Traveler's Diary : The Homestead for All Seasons in Virginia Hills

Sutton is editor of Signature magazine

The Homestead, that venerable caravansary in the Virginia hills, will put you on ice in the morning and boil you in mineral water in the afternoon. It will also put you in a carriage for outdoor cantering across the countryside or send you to its spring-fed, tiled swimming hole that was built in 1910.

In the felicitous seasons it can also put you on one of three golf courses (after all, Sam Snead started here) or on one of 19 tennis courts. When the good weather blossoms, it can also deposit you on a carpet of green for lawn bowling or summon a steed for a ride in the vast hinterlands.

Right now it is very much occupied, as it will be until the late-spring thaw, with skiing and skating. What, you say? Winter sports in toasty old Virginia? And how! What's more, it has been going on ever since the Homestead started a ski school in 1958.

In these parts, snow is manufactured. All it takes is a bundle of electricity, some water, some machinery and temperatures below freezing. When Sepp Kober, a native of Igls, Austria, arrived in 1959, there was a rope tow and a trestle car. A T-bar went in during the winter of 1963 and a chairlift was strung up the slopes in 1973.

Ranked No. 1

Homestead entitled Virginia to call itself the first Southern state with full snow-making equipment. Since then others have emerged, notably Snowshoe in West Virginia and Silver Creek next door. Skating has been a sport here ever since water froze in winter.

About 20,000 skiers ride the slats at this venerable resort every year, making the long downhill run over 3,200 feet of Virginia slopeland. But a major move up mountain is being talked about, extending the lift to the summit, which will allow a mile-long downhill run.

With spas all the rage now, the Homestead and all the Warm Springs Valley only looks back and guffaws. The first mention of therapeutic waters in these parts dates back to the 1600s when a young Indian brave, acting as a messenger, stopped to rest. He found the spring waters to be warm and slept in a shallow pool all night. He awoke the next day unusually refreshed and hurried to tell others about his discovery.

One dauntless journeyman, Dr. Thomas Walker, stumbled into these parts in 1750 and found six invalids already here. "The spring is very clear," he wrote, "and warmer than new milk, and there is a spring of cold water within 20 feet of the warm one."

George Washington, a colonel in a Virginia regiment, was here in 1755 as he inspected forts along the Allegheny frontier, and the first lodging, a rustic inn, opened in 1766 on the very grounds where the Homestead stands. Troubles with the Indians as well as with George III's redcoats slowed things down but by the 1840s, 6,000 of the infirm were coming every year to splash in the waters.

Burned to Ground

The Homestead burned to the ground in a disastrous fire during the summer of 1901 and was rebuilt immediately. The familiar tower with its white columns, red brick, clock tower and cupola was added in 1929 just in time for the Depression.

Today the Homestead can store 1,100 people at a time in its 600 guest rooms, some of them in a $10-million wing added in 1973. It is a spa in the true sense of the word, for it has natural spring waters that come bubbling to the surface warm as tea and throbbing with minerals. But as spas go nowadays, this one still has one foot in the 19th Century. A major uplift is planned.

One can get dunked in a tub of mineral water and fall asleep. Or be blasted with spewings of a nozzle at the end of a hose, or be gently rinsed or massaged.

The spa has no modern exercise equipment, but one ought to have a look at the Zander Room where the diabolical machinery of an early physical fitness physician is on display. Although the gadgets still work, they belong in a museum. There has been talk of donating the whole matching set of wheels and cranks and trolleys to the Smithsonian.

A great advancement in the pursuit of the good life came to the resort when alcoholic beverages were permitted to be sold by the drink. That inspired the owners to create a club where music both live and recorded fills the evening hours.

Just behind the hotel, Cottage Row is a collection of charming shops, most of them carrying handsome items you didn't know you needed until you got there. Fly-tying kits and fly-fishing reels by Orvis of Vermont are on sale at the Outpost. So are boxes of Georgia Fat Wood cut from the ancient stump of longleaf pine full of stored-up resin.

The Lemon Twist has clothes for women, F-stop deals with photographers. Most charming of all is Cafe Albert, done up in light woods and gay colors, selling rare packaged foods and serving attractive sandwiches, salads and quiche that real men eat.

Breakfast in the dining room or served in your own quarters still has holdovers from the old days. Steamed finnan haddie, grilled striped bass and mountain trout are still on the menu.

That will certainly see you through to lunchtime, but it's not as it was in 1930 when the cover charge was 15 cents, fried yellow cornmeal mush was 60 cents, and for a buck you could get veal kidneys with bacon, broiled honeycomb tripe or broiled pig's feet.

With all that aboard, there was little to do but head for the spa to boil off the flab.

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