Hotel Spotlight

HOT SPRINGS, VA: The Homestead

A Resort for All Needs in All Seasons

By Patricia Keegan

Winding along wintry country roads, through the lovely Allegheny Mountains, the landscape is sparsely populated with small homes, bare trees and rolling fields. We passed through sleepy, Virginia villages with soothing names like Monterey, Millboro Springs, Warm Springs. In the quaint village of Warm Springs, we spot an old, octagonal wooden building with steam rising from its roof. The sign read The Jefferson Baths, named in honor of the author of our Declaration of Independence who in 1818 had traversed the same winding route in a horse and carriage. A quick stop tells us the Baths opened on June 1, 1761. We later discovered that Jefferson set up lodgings at the Homestead, and at age 75 stripped and lowered his arthritic body into the healing mineral waters. The pool is about 120 ft in circumference and holds 40,000 gallons of clear mineral spring water with a natural temperature of 98 degrees. It is considered the oldest spa structure in America.

Some five miles after the Jefferson Baths, suddenly, like a mirage in full view of the road, a Georgian-style mountain resort appears. The Homestead looks gigantic---red brick, trimmed in white with a tower centering two huge wing spans spreading east and west. Set on 15,000 spectacular acres of lush, fertile woodlands, even in the heart of winter, its manicured lawns are a showcase surrounded by flower beds waiting to bloom. Looking at this dreamlike setting, so far from the 'real' world, it is uncanny to contemplate that even before Thomas Jefferson, George Washington visited this area several times in 1755-56. He stayed in a much smaller accommodation which became the core of today’s foundation. The first formal Homestead resort was built a decade later in 1766. Since 1766, and for the next 237 years, a long parade of luminaries, including almost every president since George Washington, followed in his footsteps, drawing more visitors to the healing ambience of this unique setting.

From the crisp outdoors, we enter the grand vestibule and find a warm, welcoming atmosphere in a row of crackling fireplaces along the great entrance hall. Afternoon tea is being served. Guests are seated at small tables surrounded by cushioned sofas near the fireplaces. A serene tranquility pervades.

Walking the halls of this luxurious setting with its 506 guestrooms, one is struck by the openness and interaction of space and light. Our room, which is really two rooms, a sitting room and bedroom, has high ceilings and five soaring windows overlooking tennis courts and miles of rolling countryside. Through a French door we walk onto a wide terrace where one could pull out a chair and read, or enjoy the sun during warmer months. Walls are decorated with cheerful, uplifting hues---yellow, gold and pink. The bathroom had all the amenities one could wish for, the surprising exception was a hook on the bathroom door and a makeup mirror; a convenience for contact wearers. One corner of the suite was flanked by three windows. Here I found the perfect relaxation nook, where a good book becomes even better---surrounded by beams of sunshine.

Dining at the Homestead is a special event. Guests dress for dinner, some women wore floor length skirts and men wore jackets and ties. The ambience of the first evening felt quite formal. From an extensive menu we found the cuisine to be outstanding. Since my husband and I both like seafood, for two evenings we tried every seafood dish on the menu. The striped bass, grouper and salmon were creatively prepared with crusts or light sauces, adding flavor to really fresh fish that would satisfy the most discerning palate. We sent compliments back to the chef each evening. A wide selection of luscious desserts topped off each dinner and brought us on to the dance floor. One of the nicest aspects of dining at the Homestead is the nightly orchestra, playing a mix of popular music during and after dinner with dancing until midnight.

Breakfast is an abundant, enticing banquet. Served buffet style, its tables overflow with every delicacy one could dream of enjoying in the morning. Special attention is paid to the variety of fresh fruit---blackberries, raspberries, cherries, blueberries, melons---but one can also chose a robust breakfast of eggs to order, ham, bacon, sausages, and much more. Th coffee is superb, especially when they make a delicious cappuccino.

Seeing and experiencing all the Homestead has to offer would easily take a full week, even then, each season offers its own programs. First and foremost is the historic character of the setting, which can never change. Taking a tour with Eileen Judah, the charming Public Relations director, whose enthusiasm for this historic setting is contagious, we discovered the Jefferson Parlor. Lining the walls of this large room are the original portraits of each of the presidents who have visited the Homestead, all the way down to President Clinton. George W. is on its way.

During the tour with Eileen, I am amazed at the opulence of the Conference Center---standing in glorious contrast to traditional functional conference centers we see in most hotels. We passed along a carpeted hall with many bookcases, and a wall of glass leading to French doors opening to gardens. The carpet was specially woven with colorful dogwoods and rhododendrons in harmony with the springtime outdoors. Seeing the Empire Room, the Crystal Room, the Wedding Solarium and the Ballroom, I can only imagine what a spectacular choice the Homestead would make for a wedding or a conference.

The European style spa is another famous attraction. Rated as one of the top 40 spas in North America and the Caribbean, its most unique attraction is an indoor Olympic swimming pool fed naturally by warm spring waters. The huge pool is a swimmer’s dream, surrounded by beautiful arches, Roman style windows, palms and special lighting.

There are at least 20 different treatments offered in the spa, all so enticing that it is difficult to choose. I finally settled for the Herbal Wrap---a new experience. I spent 15 minutes luxuriating in an overflowing tub of mineral water straight from the Jefferson Pools. Just as I was falling asleep, to the soothing sound of water spilling everywhere and the melody of a distant flute, a knock came on the door and I was escorted into another room where I was wrapped like a mummy in hot sheets scented with herbs. For 15 minutes I imagined the mummy experience---cozy but confining. The results of my capture were immediate, for when I was released and in the shower, my singing sounded more on key, and I was breathing from my diaphragm.

The Homestead is world renowned for golf. Three award winning courses offer miles of perfectly trimmed green grass that hold a magnetic attraction for a non golfer to partake in a long cushioned walk. Golf Magazine’s awarded the resort its prestigious 'Gold Medal' ranking and called the National Historic Landmark one of the nation’s most appealing getaways. The Cascades course is considered by many to be America’s premier mountain golf course.

The Olympic size skating rink at the base of the ski run was even more appealing on a crisp, cold day, skating to music surrounded by panoramic countryside.

Our plans for a hike to the Cascades Gorge and a ride in one of the antique Homestead carriages were intercepted by snowflakes which came down almost imperceptibly at first. Then we heard that a snowstorm was about to dump 10 inches on us, continuing all day and through the night. We were soon enveloped in one beautiful, magical wonderland. The trees and hills in our view from the room became transformed. Every image was soft and pure, the trees held the snow on their bare branches, creating a lovely network outlined against gray sky. The Homestead took on a new personality; people stayed inside gathering around the fireplaces. The library seemed to attract more readers. After dinner that evening my husband and I went to the Homestead’s charming little movie theater and although 'The Journey of the Swan' was an old movie in video, it all felt very authentic. Plans are in place to update the theater. Hopefully, it won’t lose its quaint ambience.

A stay at the Homestead is a multi-dimensional experience, serving not only as a walk through history in the footsteps of presidents, but also as a grand and gracious getaway offering a soothing, healing escape.

Located in Hot Springs, Virginia, The Homestead is only 4 hours from Washington.

For more information call (800) 838-1766 or (540) 839-1766. Visit the hotel’s website