Nemacolin - Western Pennsylvania's Premiere Resort


Nemacolin – Western Pennsylvania’s Premiere Resort

One of the reasons I seldom go on travel writer’s fam (familiarization) trips is because they are bloody hard work – long hours, often visiting sites that have zero interest even though the host thinks that it is the next big thing in tourism, dealing with travel divas who can make me cringe with embarrassment at their never ending demands etc. The one exception are the pre or post tours for the annual Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) conference. These are short (two or three days), have small groups, are almost always well organized and I usually know most of the people on the tour, so it’s like traveling with friends. This year the conference is in Pittsburgh and the pre-tour that caught my eye was one to the Laurel Highlands area of southwestern Pennsylvania. It was offering an irresistible combination of a visit to a resort I had seen on TV as the site of several PGA tournaments, Nemacolin Woodlands and a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic masterpiece Fallingwater. This post is going to be restricted to my experience at Nemacolin; I’m pretty sure my compadres will do a better job of describing Fallingwater than I can.

Although Nemacolin is one of the largest resorts in the US in terms of acreage, over 2500 and growing and is one of the few with both a Five Diamond rating for the resort and one of its restaurants, Lautrec, I had never heard of it until the 84 Lumber Classic was played here from 2000 to 2006. It’s not exactly a name that rolls easily off the tongue and comes from an Indian scout who, along with frontiersman Thomas Cresap, blazed Nemacolin’s Path from the Potomac to the Monongahela. Here is Nemacolin  at the entrance to the resort, presumably calling on the Great Spirit to make sure that every visitor has a great experience.

Nemacolin at the Entrance to the Resort

Two of the most famous people to travel the newly marked trail were that famous military idiot General Edward Braddock and his aide George Washington, who needs no introduction. Braddock was commander of the British forces in North America at the outset of the French-Indian War as most Americans call it or the Seven Years War as we were taught in Canadian history classes. The former is actually more accurate as it is a description of the hostilities in North America as opposed to the latter which better describes the greater conflict in what might have been the first actual world war.

I’m not one to glorify war, that’s idiotic, but there is a place in my heart for the French-Indian War. It spawned a number of things that are irresistible to the romantic in me – James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage and the great Spencer Tracy movie based on it, Benjamin West’s The Death of Wolfe 

The Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West
The Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West

and N.C. Wyeth’s great illustrations like this one.

N.C.Wyeth Illustration
N.C.Wyeth illustration from Last of the Mohicans

Getting back to Braddock – he led the British forces in an attempt to capture Fort Duquesne, the French centre of power in what is now Pittsburgh. He refused to listen to more experienced frontiersmen like Washington and insisted that the Indians and French didn’t know how to fight a proper battle and promptly got his ass shot off in the Battle of Monongahela. It was one of the worst defeats the Brits took in the entire war. Instead of carrying Braddock’s body back to civilization it was buried in the middle of the road. I noticed a sign for his grave on the way to Nemacolin as well as the site of Fort Necessity, where George Washington was in command of a British force that ultimately had to surrender the fort and after which the French burned it to the ground. A replica has taken its place and it is now a National Battlefield.

So there is a lot of history in the Nemacolin area. It also explains why George Washington is on hand to greet visitors to Nemacolin. He is flanked by Revolutionary War hero the Marquis of La Fayette for whom the county is named and Albert Gallatin, who was one of those early American geniuses like Ben Franklin who had a hand in everything and played a significant role in the development of industry, particularly glass, in this area before moving on to become the longest serving Secretary of the Treasury.

Washington, Lafayette & Gallatin at Nemacolin
Washington, Lafayette & Gallatin

In addition to the allure of history I cannot help but be struck by the beauty of the rolling hills covered in a great variety of hardwoods that I was taught was called the Carolinian forest, but when I mentioned the term to our guide Julie she gave me a blank look. Only when I checked on the internet did I discover that the Americans call this the eastern woodlands, while we Canucks use Carolinian. Whatever it’s called this forest has the endless boreal forest of most of Canada beat all to hell. I can only imagine what it is like with the laurels and rhododendrons in bloom.

The first building you see at Nemacolin is the grandest, the chateau; apparently patterned after The Ritz in Paris. You can be the judge. Here is The Ritz.

Hotel Ritz, Paris
Hotel Ritz, Paris

And here is The Chateau at Nemacolin.

Chateau at Nemacolin
Nemacolin Chateau

In the interests of full disclosure, the Chateau I just drove up to does not look exactly like the picture because they have added on an extension that connects to the left side, but you get the idea of the similarity to The Ritz. That’s putting the bar pretty high so I will be interested to see if this place can actually succeed at “puttin’ on The Ritz”.

The lobby is grand to say the least. The first thing that strikes me are the crystal chandeliers and wall sconces that absolutely sparkle. Going up to one of the sconces I lift a piece of crystal in my hand to see if it is real cut glass or a cheaper pressed glass imitation and the weight of it identifies it as the real deal. Also ordinary glass would not refract light the way these do. I also notice that there is not a speck of dust on any of the sconces. There is probably enough work keeping this crystal spot free to support a revival of the feather duster industry.

Nemacolin Chateau lobby
Nemacolin Chateau lobby

My room, 1214 is huge.The ceilings must be fifteen feet high, which helps accommodate the chandelier and the bed is enormous.

Room 1214 Nemacolin
Bedroom 1214 Nemacolin

The bathroom is equally capacious with a jacuzzi tub on one side that is deep enough to double as a small swimming pool and a shower big enough for two on the other. The vanity has his and her sinks and fixtures are gold in colour – definitely fit for royalty or at least to make me feel like one.

