Taking the Waters. A Spa Day at the Greenbrier, West Virginia


When in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, it only makes sense to do what the Native Americans and travelers, including George Washington, have done for centuries … take the waters. Sink your body into the local mineral waters for whatever ails you.

Tucked into the folds of the Appalachian’s Allegany Mountains is the “Queen of the Watering Place”- a nickname bestowed upon the mineral-rich, spring laden town of White Sulphur Springs on the West Virginia/ Virginia border.  This area was among our nation’s first “spa” resorts (centered on healing baths) which offered wealthy southern travelers reprieve from the surrounding lowland heat and humidity during the summer “sickly season.” Greenbrier County became a destination place for restorative bathing around the 1770s after a women declared the springs’ healing powers for her rheumatism. Since then, presidents, movie stars, athletes, royalty, celebrities, and us regular folk have visited The Greenbrier  for many reasons. Today it is for golf, dining, shopping, spa treatments, or an abundance of outdoor activities offered across the resort’s 11,000 acre property.

Having lived in Europe for many years, I discovered thalassotherapy (hydro-water therapy) in parts of France and Italy. When one has a chance to take a dip in a natural hot spring in the Italian hillsides or visit a French Pyrénées spa town where pools are fed by hot geothermal or cold mineral waters, you must do it! Thermal pools exist all over the world and often in the most scenic of places. I first encountered them while living in the south of France.

Having traveled from my then-homebase in Nice to research sculptures at a medieval cathedral in Clermont-Ferrand (I was an architectural historian at the time), a colleague mentioned the spa at nearby Vichy in south central France. That visit changed my world. I learned that French resorts take their hydrotherapy quite seriously, offering medical and therapeutic holistic packages- some to help diabetes, arthritis, obesity, and cancer remission. Until then, I hadn’t really thought about the medicinal qualities of natural mineral water, but was quickly sold on it. I floated around in the pool fed by the thermal spring waters, had a thermal mud wrap, and left with a few bottles of the house mineral water.

Since then, I have been indulging in all sorts of spa treatments from hot stone massages in tranquil holistic centers to seaweed wraps on the breezy beaches of the British Virgin Islands and occasional massages at my local Open Sky Day Spa in Columbus. It also is near impossible for me to pass up sweating out impurities in a dimly lit sauna or clearing my head in foggy steam rooms anywhere I travel.

The Greenbrier feeds into my romantic notion of a mountain spa resort. Beautiful scenery, elegant environs, and a spa with a mile-long list of massage, cosmetic, meditative, and hydrotherapy treatments provided in a unique space. Not much ails me, but I believe that pampering oneself from time to time is a worthwhile investment for body and soul. At the Greenbrier, I opted for a hydrotherapy spa service, the Sulphur Soak. Because when in White Sulphur Springs… take the waters.

The Greenbrier Hotel & Resort

THANK YOU to The Greenbrier Hotel & Resort

Guests receiving any sort of spa treatments are given access to the spa’s sauna, steam room, and locker room facilities for the day, so I arrived an hour early to take advantage of the extras. It is full on 100% attentiveness as soon as you enter the spa. From the registration check-in and locker room attendants, to the massage and hydrotherapy attendants. The spa service was top notch.

After checking in, we are led to the “quiet room,” which was like stepping into 1940’s Miami with its floral decor and Dorothy Draper orange and turquoise color palate. I adore it…. but the supposed tranquil area was slightly compromised by a half dozen chatty women asking me to take pictures of them. I didn’t mind as I was caught up in my own photo-shoot of the room, its details, and my spa flip flops. The plastic covering on the chairs and loungers (albeit fabulously floral) made the room feel a tad bit medical, but it was mostly comfortable and cozy under the fleecy spa blankets. Flavored waters, bottled water, tea, and fruit were for the taking. It was a charming, happy space.

An attendant led me to a warmly-lit private room with a bathtub billowing with bubbles, and noted the ice packs and infused water, should I become warm. Easy enough. Off with the robe and in for the soak. The temperature was perfect. Serenity was welcomed. Slipping into a hot bubble bath after an active day is one life’s little luxuries. Even if only for 30 minutes.

No. I did not exit the bath smelling like rotten eggs, nor the sulphur pits of Yellowstone. The sulphur water’s odor has been filtered out. But, a few things did stand out from a typical bubble bath. Most notably, the water stayed hot for the entire duration of the soak. I was expecting the attendant to have to top up the hot water at some point, but apparently, the minerals help to hold the heat. After fifteen minutes, my skin suddenly felt silkenly sweaty. As if toxins were releasing. An ice pack and cucumber water sat on the bath ledge anticipating the moment I would need them, which was now. After one final hit of hot water, which the attendant controls from outside of the room (“Watch your feet,” she said “it’s REALLY hot out of the spout!” and it was.) and five steamy minutes later, I reluctantly extracted myself from the bubble tub and robed up feeling restored and ready for dinner.

This trip to the Greenbrier was in part to research the iconic destination for one of my books, “America’s Grand Dames,” about our country’s historic hotels. The Hydrotherapy treatment was a wonderful way to experience the reason “America’s Resort” came to exist in the first place. A short walk from the back door leads to the original spring where it all began.  The next article is going to look at my unexpected discoveries about the Greenbrier’s connection to presidents and congress since the 1830’s.

FACTOID: The word Spa is derived its namesake town in Belgium. Thalassotherapy (from the Greek word thalassa, meaning “sea”) is the medical use of seawater as a form of therapy. Hydrotherapy mixes in some exercise, but generally means water is being used as a form of treatment.