There’s a scene in Mad Men, the TV series about 1960s New York City ad men in which senior exec Lane is offered a trip to one of the most fashionable resort in America at the time: The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Younger viewers would be forgiven for wondering how anything in West Virginia was ever fashionable. Outside of perhaps the Dakotas or Kansas, there’s no state less heralded (and more derided) than the mountain-bound Appalachian region of West Virginia. Indeed, a ranking this week labelled it the least “fun” of America’s 50.
Poor, rural, isolated, and famous for coal miners and banjo-picking hillbillies, West Virginia may not be for urban sophisticates, but its traditions, unspoilt wilderness and isolation are its appeal. I live in Virginia, barley half an hour from West Virginia’s eastern border, and the state’s lush forested parks, white water rivers, rich mountain culture – and yes, the still-fabulous Greenbrier – make it a family favourite.
West Virginia’s formidable terrain is central to its founding. The state was carved out of Virginia proper in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, in a cunning manoeuvre by Lincoln. Virginia had already seceded but Lincoln knew his forces needed access to the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, and the railroad that runs across the north-west. Why not create a new Union-supporting state? He found support among those mountain folk – poor Scots-Irish and German settlers, banjo-picking hillbillies of lore – who were only too happy to be free of the plantation owning aristocrats lording over them from the east. That fierce, independent spirit still exists 150 years on; not for nothing is Daniel Boone a state hero.
A useful starting point is the aforementioned Harper’s Ferry – an hour and a world away from Washington DC’s Dulles airport. Set under precipitous cliffs at the confluence of the gushing Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, it resembles a medieval European settlement; stone and log built homes running down to the federal armory abolitionist John Brown raided in 1859, precipitating the Civil War. River rafters ride the white water rapids, rock climbers scale the surrounding cliffs, and the train heading west to Chicago forges through tunnels in the rocks – it’s a stunning introduction to the rest of the state.
“Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze,” sang John Denver in the hit Take Me Home, Country Roads, the state’s unofficial anthem, and there are no fewer than 36 state parks in WV, many in the vast Monongahela National Forest the heart of the Appalachians.
Train buffs should head to Cass Scenic National Railroad. Here, a former loggers’ steam train that now takes tourists up to abandoned old logging towns, views on its route of cloud-topped Bald Knob, at 4,843ft the highest peak in the state. My own favourite park near here is at lower altitude: Smoke Hole Canyon, a little-known river bend campsite in a sheer-sided canyon accessed via a dirt road near Seneca Rocks. Set on a bend in a tributary of the Potomac, the water here is so clear you can see the trout swim past while bald eagles swoop down to catch them from the rocks.
It’s not all wilderness in WV – there’s oddity, too. During Halloween visit the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, the second largest hand-cut sandstone building in the world (after the Kremlin) in the town of Weston. A former psychiatric hospital, it was converted into a museum in 2007, is open for ghost tours and features in several TV shows on the paranormal. In the far north meanwhile, near the Maryland border, is the spa town of Berkeley Springs – originally named for Bath – founded in 1748. George Washington came here to “take the cure” while today it hosts the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, the largest water-tasting competition in the world. The state’s biggest festival however is, aptly, outdoors related: every third Saturday in October, adrenaline junkies from around the world converge on the spectacular New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, central WV, for Bridge Day: a festival in which death defying BASE jumpers leap 800ft into the river gorge below. Once the longest steel arch suspension bridge in the world, it’s now location for the most dangerous sport on earth.
Summers and autumns are my favourite times (Fall colours are as stunning as in New England) but it’s a winter destination, too. Snowshoe Resort is popular with the weekending DC set, but ski-wise I prefer going more downhome and local: the Canaan Valley, a lush, sheer-sided bowl barely 13 miles long and five wide, home to two family-run ski slopes and the artsy towns of Thomas and Davis. The Valley looks like a lost world: wood smoke drifts out of stone chimneys; sheep and cows grazed in damp fields and, listening to Denver’s anthem here as you drive through it’s easy to picture moonshiners tending their stills: “Dark and dusty, painted on the sky, Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye.”
For a state so lost in time, marinating in its past, it’s thus a relief and joy to discover The Greenbrier is not only still operating but more popular than it was in the era of Mad Men. Established in 1718 in White Sulphur Springs, former coal mining country, it’s a giant wedding cake of a hotel with some 700 rooms. Talk about a grand resort: three golf courses, a hunting lodge, casino, ice rinks, restaurants, boutiques and – bizarrely – a nuclear bunker in its West Virginia wing built during the Eisenhower administration. The Cold War was raging and Washington needed a safe house for Congress in case of a nuclear attack. Kept secret to all until 1992, it looks today as it did then, replete with bunk beds and decontamination showers. The Greenbrier hit hard times in the 1980s and came close to closing, but a local coal tycoon – current state governor Jim Justice – bought it in 2010 and restored it. He wanted it to look just as it did when he came here as a kid. That’s tradition.