HOT SPRINGS, Va. -- The road from Roanoke to this one-street-long town is an ascending corkscrew, and with each twist and switchback a new scene churns into view: A roaring waterfall disgorges the heavy rains of the night before, a herd of cattle grazes in a rolling meadow, a vast mountain gap, once traversed by George Washington, stretches into the blue-ridged distance.
Like the road itself, this rural region unspools its history, its recreational diversity, and its cultural finery one turn at a time. It seems there's a surprise around every corner.
We've been driving for more than an hour and are deep in the countryside. As we enter tiny Hot Springs, the massive red brick Homestead pops incongruously into view. Tucked in a narrow valley in the Allegheny Mountains on 3,000 private acres, the 500-room resort seems at once out of place -- too big and too grand for the rustic surroundings -- but somehow perfectly at home. Indeed, the Homestead, a product of the healing mineral springs, has been hosting visitors for 241 years.
The slice of the South that we will explore in the days to come is bookended on the Virginia side by the Homestead and on the West Virginia side by the 800-room, 6,500-acre Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, about 60 miles to the southwest.
Both resorts are throwbacks to a bygone era of parasols and steamer trunks but with all the modern amenities, plus spas, golf courses made famous by Sam Snead, even skeet shooting, fly fishing, and falconry lessons. And, of course, they offer in abundance that most ingenuous of qualities: Southern hospitality. These are places where guests still dress for dinner, where "sir" and "ma'am" roll easily off the tongue, where it isn't a stretch to wonder if the emerald-colored chandeliers drip with real gems, and where the echoes of history and ghosts of travelers past sound in every footstep.
My siblings and I were drawn to the area by our own family of ghosts. Our grandparents used to vacation at the Homestead, arriving by train and returning with stories of verandas and mint juleps, of "taking the waters," and savoring the salty delicacy of the Homestead's famed smoked (but, alas, no longer available) hams.
In this land of Indian lore and Civil War battlefields, modern history, in the form of a Cold War bunker, trumps the region's older legends. It's the third day of our stay -- we spent the second luxuriating at the Homestead spa -- and we head for White Sulphur Springs to join a tour of what will prove to be the most haunting destination of our trip: the congressional redoubt that for 31 years was "hidden in plain sight" beneath the Greenbrier.
The US Government Relocation Facility was conceived by President Eisenhower and built between 1958 and 1961. A two-story, 112,544-square-foot underground encampment, it was sized to house 1,100 members of Congress and their aides for 40 days in the event of a nuclear attack.
The Greenbrier, long known as a playground of US presidents and dignitaries 250 miles south of Washington, was no doubt selected because it was not only accessible from the capital, it was also the perfect foil as a hiding place.
The genius of its construction lay in the fact that it was built at the same time the hotel was constructing a convention center and the design allowed some bunker rooms to double as public meeting space s, unbeknownst to the three decades of conventioneers who used them.
Rumors always flew that the Greenbrier held a secret, but except for several government technicians posing as the hotel's TV repairmen, few knew the truth.
The self-sufficient stronghold was maintained in complete readiness, with periodic updates of technology, communications equipment, medical supplies, and food until exposed by a
Linda Walls , manager of the bunker tours, pulls on the 25-ton west door noting the ease with which the 10-foot-high slab of metal swings open. For 30 years a "Danger: High Voltage" sign kept the curious away from this portal. (There are four entrances, each differently camouflaged.) We walk along the dim concrete-walled tunnel, our steps sounding hollow in the 433-foot expanse, until we come to a decontamination area, where lawmakers would have stripped and showered before entering the 153-room refuge.
Today, much of the bunker has been given over to a data storage company, but the warren of rooms remaining on the tour are sufficient to get a sense of how the occupants would have lived and worked in this underworld. We see metal bunk beds and lockers that furnished the 18 dormitories; an institutional dining area prepped for three seatings per meal; decor, linoleum, and paint colors reminiscent of the 1950s; and a briefing room with murals of the Capitol and White House, which would have served as backdrops for broadcasts.
Exiting the government-issue netherworld, we breathe in the fresh air and strike out for Lewisburg, a town of 3,900 about 15 minutes away. A surfeit of unusual boutiques and fine eateries line West Washington Street. Named one of the top 12 Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Lewisburg has scores of noteworthy buildings, some dating from the 1700s. The still-active Carnegie Hall, built by the music-loving philanthropist as a performance center in 1902, was the first structure in town lighted with electricity.
Lewisburg was also the site of bloody conflicts between colonists and Indians in the late 1700s and figured in the Civil War when Henry Heth's Confederate troops were defeated by George Crook's Union soldiers. The town's internal conflict over its role in the war is hinted at in the existence of two burial grounds, the Lewisburg Cemetery at the Old Stone Church and the Confederate Cemetery about a quarter mile away. The bodies of 95 Confederate soldiers originally interred by the church were reburied at the more remote location a few years after the 1862 Battle of Lewisburg.
Residents are eager to talk about their town's heritage. One shopkeeper tells how downtown merchants banded together to deflect an incursion of big-box retailers and successfully preserved the small-business intimacy of their main shopping district. As we dine at Tavern 1785 beside one of the restaurant's six fireplaces, owner Tony Juker describes his work to save the building and restore it as a tavern. We leave Lewisburg reluctantly, not having had our fill in the few hours we've spent there.
In our remaining days at the Homestead, we try our hand at skeet shooting at the tournament-grade shooting club, then turn our attention to the "sport of kings." Falconer Rick Robinson gives us a lesson in handling birds of prey. We come face to face with a falcon, owl, and hawk and strike out on a jaunt through the woods with the hawk to learn how such birds alight (on your wrist protected by a heavy leather glove), see (prey appears to them to be magnified eight times and to move three times slower ), and maneuver (their skeletal structure allows them to bend back their wings to glide through narrow spaces, as between close branches).
The pièce de résistance is the Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs, 5 miles from the Homestead. The pools are in two ramshackle wooden bathhouses, an octagonal one built for men in 1761, an 1836 circular one for women. Named for Thomas Jefferson, who at 75 came for treatment of his rheumatism, the waters flow from mineral springs with a constant temperature of 98 degrees. Bathers are allowed to float for an hour in the neck-deep pools while clinging to rubber floats. Sixty minutes in this watery cocoon and we come away convinced of the springs' magical powers.
In fact, the whole trip has seemed a place away from time, a retreat to a more genteel way of life where pastimes are plentiful and manners matter. If only we could have tasted the smoked ham.
Vicki Sanders, a freelance writer in Boston, can be reached at email@example.com.