Vacation like Roosevelts

The story goes that when Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to come to Luray, Va., to dedicate Shenandoah National Park on July 3, 1936, he planned to camp in the park. Eleanor supposedly told him, “Franklin, you can rough it if you want, but I'm staying at the Mimslyn.”

At that point, the Mimslyn Inn had been open for five years, a luxurious destination hotel. It was built in an amazing act of optimism by Henry and Elizabeth Mims during the depths of the Great Depression. It became the go-to place for generations of a certain class of Washingtonians who would ride the train to Luray, some just for the day, lining up for hours to dine in an elegant setting.

Now, here I am, too, at the historic inn that new owners have recently reopened after a year-long, multimillion-dollar renovation. According to before-and-after pictures, the 45-room Mimslyn had become a bit frayed before its purchase in 2005 by the Asam family, which also owns the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

I arrive to find I'm in the Roosevelt suite. I initially assume I'm in Eleanor's old room, but it turns out there are two Roosevelt suites, and my favorite first lady stayed in the one next door. Close enough. Still an honor.

This jaunt was originally intended to be a girls' overnight outing, but our husbands and teen daughters tag along. A second suite is hastily procured.

Southern gentility

Despite leaving later than planned, we arrive before noon. The Mimslyn sits atop a knoll, formerly the site of a Civil War encampment for Union troops.

I'm cheered by the building's facade, an archetype of Southern gentility. A two-story portico is supported by white Corinthian columns. Porches ramble along sections of the roof.

As city folk accustomed to city prices, we aren't quite sure what to expect from a hotel where rooms are $145 a night, suites $195. But we enter an elegant lobby where a fire burns in a stone fireplace flanked by richly upholstered couches grouped around an Oriental carpet. A winding staircase reminiscent of “Gone With the Wind” is an architectural gem.

Although we learn our rooms will be ready within moments, we head downtown for lunch.

My friend and I have planned a bit of browsing through antiques stores, art galleries and gift shops. That's fine with our girls.

Our husbands quickly make other plans. Mine, a theater buff, has spotted a community theater across the street. He catches a matinee of “The Foreigner” for $15, dessert included. My friend's husband walks back to the Mimslyn with a book in hand.

After shopping, the females head to the largest caverns in the eastern United States. Frankly, I expect Luray Caverns to be a schlocky 1950s roadside attraction but discover they are stunning. During a 1.3-mile guided tour, we learn that it takes 120 years for stalactites and stalagmites to grow a cubic inch. And here there are formations as high as 10 stories.

Gleaming white structures indicate calcium; the reddish-orange ones owe their color to iron oxide. A mesmerizing optical illusion is created at a shallow lake within one of the caverns, where stalactites are perfectly reflected on the surface of the water.

I return to the hotel to find that my suite has a tastefully decorated sitting room with a pullout couch and gas fireplace; a bedroom with a comfortable king-size bed with 300-thread-count linens and a flat-screen TV; and a marble bath with a whirlpool. My room, on the first floor, doesn't have a view of the mountains. Some rooms have views, and some overlook the inn's rooftop and porches, but access has been sealed off to prevent falls.

Dinner is in a romantic room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The couples in love may not notice that the entrees take an hour to arrive, but we are hungry and restless. Later we discover that one of two chefs had called in sick for both dinner and breakfast, so perhaps the waits were an anomaly. The overburdened chef apparently doesn't rush: The fish and steaks we order come perfectly prepared.

The restaurant boasts of its wine cellars. While I know nothing of wine, I am a potato connoisseur. So when I say the mashed potatoes with gorgonzola cheese are great, I say so with some authority. The desserts are skillfully decorated with spun sugar and taste as good as they look.

Off to the zoo

Next morning, we visit the Luray Zoo, billed as a rescue zoo. Some of the reptiles and animals come from individuals who buy exotic pets, only to give them up when they learn – surprise – they're wild animals. In addition to a tiger and wallabies and monkeys, as well as tame animals in a petting zoo, the zoo has a major collection of birds of prey and reptiles.

A favorite stop in town: the Apple Cottage, a store stuffed with gourmet, organic spices, freshly ground grains and specialty items such as purple lentils from the Himalayas.

Health treatments made by local herbalists are available, and old-time home remedies include 100 kinds of tea. It's like New Age California meets mountain people.

The great outdoors are the Luray area's greatest attraction.

The Blue Ridge Mountains tower over the broad valley where the town sits, and the Shenandoah River flows through it. The biking, hiking, canoeing, tubing and horseback riding that entice tourists in the warmer months were either not available or not appealing on the cold February weekend that I visited. Even so, I found enough to do for a weekend.

I intend to return some warm day. I suppose I could even be persuaded to go camping. Then again, perhaps, like Eleanor, I'll stay at the Mimslyn.

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