From Mountain Spring to the Greenbrier Treatment
In 1778, this early western Virginia homesteader learned that the Shawnee Indians had found a sulphur spring 2,000 feet high in the Appalachian Mountains, whose waters held curative powers for rheumatism. From her home 15 miles away, the ailing Mrs. Anderson was carried on a litter to the spring, where a tent was set up for her. Following Indian custom, a nearby tree was cut down and a log hollowed out for a tub, where Mrs. Anderson bathed in spring water heated by stones. She also drank the mineral water. After several weeks, she reported feeling much better. News of her cure spread rapidly, attracting other settlers with rheumatism, a common frontier ailment. The log cabins they built around the curative waters were the start of a growing community, today known as The Greenbrier Spa, where the original spring is still the heart of the therapeutic treatments.
Thank you, Mrs. Anderson.
The Greenbrier hotel was built in 1913, and the spa opened at the same time. By the 1920s, the mineral baths were part of an extensive program of various soaks, packs, rubs, massages, and physical therapy, growing so popular that by the end of the century it outgrew its space. An ambitious expansion in 2001 enlarged the spa to 40,000 square feet in a self-contained wing of the famous West Virginia resort. The renovation was overseen by the well-known designer, Carleton Varney, whose lavish colorful floral style is a Greenbrier signature. At the spa you can see it best in the Ladies Quiet Room, the pre- and post-treatment lounge, where you languish on wicker chairs and chaises decked in bright yellow flowers, under a striped marine blue and silver dome with a crystal chandelier, daylight streaming in from tall draped windows lining the tranquil semi-circular room.
In contrast to the luxury of the lounge, the treatment rooms are all business, short on aromatic candles and New Age music (but not too short) and long on tiled whirlpools, ceramic tubs, and hydrotherapy spray arms. The facilities are impressive: 20 massage rooms; 18 hydrotherapy rooms, including 4 Vichy Rooms, and 4 Swiss Shower/Scotch Spray Rooms, steam and sauna; 7 rooms each for pedicures and manicures, and 10 for facials. A staff of 80 qualified practitioners is on call.
With a focus on hydrotherapy, The Greenbrier is one of a handful of American spas to adopt the European concept of using fresh natural spring water in its treatments, and mineral-based products indigenous to the area. Sulphurous waters from the property’s White Sulphur Springs and mineral waters from its Alvon Springs are captured in holding tanks and piped into treatment rooms for soaks and sprays.
No surprise that hydrotherapy is a spa specialty, with an intriguing variety of baths and soaks utilizing the natural spring waters. They are often incorporated in a massage therapy, or you can opt for a solo treatment, usually 25 minutes and $50-$70:
- AROMATHERAPY BATH is customized by your choice of essential oils.
- MINERAL MOUNTAIN BATH concentrates the high mineral content of the springs to restore sore muscles.
- DETOXIFYING BATH uses detoxifying mud to boost your metabolism and drain excess body fluid.
- WATERWORKS, a signature soak, starts with a mineral bath and ends with a cascading vertical body spray to increase circulation and stimulate the body.
- SULPHUR SOAK, a signature treatment in the sulphur waters of White Sulphur Springs that soothes tired muscles and eases aches and pains.
- FRUIT AND CREME BATHS, the most exotic hydrotherapy treatment, fortifies spring water with sachets of real fruit bits, mango butter chips, powdered silk, and creamy coconut milk, an aromatic mix of skin-softening antioxidants.
The Greenbrier’s massage menu includes Swedish, aromatherapy, reiki, sports, and Ayurvedic head massages, with mountain hot stone and reflexology particular favorites.
One signature specialty is THE GREENBRIER TREATMENT, which begins with a sulphur soak in the healing waters of the Sulphur Springs, followed by a steam or sauna, then a Swiss Shower and Scotch Spray to break up toxins and cellular blockage in the body. A full body massage completes the Greenbrier favorite.
I opted for the 80-minute KATE’S MOUNTAIN KUR, mainly for its romantic historical resonance in referring to Kate Carpenter, one of the first local settlers. After Indians had killed her husband, she fled with her infant daughter and hid in a hollow log on a nearby mountain top that has ever since been called Kate’s Mountain. The baby grew up, married into an influential Virginia family, and with her husband became the first owners of what is now The Greenbrier property. As for “kur,” it’s the German word for “cure,” a nod to the European spa concept.
I waited in the Ladies Quiet Room for my therapist, Teresa Dolin. Our first stop was a private whirlpool, a small light blue-and-white tiled room with four steps curving down to the bath area. For Kate’s Mountain Soak, Teresa poured mineral salts into the scalding water, adjusting the temperature with cooler water; when they dissolved, I walked in and lay down–that is, tried to lie down. The salts made the water so buoyant, I kept floating around. To weigh me down, Teresa moved the heavy fabric-covered foot rest atop my stomach. Finally all settled, I soaked serenely in the tub for 20 minutes. With Teresa discreetly holding a large towel in front of me, I walked up the steps as she wrapped it around me, and we went off to one of the Vichy rooms for a signature Black Walnut Scrub to soothe and resurface my tired, but no longer dry skin. Black walnut trees are found all over the Greenbrier’s 6,500 acres.
Exfoliation by black walnut, front and back, was new to me. Some pieces of nuts are much coarser than, say, salt or sand, and, although the scrub felt restorative, the walnut shells can be hard on soft skin.
Before turning on the cleansing Vichy shower, a long horizontal arm with five showerheads spaced over the massage table, Teresa wrapped my face with a cloth pleasantly smelling of frankincense to shield my eyes and nose from the spray. She followed that with a stronger hand shower, and finally, because exfoliations sometimes require persistent cleanup, I took a traditional shower to remove the rest of the debris.
The treatment’s finale was a gentle massage with the spa’s signature finishing lotion, aptly named “silken polish,” that left my skin, oh, so silky.
Teresa has been at The Greenbrier for ten years (lengthy service, and extraordinary pleasantness, are hallmarks of the resort’s personnel) so I wasn’t surprised by the excellent treatment, but I was by what I’ll call her impeccable “towel etiquette.” No matter how jaybird naked you really are, you never feel exposed, as Teresa always holds a towel to shield you. To remove a wet towel, for instance, she lays a dry one across your body and pulls the wet one out from under. When you get up from a massage table, she stands behind you with a clean towel to wrap you from the back. Other spa guests commented on this towel etiquette, which apparently is part of therapist training.
The broad spa menu covers a variety of treatments, ranging in length from 25 to 80 minutes, and priced from $50 to $215. Full descriptions of all massages, hydrotherapies, facials, wraps, scrubs, manicures, pedicures and waxing services, as well as treatments specifically designed for men, teens and ‘tweens are online at www.greenbrier.com.
The hotel’s Olympic indoor pool is next to the Spa in the main building. The Fitness Center, with strength training and cardiovascular equipment, including treadmills, Stairmasters, bicycles and Nordic Track machines, is at the Tennis Club, and offers group classes, one-on-one training sessions, golf stretches, and hikes and walks around the gorgeous property.
Note: The famous Greenbrier Clinic, founded in 1948 for diagnostic and preventive medicine, is a totally separate operation, located in another wing of the hotel. Its wide array of laser and aesthetic services are now available in the spa, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Generally, a consultation and fee is required prior to scheduling.
The Greenbrier,300 West Main Street, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia 24986, 800-362-7798 or 304-536-1110, www.greenbrier.com. Rates through October 2011, from $359 to $599 per room, single or double occupancy.