The Grass is Greener in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

The first time I visited the Greenbrier, I drove right past it, having missed the simple white brick pillars marking the entrance to the American icon that Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Reportnamed the “resort of the [last] century” and major travel magazines rank among the best in the world.

I have no trouble finding the place now, but my heart still flutters at the first sight of the gleaming white hotel, its massive columns rising high above the front portico. It’s visually stunning, but what moves me is its sense of history. Over the past 230 years, the most powerful people in the world have passed through these doors —along with lots of simple folk like me.

Most guests prefer to stay in the 721 rooms or suites in the main hotel, which is close to the resort’s restaurants, lounges, theater and shops. But my favorite lodging is the Spring Row cottages — cozy minisuites with fireplaces and long porches. They’re a short stroll from the hotel and are on the way to the outdoor pool and the Golf Club, which lies at the heart of three championship courses.

The Greenbrier Course, redesigned in 1977 by Jack Nicklaus for the 1979 Ryder Cup, was also the site of the Solheim Cup in 1994. The wooded, 6,675-yard, par-72 layout tests the mettle of recreational golfers with greens so well guarded that the only way to reach them is an airborne approach to tiered, fast putting surfaces.

The Greenbrier has long been considered the most challenging of the resort’s three courses, but a close second is the Meadows. In 1999, Robert Cupp transformed the tired Lakes course into the Meadows, a 6,795-yard, par-71 track with sculpted greens and views of the surrounding Allegheny mountains. This stunning course crisscrosses a deep streambed lined with stone-faced walls, which divide three of the greens and make for several challenging approach shots.

Even with such high-class competition, though, my favorite is the Old White, the resort’s first 18-hole course. Following a historic renovation, the Charles Blair Macdonald design plays much as it did in 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson completed one of the first rounds there. The 6,826-yard, par-70 layout has generous fairways, but the greens are diabolically bunkered and contoured. Macdonald modeled some holes after European icons — the Redan at North Berwick (hole 8), the Alps at Prestwick (hole 13) and the Eden at St. Andrews (hole 15). Every hole has a descriptive plaque, reminding me that I’m playing in the footprints of golfing greats — including every golf-playing U.S. president.

The Old White was also favored by the legendary Sam Snead, the resort’s golf pro emeritus until his death in 2002. In the Golf Club, Snead memorabilia decorates Slammin’ Sammy’s sports bar, and the accompanying restaurant, Sam Snead’s at the Golf Club, is my favorite for casual dining.

It’s hard for me to tear myself away from golf, but there are no less than 50 other activities at this 6,500-acre playground, including horseback riding, tennis, sporting clays, fly-fishing, off-roading, falconry or just luxuriating in the world-class spa. A rainy day option is touring the resort’s famous bunker, an enormous underground complex built during the Cold War to house Congress in case of nuclear attack.

While such wealth and style can be intimidating and exclusionary, the Greenbrier is an exception famous for its Southern hospitality. The staff makes every guest feel special, whether a member of a royal family, a U.S. president or an avid golfer on a rare vacation. Other resorts may come close in luxury, but few can match the Greenbrier’s class.

If you go: The Greenbrier, 300 W. Main St.; White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.,

Pit Stops: Stop for lunch, stretch your legs or take a side trip at these nearby attractions.

The Tamarack is an unusual landmark where you can watch local artisans at work or shop for a handmade gift. One Tamarack Park, Beckley, W.Va.;

The Resort at Glade Springs is great for pro shop browsing or patio dining overlooking the Cobb Course. 255 Resort Drive, Daniels, W.Va.;

Oakhurst Links is a must for any curious golf-lover. Established in 1884, it’s the country’s oldest golf course. The greens are maintained by sheep, and golfers play with the course’s antique-replica hickory clubs and gutta-percha balls from St. Andrews, Scotland. One Montague Drive, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.;
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