CHEAT THRILLS; A FEW WORDS OF PRAISE, MOST OF THEM REAL, ABOUT A W.VA. RETREAT.

BILL HEAVEY
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

Wednesday, December 2, 1998 ; Page D09


Four tip offs that this is not your ordinary B&B:
Checking in on a recent Friday night, you inform your host that you're going to stretch your legs on a moonlight stroll down the trail by the river. Fine, she says. "Just scuff your feet every so often to let the deer and bears know you're out there."
The waitress at breakfast asks the guy next to you -- who has just inhaled a large plate of eggs, biscuits, pancakes and sausage -- if he'd like anything else. "Yeah," he says. "I'd like another breakfast just like this one." She smiles, laughs, brings it.

There is no "nearest town" to check out at night. The television is an oversize stone fireplace in the enormous main room which you are welcome to stoke until you burn your eyebrows off.
For entertainment, you find yourself playing Scrabble, something you have not done since 1982. Missing a critical letter, you try to make your wife believe that "adoe" is actually a word. "Use it in a sentence," she challenges. "I adoe you," you tell her.

The Cheat Mountain Club, a four-hour drive from the Beltway in the West Virginia highlands, is a one-of-a-kind place lauded by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the country's 50 Great All-American Getaways. Be forewarned. This is for-real rustic, not Martha-Stewart rustic. There is no Jacuzzi, no 24-hour massage service, no truffle on your pillow. (There is a recently completed conference center half a mile from the main lodge with exercise equipment and a TV, though climbing electronic stairs and watching cable when there's a nice steep mountain right in front of you sort of defeats the purpose of being here.) If you want the first sheet of toilet paper folded into a point, you'll have to do it yourself.

But if you're after a real mountain retreat with three substantial meals included, clean air and plenty of opportunities to go fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, canoeing or cross-country skiing, this is the ticket. There's a full bar downstairs that works on the honor system and next to it a jar of homemade cookies that never runs out. At $110 per person per night ($80 on weekdays) with meals included, it's a steal. And by the time you come back to Washington you'll be trying to remember whether Ken Starr was the original drummer for the Kinks or Brenda Starr's older brother.
The Cheat Mountain Club started life in 1887 as a lodge for wealthy sportsmen on the best hunting and fishing ground in West Virginia. When the threesome of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone rolled through the area on a camping trip in 1918, this is where they stayed. In 1988, the lodge reopened to the public. It sits on 183 acres along the Shaver's Fork River, which has wild and stocked trout, in the middle of the 900,000-acre Monongahela National Forest.
The hand-hewn spruce timbers (some nearly 30 inches thick) are still in the walls. The great room you walk into, furnished with hardrock maple chairs and comfortable couches, is big enough to turn into a yoga studio for 20, which is what happened when a women's group from Charlottesville rented the whole place for a weekend not long ago. You take meals in an adjoining dining room with candelabra fashioned from deer antlers. Two resident dogs belonging to manager Sherry Yates and her husband, Andy (who worked as a chef at the Greenbrier for eight years before taking over the stove here), greet you with thumping tails at the door. If you play with them, they'll tag along for at least the first quarter-mile of your hike.

A 19th-century hunting lodge was basically a monastery for people who like to shoot things. Your room was a place to sleep. Other than that, you were outdoors or playing cards. And though the club has been modernized, the setup is still the same: Upstairs are eight small guest rooms done in knotty pine, each with one or two comfortable beds, Italian cotton robes in the closet and a sink. (There is one suite with its own bathroom, and a dormitory-style room upstairs that holds five.)

There are shared bathrooms (one for men, one for women) at either end of the hall. This is not as weird as you think and it's a long way up from the outhouses club members once used. The bathrooms are spotless, with loads of towels and hot water. The single ultra-modern touch is a motion detector that turns on the light so you don't bark your shins in the middle of the night. If you want to read, it's generally more fun down in front of the fire. Other than that, you should be outdoors. Just breathing the air at 3,400 feet works up an appetite.

