The Greenbrier Spa at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
I had known about The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia for years before my first visit two years ago. I knew it was "an historic, 6500-acre resort that has hosted distinguished guests from around the world since 1778." I knew the sulphur water from the aromatic springhouse was the original attraction at the resort. I knew the sulphur water soak I had in the spa was a treatment offered for over a century. But I didn't really know The Greenbrier's standing in the history of US springs and spas until I went on my Driving Tour of Historic Springs in West Virginia and Virginia this fall. I didn't know that White Sulphur Springs was the primary destination of the Springs Tour that wealthy southerners took every summer in the early 1800s (It wasn't called The Greenbrier until ~1914). I found more information about this resort in the reference books I read (listed at the end of the article) than on any other springs resort on the tour. In addition to the benefits of taking the water, White Sulphur Springs was the fashionable place to see and be seen. Before the Civil War, five sitting presidents stayed there demonstrating the resort's reputation as the favored gathering place for the nation's most influential and powerful families.
In his 1834 book, Letters Descriptive of the Virginia Springs: The roads leading thereto, and the doings thereat, author Peregrine Prolix (aka Philip Holbrook Nicklin), provided the following amusing description of the resort:
The resort was so popular at that time that there were never enough accommodations. People queued at the gate for days and weeks waiting to get in. The food, when available, was not stellar. In The Springs of Virginia: Life, Love, and Death at the Waters 1775 -1900, Perceval Reniers described the "Calwell System" that the proprietor put into place to address these shortcomings:
Edward Pollard described the bathing house (spa) at White Sulphur Springs in his 1870 book, The Virginia Tourist. Sketches of the Springs and Mountains of Virginia; Containing ...Accounts of its Mineral Springs and a Medical Guide to the Use of the Waters (pages 231-232).
In 1910, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway purchased the resort property. By 1913 the railroad had added The Greenbrier Hotel (the central section of today's hotel), a new Mineral Bath Department (the building that includes the Indoor Pool) and an 18-hole golf course (now called The Old White Course). The obsolete Old White Hotel was removed in 1922, which led to a substantial rebuilding of The Greenbrier Hotel in 1930. This refurbishment doubled the number of guest rooms to five hundred. After WWII, there was a comprehensive interior redecoration by the noted designer Dorothy Draper in 1946. The origin of The Greenbrier's distinctive décor today goes back to this redecoration. Jack Nicklaus redesigned the Greenbrier Course for the 1979 Ryder Cup Matches. In 1999, The Meadows Course evolved when Bob Cupp redesigned, rerouted and upgraded the older Lakeside Course, a project that included the creation a new Golf Academy. New programs such as the Falconry Academy and the Off-Road Driving School were established. An infinity edge outdoor pool opened for the summer season of 2004. A challenging new version of the Old White Course was created in 2006, which was based on an historic restoration inspired by the original C. B. Macdonald design.
On May 7, 2009 (just 2 months before my first visit to The Greenbrier), Jim Justice, a West Virginia entrepreneur, purchased The Greenbrier from the CSX Corporation which, through its predecessor companies the Chessie System and the C&O Railway, had owned the resort for 99 years.
Mr. Justice has revitalized the resort with a new entertainment venue that includes a casino, shops and restaurants (opened on July 2, 2010). The Greenbrier Classic was added to the PGA tour in the summer of 2010. On August 24, 2011, the creation of The Greenbrier Medical Institute was announced. The $250 million Phase I will include five buildings including a relocated and expanded executive health Greenbrier Clinic, a Jim Andrews sports medicine center, a cosmetic surgery and lifestyle enhancement academy, a sports performance and training facility and a boutique hotel with 20 VIP suites. On September 27, 2011, The Greenbrier announced the opening of The Windsor Club, a collection of 26 guestrooms on two levels, including the seven-bedroom Presidential Suite. Each room features antique furnishings, canopy beds with 400-thread-count Filo Doro Italian linens, a personalized pillow menu, state-of-the-art in-room technology and amenities. Some of the rooms have gas fireplaces.
During my visit on my Driving Tour of Historic Springs in West Virginia and Virginia this fall, we stayed in a large, very comfortable room in the West Virginia Wing of the large hotel complex (last time we stayed in one of the historic cottages). I couldn't help but wonder what the guests of 19th century would have thought of our room.
We spent time at the outdoor, infinity edge pool. It was the last day of the season that it would be open. The weather was perfect.
