There are two great ways to spend a weekend in the mountains, and one of them is to revel in quiet, old-fashioned elegance.
Of course, you can carry a pack and rough it under the stars at a wilderness campsite, a modern-day frontiersman challenging the elements as the nation's founders did. The air is fresh and the quiet magnificent. But the bugs bite, the air mattress is lumpy and you can't always persuade your favorite companion that a night in the woods is fun.
Or you can seek out mountain scenery wrapped in all the civilized comforts that more-sophisticated generations have bequeathed, a legacy of soft beds, hot showers, danceable tunes and fine wines. Reluctant campers find little to quibble about when the invitation is to wonderful woodlands pampering.
That's the treatment you get at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., a mountain getaway where the vistas are grand, and so is the service.
In a sense, the Homestead, one of the country's legendary resorts, is really just a super overgrown tent, offering its own special style of lodging in the wilds. Like any well-placed tent, it sits on a high forested hillside overlooking a remote valley of Virginia's Allegheny Mountains. On a clear, dark night the stars shine as brightly as they do over any solitary camper's retreat.
Even when, deep down, you really prefer less fancy quarters, it's sometimes fun to go first-class, and I cite this example to persuade outdoors purists:
Recall those quick dips into a numbing stream at campsite, when the greatest pleasure is leaping right back out again? At the Homestead, you can soak at length in the muscle-melting warmth of a large pool, naturally heated by the still-flowing spring that gave Hot Springs its name. After a day of hiking or tennis, it's bliss.
The Homestead, sitting on a 15,000-acre spread, is an inviting relic of the past that continues to flourish, although its heyday ended with the Depression and the outbreak of World War II. Once chauffeured limousines brought monied Society, with a capital S, to the lush, rolling fields and high wooded slopes of Warm Springs Valley.
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, New York's 1930s social queen, showed up regularly, seeking rest and seclusion before the next season's whirl of parties. It still takes a fat wallet to stay at the resort, but most guests chauffeur themselves today, and they're more apt to drive up to the portico in suburban stationwagons.
The Homestead is the kind of slow-paced place where old traditions linger, which is nice even though you chuckle about their old-fashioned quaintness. Some rituals, however, may be holding on past their time.
Afternoon tea and cakes, for example, still are served at 4:30. But when the sun is out, today's fashionable crowds can be found, instead, having a beer at the lawn tables next to the resort's 19 tennis courts. Alone with a tea cup in a huge basement room of empty chairs, you wonder if everybody else made the same mistake on their arrival day.
Every night at dinner, year-round, a large orchestra plays music for dancing; and between soup and salad, you'll be drawn to the floor by the fun everyone seems to be having. The tunes ("Peg O' My Heart," remember that one?) favor an older generation, but a snappy tango can prompt the seniors to fancy footwork that puts the youngsters to shame.
Naturally, standards of dress are maintained, and discreet advisories tell you so. Walking shorts are permitted in the dining room for breakfast only; and after 7 p.m. men are requested to wear jackets and ties in the lobby, dining room and lounges. "Casual sportswear" is suggested for the rest of the day, but don't take that to mean cutoffs and a T-shirt. Pack your dressiest casuals. For men, that seems to translate into splashy-colored golf slacks, the kind that sometimes come embroidered all over with little ducks.
Service is a tradition no one jokes about. In her time, Mrs. Vanderbilt probably commanded more attention than guests today, but not much. The resort, which can accommodate about 1,100 guests in 650 rooms, boasts that -- like a luxury liner -- it employs a staff almost as large as its guest list. You believe it when you see the small army it takes just to maneuver the vacuum cleaners attacking the long hallways from dawn to dusk.
The hotel is spotless, no easy task in an aging structure built before housekeeping budgets became a big operating cost. Mysteriously -- and conveniently -- the maids always manage to tidy the room and leave fresh towels while you are away at breakfast and again at dinner. On the evening visit, like the tooth fairy you never see, they deposit a Kron chocolate heart on each pillow.
What impresses most, however, is the space. The public rooms are plentiful and huge, full of all sorts of comfortable corners to curl up privately with a book (while still being able to peek at the people passing by). You can spend a good hour exploring the Homestead's lovely first floor, wandering down labyrinthine corridors.
We almost missed the wood-paneled study in the East Wing, furnished with inlaid tables for chess and checkers. The room was so inviting, we paused for our first checkers game in a decade.
The Homestead's biggest attractions are its abundant and well-kept sports facilities. After hours, the 19 tennis courts get as much pampering as the guests do. Watching from a window after play, you will see them being swept, watered, packed and relined -- restored to perfect condition for the next day. In the morning, before the guests are out, two employes carefully wipe dew and dust from the courtside benches.
I'm not a golfer, but the three 18-hole courses have a reputation for being among the nation's finest. On the Homestead Golf Course, the one adjacent to the hotel, the first tee was laid out in 1892 and is thought to be the oldest in continuous use in the United States. Old pro Sam Snead, 73 -- a native of Bath County, in which the Homestead sits -- is a member of the golfing staff. A hotel spokesman says well-heeled guests can sometimes arrange to challenge the champ in a game.
A short drive south of the hotel are the Cascades and Lower Cascades courses, and a shuttle will deliver you there. The two courses are linked by a scenic three-mile trail, a delight for hikers, that descends from Cascades through a twin gorge of tumbling white water. This is the Cascades Stream, where trout fishing -- arranged by the hotel -- is said to be excellent.
