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Weekending with the Kids: the homestead, hot springs, virginia

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

On arrival at The Homestead, an iconic resort tucked into the Allegheny Mountains, my eight-year-old son, Steven, has one thing in mind:  action.  We’ve signed up for the Unlimited Activities Package, which offers a host of indoor and outdoor adventures.  Lest we fade before we begin, we stop at the lobby-level Martha’s Market and pick up lunch to be eaten in our spacious pink-meets-green suite.  A window-walled sun porch replete with wicker furniture is the spot of choice and we fuel up in the shadow of verdant mountains, Steven waxing eloquent about the gherkins accompanying his roast beef sandwich.

Ready to move, we make our way down to the resort’s Indoor Pool, which is akin to the swimming hall of a bygone era.  The Homestead prides itself on doing pools right, since this is the place where Thomas Jefferson took in the waters of the resorts’ mineral springs.  We can still soak in the aptly-named (and mineral-infused) Jefferson Pools but on this afternoon, we opt for a sparkling, 75-foot long swimming pool enveloped by lemony-yellow walls and floor-to-ceiling windows.  The sun drenches everything and we swim for over an hour before toweling off and readying ourselves for Afternoon Tea in the Great Hall.  Not surprisingly, most everyone else towels off as well and dashes to the heart of the resort.

Tea at The Homestead is both casual and elegant.  Families, couples and young lovers fresh from adventure slide into welcoming seating areas while bow-tied waiters deliver pots of tea and finger sandwiches on gleaming silver trays.  The Great Hall is more of a colonnade, a long, narrow space with graceful windows and pendant lamps providing a soft glow.  As befits the Southern setting, we nibble on pimento sandwiches that meld beautifully with our tea.  It takes the prospect of a late-afternoon game of tennis, Steven’s new favorite sport, to coax him off the floral couch.

Following a series of brick paths in the early evening, we make our way to Sam Snead’s Tavern, a rustic, wood-paneled room that is an homage to a native (and favorite) son.  Photos and paintings of Slammin’ Sammy on the links are everywhere, as are the golfer’s clubs, bags and correspondence (a framed letter from Tip O’Neill, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is especially sweet).  I’ve been told that Snead favored a burger, medium-rare, every day so I order one and it’s a revelation.  Steven opts for a hot dog but he soon knows I made the better choice.  Bellies full, we amble over to the resort’s bowling alley, a cozy, eight-lane affair that makes me wonder if this is what the Presidential bowling alley looked like.  One game later, Steven is ready for bed – he’s met his match at The Homestead.

*     *     *    *     *

The beauty of The Homestead is its implied invitation to relax and nowhere is this better expressed than in the resort’s many parlors.  The Washington Library, granddaddy of relaxation, is a study in plump couches and companionable wing chairs that dare you to sink in with a good book.  Elegant wood game tables are politely spaced and a 300-piece puzzle begs for love.  The walls are adorned with black-and-white photos of famous guests:  a Vanderbilt here and a Rockefeller there keep company with presidents and kings.  An adjacent parlor offers up green velour couches snug against deep purple walls and this more modern approach is equally appealing.  At the other end of the Great Hall is the Jefferson Parlor, an octagonal space that is a nod to the former President’s penchant for daring architecture.  All of these living spaces lend themselves to multi-generational gatherings, something for which The Homestead is made.

*     *     *     *     *

On day two, Steven wants to do something different so we sign up for a Gorge Tour.  The Homestead is set among 3,000 acres and betwixt and between is the Cascade Trail, where one can view thirteen waterfalls forming a cascade that descends into a lush gorge.  Our guide, Al, knows the flora and fauna and is clearly in love with the place.  Steven quickly moves to the front of our pack of twenty hikers and soon finds a log perched haphazardly over the water.  He walks across it and in no time, the rest of the kids are following him, Pied Piper-style.  Surprisingly, I do the same.

We move over to Archery later in the afternoon and while my son knows nothing of this ancient sport, he gets the hang of it in short order and hits the bullseye on his fourth try.  I, on the other hand, need more coaching and once my stance is corrected, do notice a marked improvement.

“Archery is like fishin’,” our instructor, Anthony, tells us.  “You need patience.”

*     *     *     *     *

I have a theory:  resorts like The Homestead have introduced Kids Clubs so moms can spa out.  Thankfully, they have made these clubs so exciting that the possibility of experiencing guilt at exiling your kid is nonexistent.  I leave Steven in the hands of beaming, college-age girls in a colorful room and head for the Spa.  The soothing space (more pink and green) readies me for the Signature Soak, where a mineral springs bath is infused with salts made from local fragrances.  I choose honeysuckle and melt into a tub of warm water.  After ten minutes, an attendant turns on the tub’s jets and pipes in more mineral water from the resorts’ springs as she places a cool compress on my head.  Twenty blissful minutes later, I’m escorted to a treatment room for a Mineral Springs Mud Wrap.  Slathered with an exfoliating Buttercup body polish, I suddenly wish for a hillside filled with mountain flowers.  Things get even better once I step into the Swiss shower, where sixteen magical jets polish my skin to a satiny sheen.  Jessica, my attendant, then paints me in therapeutic mud created from the hot springs and swaddles me in a cocoon of warm blankets.  Ten minutes and one scalp massage later, it’s back to the (Swiss) showers and a final visit to the treatment table for a rehydrating body cream.

Reuniting with Steven at noon, I ask about his morning of play.

“Mom, it was great!” he beams.  “We did so many things, I can’t even remember them all.  We made butter and a crafts magnet and they had lots of toys and games and snacks and a playground with a huge structure.  And the friends, I really liked the friends, Bee and Christopher and Isabella.  There were some very nice kids.”

No guilt, indeed.

*     *     *    *     *

A friend has told me about the not-to-be-missed (homemade) doughnuts at The Homestead’s breakfast buffet so we make our way to The Dining Room on our final morning at the resort.  The spacious, elegant room is filled with white-napped tables pressed against chocolate-brown chairs.  A row of delicate chandeliers overhead helps the silver chafing dishes arranged below sparkle in the morning light.  Glistening equally bright are a series of trays piled high with melon, strawberries and blackberries as big as plums.  A short-order cook, toque reaching for the ceiling, is preparing made-to-order pancakes and omelettes.  Steven settles on blueberry pancakes with warm strawberry syrup and I pair my ham, cheese and onion omelette with hash browns and lightly-breaded fish from the chafing dishes, passing on the oh-so-tempting gravy and biscuits.  We each grab a doughnut that’s as fluffy as a pillow and retreat to our table for the all-important doughnut throwdown.  Steven’s glazed confection is buttery perfection while my cinnamon sugar doughnut has the kind of topping all good cookies deserve.  The Homestead’s buffet scores a perfect 10 and once again, the resort’s splendor seems effortless.  Must be something in the water(s).

*     *     *     *     *

Steven:  “Mom, if there’s one word to describe this place, it’s kindness, because everyone here is so kind.  Put that at the front of your story so it stands out.”

Mom:  “Done.”  (So, it’s at the end of the story.  Better late than never.)

The Homestead, Hot Springs, Virginia  (540) 839-1766  thehomestead.com.  Doubles from $185; the Unlimited Activities Package starts at $295.

Elaine Sosa Labalme
is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and eight-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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