I’m hiking along a trail at Wintergreen Resort and Spa with my friend, Angela, and we hear a rustle in the bushes.
“Do you think it’s a bear?” I ask. We’ve been seeing lots of signs at the resort that warn of bears getting into trash containers. We even heard about a bear entering a rental home and foraging for food when someone left a door open. Bears are known for being resourceful when it comes to food. Remember Yogi Bear and his quest for picnic baskets?
They’re also shy, so running into one on a popular hiking trail at a busy resort is highly unlikely. Still every time Angela and I hear a funny sound, we stop and listen and wonder whether a big, furry creature is about to emerge from behind a tree and give us a bear hug.
Thankfully, our hike isn’t interrupted by a wandering bear, and Angela and I continue our adventure along the Old Appalachian Trail. It meanders along the western edge of Wintergreen, and there’s even a connector to the current AT for anyone who wants to hike to Maine or Georgia.
Sounds like fun, but Angela and I have appointments at the spa, so we head back to our accommodations, a luxury rental home that sleeps up to 14 with amazing views of the Blue Ridge. We’re among a group of writers invited to experience Wintergreen in the fall, a lovely time of year for a mountain escape.
Of course, winter is Wintergreen’s busiest time, but I discover during this visit that this four-season resort has lots to offer visitors in the spring, summer, and fall as well.
I’ve lived in every corner of Virginia—Northern Virginia as a child, Radford during college, and many years here in Tidewater— and seen a lot of the state during my travels. But Nelson County, which is about 40 minutes south of Charlottesville, somehow escaped notice. It’s stunning here—and peaceful. Breathtaking vistas await at almost every turn.
I have to admit: I’m mad about mountains. Perhaps it’s because mountains feel so different compared to my coastal home. Gazing out across miles of mountain peaks inspires the soul. And hiking in the mountains is one of my favorite pastimes. I love the earthy smell of the woods, the caress of fresh-air breezes, the sound of a gurgling creek, and the beauty of the trees and rocks and blue sky. Sometimes on the steeper trails, I have to stop and catch my breath, but it becomes a moment to be mindful, to look around and soak in the life-giving energy of nature.
Turns out Wintergreen is more than just a place to go have fun. The resort strives to make educational, enriching activities available to guests year round. For example, you can learn more about the resort’s ecosystems from Wintergreen’s Nature Foundation, established in 1994 to protect the heritage and beauty of the resort’s 11,000 acres. You can sign up for staff-led hikes and nature programs for kids and adults and learn about native plants, birds, and—yes, bears. The Trillium House, a former bed and breakfast located near the spa, is the foundation’s headquarters and offers nature exhibits, a play area, and a cozy reading area.
Another initiative that makes this resort unique is the annual Wintergreen Summer Music Festival, held every July for 19 years. It’s an explosion of culture with more than 225 events including concerts, seminars, cooking classes, wine tastings, film, visual arts, and dance and theatre performances. Concerts range from orchestral performances of Bach and Haydn to casual coffee concerts (kids welcome) to solo recitals. What makes it so special is the festival attracts some of the world’s best musicians, who come to Wintergreen to experience the joy of performing in such an inspiring setting. Every festival has a theme, and this summer it’s “Amazonas, the Rhythms and Colors of South America.”
Performances are held in a variety of settings—from a majestic tent overlooking the Blue Ridge to off-site locations in Nellysford, Charlottesville, and Waynesboro. The festival also has an educational component and welcomes students from across the U.S. to study with the visiting musicians. The students also get to perform as part of the festival’s “Music in Unusual Places.” These pop-up concerts might occur in the local grocery store or at an overlook and are one of the most popular aspects of the festival, according to Karen Quillen, festival marketing director.
Besides the summer festival, Wintergreen Performing Arts, the non-profit, volunteer-based organization that produces the summer festival, also plans cultural and educational events throughout the year. Our fall visit coincides with Oktoberfest, an annual event featuring bratwurst, beer, and an oom-pah band. Under a big tent folks in dirndl skirts and lederhosen dance the polka and savor traditional German fare.
UNDULATING MOUNTAIN VIEWS
The more I discover about Wintergreen the more I like. Besides the cultural offerings and nature programs, the resort also offers golf and tennis. Open seasonally, Devils Knob is the highest golf course in Virginia at 3850 feet, the perfect place to escape from the summer heat. Another course in the valley, Stony Creek Golf Course, is open year round, which means you can ski and golf all in one day.
