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The Ultimate in Laid-Back Luxury

Story by Fyllis Hockman

was halfway through my Dreamcatcher massage when the masseuse started dancing around the table. Now, I'm somewhat of an experienced spa-goer, but this was new for me. As were so many other things at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in southwestern Pennsylvania. I also drove an off-road Jeep Rubicon over rocks, through streams, up hills, scaled a climbing wall and shot a rare white buffalo – with my camera.

writer on an off-road Jeep Rubicon at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, southwestern Pennsylvania

The ultimate in upscale but with a sense of humor, Nemacolin is a combination of sassy sophistication, world-class whimsy and pricey pranksterism.

Doubling as a top-of-the-line museum, the resort's art and sculpture worth a mere $45 million would be equally at home in a high-end gallery. Every corner you turn, each nook and cranny, lounge and library, cubby hall and crevice features another piece of art, flight of fancy or quirky creation to marvel at. You could walk the halls for days and see something different each time.

Picture these: booths in the old time ice cream parlor made from antique car seats; a replica of a bumper car stranded in the middle of a hallway, a six-foot high unicycle and rider, and a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe. Half the time, I couldn't decide whether to ooh, ahh or giggle.

Oh, and then there are the real live animals cavorting around the grounds. Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My – yup, literally. Also a herd of zebras, some llamas, and a couple of wolves, hyenas and cougars.

a pair of lions at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort grounds

And did I mention they also have part of the Berlin Wall on display and a building dubbed the Auto Toy Store full of grown-up size vintage cars? Or the Fisherman, Gardener, Bathing Beauty and other sculptures by renowned artist J. Seward Johnson, so life-like I tried to engage several of them in conversation? Clearly, Dorothy, you're not in the Holiday Inn anymore.

the Bathing Beauty sculpture by J. Seward Johnson at Nemacolin

Now about that off-road driving. I watched with amazement as the Jeep approached a large expanse of gray rock looming ahead; then gazed in disbelief as I realized that we were in fact driving over it – casually mounting at a 60-degree-angle a sharp incline one would not normally think of as a driving option. Even more amazing? Five minutes later, I was the one in the driver's seat. Tilted at times at a 40-degree angle, I felt like I was falling off the end of the world, and a moment later it seemed I was driving straight up into the clouds. The instructor was not exaggerating when he said: "You may be going no more than five miles an hour but they'll be the most exciting five miles you'll ever drive."

But the excitement didn't end there. I surprisingly excelled at Paintball Target Practice in which you take aim at any of the components, large and small, of a movie-set sagebrush town. As I pointed out to my husband: "Well, I can drive a Jeep and shoot a gun. I may be sent to Afghanistan any day now…"

writer and her husband at Paintball Target Practice

Like everywhere else at Nemacolin, luxury shrouded in a relaxed setting pertains to the accommodations as well. There are definitely affordable options but we're not going to concern ourselves with those. Nope – we're going to take a tour of the hip, sleek Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired 42-room boutique Falling Rock Hotel. All angles and curves, the impressive structure with its sumptuous views reflects the triangular theme of Wright's famous nearby Fallingwater home in everything from tissue boxes to patio furniture.

aerial view of the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired 42-room boutique Falling Rock Hotel

Of course, many resorts boast of upscale lodging and amenities, but how many come with your own 24-hour butler? A laid-back, low-key, whimsical butler, of course, but still…

After he unpacks your suitcase, ironing those items which might have garnered a wrinkle enroute, and stows them amidst layers of tissue paper, perhaps you'll be ready for your bath. Choose from a selection of scented oils, revel in the soft music and candlelight prepared to order, sip your champagne, nibble on your chocolate-covered strawberries, and relish in pampered luxury until dinner is served – whether you choose to dine in or dine out. Did I forget to point out the rose petals?

My husband and I scoffed, of course, at the garishness of such pretention – until we went hiking later that afternoon in Ohiopyle State Park. Returning with muddied boots and soiled shirts, I only half-jokingly lamented: "Now where's our butler when we need him?"

The butler's goal, according to Tommy DeWitt, Head Butler, is to "anticipate the client's needs even before he knows he has them." Preferences and peccadilloes of repeat customers are recorded and remembered, whether it means they like freshly cut lilacs in their room each day or absolutely must have a massage at three in the morning.

Euphemistically-sounding "sticky widgets" refer to those requests it may not be all that prudent to fulfill. I could not help but think that Louisiana Senator David Vitter might not be all that happy here…

tightrope walk course at Nemacolin

But most people don't sit around being catered to; there's just too much to do. This is what I did in the two days I was there: Jeep driving, horseback riding, hiking, biking, archery, paintball, miniature golf, ping pong, climbing wall, zip line and an aborted attempt to tightrope walk on the ropes course. And if I included all the things I didn't do, this article would be twice as long.

You should probably know, though, that there's also a clay shooting academy, a baby animal nursery and in the winter, in addition to all the basic snow diversions, dog sledding. But, by now, that probably doesn't surprise you.

As Hope Adams from Marietta, Ohio, enthused: "What an incredible combination of incomparable luxury within a laid-back funky atmosphere! And the most accommodating staff I've ever experienced."

Oh, and that little dance I mentioned around the massage table? Apparently my masseuse, through a series of very specific steps, was attempting to facilitate "a life-affirming transference of energy." What a perfect metaphor for the overall .Nemacolin experience!

Lodging prices range from $209-$479 midweek for standard rooms per night, double occupancy; $399-$619 for suites, depending upon accommodations and time of year. But be sure to check with your travel agent before booking. Most activities, on the other hand, are a la carte. For more information, call 866/399-6957 or visit

Related Articles:
Mohonk Mountain House; Great Wolf Lodge: Land-and-Water Adventure for Kids of all Ages; Arizona Cowboy College; The Westin La Cantera; Family Magic in Orlando Outside Magic Kingdom

(Posted 3-1-2016)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

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