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The Greenbrier's long history began in 1858, when a hotel was built around a sulphur spring purported to have restorative properties. (Photograph courtesy The Greenbrier)

American Classic: Family Time at the Greenbrier

“Mom, it looks like the White House!” my nine-year-old son Chase blurts from the backseat.

The three of us–my daughter Mackenzie included–have just driven four hours from Washington, D.C. to White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, our ears popping as we rolled up and down the bucolic Allegheny Mountains. Our destination: the legendary Greenbrier resort for a decadent weekend together.

As we walk through one of the hotel’s ten lobbies, I feel like Alice in Wonderland visiting Downton Abbey by way of Palm Beach. The original Dorothy Draper décor features gleaming black and white checked floors, Gone with the Wind chandeliersGone with the Wind chandeliers (no joke), and wallpaper covered in three-foot rhododendrons.

“West Virginia’s state flower,” explains our concierge Steve as we check in. “Give it a day,” he advised. “Once you get over the shock, it grows on you.”

Hard to imagine that during the Civil War the hotel changed hands between the Confederate and Union armies. “Both sides loved it so much neither wanted to wreck it,” Steve remarks as he leads us to our large opulent room, one of more than 700 in the hotel.

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A mezzanine lobby at the Greenbrier (Photograph courtesy The Greenbrier)

Mom, even the toilet paper’s fancy!” yells eight-year-old Mackenzie from the bathroom, referencing the gold seal taping down the loose end of the roll.

The kids acclimate quickly, donning their terry-cloth robes and commandeering the ornately swagged king-size bed faster than you can say Liberace.

The next day it rains, but who cares because there’s a three-level city inside, including a bowling alley, a spa, a casino, several restaurants, and shops galore. The kids swim in the indoor pool and Chase gets a badly needed haircut at the salon.

The kids get “VIP” cards instructing in a scavenger hunt that yields a different treat each day. The chocolate-covered almonds at the Candy Maker are so delicious I send my own mother two bags. And at Fizzy’s Land of Oz toy shop, it’s as though we’re all under a spell and I find myself paying for a magnetic “shoulder buddy” for Mackenzie and a felting kit for Chase.

Time for lunch at Draper’s, an old-fashioned luncheonette famous for its homemade ice cream.

Sugar nirvana arrives. Mackenzie’s mint chip sundae tings of…green gum. It takes a minute for her to realize the mint is spearmint (opposed to traditional peppermint). Chase went for the house specialty, the banana split, which he barely dents. Good thing mom has a spoon at the ready and is willing to pitch in.

Rain or not, we are not going to miss our falconry expedition. After a shuttle bus whisks us from the main house down to the stables, we’re whacked with the intense, acrid stench of bird urine as we enter the barn. Uncharacteristically, my kids don’t complain. They’re mesmerized by the dozen large falcons tethered to a perch in front of us, some of which don little leather blinders.

Our falconer, Cody, introduces us to the birds of prey and shares the history of the ancient sport, which dates back thousands of years to China. We peek though the slatted windows to glimpse a barn owl, an eagle, and a hawk sequestered in their private rooms.

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Mackenzie Bellows tries her hand at falconry. (Photograph by Melina Bellows)

Cody is no ornithologist. “I’m a hunter and I’m local, so I got my license,” he explains. “Not many falconers around here.”

Still, he has a healthy respect for his associates. “Just search “Bird eats Deer” on YouTube,” he says, “and you’ll see what a bird can do.”

In the drizzle, we head out into the woods to watch as a falcon swoops down to snatch a raw chicken foot proffered from Cody’s protective glove. Each of us gets to take a turn for a photo op.

The next morning at 6:45 I awake to “tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap.” I have visions of my children wreaking havoc on the guests who have paid good money to sleep in. I fly out of bed in a fit, only to find Chase felting in the bathtub.

“Here, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day,” he says, handing me his handicraft, a tiny wool lamb with black eyes. “I didn’t want to wake you.”

We hit brunch, a major farm-to-table affair with made-to-order omelets, fresh juice, and local specialties like artisanal sausage, flakey biscuits, and cheesy grits.

The help couldn’t be more helpful. Genuine Southern hospitality trickles down from the hotel’s relatively new owner Jim Justice, who, in 2009, bought the property out from under the nose of Marriott to preserve the hotel’s circa 19th-century heritage. The West Virginia billionaire lives in a “two-story ranch nearby.”  I’m told this so many times that it’s clearly a source of pride for the staff, all locals themselves.

After brunch, we tour the now declassified bunker built to provide shelter for members of Congress during the Cold War. Fully stocked (but never used) for 30 years, the site is now used as a data storage facility. How times change.

We walk past a “fake wall,” with its busy yellow and white wallpaper, which swings open to reveal an enormous metal door that resembles a safe. It’s very James Bond.

I keep waiting to go down to the basement level, but the bunker turns out to be a nondescript expedition hall on the third floor. We’re hiding in plain sight–“740 feet deep into the side of a hill,” as Steve explains, “with three-foot-thick walls and doors on all sides.”

Time to check out. It’s more like leaving a relative’s house than a hotel.

“You should see it here at Christmas,” Steve says as he sees us out. “Mr. Justice spent one million dollars on lights alone!”

As we drive down the majestic property’s long winding driveway, I ask my kids to share their favorite part of the weekend.

“Spending time with you,” Mackenzie says.

“Yeah,” agrees Chase.

Maybe we will come back and see those Christmas lights.

Melina Gerosa Bellows is chief education officer at the National Geographic Society. Follow her on Twitter @MelinaBellows.

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