SKIING IS A SPORT that strains relationships as surely as it does muscles. Visit almost any ski resort in the area and you will see them -- the non-skiers -- vegetating in the overheated lodge, sweating away in their L.L. Beanwear, waiting for their ski-mad true love to come off the slopes.
It doesn't matter whether it's downhill or cross-country; most ski resorts cater solely to skiers and have few activities for the non-skier. Sure, some offer lukewarm indoor pools and a restaurant, but who wants to get wrinkled skin or munch nachos all day while listening to the bloops and bleeps of the nearby video games? Or there's a bar, but that only leads nonskiers to entertain fantasies of how their better-skiing half would look in plaster casts after an accident with a snowmobile.
It doesn't have to be. There are some nearby resorts with downhill and cross-country skiing that have an amazing variety of indoor and outdoor activities for the non-skier. These winter wonderlands seem to come in pairs in this region. There are two resorts that for a generation have been rated the finest in the nation, two that are surrounded by the glorious vistas of Virginia mountains, and two with sharply contrasting styles in the Laurel Highlands of southern Pennsylvania.
TEN STARS, TWO RESORTS
The Homestead and The Greenbrier
Travelers have been coming to The Homestead and The Greenbrier for more than a century. These resorts, two of only 12 resorts in the nation awarded the Mobil Travel Guide's highest rating of five stars, were built on the reputed healing powers of their thermal or mineral springs.
The thermal springs found in Hot Springs, Virginia, drew 18th-century visitors first to an inn and later to a large hotel named Homestead. After the hotel burned down in 1902, the Ingalls family began building the present 603-room Homestead, a Georgian-style structure made of Kentucky red brick and dominated by a huge central tower.
Today, The Homestead offers a rich mixture of winter sports and indoor diversions on its 15,000 acres in the Warm Springs Valley of Bath County, an Alleghany Mountain region that likes to boast about its complete lack of stop lights. The Homestead has six slopes and three trails for the downhill skiier. Night skiing was added just this season. Cross-country skiing is available on one of its three golf courses, when weather permits, and you can go ice skating on an olympic-size rink next to the ski lodge.
If skiing isn't your winter sport, try horseback or carriage rides, or bring a sled and slide down the hills. If the snow is just right, The Homestead's stable managers bring out a horse-drawn sleigh.
The Homestead literally bulges with activities for the non-skiier. Trap and skeet shooting are available to test your skills, and golf, weather willing, to try your patience. You can take a sauna or a bath and massage in the spa, enjoy a concert with afternoon tea in the elegant grand hall, hike the many hillside trails, swim indoors, go bicycling or trout fishing, bowl a few lines or play billiards, ping-pong or other games as well as just read and relax in the many writing rooms, parlors and sitting areas. Day and evening activities are available for children, including an outdoor playground and dollhouse, and a kids-only dinner with a cartoon or magic show.
The Homestead's boutiques also beckon, offering clothing, toys, art and gifts. Outside, beyond the spa, more shops filled with crafts and antiques can be found in the first floor of the old Virginia Hotel, now a Homestead employees' residence, or nearby on the way to Sam Snead's Tavern, a favored lunch spot named after the resort's former golf pro.
In the evening, dancing is offered at dinner and in two nightclubs, one just for teen-agers. And if dancing is too much after a strenuous day of activity, stroll down to the movie theater and watch an old classic, like the recently offered "Sunset Boulevard." New movies were once the fare, but guests objected that the sexual scenes and graphic language were, well, unsettling. That perhaps best sums up a stay at The Homestead: unpleasantness is unwelcome.
Like The Homestead, The Greenbrier is an elegant hotel resort that offers the highest in quality of accommodations, food, facilities and service. But then the two begin to differ, on everything from their ownership (a family versus a corporation) all the way to their winter activities.
The Greenbrier, for example, has more scheduled activities, a bigger spa and more indoor sports than The Homestead. The Homestead has downhill skiing, a better ice rink, dinner-dancing for everyone, a bigger and nicer nightclub and better movies. The Greenbrier seems more compact than The Homestead, which seems to have an endless maze of corridors and levels that confused me but not my children.