We stopped by the springhouse. The lack of sulphur odor was noticeable . I remember reading about the apparent lack of sulphur in the water noted by one authors of the reference books I read and the arguments that ensued.
We spent the better part of a day in The Greenbrier Spa, which later was awarded with the Forbes 5-Star rating for 2012 (November 2011). While we were at the spa, I asked Spa Director Veronique Paquet about the lack of a sulphur aroma near the springhouse. She said that the amount of sulphur varies as a result of rain and other conditions, and sometimes it was not as noticeable. (She later sent me a recent analysis of the water to verify the presence of sulphur in the water comparable to historic levels.) During our chat, she told me about the new line of spa products she had been working on - Sweetgrass Pine - and the walk she took that inspired that combination. She said they would soon be available as amenities for the guest rooms at The Greenbrier.
While the property continues to evolve and meet the needs of the current guest, I am glad they still provide spa treatments that are rooted in the history of the resort. On my last visit, I had The Greenbrier Treatment. I enjoyed it so much, I had to experience it again on this visit.
The treatment normally begins with a sulphur soak, which is followed by a few minutes in the steam room or sauna, a Swiss Shower and Scotch Spray and a full body massage.
Due to some technical difficulties with the tubs, I had the massage first. By the time it was done, the plumbing issues had been taken care of. I was already very relaxed by the time I climbed into the warm tub. It felt great, but lacked that sulphur smell masked by rose that I remembered from the first visit. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
The grand finale was the Swiss Shower and Scotch Spray. My therapist, Jenny, turned on the Swiss Shower and instructed me to stand in the center of the sprays. She manned the Scotch Spray and aimed the water along the muscles of my legs, arms and back. It was a terrific massage. I could have stood there for hours. Jenny said the water spray helps to break up toxins and cellular blockage in the body. I can't imagine coming to this spa and not having this treatment. Incidentally, Jenny's family has worked at the Greenbrier for generations. Apparently, that's fairly common. It is also not unusual to have multiple generations working at the resort at the same time.
The spa is located near the indoor pool area, the salon and the Rhododendron Café. The first section of the spa opened in 1987 and a major renovation was made in 2001. The spa is 40,000-square-feet and has 6 soaking tubs, 22 treatment rooms, 12 facial room, 6 wet rooms, 3 chroma baths, Swiss shower, scotch spray, relaxation room and outdoor garden area.
After the treatment, we relaxed in the outdoor garden for a while. We eventurally decided it was time for lunch. Unfortunately, the spa isn't really equipped to handle spa meals and doesn't allow meals in the garden or lounge. The spa staff did help us order box lunches from the room service menu and told us we could eat them at a table in the closed Rhododendron Café or take them out to the pool lounge area. We chose the latter. While it was a lovely day out, it wasn't very private and not the ideal place for lunch in our spa robes. My grilled tomato sandwich was very good, but the healthy options on the menu were limited. Perhaps improved spa dining is on Mr. Justice's to-do list for the future.
I want to thank Dr. Robert S. Conte, The Greenbrier's Resident Historian (since 1978), for loaning the following books to me that have enabled me (and you) to learn more about the springs that I visited:
A number of these books and others about the history of these springs are available on PDF that you can read by clicking on the title:
1831 On Baths and Mineral Waters by Joseph Bell
1832 Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson
1835 Letters Descriptive of the Virginia Springs: The roads leading thereto, and the doings thereat by Peregrine Prolix
1839 The White Sulphur Papers, or Life at the Springs of Western Virginia by Mark Pencil
1846 The Mineral Springs of Western Virginia; with Remarks on Their Use and the Diseases to Which They are Applicable by William Burke, M.D. Proprietor of Red Sulphur Springs
1848 The Invalid's Guide to the Virginia Hot Springs: Containing an Account of the Medical Properties of These Waters, with Cases Illustrative of their Effects by Thomas Goode, M.D. Proprietor of the Virginia Hot Springs
1857 The Virginia Springs; Comprising an Account of All the Principal Mineral Springs of Virginia, with Remarks on the Nature and Medical Applicability of Each by John J. Moorman, M.D., For many years Resident Physician at the White Sulphur Springs
1881 White Sulphur Springs (Col. Geo. L. Peyton Superintendent)
1900 Sweet Chalybeate Springs, Virginia by B.F. Eakle, Manager
copyright 2009, Julie Register
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