There are certain spots around the country where I really should have already visited at this stage in my life. I think we’re all like that though, and when we reflect on them it seems a little strange that we haven’t already paid them a visit. For whatever reason, we know that we’ll enjoy the experience but usually it just comes down to a question of time and opportunity. Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina was one such spot for me but, luckily, I recently had the opportunity to finally spend a long weekend exploring this historic and remarkable part of the region.
I was in North Carolina as the guest of the resort and the Historic Hotels of America, of which Pinehurst is a member. Historic hotels have always been a personal favorite thanks not only to the incredible stories they have to tell, but the equally incredible level of luxury and service normally found in them. They hearken to a different era and it’s hard not to feel like a celebrity when you walk into their lobbies for the first time. Historic Hotels of America is the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for recognizing and celebrating the finest Historic Hotels. Today, Historic Hotels of America has more than 300 historic hotels. These historic hotels have all faithfully maintained their authenticity, sense of place, and architectural integrity in the United States of America, including 44 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico and I always make a point to patronize one if I can.
In 1895, Boston soda fountain magnate and philanthropist James Walker Tufts had an idea. He sold his thriving business with several goals in mind, including the germ of an idea that eventually led to Pinehurst. He wanted to establish a health retreat, as was popular at the time, and identified 5,800 acres of ravaged timberland in the Sandhills region of central North Carolina. Naturally, everyone thought the great businessman had finally made a mistake, but Tufts had the remarkable ability to see things that could be instead of what they were.
Although health retreats were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were places generally reserved for the wealthy and elite members of society. From the very start Tufts wanted something different, he wanted a refuge where middle-class Americans could get away and enjoy the curative powers of a health resort. It was widely believed that regions like the one in North Carolina could help aid in curing several illnesses of the time, and Tufts didn’t believe that benefit should be only for the rich.
Tufts didn’t waste any time either, within a year the fundamentals of Pinehurst Village had started to take shape and the Holly Inn opened in late 1895. It was followed by the remarkable and luxurious Carolina Hotel in 1901, which is where my own Pinehurst story begins.
The Carolina Hotel
If one were to design a grand old luxury hotel with Southern flair, the Carolina Hotel would be the result every time. When it was finished in 1901, the hotel was the largest in North Carolina and still today it remains one of the most luxurious in the country. The hotel has also very much been at the heart of life in Pinehurst ever since 1901 thanks to the inherent feelings of hospitality and hominess it exudes.
It’s a testament to the builders and architects that even now after a century of service, the Carolina looks as impressive and even modern as it did in 1901. Its signature copper cupola and sweeping verandas make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. Dubbed the “Queen of the South,” it now has 230 Four-Diamond guest rooms including suites and made for the perfect home as I sought to get away from it all.
Of course 2020 is unlike any other year in the hotel’s history, but even with the COVID restrictions added into the mix, the hotel continues to thrive. Since the lifting of strict quarantine earlier this year, I’ve stayed in several hotels and, in all honesty, the Carolina has done the best I’ve seen so far in ensuring the health and safety of its valued guests.
Like the rest of the state, there is currently a mask policy at the Carolina and staff members have plenty of complimentary ones available in case you forgot yours in your room or car. Hand sanitizers abound, there are directional arrows for the quick serve café and restaurants have aligned with the current rules in North Carolina. Yes, it’s different, but it’s not onerous and in fact the precautions were incredibly reassuring.
I had a simple goal for my long weekend, to just relax and the Carolina very quickly and easily became my personal haven throughout my time in the region. The common areas are grand without being stuffy or ostentatious, rocking chairs abound on the expansive porches for guests to enjoy. Inside, the rooms mimicked this gentle hospitality with all of the comforts of home and the relaxing attitude to match. Southern hospitality can be, at times, a challenging term to explain but from now on I will simply point to the Carolina Hotel as the epitome of this, my favorite kind of luxury travel.
Home of Golf
Above all else though, Pinehurst is principally know as one of the great American homes of golf, a distinction it has held nearly since the very beginning.
