I’ll be honest. I was so grateful to pile into the car with my daughters and mother for a Columbus Day weekend road trip in my favorite weather during my favorite season — whipping past a blurred palette of autumnal oranges as rain spattered the windshield — that it didn’t much matter where we went. Our destination was just the icing on the cake.
But there’s icing and then there’s icing. We were going to Virginia’s legendary Homestead.
A first glimpse of the historic luxury hotel as you crest the winding front drive’s final hill is a bit like the scene where Dorothy first sees the green spires of Oz in the distance. The sprawling 2,000-acre property, improbably tucked into the Allegheny foothills, has as its centerpiece a massive red-brick Greek Revival edifice fronted by a deep, many-columned porch and topped with a clock tower. The circa-1903 structure sits regally amid rolling green grass and sumptuous flower beds — accessorized on this day by a wispy tiara of fog. Less regally, a row of welcoming white rocking chairs stretches end-to-end across the portico.
The Omni Homestead Resort is a destination in and of itself rather than a drop-your-bags-and-go hotel. Although it bears the weight of history and is saddled with the problems of age, it’s still an icon that delivers. Soon after arrival we glimpse the resort’s defining image, a quartet of golf bags propped against one of the white columns on the front porch. People come here from all over the country to golf, to ski, to get spa treatments.
Not us. We came to read. I later discover that although many essentials were forgotten, between us we have packed 13 books for a two-night stay. Our elegantly appointed two-room suite, which is decorated in muted pinks and greens and has more walk-in closets than my house, is well suited to our purpose. In short order, my 12-year-old had claimed the bedroom’s plush bay-window chaise lounge as her reading place.
We watch a wedding from our window as we unpack.
If Virginia is the “mother of presidents,” as the nickname has it, the Homestead is the resort of presidents: It has been visited by 22 U.S. commanders in chief. These kinds of statistics are offered up freely at the resort, where guests pay a premium to stay in the oldest part of the building. The first Homestead, a wooden 18-room hotel, opened in 1766. Now many iterations removed from that original structure, the current building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I had visited before and stayed in a modern addition, and I was not about to make the same mistake twice. (If you could also pay a premium for a haunted room, I would have done that, too.) After all, this is a place where they joke about the time Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson tried to skip out on their hotel bill like it happened last week.
Thanks to my lifelong jump-first, think-later travel-planning style, we pulled into the circular drive at 4 p.m. on a Saturday, with Sunday, when there are fewer activity options, our only full day at the resort. But it made no difference. We were there to soak up Old-Virginia glamour — and at the Homestead, where embroidered bugs scurry over upholstered chairs in a two-story-high Great Hall with floor-to-ceiling columns and the state flag flying at either end, that wasn’t hard to do. Characteristically unable to savor the moment, I worry that I’m setting my kids’ expectations too high. How will I explain Days Inn after this?
Just trying to find our way around the vast place had a fun-house quality, as we discovered the first time we set out to visit the indoor pool. Mapless but undeterred, we found ourselves, in rapid succession, in a dead end furnished with a settee and a quartet of ornithological prints, in an airy passageway lined with mullioned windows and cushioned window seats and, once, outside under a cluster of dripping pine trees. Later we will wander through mirrored ballrooms and floral-wallpapered corridors looking for the resort’s movie theater, which hosts free nightly screenings. Tonight’s, we learned at check-in, was “Frozen,” so our stay is a roaring success before it has even begun.
Given the Homestead’s location, Hot Springs, its main attraction is no secret. Indeed, according to the resort’s daily history lecture, people have been drawn to the area for that reason for as many as 9,000 years. The resort’s grounds are peppered with mysterious grates issuing steam. Among the many new amenities the Homestead had added since my last visit in the late ’90s is a heated outdoor pool that is open year-round. (Another, perhaps even more momentous, is an espresso bar.) We swim in the bracing cold under heavy gray skies, alternating with the adjacent hot tub to stave off goosebumps.
We learned that luminaries have been “taking the waters” at the Jefferson Pools in nearby Warm Springs for centuries. A shuttle bus runs between the Homestead and the sulphurous, crystal-clear pools; the wooden bath house for men here dates from 1761 and has the unusual distinction of being “the oldest spa structure in the United States.” (After Thomas Jefferson visited the Homestead in 1818, seeking relief from his rheumatism, the pools were renamed in his honor.) We pay a modest fee for admission to the “family soak,” during which kids are allowed and poolgoers must wear bathing suits. At other times, I tell my scandalized children, the sexes are segregated, and everyone soaks in the buff.
The Homestead’s rural-cosmopolitan mash-up inevitably produces some contrasts, such as the one between the manicured luxury of the hotel and the weathered decrepitude of the Jefferson Pools. Clearly this does not sit well with some visitors. While (sort of) planning this trip, I’d read innumerable nit-picking reviews on Yelp.com, and I quoted from them facetiously the whole time we were there. Eventually my kids took up the challenge, and vying for the most preposterous quibble became a weekend-long game. The winner: “There was a SNAIL in the RHODODENDRON!” When we have issues of our own, generally involving the need for directions, they are promptly addressed by members of the large, exceptionally cordial staff, which seemingly comprises everyone in Bath County.
The resort is like a self-contained city — and we find out on Saturday night it’s one that never sleeps. My 9-year-old couldn’t, so we did the kind of gleefully rule-flouting thing that’s only permissible on vacation. We pulled fleeces on over our pajamas and went walking after midnight in the still-bustling Great Hall. “People will give me weird looks because I’m letting you stay up so late,” I’d warned. Sure enough, our ramble was punctuated by this exchange: “Was that a weird look?” “Yes.” “Was that a weird look?” “Yes!” Raucous laughter poured out of a lobby bar lined with austere portraits of the Founding Fathers as couples drifted by in formal wear, including members of a bridal party we’d seen preparing to walk down the aisle earlier in the day, the women now barefoot and toting their high heels by the straps.
The resort has several dining options on-site and nearby, but they are not for dawdlers — all require reservations and fill up early. The only meal we ate in its formal dining room was breakfast, an expansive buffet spread across half a dozen tables like a parable of plenty, Southern-style. (The resort has its own signature hickory-glazed donuts; it tactfully provides recipe cards for its more popular dishes.) My lack of planning happily dovetailed with my younger daughter’s sole goal for this trip: ordering room-service food for the first time. Both girls loved the way the cart unfolded into an elegant little table (starched tablecloth, silver flatware and rose-shaped pats of butter) with heated compartments underneath.
Thanks in part to the dreary weather, the coziness quotient at the Homestead was off the charts during our visit — and the fireplaces that line the Great Hall hadn’t even been lit yet. For our group, which included three generations of tea lovers, this reached its apotheosis with the complimentary high tea in the Great Hall, where the menu included black and chamomile as well as teeny sandwiches, cookies and scones. In the aftermath of this tea bacchanal (this is not quite the right word — why isn’t there a god of tea?), the hall was littered with teetering stacks of used cups and saucers.
By Monday morning, when we can finally find the indoor pool without assistance, it’s time to leave. My older daughter wants to go back in the winter, when she can ice skate at the outdoor rink. My younger wants to go back in the summer, when the water slide is open. It would be a shame to disappoint either of them.
The Omni Homestead Resort
7696 Sam Snead Hwy., Hot Springs
540-839-1766 or 800-838-1766
Rates vary seasonally; in December, rooms start at $180. (The resort’s Cyber Monday special, Season of Savings, is available through Dec. 3 and features rooms starting at $119 as well as ski-season passes, usually $189, for $99.)
See photos of this hotel fit for presidents at washingtonpost.com.