This was the first leg of a four-day jaunt to the three most celebrated luxury shooting resorts in America: The Greenbrier, the Homestead and Nemacolin. This is high-end shooting the American way. While we adore our British brethren and their estate culture, we were heading toward places with their own off-road courses, Cold War bunkers - plus enough luxury amenities to make you want take up residence for the duration (which you can do at The Greenbrier's residential properties).
We were heading south at a rapid clip on the Interstate toward White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia - right into coal country, where the workhorse freight trains that tore up the heart of Johnny Cash still rumbled through the hardscrabble mountain parishes.
But in our circles, White Sulphur Springs was also known for The Greenbrier, a world-class resort with its own version of sporting clays Nirvana
When it comes to shotguns and luxury, The Greenbrier has carved out its own place in history.
In the 1700s, the sulphur springs were hailed for their curative powers. Over the ensuing 100 years, believers built a cottage community around the springs. That gave rise to the Grand Central Hotel, commonly known as the Old White House, which opened in 1858. In 1919, the C & O Railway purchased the property and began construction on the central portion of what would become The Greenbrier. It was sold to the Army during World War II and was renamed The Ashford General Hospital. When the war ended, C & O repurchased the property and enlisted celebrated designer Dorothy Draper for a total makeover.
Draper's bright colors and pattern mix packaged the hotel's deluxe amenities in a fizzy confection of southern hospitality that is now owned by the CSX Corporation.
The Draper style envelopes you as the bellman opens the door to your room.
Floral and candy stripe patterns complemented by pastel makes you suddenly realize that you are indeed on vacation. Our expansive room offered vistas of the property and surrounding coniferous mountains. Our only uneasiness about the room came when we discovered the scale in the colossal bathroom. The Greenbrier was renowned for its epicurean dining and the last thing we would want to see the next morning was that insidious device in the corner.
Our sporting clays session was scheduled for the next morning, but in the mean time there were a few pursuits we hoped to take in: off-road driving, the spa and the Bunker Tour.
We should've called in advance for Bunker Tour availability, because unfortunately it was fully booked as of our check-in. The Greenbrier Bunker ranks right up there with the Berlin Wall as an architectural icon of the Cold War.
Completed in 1961, the 112,544-square-foot bunker, which was built 720 feet into the hillside under The Greenbrier's West Virginia Wing, was first used by the Eisenhower administration. Based on its specs, The Bunker sounds like it really would have withstood a nuclear blast.
It was fortified with a 25-ton blast door that opens with only 50 lbs. of pressure. There are decontamination chambers, 18 dormitories (designed to accommodate over 1,100 people), a power plant with purification equipment and three 25,000-gallon water storage tanks. In addition, the bunker housed a 12-bed clinic, laboratory, pharmacy and cafeteria.
There were meeting rooms for the House and Senate. Over the 30 years that The Bunker was an active facility, communications and other equipment were updated.
Today, The Bunker's recent renovations added five conference rooms for corporate meetings and private parties.
Although we missed The Bunker, we did manage to squeeze in last-minute reservations for the Off-Road Driving School and the spa.
We met our off-road instructor at Kate's Mountain Outfitters in The Greenbrier. Kate's Mountain was holding a 50% off sale on some shooting gear that we took advantage of before heading out onto the trails.
As luck would have it, a heavy downpour the previous night had turned the off-road course into a gooey mess - just the way we wanted it. Our instructor arrived in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Over the next hour, we would navigate some of the hilly, twisty, rutted trails carved out of The Greenbrier's 6,200 acres.
For most of the course, we kept the Jeep in low gear and crawl mode, allowing all four wheels to propel the vehicle without having to use the accelerator -- except for climbing hills. This was no cake walk. A few times we had to rock back-and-forth out of the mud. Our instructor was a true ace, and managed to get us through without using the winch.
For a virtual visit to another hemisphere, the waiting area at the world renowned spa has a tropical ambiance. The attendant showed us around and into the changing area. In addition to generous lockers and private, luxurious changing rooms, the mirrored make-up area was well lit and comfortable.
The masseuse worked her magic, giving the best massage ever in a long history of spa indulgences. The 50 minutes didn't last long enough. When she finished, you began to wonder what would happen if you refuse to leave the warm, snuggly comfort of the massage table.
It seemed like the least we could do was head to the lobby bar. The deep red walls and dark wood created a sanctuary of a bygone era. We secured the last two stools at the bar and ordered a couple glasses of a 2001 Grenache. After chatting with a few of the other patrons, we returned to the room to change for dinner.
