The Homestead Resort: Ageless Beauty Sparkles
HOT SPRINGS, VA -- Practice makes perfect, and this grande dame of Virginia golf resorts has had nearly 200 years to fine-tune its amenities and service.
The horses drew our carriage deeper into the Allegheny foothills above the Homestead Resort, enveloping us in cool shade and the aroma of spruce and pine. Seven months earlier we had taken the same ride in the snow, with sleigh bells jingling and the crisp mountain air stinging our nostrils. My friend and I had decided to spend August at the Hot Springs, Virginia resort to escape the oppressive heat shrouding the East Coast -- and to shamelessly pamper ourselves. At The Homestead, one of the country's oldest and finest hotels, we could have it all - three golf courses, a wealth of other outdoor activities, a world-class spa, and old-fashioned Southern-style food and hospitality.
A pair of black Percherons, Molly and Maggie, pulled our carriage, tossing their heads and throwing their massive shoulders into the harness like linebackers imbued with team spirit. After a long climb, our driver, Mike, stopped the team on a rise overlooking the hotel. Blurred by early morning mist, the great brick edifice looked like an Impressionist's rendering of a Currier and Ives print, and I felt as if we had been transported back to the 1800s.
First built as an inn in 1766, the Homestead served as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War, then flourished as a luxury resort throughout the late 1800s. In 1901, the ancient wooden structure was destroyed by fire, but the very next year a new all-brick hotel rose from the ashes. By 1929 the hotel looked much as it does today, with West and East wings flanking the classic Clock Tower. More than 500 luxurious guest rooms, 86 of them suites, lay within.
A few changes are obvious from the outside - a beautiful new outdoor pool and a massive new conference center, both of which blend seamlessly into the original architecture and landscaping. The old Casino now houses a restaurant and the Golf Advantage School.
What cannot be seen from the outside is that the resort interior has been painstakingly restored from top to bottom - a process that took many years and included massive modernization of the spa. This renaissance came about after Club Corp's Pinehurst Company acquired the fading resort in 1993.
As it had done with North Carolina's famous Pinehurst Resort, the company returned the Homestead to world-class status. In 2002, Travel and Leisure readers placed the Homestead among the country's top four family resorts, and Conde Nast Traveler readers ranked it ninth in its "Top 40 Spa Resorts." It was eighth in Golf Digest's "Top 75 Resorts."
Three fine golf venues wind through the 15,000 acres of Virginia forestland that encompass the resort. The showpiece is the Cascades Course, a 1923 William Flynn design ranked 48th in the U.S. by and 49th in the country and 83rd in the world by Golf Magazine.
The late Sam Snead, a member of the Homestead staff from 1975 to 1992, called it "the finest course in the South." In his 80s, Snead often matched strokes here with former vice president Dan Quayle, who scored in the 70s from the blue tees.
The par-70, 6,679-yard (73.0/137) mountain layout has a dozen small waterfalls en route to three of the prettiest finishing holes to be found. On No. 16, which has a pond in front, a creek to the right and a dense forest behind the green, you can almost forget you're facing your second most difficult challenge of the course.
From the back tees, the 527-yard par 5 is cunningly trapped on the fairway and perfect clubbing is required on the third shot to avoid water and bunkers. Seventeen and eighteen hug the stream and pond, finishing off with a par 3, 207-yard shot from an elevated tee over the pond to an elevated green. Throughout the course, level lies are hard to come by, and the savvy strategy is to use the terrain to orchestrate favorable bounces - easier said than done.
The Old Course, a rolling layout on the hills overlooking the hotel, was designed by Donald Ross in 1892 as part of a six-hole route, and then expanded to 18 holes by 1913. The 6,211-yard, par 72 (69.7/120) course was upgraded in 1994 by Rees Jones. In the process, the 18th green was relocated to make room for practice facilities and a new Golf Advantage School. Untouched was the first tee, which holds the honor of being the country's oldest tee (1892) in continuous use.
The $1 million Jones touch-up sharpened the bite of the Old Course, a pleasant, scenic layout that now exacts a penalty for inattention. Though the fairways are generally wide, they are heavily sculpted to present challenging lies. Elevation changes also present opportunities for errors in judgment, and the small- to medium-sized greens are amply protected.
The par-72, 6,240-yard (72.6/134) Lower Cascades, designed in 1963 by Robert Trent Jones Sr., follows a stream through a valley with mountain ranges on both sides. As one would expect of the old master, Jones' fairways are generous, with bunkers in all the right places. But it is his extreme contouring on the greens, along with the beautiful setting, that makes the course memorable. From the eleventh tee, a 364-yard par 4, you can see much of the course and the mountains beyond.
If you play early, you can be back in the hotel for afternoon tea, a 170-year-old tradition consisting of delicate sandwiches, fresh baked scones, and steaming cups of European tea served in the Great Hall. More than 200 feet long, the 42-foot wide room is lined with 16 white Corinthian columns bordering a swath of carpet with a century-old design. Screen doors open from the Great Hall onto the hotel's front porch, which has been lined with rocking chairs since the days when Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. frequented the resort. More than a dozen American Presidents have stayed here, too.
There is a comforting familiarity to The Homestead, which, aside from seasonal changes, is always her same, elegant self. Faces are familiar, too. Many members of the Homestead staff have spent most of their adult lives dressed in the resort's green livery - and are wonderful hosts.
At the entrance to the chandeliered main dining room stands matre'd Woody Pettus, a Homestead fixture for more than 40 years. Behind the scenes, executive chef Albert Schnarwyler is creating culinary magic, as he has for 37 years at the Homestead.
Dining is a sublime experience any place on the resort, from the main dining room to the French and American cuisine in the intimate 1766 Grille, to steaks in the cozy Sam Snead Tavern, to lunch in the casual Casino Club Restaurant overlooking the practice green.
Apres' golf activities include tennis, sporting clays, falconry, fly fishing, horseback riding, hiking and biking on hundreds of miles of trails.
There is something inimitable about the Homestead, an ageless resort deeply rooted in the oft-forgotten values of courtesy and hospitality. Those qualities make her one of the country's grand dames of golf resorts.
Homestead Photos by Donnelle Oxley for TravelGolf.com
July 28, 2002