Swimming, boating, and biking are available at Lake Monacan Park, a 20-acre lake in Stony Creek. More fun awaits back up on the mountain at the Discovery Ridge Adventure Center. You can experience the thrill of flying through the air on The Zip, a 900-foot zip line that reaches speeds of 35 mph. Or how about a few flips on the bungee trampoline? There’s also a climbing wall, mini-golf, and an indoor facility with games, inflatables, and a mechanical bull. The resort welcomes groups for meetings and team-building activities.
All these adventures will make you hungry, and you don’t have to go far to find amazing food. Devils Grill, which overlooks Devils Knob Golf Course, has a beautiful deck and a cozy club atmosphere. We dine there twice: once for lunch and once for dinner and the food is fabulous. Described as “American fare with an eclectic flare,” small plates include sea scallops, quail breast, and their out-of-the-box version of PB&J: seared Virginia pork belly, tomato jam, and potato mash with hints of mustard and vinaigrette. Dinner dishes include free-range chicken, Coca-Cola braised short ribs, and Angus filet.
We also dine at The Copper Mine Bistro, which specializes in Mediterranean style cuisine. I enjoy my avocado and orange salad, lamb meatballs, and lobster mac-n-cheese. Nearby The Edge is a family-friendly restaurant and pub with great food, a casual vibe, and undulating mountain views.
THE GIFT OF TIME
But the best is yet to come—at least for those of you who love to be pampered, like I do. The Wintergreen Resort and Spa is a world-class facility and the main reason for my visit. It adjoins the Aquatic & Fitness Center, which offers state-of-the-art fitness equipment, an indoor and outdoor pool, a therapeutic soak pool, outdoor Jacuzzis, and wellness classes, like yoga and Pilates. After my hike, however, I am ready for some chill time, so the spa is where I head next.
I’ll admit I am a bit of a spa addict. Yes, I love the treatments, but it’s more than that. Spas by nature offer an escape from the real world. You walk in the door, inhale the essential oils scenting the air, and your tension starts to melt away. I always allow time before my treatment to enjoy a sauna or a soak in the Jacuzzi followed by unwinding in the relaxation lounge.
Debbie Greene, the spa’s interim director, says she and her staff strive to educate guests about everything from proper skin care to techniques for reducing stress. “Women put everybody else first and they suffer,” Debbie said. “Remember the airline analogy. When those oxygen masks drop down, who do they instruct to put them on first? You! And then you can help others. Same with taking care of yourself. It is not being greedy to give yourself time.”
That’s what I’m here to do: give myself the gift of time. My first treatment is an 80-minute custom massage with Debbie. The first thing she says is, “You’re crooked.” Funny, I have been feeling crooked lately, leaning my head this way and that. Next she touches my face and says, “You grind you teeth, don’t you?” Yes, and I’m amazed at how she could know that from simply touching my cheek. From there Debbie proceeds to zero in on all the spots I have felt tension, including my hips, which have been giving me trouble lately. She performs something called PNF, a technique used in physical therapy that helps release knots in my glutes.
I also enjoy a Woodlands Essential Oil Wrap with Kate, which uses an essential oil blend called woodspice that I love. Then I am back with Debbie for a custom facial. After this pampering, I feel like I am walking on air. Debbie says their number-one goal at the spa is “that you leave here without the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
“There will never be enough time to get everything done,” she continues. “It is important to take time for yourself.”
Girlfriend getaways are popular at Wintergreen, Debbie says. “We love when we have girl getaway groups at the spa. These women are so happy to be with friends and escape the stresses in their lives. They go home to their families with a renewed energy and feel that their cup has been filled.”
I know what she means. My cup has been filled and is flowing over.
With all the amenities at Wintergreen Resort, you might expect to be in a city environment, but instead you are surrounded by some of the prettiest scenery you can imagine. In just three days, I have fallen under the spell of this mountain paradise. I daydream about coming back for skiing this winter and the music festival next summer. I look at the houses and condos lining the slopes and envision family gatherings in summer, winter, spring and fall—a carefree lifestyle in a resort setting.
As I head down from the mountain, I try not to think about all the worries of life waiting for me back home. I try to hold on to the serene feeling this place has given me, the sense of space, of possibilities, and the deep feeling of peace. I inhale a last gulp of fresh alpine air and dream about my next visit. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even meet a bear.
For more information, visit www.wintergreenresort.com.