The Greenbrier is a vast white multi-winged Georgian building surrounded by white frame row-cottages in the small village of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Some of the cottages are the original homes built by visitors seeking the cure in the non-thermal sulphur springs in the 1800s. In 1858 a large hotel, called first the Grand Central but quickly nicknamed "Old White," became the summer playground of the South's aristocracy. Old White was often a battleground during the Civil War but somehow survived the torch. Ironically, it was torn down in 1922 because it failed to meet fire safety codes. The present 650-room hotel was built on the same site. Like The Homestead, The Greenbrier was used to intern Japanese and German diplomats briefly at the start of World War II. Later, the Army bought the hotel and turned it into a hospital for war wounded. When peace came, the hotel was showing signs of wear and was put up for sale. When no other buyers came forth, the original owners, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (now CSX), bought The Greenbrier and began restoring it to its former elegance.
While The Greenbrier doesn't have downhill skiing, it does have horse-drawn sleighs and cross-country skiing on the golf course when snow is present, nice hills for sledding if you bring your own, an ice rink and skates for rent, numerous hiking and jogging trails, trap and skeet shooting at its gun club, golf, horseback riding, platform tennis on heated outdoor decks, trout fishing, bicycling, putting greens and winter golf.
If that isn't enough, indoor delights include the colony of potters, painters, weavers and other artists found on the Alabama Row of cottages, a newly expanded and beautifully decorated indoor pool and spa offering massages and baths, bowling, tennis, table games and theater. On special holiday weekends during the winter, The Greenbrier schedules numerous bridge tournaments, dancing classes, concerts, movies, activities for children and lectures on subjects that include the history of the springs of the Virginias, investing and fashion. The resort also has a nationally known medical diagnostic center, where you can arrange for a full medical checkup.
Afternoons are graced with tea and a concert in the main lobby -- if you can find the time.
The only problems you may encounter at either The Greenbrier or The Homestead are coping with the numerous changes of clothing -- ski or outdoors gear to swimwear to day wear (casual but no jeans) to evening wear (jackets and ties, of course, but tuxedos are common).
THE HOMESTEAD --
Ski packages starting at $105 per person plus tax, based on double occupancy Modified American Plan (breakfast and dinner included). Rates include lift tickets, indoor pool, afternoon tea, the movie and dancing. Lower rates for children. Minimum stays on some packages required. Skating, bowling, horseback riding, the trap and skeet shooting and the spa are available at additional cost. Golf is free in the winter. Theme weekends: The Archduke Weekend of Beautiful Music (February 20 to 22), tastings of new wines (March 6 to 8) and a Virginia Wine and Food weekend (April 10 to 12). Rates effective to April 10. The Homestead is in Hot Springs, Va., about 200 miles from Washington. 703/839-5500.
THE GREENBRIER --
Modified American Plan rates start at $98 plus tax per person, based on double occupancy, through March 29. Tariff includes use of the pool, the hiking trails, the movies, lectures, concerts, afternoon tea, winter golf and other scheduled activities. Bowling, the spa, shooting, riding, skating and skiing, bicycle rentals and tennis are extra. Theme weekends: Virginia food, wine music and crafts (January 15 to 17), financial seminar (January 29 to 31), treasure hunt (Feburary 5 to 7), Valentine's Day (February 12 to 14), big band and presidents (February 19 to 21), seafood festival (February 26 to 28), wine country cuisine (March 4 to 6), decorating and antiques (March 11 to 13), fabulous '50s (March 18 to 20), murder mystery (March 25 to 27), Easter (March 30 to April 3). The Greenbrier is in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., about 235 miles from Washington. 800/624-6070.
MOUNTAIN BEAUTIES IN VIRGINIA
Wintergreen and Massanutten
At Ravens Roost, a wooden platform built around a centuries-old rhododendron on the 3,200-foot-high western crest of Wintergreen Mountain, you can look down at flights of small planes, migratory waterfowl and hawks, then look northwest past the Shenandoah Valley towns of Waynesboro and Staunton to the West Virginia mountains, and then north 60 miles to Massanutten Mountain. From the Overlook Trail atop 2,900-foot Massanutten Peak, you can look south on clear nights and see the white glow of Wintergreen's slopes when they are lighted for night skiing.
These two mountain resorts -- Wintergreen and Massanutten -- are four-season resorts offering downhill and cross-country skiing in the winter in addition to a number of activities indoors and out for non-skiers. But it is the natural beauty of their locations that sets them apart.
Wintergreen, in the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Charlottesville, is a 10,800-acre development built around the upland valley and 3,851-foot-high Wintergreen Mountain. The casual resort caters to families and has a full-time biologist/naturalist who organizes nature education programs for property owners and visitors.
The properties and facilities are designed to blend into their natural setting rather than overwhelm nature. More than half of the resort is set aside to remain an undeveloped wilderness, and those areas are used for year-round education programs that include astronomy classes, workshops on geology, biology and archeology, hikes on the Appalachian Trail and other paths, plus trips to watch the waterfowl and hawks. Other planned activities include movies, games and programs for children.