Entering the dining room is like suddenly finding yourself on the QE II. The expansive space was adorned with a green, crystal chandelier, green floral carpeting and mirrored columns. The diners were elegantly dressed and the wait staff wore uniforms.
We skipped cocktails and ordered a bottle of 2005 Dry Creek Merlot. We figured it would make a fine complement to our dinner, which consisted of a perfect shrimp cocktail, wild mushroom stew that evoked the French countryside and a truffle-studded lamb loin accompanied by vegetables provencal.
As dessert was served a warm glow set upon us. We started talking with our waiter about other great restaurants, including the French Laundry. That's when he mentioned the Greenbrier had recruited Michael Scaffidi as its new beverage director.
Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Scaffidi was a star in that foodie Mecca. He had served as the Beverage Director at Campton Place, a boutique hotel famous for its specialty cocktails and lavish Sunday Brunch. And before that, he held the position of Sommelier at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, perhaps the best restaurant in America. We actually managed to secure reservations at the French Laundry a few years ago with four other friends to experience first-hand the exquisite 20-plus course dinner that took about four hours to complete at a cost of $1,800.
So as you can see, Mr. Scaffidi brought real star power to The Greenbrier culinary scene.
The next morning it was déjà vous as we found ourselves back in the dining room for a Southern-style, all-American breakfast served by the uniformed wait staff.
Despite a great night's sleep and The Greenbrier's Southern hospitality, we were concerned about our shooting that morning. A soaking rain had started during the night. It was certainly manageable, but who really wants to shoot in the rain? It wasn't that we minded getting wet. Our friends at Irish Setter had sent us a comfortable pair of upland boots and waxed upland jacket that kept us comfortable and dry. And the guns had been all oiled up just in case. But putting that wet stock to your face, the drops on the shooting glasses, the rain dripping off your hat - not our favorite conditions for shooting sporting clays at such a beautiful resort. As luck would have it, though, the rain stopped just as we finished breakfast.
The Greenbrier Gun Club was a few quick miles up the road, and we hoped that our guns would be waiting for us. A few years ago, The Greenbrier prohibited shotguns from being brought into the hotel. At check-in, security brought our shotguns down to the Gun Club, where the manager of the facility, Jim Thomas, had the guns out and ready for us on a table in the rustic lodge set atop Kate's Mountain.
There were forest views from every vantage point, and the skeet fields below the building had to rank as among the most beautiful anywhere. As we waited in front of the Gun Club, Jim pulled up in a golf cart.
He was soft-spoken and gracious, traits that he used to his advantage as an instructor. Some instructors tend to strong-arm shooters into a particular method or system. But as Jim explained to us, he basically only has an hour or so with a client. That means he has to play on the strengths of the shooter, regardless of their level of experience. We discovered that Jim's temperament was ideal for bringing out the best in shooters who were only passing through.
The Greenbrier's 10-station course had been designed by Justin Jones and John Higgins of the British School of Shooting. Their creation exemplified how a sporting clays course can be beautifully integrated into the landscape - using the natural terrain to enhance the challenging aspects of each presentation.
Some of the stations perched over a mountain side, the stations made of wood and stone. You would have to cross a narrow bridge to reach the staging area. Clay targets flew across ravines, up mountain sides and between the trees.
Jim was a saint, patiently showing us the best hold points (over and over again), while ever so politely telling us why we would miss a target.
Of the 10 stations, the presentations included:
Station 1: Outgoing and incoming
Station 2: Outgoing high bird, an incomer and a crosser
Station 3: Right crosser and quartering teal
Station 4: Outgoing and crosser
Station 5: Outgoing and rabbit
Station 6: Two crossers
Station 7: Two crossers and an overhead outgoing
Station 8: Rabbit and low crosser
Station 9: Left and right crossers
Station 10: A 5-stand
Yes, the last station of the course included a 5-stand. Any number of presentations could be thrown, the combinations exhilarating. This was 5-stand played in a forest. It was the equivalent of a fireworks finale, with a burst of stunning targets signaling the climax of the course.
Since we had a specific mission for this trip, we packed up the guns and gear after Station 10 and started our drive to the Homestead. But if you're going to The Greenbrier for a few days, there are plenty of activities to keep you busy that we would've done.
In particular, we would've made reservations for the Bunker Tour. We also would've paid the spa a few more visits, gone for the falconry, taken the kayaking class, fly fishing, definitely swam in the both the indoor and outdoor pool and stuck around for a few wine tastings.
For many of you, we're sure golf would be right up there as the number-one sport and perhaps tennis as well.
For us, however, shooting is a way of life and we would never miss an opportunity to try our hand at sporting clays. That's why we're planning on returning to the incredible sporting clays course at The Greenbrier.