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Insider Classics: Sweet Virginia

THE HOMESTEAD

The first time I fell in love with a butter pat stamped with the image of a hotel was in the Poconos in the early sixties. How elegant, my seven-year-old self thought in precocious amazement. Imagine going to all that trouble for a decorative nicety most people wouldn't notice and that doesn't even make the butter taste better!

Forty years later, I'm happy to report that there is an American resort that still cares enough to emboss its likeness on your breakfast pats. When they appeared on my room-service cart at the Homestead, alongside baked trout with scrambled eggs, the corners of my mouth lifted. Many things during my stay produced this effect: the jigsaw puzzle in progress that everyone is invited to work on (the puzzle is of the Homestead, no less), the cherries jubilee flamed tableside, the ballroom dance classes.

With 15,000 acres, a whopping 506 guest rooms, miles of corridors, countless outbuildings, and hulking wings jutting out in nearly every direction from the handsome Georgian-style Tower building, the Homestead has the august look and feel of a college campus. The first hotel was built in 1766 as a rustic lodge for people who traveled to this pocket of the Allegheny Mountains for the curative waters, now a big feature of the Homestead's 34,000-square-foot world-class spa. (The Sportsman Soak was designed for players on the hotel's three championship golf courses.) Five minutes away by shuttle bus, on a road so bucolic you could shoot car ads on it, are the hotel's astonishing, fully functioning 1761 clapboard bathhouses, attributed to Thomas Jefferson. If it weren't for the electric-colored foam flotation noodles that bathers use in the 98-degree, mineral-rich waters, you'd swear it was the 18th century.

Nothing remains of the original Homestead: a fire swallowed the property whole in 1901. A year later it was back up and running, catering to Virginia swells who installed themselves for the summer to escape the heat of the cities and lowlands. Then, as now, no one ever grew bored. A partial list of available activities includes hiking, biking, horseback riding, tennis, fly-fishing, bowling, swimming in the new spring-fed Olympic-sized pool, skiing, ice skating, and snow-tubing. And for feeling like a sheikh, there's nothing like a bit of falconry.

While the decoration won't win any awards, if it was good enough for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, it's good enough for you. The mix of mahogany furniture and checked, floral, and striped fabrics is fresh, happy, and so American it practically waves the flag. Guest rooms recently came off a heroic nine-year renovation program, and they all shine. Snag one ending in 74 or 98: they have huge private porches.

Packages can bring rates down to as low as $99 per person per night. Incredibly, the price includes meals, tips, and greens fees or ski passes. Service is speedy, crisp, and blessedly unpretentious. When was the last time you called in your breakfast order and were asked if the Manhattans delivered the night before were to your liking?

Hot Springs; 800/838-1766 or 540/839-1766, fax 540/839-7656; www.thehomestead.com; doubles from $384, including breakfast and dinner.

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