Before the Civil War, White Sulphur Spring was known as the Summer Capital. Chief executives, attracted by the cool mountain air, could reach the Allegheny spa in only three days via steamboat and stagecoach. Now it's a five-hour drive.
The Greenbrier Hotel, spreading like a belle's hoop skirts across lush lawns, traditionally has offered executive privilege. A total of 22 chiefs of state have visited the grand hotel.
The first president known to have visited the Springs was Andrew Jackson, early in the 1830s. Then came Martin Van Buren in 1837, along with his elder statesmen, hoping to solve the nation's greatest financial panic to date. In 1840, John Tyler, then vice president, honeymooned there. His wife Julia, a great ante-bellum beauty, was proclaimed "the belle of 'Old White.'"
Four more presidents were to visit before the firing on Fort Sumter: Franklin Pierce, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan. After at Appamottox, President Ulysses S. Grant risked rubbing shoulders with southern Society in the summers of 1867, '68 and '69, even chancing an encounter with Gen. Robert E. Lee in the Greenbriar's dining room.
At the end of the century came Chester A. Arthur and Benjamin Harrison, with William Howard Taft doing a little campaigning there around 1908. Two terms passed and in 1916 Woodrow Wilson signed the guest register. The Greenbrier had to content itself with less political society until President Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived with the president of Mexico. Since then, every chief executive has visited this outpost of southern hospitality.
Besides presidents, at least one prehistoric sloth visited the historic hot spot. Its tooth was found near the Greenbrier, report historians, who also claim arthritic dinosaurs were accustomed to treating the underground bubbly as Mesozoic hot tubs.
You can still get a good soak at the Greenbrier as a guest of the hotel, where rates range from $83 to $113 per person per night, double occupancy between April 1 and October 31. That includes breakfast and dinner, and as one employee says: "Once you come on the grounds (6,500 acres), there's no reason to leave." Henry Clay and his servant only paid $16.51 1/2 for a three-day stay. That's inflation for you.
Should you decide the price is right, you'll find it's almost heaven. There's swimming; trap and skeet shooting, carriage rides, tennis -- indoor and outdoor -- golf on three 18-hole courses, riding, hiking, platform tennis -- all of it smothered in ambiance.
For those who'd rather avoid the stiff prices and charm, there are two camping options -- Greenbrier State Forest and Sherwood National Forest. TO GET THERE -- Take I-495 to I-66 West to I-81 South to I-64 South. It's a 250-mile trip. Piedmont flys there daily, leaving National Airport at 2 p.m.