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Published: Sunday, 12/11/2005

Greenbrier decked out for the holidays

BY MARY ALICE POWELL
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

WHITE SULPHER SPRINGS, W.Va. Former visitors to the lavishly furnished and decorated Greenbrier in West Virginia may look back and say no additional color is necessary to instill a joyful Christmas spirit at the palatial hotel and resort.

But management and staff 1,800 people strong believe otherwise and have been busy for weeks adding 75 lighted trees and hundreds of poinsettias and wreaths to an already incredible outlay of beauty for Santa s arrival on Christmas Eve.

The horses that usually pull the carriage and guests on the 6,500-acre estate year around will pull Santa s sleigh through the gate and up the long curving road to the main entrance, where he will be greeted by guests and staff members ringing bells attached to red and green ribbons.

Like the Pied Piper, Santa will lead his followers into the lobby for an evening of merriment planned for 1,200 expected guests and 300 or more children. According to Greenbrier historian Bob Conte, the Yule log culled from the nearby forest is so large it takes four men to carry.

The Greenbrier Christmas package ($307 per person per day for double occupancy) includes a puppet show for children, a fashion show for their mothers, and movies, evening concerts, and caroling for everyone. The whole family is invited to the Gingerbread Dinner Dance Christmas Eve. Several families have made arrangements to have decorated trees placed in their rooms, suites, and cottages.

Toni Erskine, one of the 240 employees with more than 25 years tenure at the resort, is looking forward to the annual Christmas time with families. Everybody is excited and happy, she said. This is really a different place. I love to work Christmas Eve.

As I drove away from my third Greenbrier stay earlier this month, men working from a high basket in a crane were putting the last of the decorations on a 40-foot tree on the front lawn. Visitors who go over the next few weeks will see, feel, and taste Christmas at the Greenbrier in its majestic Allegheny Mountains setting. They might even take a break from the hotel to learn off-road driving skills or take the falconry course.

It would be exciting, too, to see the life-size ice carving of Santa and his sleigh, sculpted by the culinary staff for family photo settings. I would have especially liked to taste Chef Peter is from Ireland with the first bite of Irish soda bread when the bread basket was brought to the table. The tableside basket, a forgotten dining custom, and finger bowls even after breakfast are clues that guests are pampered at meal service as they are during their entire stay.

The Greenbrier is one of America s grand old hotels, with a 225-year history that began when the sulphur springs discovered on the property attracted people who believed the springs had healing capabilities. The springs are still an attraction in two ways. Guests can walk to see the spring house and sample the water if they have a taste for sulphur. The waters, still believed to have health value, are a drawing card in the hotel spa, where all baths are of piped-in sulphur or mineral water. My mineral bath with lavender and a swim in the 100-foot pool left me almost too lifeless to dress for dinner, but I did, and in my best attire.

Dinner in the spacious dining room under sparkling green and black Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers with live music playing from the stage is one reason many guests return the year around, and especially at Christmas. They appreciate the dress code in such an elegant setting as well as a menu of fine cuisine and wines.

Dorothy Draper wouldn t want it any other way. After the hotel was used as a hospital during World War II, she was the New York interior decorator chosen to refurbish and redecorate the entire building, including the 800 guest rooms.

It is Draper s daring use of bold color combinations, flowers, and broad stripes that continue to be the hallmark of the Greenbrier look. The frequent splashes of red and green in the decor are perfect for Christmas decor.

She obviously favored flowers, and large ones at that, in wallpaper and carpet patterns. Her passion for roses is noted, but for the West Virginia assignment, she picked the deep pink rhododendron, the state flower, to bloom in everything from wall coverings and draperies to the china. Since her death, Carleton Varney, president of the Dorothy Draper Co., is credited for keeping alive Draper s designs.

The holiday festivities will be centered in what is misleadingly called the living room with several large lobbies furnished with numerous floral sofas and chairs, and famous paintings. The span of lobbies is a fitting public gallery for the Draper flair.

The goal of a Greenbrier vacation may be to relax, but to take advantage of all the activities, guests get up early to plan their day. Breakfast is a dining experience that can feature broiled trout from nearby farms. At 10:30 Conte leads a tour of the hotel and shares his knowledge, which is recorded, with pictures, in his book, The History of the Greenbrier. He explains that the sulphur springs were discovered in the late 1700s and as word of their healing powers spread, a cottage community evolved and eventually the Old White Hotel was built.

At 11 and 2, culinary demonstrations are scheduled. At 11:30 a slide show of the area of the Greenbrier that was a bunker to house Congress in case of a nuclear attack until 1992 is shown in the theater. The bunker, now under renovation, will be open for public tours in late spring, but for now the narrated slides explain the hotel area that was a national secret for 30 years.

No one should miss the complimentary afternoon tea accompanied by miniature pastries and music by a violinist and pianist in the atrium. After dinner, guests are invited to a movie in the 250-seat theater, or they can go bowling. Thirty in-house shops feature unusual gifts, and if that isn t enough, guests can get a free ride to the year-round Christmas shop in the old train depot across the road.

Three golf courses may be the best known of the 50 recreational choices at the Greenbrier, but for guests with more adventure in their blood, there is off-road driving and the sport of falconry.

The off-road driving lesson teaches four-wheel driving skills over rough terrain in the Greenbrier forests. The reason for the activity, the instructor explained, is to prepare drivers for the real driving world in an SUV. Guests who make appointments for falconry interact with trained birds of prey including hawks and falcons on open trails.

Then there is the outdoor activity that harks back to earlier days at the Greenbrier: croquet in the fresh mountain air has both safety and relaxation appeal.

For more information, call 800-453-4858 or check the resort s Web site, www.greenbrier.com.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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