1214 Nemacolin Bathroom
Bathroom 1214 Nemacolin

After settling in there is a tour of the resort by bus which takes a good hour because the resort is immense and there are so many different areas to explore. I’m not even going to attempt to describe all the things you can do at Nemacolin for either rest or recreation, but I’ll bet there is not one you can think of that this place doesn’t have and that includes polo. The phrase ‘over the top’ is often used in a somewhat derogatory sense, but trust me Nemacolin is over the top in terms of what is has to offer and I mean that in the best sense of the words.

We are served a box lunch in the Tea Room, which is just behind the grand entrance and we eat it outside on a terrace that overlooks the runway where Presidents and other notables can land in their private jets. There are statues of various female Greek and Roman goddesses and a collection of East Asian Buddhas and Indian gods to reflect upon while chowing down.

Our group has been given a choice of three activities after lunch – golf, the spa or trap shooting. I have selected golf of course as have Katie and Elizabeth.  We are shuttled to the Mystic Rock clubhouse about a mile away from the Chateau and we check in and get our clubs at the pro shop. As we approach the starter he says “I’ll call up your fore caddie”. Katie misinterprets this and replies “Surely we don’t need four caddies?” and I explain that it is only one and he will help us find our way around the course. Fore caddies are not a requirement at many courses, but I have always found that they are well worth the extra fee and are often a fount of information as well as good stories. Our fore caddie is Matt who has worked at Nemacolin for seven years and is obviously eager for us to enjoy the course. Because it is fairly late in the afternoon and it is pretty darn hot we agree at the outset to play only the front nine.

Mystic Rock is a Peter Dye course, arguably the most famous golf course architect of the modern era. He is responsible for such gems as Harbour Town, TPC Sawgrass and Whistling Straits. He also has a reputation of playing tricks with your eyes in the sense that the first time you play a Pete Dye course you often have no idea where to hit the ball – sometimes it seems there is nothing but trouble left, right and centre. I’m counting on Matt to help us position our shots – otherwise it could be a long afternoon.

There is a statue of V. J. Singh, one of the winners of the 84 Lumber Classic, by the first tee. He is my wife’s favourite golfer so this pic is for Alison.

Vijay Singh, Mystic Rock, Nemacolin
Vijay Singh, Mystic Rock

I politely decline to hit from the same tees as V. J. and go for the much shorter white tees. Our group gets off to a bit of a slow start as none of us had a chance to warm up, but with Matt’s expert advice he soon has all three of us playing reasonably well, including Elizabeth who is a sailor and not a golfer.

On the second tee there is another statute, this time of the great  Gene Saracen or The Squire as he is affectionately remembered. He is one of only five golfers to win  all four of golf’s majors. I’m not sure why exactly he’s here, but he looks as dapper as ever.

The Squire, Gene Saracen at Nemacolin
The Squire, Gene Saracen

The course is in excellent condition and a true test of golf in every sense of the word. There are as many places to get in trouble as I expected – sand, water, woods and rock piles that are apparently home to some nasty critters, but with Matt’s advice on  where to hit, a well struck shot is rewarded. The fifth hole has to be one of the nicest and most unique I have ever played. It’s a par five that requires three good shots, but what is really neat is a statue of John Daly with a waterfall behind him.

With John Daly at Nemacolin
With John Daly on No. 5

On the second par three Elizabeth records her first ever par and there are high fives all around. We are moving at a good clip now and decide after nine to play two more holes as Matt insists we must see No. 11. It is another very challenging hole and by some miracle I end up with a birdie putt, which of course I miss, but it’s always good to end with a par. Here is the view of the approach shot.

Pavillion on #11
Pavillion on #11

Like No. 5, No. 11 has something other than golf to make the hole interesting. It is a piece of art titled Square Piece by Wendy Taylor that acts like a frame for the sky and forest behind it. It reminds me very much of a Rene Magritte painting when I look through it at just the blue sky with a few clouds. Here is Rene’s masterpiece.

Sky by Rene Magritte
Sky by Rene Magritte

And here’s mine.

Window on the World, Mystic Rock
Window on the World, Mystic Rock

Returning to the clubhouse I take one last look back at Mystic Rock and know I will return with Alison to play the entire layout along with the other eighteen at the resort.

Mystic Rock
Mystic Rock

There is also a great view of Falling Rock, the uber luxurious accommodations at Nemacolin.

Falling Rock
Falling Rock

It is certainly not difficult to understand why Mystic Rock is rated in the top 100 courses open to the public in the US by Golf Digest. If you decide to come to play make sure you ask for Matt as your fore caddie.

Back at the Chateau I took the time to explore, and that’s the right word for this place as it meanders on and on through a seemingly endless number of rooms, all different, but with one thing in common – great art. The Nemacolin collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, prints and historical ephemera has an estimated value of up to $50,000,000.00 and its all right here for public enjoyment – no security guards or crushing crowds. There has be something here for everyone’s taste and while I found dozens of things I could linger over, it was the Tiffany glass that really struck my fancy.

The cozy library which has hundreds of interesting books also has a collection of Tiffany lamps as nice as I have seen.

I wandered on a little further and came across this wonderful wisteria panel.

Tiffany Wisteria panel, Nemacolin
Tiffany Wisteria panel, Nemacolin

I could have explored for a lot longer, but we were due to leave for dinner at the Aqueous, the restaurant at Falling Rock. Fortunately the weather cooperated and al fresco dining was on the menu as was 17 day aged filet mignon which was done to medium rare perfection. As I savoured the meat, I watched, with a bit of jealousy, a bunch of guys relaxing in the infinity pool just a short distance from the Aqueous patio. What a great way to wind down after a round of golf.

Our day at Nemacolin had been jam packed, but we really only touched the surface of this great resort. To quote General MacArthur  “I shall return”.