The Greenbrier and the Turnberry
Courtesy Medill News Service

By Joe Heitz

WASHINGTON - Congressmen are frequently treated to opulence that many of their constituents could never afford - let alone find a deep-pocketed sponsor to bankroll.

Hideaways tucked up in the mountains. Oceanside resorts. Wine-tasting on the West Coast. Tours of Europe's great cities.

Such hotspots jump off the pages of the travel records members of Congress are required to file when they are guests of corporations, educational organizations or special interest groups. The records were analyzed by Medill News Service in partnership with American Public Media's Marketplace program and American RadioWorks.

In the world of congressional travel, the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., stands out as a particularly popular destination. Since 2000, various sponsors have funded more than 200 trips to the sprawling 6,500-acre resort in the verdant mountains of southern West Virginia.

But don't let the rugged, rustic-sounding locale fool you - the Greenbrier is plenty blue-blooded.

"We are known for our Southern hospitality," said Greenbrier spokeswoman Lynn Swann. "Guests like the pampering they receive."

Swan said the range of activities the resort offers keeps guests trekking to West Virginia.

Beyond spa treatments, golf and tennis, guests can choose from more glamorous activities like carriage rides, falconry - "the sport of kings," Swann said - or hot-air ballooning. They can shop onsite for toys, jewelry, gourmet candy or Ralph Lauren Polo clothing. Or they can take cooking classes or attend Greenbrier's off-road driving school.

And they'll look good doing it.

"Clothes make the guest," the Greenbrier's Web site advises. "The Greenbrier dress code must be strictly enforced to ensure the greater enjoyment of all guests."

Although the dress code - listed in detail online - frequently varies with time of day, there are universals, too.

Baseball caps? Absolutely not. And don't even think about wearing a T-shirt on the tennis court, indoor or outdoor.

"Our guests have always represented the epitome of style," its Web site brags.

The Greenbrier's central building - adorned with graceful columns - is a 91-year-old model of Georgian-style architecture and has been compared to the White House, Swann said. Inside, it's a melding of 22-foot-high ceilings and myriad windows with a décor that favors stripes and floral patterns and vivid colors - teal, burgundy and light green.

The Greenbrier can trace its history back to 1778 when visitors first flocked to the springs that gave White Sulphur Springs its name. Once the most fashionable antebellum getaway, the Greenbrier was briefly used as an army hospital in the 1940s. In the early days of the Cold War, the federal government built a bomb shelter under a portion of the resort for use by Congress members in case of war. The government closed the shelter in 1995.

After a series of renovations, the Greenbrier now has 803 guest rooms, which can range in price from $456 per night to more than $7,000 per night for the seven-bedroom presidential suite, Swann said.

And such extravagant treats for members of Congress isn't limited to the Greenbrier.

The Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club in Aventura, Fla., another popular destination for Capitol Hill travelers, aims to "evoke the romantic ambience of a European villa."

Inspired by a Scottish resort and built in a Mediterranean style, the posh getaway on the eastern side of Florida has played host to almost 70 trips since 2000.

Set amid 300 acres of lush landscaping, the Turnberry's luxurious guest rooms and suites sustain the European-inspired allure. Italian marble graces the sitting area. French doors swing open to flower-lined terraces, and every room has a private balcony.

"They're all very bright, airy rooms," said Courtney O'Dell, assistant to the director of public relations at Turnberry Isle. "It's beautiful."

But the Turnberry doesn't restrict itself to Old World elegance.

The marble bathrooms boast color televisions and whirlpools. Rooms come with three dual-line phones and high-speed Internet access. There's wireless Internet access in the club lounge and the meeting rooms are ready for video-conferencing.

"Anything can be set up," O'Dell said. "You just have to ask."

Plus, the Turnberry has a three-to-one employee-to-guest ratio, and the staff speaks 26 languages.

The hotel's guest list reads like a who's who of celebrities, be it politics or pop culture. Bill Clinton has stayed here, as well as Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Oprah.

So why do sponsors choose to hold their conventions in some of the country's finest resorts? Does it convince more congressmen to go?

"Of course it helps," said Pennsylvania Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-8th. "It's human nature. People are more inclined to go to a nice place than to go to Detroit."

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