Pack your Appetite and Head for Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands

“Right after your good health is your curiosity,” says 93-year old Joseph “Joe” A. Hardy III, founder of the 84 Lumber Company and Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, nestled in the sylvan mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania in the Laurel Highlands. Joe knows a few things about creating an interesting life: his Horatio Alger story began after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh and leaving the family business to start a successful building materials supply operation. In 1987, Joe purchased a private game reserve that evolved into his luxurious, full-service resort, Nemacolin.

When I was a co-ed, my family meandered through the Highlands to take me to college. To make it interesting, we’d stop at anything worth seeing. There’s a lot here to satisfy the curious traveler: two of Frank Lloyd Wright’s residential masterpieces; a notable inn where Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison brought scientists to test their inventions (the Historic Summit Inn); whitewater rafting and biking along the Youghiogheny River; even a battleground at Fort Necessity that set the stage for the Revolutionary War.

If I were to enroll today, I’d make Nemacolin my Highlands base. Named for the Delaware Indian chief who trailblazed a route from Cumberland, Maryland, to Brownsville, Pennsylvania, this opulent destination has something to engage the tastes of every aficionado’s tastes – including oenophiles.

Nemacolin offers a wide range of accommodations from the Lodge (the original Tudor-esque structure with hunting lodge décor) to the adjacent Hotel Ritz-inspired Chauteau Lafayette. Completely separate in the wooded hills of this 2,000-acre resort is Falling Rock: a 42-room boutique hotel designed to look like a Frank Lloyd Wright property. Falling Rock provides 24/7 private butler service and guests rave about the bubble bath. (Tip: have your butler draw one even if you’re clean.) This property has garnered simultaneous AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star ratings.

The vast array of on-premise activities ranges from sporting clays, ziplining and off-road Jeep driving to more sedate pastimes at Nemacolin’s incredible spa (with one of the nicest indoor spa pools I’ve ever seen) and Holistic Healing Center. The center offers acupuncture, infrared sauna therapy, Thai massage (sometimes called “lazy yoga”) and a host of classes.

All these exercise and relaxation options stimulate the appetite. Nemacolin has 15 dining venues that can keep foodies salivating for a week. The apex is Chateau Lautrec where Chef de Cuisine Kristin Butterworth displays her culinary talents via seasonal menus and a prix fixe, multi-course dinner that changes frequently. Currently, Butterworth is the only female Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five-Diamond chef in the world.

This reporter feasted on escargot, Columbia River salmon, oven-roasted hen and “Pittsburgh Style” rib eye steak prepared by Butterworth’s team. Appropriate wines are only a question away; just ask Sommelier Thierry Lesparre, a Parisian native, for the ideal selection from Nemacolin’s 20,000-bottle collection – the largest restaurant wine list in Pennsylvania.

Anyone may learn more about wines by taking a class at the resort’s Academie du Vin or attend one of the weekly wine tastings at Chateau Lautrec where the resort’s sommeliers take visitors on a global vineyard tour. Serious oenophiles will want to tour the resort’s wine cellar – one of the most extensive in the country. Of particular note: more than 50 vintages of first-growth Bordeaux from the Médoc & Graves regions and a comparable collection of Champagne and Port. The oldest bottle is an 1845 Madeira and the most expensive bottle is a 1947 Cheval Blanc, which experts consider one of the last century’s most significant wines.

Nemacolin isn’t for the budget-minded, but its lovely grounds are open to the public. And there’s much to do even for non-guests: take a tour of the Wildlife Academy that exhibits exotic animals who are retired or were rescued. These magnificent creatures are cared for by professionals and have ample to room to roam. Anyone may wander through the resort’s robust art collection and revel in Joe Hardy’s eclectic tastes from Tiffany lamps to Ferdinand Botero sculptures. (In fact, Botero’s “Little Bird,” which is the centerpiece of the Chauteau’s fountain in front of its grand, newly-renovated entrance, inspired Nemacolin’s logo, “Fatbird.”)

The Highlands beyond Nemacolin have their own allure: Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. Most Ohioans know the story of Fallingwater, Wright’s cantilevered masterpiece built into nature for the Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufman. The lesser known Kentuck Knob tells the captivating story of the Hagan family’s home. It was commissioned by the owner of Hagan Ice Cream, located in nearby Uniontown and still in operation today. Wright fans will be fascinated to learn how the Hagans won more battles with this contrarian architect than perhaps any other client. Visitors can sample some ice cream in the gift shop, then work off the calories by heading over to Ohiopyle State Park – a popular whitewater rafting and biking destination.

When I matriculated, this area was a quaint diversion from the task at hand: delivering me to campus. With the development of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort over the last three decades, the Laurel Highlands have become a great place to satisfy divergent appetites.

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