forest. The roads, according to Hirsh, are kept beautifully clear in the winter and they're everything the super highways are not. Around each corner is a new panorama and often a surprise. We spotted a turkey vulture disposing of a possum car-accident victim, a great bird with a six-foot wing spread which took off leisurely at our approach. Diaries surviving from the 18th century recount fearsome stories of the carriage ride down the mountainside into the Warm, as they called it, the carriage hard pressed to hold the road being the team of horses pounding at breakneck speed.
We took 211 to I-81 at New Market, getting off at Harrisonburg for Goshen and on into Warm Springs. Part of the fun on the way back is to stock the larder with Virginia apples offered everywhere at roadside stands. We ate them to the throb of Warrenton's country music station, the proper background for a country weekend.