While Tufts was working with famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame) to design Pinehurst Village, work was also being conducted on the resort’s first golf course. Pinehurst No. 1 opened in 1898, but it would be Pinehurst No. 2 that defined not only the resort, but also American golf for generations.
Opened in 1907, No. 2 was designed by Donald Ross and even today is still one of the top rated golf courses in the world. Ross would later redesign Pinehurst No. 1 and design No. 3 and No. 4 for the Tufts Family. He has been credited with the design or redesign of more than 400 golf courses across North America, but made Pinehurst his home.
What makes No. 2 so special? Well, it’s considered one of the game’s great architectural masterpieces for many reasons, not the least of which are its crowned, undulating greens, which are some of the most complex and widely hailed in the world and which were also all recently restored to Ross’ original concepts.
Pinehurst though is about much more than just one course, there are nine on site as well as other golf options for people like me. You see, while I love golf and have vacationed at many amazing golf resorts around the world, I wouldn’t call myself a golfer per se. I certainly wasn’t comfortable giving No. 2 a try, so instead I enjoyed two other more low-key options on site, Thistle Dhu and The Cradle.
Called the first miniature golf course in America, Thistle Dhu calls to mind the legendary Himalayas Course at The Old Course in St. Andrews and features 18 holes of lightning fast, punishing but incredibly fun greens. The course is perfect for all ages and all members of the family and is complimentary to resort guests. I enjoyed the course a few times during my stay and each time saw a fun mix of families, scratch golfers and everyone in between.
Next to Thistle Dhu is another course though which was the highlight of my time on-site, The Cradle. This short course (or par-3 course) features nine holes that are welcoming to all levels of golfers. If you’ve never played a par-3 before, it really is the perfect introduction to golf and will build up some much needed confidence, which of course is key to golf. The Cradle includes holes ranging from 56 to 127 yards and blends in with the rolling countryside perfectly. I actually did really well on The Cradle and had a lot of fun in the process. After all, isn’t that what a nice getaway is all about?
Food, Activities and Overall Impressions
Naturally food is equally at the heart of any resort experience and while at Pinehurst my only culinary problem was eating far too much. Mornings are the highlight for many guests of the Carolina, as I know they quickly became for me with the famed breakfast buffet taking center stage. This is the first such buffet I’ve seen at a hotel since the start of COVID restrictions and I wasn’t only thrilled with the food, I was equally happy with the precautions put into place. Walking into the grand dining room of the hotel, I heard the sounds of the pianist floating through the air, playing Christmas carols to celebrate the season. Simultaneously my nose started to perk up as the smells of a grand but comforting Southern breakfast alerted all of my senses. The breakfast buffet at the Carolina is legendary and is not to be missed, featuring a standard selection of breakfast fare that rotates daily. However, there are also other elements like the omelet station that have people talking about the experience throughout the day. Trust me, this isn’t your average hotel buffet.
The Dining Room later transforms itself for dinner into a fine dining restaurant, which I also enjoyed. Principally a steakhouse in the grand tradition, the menu also features other local delicacies and together the experience is as good as I’ve ever discovered. For a more casual evening out, the hotel’s Ryder Cup Lounge is perfect and it’s where I found myself more than once. The menu is classic brewpub cuisine with regional classics rotating in and out daily. For a real brewpub though, head to nearby Pinehurst Brewing Company which, in addition to its beer selection, is known for incredible Carolina-style BBQ. Be sure also to explore the neighboring community though; there’s a lot to love and it’s always nice to patronize a small business, especially these days.
Simply put, my visit to Pinehurst was the getaway I didn’t know that I needed. Yes, I’ve been on a few trips since May and for the most part they’ve been nice. They’ve also been oddly stressful though, which is the norm in 2020 as we all worry about the pandemic. Pinehurst though was the first time when I felt well and truly comfortable. It’s the first time I’ve been able to absolutely relax, forget about my worries for a while and just enjoy myself. I don’t think that’s a 2020 phenomenon though, I have a feeling that they’ve been doing that for countless others for well over a century and it’s why I know for certain that Pinehurst is now one of my go-to spots for a quick, easy and luxurious getaway.