Soaking like presidents (well, some of them)

Guests ride past the springhouse, marking White Sulphur Spring. The Greenbrier
Guests ride past the springhouse, marking White Sulphur Spring. The Greenbrier
Posted: July 03, 2011

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - I'd never been to a spa.

Full-body massage - nope.

Hot rocks aligned on my spine - no way.

Cucumber slices on my eyes and mud coating my face - never.

But since 1778, people and presidents have been "taking the waters" in this town to heal what ailed them, so it's worth taking a soak.

"Do you want to soak in a tub or a whirlpool?" asks the receptionist at the Greenbrier Spa.

"I want to soak in the same water that Thomas Jefferson did," I say with conviction, referring to something I'd read on the Internet. "He did come here for the waters, right?"

"Sure," she says, holding in a laugh.

Undaunted, I schedule a 25-minute "sulphur soak" because it's the cheapest and shortest treatment on the nine-page menu - and the closest to what Jefferson might have done. Then again, Jefferson never would have been pampered at this sprawling Forbes four-star hotel and spa, which has hosted the nation's and world's elite since the early 1900s.

Behind the long, white 511-room hotel, a gazebolike springhouse marks White Sulphur Spring, for which this small town is named. In the late 1820s, roads opened the area to stagecoach travel, Greenbrier historian Robert Conte says, bringing people to drink and bathe in the water to cure everything from rheumatism to an upset stomach.

Martin Van Buren was the first sitting president to take the waters, in 1838, and 23 others in and out of office have followed.

The springhouse, with its stately white columns and green dome topped by a statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, has become the symbol of the Greenbrier, a National Historic Landmark. Pipes funnel the mineral-laced water to the full-service spa next to the indoor swimming pool, which dates to 1912.

"Come 30 minutes early so you can be prepared for your soak," the receptionist tells me about next day's session.

"Thirty minutes?" I wonder. How long does it take to put on a robe?

Normally, I would pop in right on time, give or take five minutes, after sleeping in, catching a cooking demonstration at the Gourmet Shoppe, or checking my e-mail at the Cyber Cafe.

But, according to the 24-page spa guide, the early arrival "will allow you time to relax and let your mind enter a peaceful, tranquil mode."

So, the next day, after a sumptuous buffet breakfast in the formal dining room, I show up at the spa promptly at noon, ready for a transformation.

Bruce hands me a pair of size-9 slippers and leads me to the handsome men's locker room. He assigns me a full-length cherry locker, shows me how to set its combination lock, and leaves me with a plush, oversize towel and robe.

Feeling bold, I put my bathing suit in the locker with the rest of my clothes, slip on the long white robe, and settle into a comfortable couch. Sipping a cup of ice water with lemon, I read a newspaper with gentle mood music playing in the background.

No watch, no clocks, no cellphone, no personal or professional deadlines - it's a totally relaxing time. When Wes appears to lead me to my sulphur soak, I am in a happy place.

As Wes opens the door of my private soak room, I half expect to find a 200-year-old wooden vat of bubbling mineral spirits. Instead, the hospital-like 6-by-8-foot chamber has a white porcelain bathtub filled to the brim with still, bluish water.

"The water temperature is 101 degrees," Wes says. "Please check it to see whether it's too hot."

Dipping a hand in, I confirm that it's fine.

"I'll be back to check on you," Wes says, closing the door behind him.

As I step into the tub, the water feels hot but bearable. Once I sit down, the water cascades over the side of the tub, onto the black-and-white-tiled floor.

I rest my head on a foam pillow and fully extend my legs. For once, it pays to be only 5-foot-8.

The lights are dim, the music is playing softly, and again there is no clock - just four walls of white and mint-green tiles and a sink and stool in the corner. My focal point is a tiled hot-pink rhododendron flower, another of Greenbrier's symbols.

The water soothes my muscles; the stillness mellows my spirit. The aches in my creaky knees and tender Achilles melt away.

Halfway through the soak, Wes pokes his head in the room, finding me comfortable and content. Soon after, however, the still, humid air starts to weigh on me. I sit up and sip the ice water more frequently, wondering when Wes will come back to extract me. I start counting down the final 12 or so minutes: "One-one-thousand, two-one thousand . . . ."

Finally, Wes returns, and I gladly don my robe and slippers and head off for a long, refreshing shower.

The bathroom and locker room offer every possible grooming item, from razors and shaving creams to combs and Q-tips. How did they know my brand of deodorant?

A refrigerator is stocked with juices, soda, and bottled water, and jars of dried fruits and vegetables sit invitingly by the couch. My soak fee also includes use of the sauna and steam room for the day, but I'll leave them for later. I feel squeaky clean and light as a feather - refreshed and rejuvenated.

It is time to strap on my watch and get back to the world. But for a couple of hours, it felt good to let it spin without me.

And it turns out that although Thomas Jefferson once wrote about White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier's historian says, he never got closer than 40 miles to this place.

His loss.


Pampering, West Virginia style

The Greenbrier Spa offers services including soaks, scrubs, massages, facials, manicures, and pedicures. Sessions last 25 to 80 minutes and cost $50 to $215. They include use for the day of the sauna and steam rooms.

For information, call 1-800-624-6070 or go to www.greenbrier.com/spa.aspx.

Historic Springs

of the Greenbrier Valley

For some fresh air and a feel for the rural countryside, drive the Springs Trail through Greenbrier, Monroe, and Summers Counties. Thirteen points along the 110-mile route include White Sulphur Springs at the Greenbrier, and six other springs: Salt Sulphur, Hunter, Red Sulphur, Blue Sulphur, Sweet Chalybeate, and Sweet. Three other springs - Roxalia, Barger, and Burdette - can be visited inside the loop, which includes a historic three-story log cabin, a pioneer log church, a gristmill, and a covered bridge.

To get a brochure with a map and points along the trail, call the Greenbrier County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-833-2068 or send an e-mail to info@greenbrierwv.com.

- Bill Reed


Contact Travel Editor Bill Reed at 215-854-2459 or breed@phillynews.com.

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