Taking the Waters at the Greenbrier (West Virginia)

Editor’s note: Marsha B. Wassel visited the Greenbrier in West Virginia in May. She gives a review and some background on the curative waters of the area.

by Marsha B. Wassel

History of the Springs

There is a history of seeking wellness high in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains, where mineral springs flow deep in the Earth, before breaking through the surface. The surrounding forests were home to Shawnee Indians who were the first to value the curative properties of the waters here. In 1778 Mrs. Anderson, a white settler suffering from debilitating rheumatic pain, heard about the springs and was carried 15 miles on a litter to bathe in the healing waters. For several weeks, she drank the water and followed the Indian practice of soaking in a hollowed-out tree filled with hot stones and spring water. Her pain lessened and news of her improvement quickly spread. Soon White Sulphur Springs, so named for the white residue left on nearby rocks, was a mecca for others seeking relief from a variety of illnesses. Log cabins were built to house visitors who came to “take the waters” and an American spa was born.

“Taking the cure” at mineral springs, popular since Roman times, was fashionable across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The development of not only a spa, but a resort, at White Sulphur Springs allowed guests to experience a “European Cure in America.”

Today’s Spa

The same natural mineral springs that drew guests nearly 240 years ago continue to attract people today. However, modern facilities and services, rather than a hollowed-out tree, await today’s visitors.

I met with Joanna Honaker, Assistant Director of the Spa, to learn how White Sulphur Springs has stood the test of time and is still flourishing. According to Joanna, “We are here because of the waters; all the rest followed. We use the mineral/sulphur water out of the same spring people used in 1778 and before. Water from the spring is pumped into a holding tank, heated, and then used in the spa. It’s good for all kinds of aches, lesions, sunburns, arthritis, psoriasis; it’s amazing. The biggest difference is today we don’t offer the spring water to drink. It’s not filtered or treated and we don’t know what kind of impurities it might hold.”

The “sulfur soak,” unique to the Greenbrier, remains one of the most popular treatments and is the heart and soul of the spa. Warm water, dim lights, and relaxing music ease your muscles, aches, and pains while stimulating your circulatory system—a perfect way to leave the stresses of everyday life behind.

The spa entrance hallway features interior designer Dorothy Draper’s iconic flowered wallpaper and black and white tiles.

The spa offers luxurious separate facilities for men and women. Services range from massage, aromatherapy, Swiss shower/Scotch spray, facials, whirlpool, steam and saunas, to wraps and scrubs—all melt away stress, and calm and soothe your body and mind.

Joanna and the therapists are the heartbeat of the spa. Genuine caring, expertise, and experience are the hallmark that distinguishes the Greenbrier Mineral Spa from other day spas. Some therapists have been working here 28 years and are requested year after year by guests.

Focus on Wellness

“Another reason, I feel, we are still here,” said Joanna, “is we have evolved with the times and are so much more than just a list of services. We offer different treatments, try new things, but remain connected to the “healing waters” that initially brought people here. We are first and foremost concerned with wellness, and by that I mean, we promote a healthy life—physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, emotionally. The fast-paced world in which we live rarely gives us time to relax, de-stress, and take care of ourselves, but here guests can do that. At the Greenbrier we provide a therapeutic retreat, tranquility, and an escape from everyday life. Our guests breathe clean, fresh mountain air. They can sit quietly, read, hike in the beautiful mountains, and take time to unplug and re-connect with family and friends.”

An increasing number of guests are interested in meditation and Cari Cohen, spiritual healer and teacher, provides guidance with personal meditation, guided meditation, yoga, and various other practices to help clear obstacles and begin healing. She has even provided guided meditation over the phone.

Joanna loves the fact that she and all the spa therapists make a difference in guests’ lives. She said, “This place is unlike anyplace else. It’s one-of-a-kind, truly unique. There is a graciousness and tradition here that, for me, is almost like stepping back in time, but with all the modern amenities. I love that we are able to truly help people.”


Reservations for The Greenbrier Mineral Spa are recommended well in advance, especially on weekends from the end of May through the end of October, and all holidays.

An interesting historical account (1839) of White Sulphur Springs, prior to the building of the Greenbrier is The White Sulphur Papers or Life at the Springs of Western Virginia by Mark Pencil.


About the Author:

Marsha Wassel worked 30 years for the U.S. National Park Service as a park ranger and writer-editor. She is now a freelance writer/photographer exploring new places, making new friends, and sharing stories and photos about her incredible travels.