There are a number of trails that start at the club. On our first day, Jane and I took a three-hour hike along one up to a beaver dam in the national forest. It had been in the 20s the night before and the frost line started just a couple of hundred feet up the hills. Mountain laurel leaves hung still green but limp from the cold and our breath turned to steam. We walked up a Forest Service Road and then cut down toward a stream.

Beavers are the chain saws of the natural world, and this particular clan must have been related to the Weyerhausers because they had felled several acres of very big timber to erect a three-foot dam across the waterway. Nearby, chunks of rusted metal and old machine parts were doing their best to return to the soil. Logging camps sprang up all over this country in the early 1900s. Sometimes whole towns grew up around them. Then the men moved on and the town shut down.

When we got back to the lodge, we had a big lunch, a nap and then built a fire the size of a small Hyundai in the fireplace while we read.

"What do you wanna do tonight?" Jane asked at last.
"Scrabble?" I suggested.
"I would adoe to," she said.

WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: The Cheat Mountain Club is about a four-hour drive from the Beltway. Take I-66 west to I-81 south to Harrisonburg and Route 33 west. Follow it past Franklin to Judy Gap, where you get on Route 28 south. At Thornwood, take U.S. 250/92 west and continue about 15 miles to the CMC sign on the left.
BEING THERE: CMC doubles are $160 during the week, $220 on weekends, and include three meals. A 10 percent gratuity is added to your bill, as is 6 percent sales tax. Find them at 304-456-4627 or on the Web at http://wvweb.com/cheatmountain.

The club has mountain bikes, a canoe, cross country boots and skis, fly rods and waders that are free for guests to use on the premises. Fishing guides are available at $150 per day. Just a mile from Cheat Mountain Club are the remains of Fort Milroy, where Union forces fought off an attack in 1861 by forces under Robert E. Lee.You can still see the breast works where artillery were placed, a small cemetery and trenches. Continue up the mountain for a good vista of the area. East on 250, the Gaudineer Scenic Area (304-636-1800) boasts an area of virgin red spruce that was left uncut due to a surveyor's error. Some of the trees are more than 300 years old.

Route 150, the Highland Scenic Highway (304-653-4826), is a 23-mile-long parkway with outstanding vistas and overlooks. The road runs from the Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center on Route 39/55 to the summit of Elk Mountain on U.S. 219. More than 60 percent of the road is above 4,000 feet, making it the highest major roadway in West Virginia and one of the highest in the East. Snowshoe Mountain Resort (304-572-1000) is just up the road from Cheat Mountain Club. It has 14 slopes and two large mountain inns. And there are a number of craft and antique shops around Pocahontas County.

INFORMATION: Call 1-800-336-7009 for a brochure and map.

The Escapist
Antietam National Battlefield Park (301-432-5124) hosts its 10th annual Memorial Ilumination this Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight. The low-key and astonishingly moving event involves a slow, parking-lights-only drive through the northern section of the battlefield park -- which has been covered by 23,110 luminarias -- each placed and lit by more than 500 volunteers throughout the day, each in memory of the 23,110 casualties of the Civil War's bloodiest day.
"The first time I ever saw it was the first year I worked here," one park ranger told us, her voice low. "We started out on the drive, and I was looking at all the candles, and suddenly it hit me what these candles meant. Each candle was a life. And I just started sobbing."

Antietam is in Sharpsburg, Md., about 90 minutes northwest of the Beltway. Take I-270 to I-70 to Exit 49, Alt-40 west. In Boonsboro, turn left at the traffic light onto Route 34 west; it's about six miles down.
Getaway tips? Good trips? Send them to escapist@washpost.com.

For a year of Escapes articles, see The Post's web site at www.washingtonpost.com.
Cutline: The Cheat Mountain Club, not far from Durbin, W.Va., offers its guests bikes and cross-country skis.
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