Wintergreen also has The Wintergarden, a large indoor spa with a pool, exercise club, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, and a restaurant, and the Mountain Inn and Village Center, the slopeside center of restaurants, a nightclub with live music, boutiques and the ski shop. For skiers, Wintergreen has 10 slopes and trails, including two with a vertical drop of more than 1,000 feet, a rarity in mid-Atlantic ski resorts.
Wintergreen is designed more for families than conventions. The dress is always casual. Lodging is in more than 400 homes and condominiums, which offer more privacy and solitude than the 41-room Mountain Inn or the 12-room Trillium House, a country inn on the grounds of Wintergreen. Most accommodations have fireplaces (with well-stocked woodpiles outside the front door) and full kitchens.
Massanutten is a smaller resort that has survived troubled financial times and a change of owners to be reborn three years ago under new and more stable ownership. The new owners, Charlottesville businessman C. Dice Hammer and Ft. Lauderdale investor James E. Lambert, renovated existing buildings and added an ice rink and indoor spa.
Massanutten's 5,600 acres are spread over the bottom floor and adjacent hillsides of what the locals call "The Kettle," a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by the 2,900-foot-high Massanutten chain of mountains. The setting is stunning; everywhere you look there's a mountain except for the view down the entrance road to the valley below. Accommodations are available in condominiums and villas owned by the developers or property owners.
Massanutten has nine slopes and trails and a newly renovated three-story ski lodge with restaurants, nightclub and ski shop. Cross-country skiing and sledding is allowed on the many trails and clear areas (but not the golf course); a small ice skating rink is placed next to the slopes. For non-skiers, Le Club, the resort's new two-level fitness center, offers an olympic-sized pool, racquetball courts, a large court that is used for basketball, tennis and volleyball, saunas, outdoor hot tubs, tanning salon, a large exercise room with cycles, exercise and weight machines, and a cafe. And unlike the other resorts in this article, there are no video games at Massanutten. Shocking, I know, but true.
Le Club also offers scores of organized fitness activities including self-defense classes, volleyball, aqua aerobics and basketball.
Outdoors, you can jog or hike the roads and trails.
Massanutten bustles with activity and people, but never seems to overwhelm a visitor with crowds. The spacious lodge is the winter sports center, offering the view of the slopes and ice rink plus entertainment by live bands on weekend afternoons and evenings. The Massanutten crowd includes mostly families on weekends, with some singles ski clubs and college students mixed in.
No matter the crowd or activity, it is the stark beauty of "The Kettle" or the fetching view from Ravens Roost and other overlooks that set both Massanutten and Wintergreen above most winter resorts. They may lack the carefully detailed luxury of The Homestead and The Greenbrier, but they have something those two resorts lack: a glorious mountainside location from which visitors can enjoy the vistas of nature.
Rates for a one-bedroom condominium begin at $144 a night, midweek, to $172 weekends with a two-night minimum on Fridays and Saturdays. Two-bedroom chalets begin at $194 weekdays, $226 weekends, with a two-night minimum on weekends. Rates include use of the Wintergarden spa and all activities except skiing. Wintergreen is 170 miles from Washington in Wintergreen, VA 22958. 800/325-2200.
This time-share resort has a number of properties available for rent through the Massanutten Properties Owners Association. A chalet that can sleep four people rents for $160 per night, with a two-night minimum on weekends. Larger villas, some with whirlpool and sauna are available at rates of $200 per night. Villa guests get free use of Le Club. Other guests must pay $5 per person per day to use the facility. Massanutten is 125 miles from Washington. The address is P.O. Box 1227, Harrisonburg, VA 22801. 703/289-9441.
CONTRASTS IN PENNSYLVANIA
Seven Springs and Hidden Valley
The Laurel Highlands in south central Pennsylvania is an immense bowl-shaped plateau that seems to attract and trap snow. That plus other natural assets -- thousands of acres of adjacent state wilderness and game land, ample ground springs and numerous hills suitable for skiing -- led to the creation of two sharply contrasting but complementary ski resorts: Seven Springs and Hidden Valley.
Seven Springs can best be described as the Ocean City Boardwalk moved to the base of a ski slope. It vibrates with life, light and sound, with a never-ceasing movement of skiers and fun-seekers trekking to the large hotel-bar-convention center-bar-spa-bar-ski lodge-bar complex. At times, the crowd, for most of which a midlife crisis is but a distant rumor, seems to turn Seven Springs into a shopping mall at holiday season. A walk through the hotel corridors is like a visit to a college dorm: doors are propped open, partygoers beckon, beer flows. Whatever else it is, Seven Springs is not a resort made to nurture quiet contemplation. The action never stops.