At the Cascades course, opened in 1924, "the premium on every shot is accuracy," says the Homestead, and each hole requires "a different method of attack." The newest course, added in 1963, is Lower Cascades, which nestles in a lovely valley along Cedar Creek. You would think the golfers might be too taken with the views to concentrate on their game.
The Homestead also offers trap shooting nearby on the edge of the George Washington National Forest; hiking and trail riding on 100 miles of paths that begin just down the steps from the veranda (maps available in the lobby); indoor and lawn bowling; and two summer outdoor and one year-round indoor swimming pools.
The 75-foot, tile-lined indoor pool, built in 1910, is somewhat stained and worn with age (though kept immaculate). But it is located in a big, elegant pavilion with an elaborate ornamented ceiling that adds a touch of class to your laps. Flip over on your back, and you will think you are adrift in the grand ballroom of some Victorian mansion.
Five miles north of the hotel in Warm Springs are two more natural spring pools, open to Homestead guests; but these are for warm-water soaking rather than lapping. The Men's Pool (the sexes are divided) is housed in a white ramshackle structure, octagon in shape, built in 1761. The newer Women's Pool building was built in 1836.
The water in both pools, each supplied by its own spring, is about 98 degrees and mineral rich, occasionally bubbling with underground gases. Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and the Robert E. Lee family are said to have settled themselves into its warmth on occasion. Nowadays, males skinny-dip, but female guests -- another tradition -- are requested to don what one Homestead official describes as "a Mother Hubbard romper suit."
The first inn to take advantage of the valley's springs was built in 1766 and named the Homestead. The legend is that it was opened by a resident who was overwhelmed by visitors eager to enjoy what was believed to be the curative benefits of the mineral water.
Over the years, the resort changed many hands and continued to grow. During the Civil War, it served as a hospital for Confederate forces.
The year 1890 marked the beginning of a new phase, when a group that included M.R. Ingalls, president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, acquired the resort and invested substantial sums in remodeling it. Two years later a rail line from Covington, Va., 20 miles south, was built to Hot Springs. The line made the journey to the Homestead much easier than the rigorous trip by car over the region's narrow, twisting roads. The resort was on its way to social prominence.
The rail line was abandoned in 1970, but many of the twists in the mountain roads remain.
The resort is now operated by Virginia Hot Springs Inc., owned by the Ingalls family. The current chairman of the board, Daniel H.H. Ingalls, recently retired as a professor of oriental languages at Harvard. His house is not far from the hotel, one of a number of quite large and attractive private homes adjacent to the resort.
In 1901, the hotel, then a white-frame structure, burned to the ground, but rebuilding on the same site began immediately. The main section of the present hotel, a red brick colonial building trimmed in white, was constructed in 1902, and other wings have since been added. Several million dollars recently were spent refurbishing the interior, including the Great Hall, as the lobby is called. The rooms are as tasteful and attractive as you would hope.
Our spacious west-wing doubleroom (at a top rate of $131 per person a day, including breakfast and dinner) was decorated in relaxing tones and with a slightly oriental theme. The big delight was the sun porch, furnished with a comfortable couch and easy chairs. We could look from large windows out across the resort grounds to the community of Hot Springs and the mountain rising above it.
In the '20s and '30s, the Homestead was perhaps the nation's most prestigious resort, the place to be because of the high-powered names -- Vanderbilt, Ford, Mellon, Rockefeller -- who vacationed there. Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge came as guests while in office.
That all ended with World War II, which added an odd footnote to the Homestead's history. At the outbreak of war, the resort served as a temporary internment center for the Japanese diplomatic staff from Washington, 350 in all. They remained for several months, until April 1942.
After the war, the hotel had to face the fact that it was no longer the glamor destination for the wealthy and fashionable. Where once Society mingled, often for weeks at a time, today about 70 percent of the guests show up for some form of business conference or convention, and they stay for an average of only three days.
What this can mean for vacationing guests is illustrated by this story:
When we arrived on an April weekend, a national textile association was holding its annual conference, and the hotel seemed filled. So we dutifully phoned the dining room to make reservations for the later hour we preferred. What a surprise, then, to walk into a more than half-empty room, where the staff -- if you counted the orchestra -- probably did outnumber the guests.
The textile moguls, it turned out, were dining together in a private banquet room, leaving outsiders like ourselves to stare across an expanse of untouched china and white linen. It was a little disappointing, because the dining room is the kind of grand old formal hall that sparkles brightest with a large and lively crowd. On the other hand, nobody bumped into us on the dance floor.
If there's any phrase that best describes the Homestead, it's Genteel Country Southern: relaxed, friendly, very proper. Going there is like visiting a rich aunt and uncle, who are very gracious hosts. You are very much on your best behavior, trying not to offend, and they let you alone to do as you wish. At the same time, in the best tradition of Southern hospitality, they make sure you are very well fed.
Two meals daily, breakfast and dinner, are included in theroom charge. The menus are long and appealing. Dinner has a Continental flavor -- curry of lamb, breast of capon with morels, mountain rainbow trout; breakfast is farm-hand hearty -- griddle cakes, ham steak, hominy grits. You could easily make do without lunch, but then you would miss the excellent sandwiches and pastries of the Cafe' Albert, the Homestead's latest addition. It has a pleasant outdoor deck.
And like someone's old home, you can rest on the veranda in the light breezes of late afternoon. It was my favorite place, and I rocked comfortably, an unread book on my lap, watching the parade of people arriving and departing. That's where I first spotted duck-embroidered slacks. Eventually, I would get up and wander down the garden walk to the heated pool for another long soak before a drink and dinner.
On this mountain holiday, I didn't miss my tent at all.