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The Classic American Hotels Strike Back

Some Like It Hot, the 1959 classic with Marilyn Monroe, was filmed at the Del, and you're never allowed to forget it. The movie plays several times a day in guest rooms, free of charge. Throughout the hotel, grainy photographs of stars romping in a black-and-white past remind you that Hollywood history is all around you. By the time you go to sleep, you're convinced Marilyn is in the next room. This theming is so effective that there's a shop called 1888, which focuses on the Del's history. Its most consistent seller is Taschen's annotated screenplay of Some Like It Hot, a coffee-table book bound in yellow Ultrasuede. It costs $150.

At the Greenbrier in remote White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, such change could happen only after the equivalent of hotel psychoanalysis. Here's what you would have found in the seventies: black-tie five nights a week; an interminable dinner served with Mateus; lots of golf, though no women on two of the courses; no television; children out of sight and out of mind; and a spa called the Medical Baths & Clinic. "Whatever they were going to do to you, it looked like it was going to hurt," says Ted Kleisner, the president and managing director.

Opened in 1913, the Greenbrier had its modern identity forged after World War II by the decorator Dorothy Draper, who, as they like to say here, "had an unlimited budget, which she overspent." Romance with Rhododendrons was her theme. Giddy florals and stripes, outrageous plaster scrollwork, the world's largest lampshades—her formula, a sort of MGM Baroque, simply sparkled, and to this day it is nurtured along by her successor, the decorator Carleton Varney, no shrinking violet himself. Draper's black walls and flocked wallpaper may have quietly disappeared, but the design keeps moving forward in her spirit, with pink ombré curtains, pink crystal chandeliers, and psychedelic carpets of sculptured roses and rhododendrons that were not technologically possible in her day. Somehow it still feels original. "When you come back to the Greenbrier," Varney says, "you want it to be the Greenbrier you remember."

With the décor as its constant, the Greenbrier was liberated. It's now possible to eat dinner without a tie, and the meal is a reasonable three courses, served with Merlot or Chardonnay. The clinic has been joined by the 37,000-square-foot Greenbrier Spa, and should you have the classic treatment involving mineral baths, Swiss shower, Scotch Spray, and massage, you have it in rooms of extraordinary luxury, followed perhaps by a healthful meal at the spa café. Children are courted with elaborate family programs. If you don't play golf, you can shop for a St. John dress or local twig crafts. You can go mountain-biking or white-water rafting, take up falconry or target shooting, or attend one of only two Land Rover off-road driving schools in the country. (The other is at another classic, the Equinox, in Vermont.) Kleisner says proudly, "The Greenbrier is now about going to the mountains."

Getting to those mountains remained a problem. The Greenbrier was built in the era of railroads, with a station opposite its porte cochère. It's a long drive from almost anywhere, so long that management recently arranged to be served by plane, at least seasonally: Delta now flies to the Greenbrier from Atlanta, US Airways from Pittsburgh and Charlotte. The old train station has become a Christmas shop.

It seems the great resorts have reached the same conclusion that the cruise industry, which faced many of the same problems, came to in recent years: Lighten up. And make sure you keep adding ports.

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