If Seven Springs is the Ocean City of the slopes, then Hidden Valley is Fenwick Island. Just minutes away from Seven Springs, Hidden Valley is a quiet family resort, a development of well-known Washington builder Clarence E. Kettler. Partly a result of layout and partly a result of clientele, Hidden Valley is just more relaxing than Seven Springs.
Although separated by decibel levels, the two communities do share Kettler blood. The Villages at Seven Springs, a mountain-top vacation home development at that resort, is the work of Kettler Forlines, a firm owned by Clarence Kettler's son Dick and nephew Kip Forlines.
These two resorts do offer downhill skiers a wide choice of runs. Seven Springs has 16 slopes and 11 trails and a lift capacity of 20,400 skiers an hour. Hidden Valley has 11 slopes and a lift capacity of 10,000 skiers an hour. For nordic skiers, Hidden Valley has 50 kilometers of cross-country trails and is adjacent to the Laurel Trail, a 70-kilometer cross-country ski and hiking trail with overnight huts. Seven Springs allows cross-country skiing on the golf course when weather permits.
It is when you move indoors that the difference between these two resorts becomes very sharp. At Seven Springs you can walk from your room to all but the ski lifts and one restaurant, the very fine Helen's located in the first mountain cabin built in the 1930s by the Seven Springs' owners, the Dupre family. This is convenient, for there is much to do. You can bowl, shop, play most of the developed world's collection of video and arcade games, go swimming or jump into an outdoor hot tub with a view of the slopes, go dancing in the lodge or nightclubs, roller skate, try to talk your way into a ski club hospitality suite, munch your way through a pizza shop with surprising good fare, take part in the schedule of movies, games and other events, play miniature golf, watch the skiers from your room, check out the singles or mourn the fact that you are not. To do any of this, however, you have to join the hordes who are clomp-clomping in ski boots through the corridors that join the 10-story, 385-room highrise hotel and the attached convention center, spa and lodge. This is the key difference between Seven Springs and Hidden Valley.
Hidden Valley is smaller, with less than half the number of slopes and only 120 rooms, condominiums and town homes for rent. The ski lodge, that hub of fast food, red faces and video games, is the center of activity at any ski resort. At Hidden Valley the lodge is a half-mile from the Inn and Conference Center, shops, restaurants, lounges, racquet and health club, indoor pool, ice skating rink and guest condominiums. It's even farther from the cross-country ski center on Route 31 outside the resort. It is this geographical separation that gives non-skiing guests more breathing room. The crowds here are more family groups, rather than the single teen and under-30 of Seven Springs. Hidden Valley, for example, has a free nursery for children of skiers who are staying at the resort.
Hidden Valley has fewer shops than its neighbor, though there are plans for another mountaintop village to help fill this gap. The resort offers organized activities for both adults and children, ranging from hikes and workshops to games. The racquet club has a small indoor pool, whirlpool and sauna, racquetball and wallyball courts, weight room and video and table tennis and billiard games. The bar and lounge in the conference center is unremarkable except for its lack of crowds.
The Laurel Highland sisters are related in purpose, but cannot be called twins. Both offer more than just skiing, but both probably will not appeal to the same person. Measure your needs and then choose the slopes.
HIDDEN VALLEY --
Lodge fees range from $95 to $160 per night, single or double occupancy, with $25 per person per night for each additional guest beyond two. Rates include use of the swimming pool, sauna, whirlpool, game room and other resort facilities, but do not include lift tickets. Ski packages begin at $71 per person midweek, $195 (weekend/two night minimum) and include breakfast and dinner, room, ski pass, one lesson and nursery service. Hidden Valley is 190 miles from Washington. 1 Gordon Craighead Memorial Drive, Somerset, PA 15501. 814/443-6454 or 800/458-0175.
SEVEN SPRINGS --
Room rates begin at $80 a person through February, $70 per person in March, based on double occupancy, and include lift tickets, one lesson and swimming. Add $25 for single occupancy. Rates decline for longer visits. Lodging is also available in more than 100 condominiums, houses and town homes. The hot tubs, bowling, roller skating and miniature golf are available at additional cost. The resort's daily program of games, music and movies are free. Seven Springs is about 190 miles from Washington. The address is Champion, PA 15622. 814/352-7777.