I lived in sub-Saharan Africa for nine years and never once awoke to roaring lions and zebras barking. But the first night I ever spent in Pennsylvania, those were my a.m. wake-up calls. It was discombobulating to say the least. Welcome to the jungle that is Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.
Lest you think I jest, the amenity packed property is home to a Wild Kingdom of not just lions and tigers and bears (no lie) but Fennec foxes, goats and an assortment of other four-legged freaks. My kids LOVED it. I, on the other hand, found the hyena cackles a bit distracting while navigating a knee-knocking 5-foot par putt just the other side of the fence. Almost pulled it into the pond.
Don’t take that as a criticism to the crossover cohabitation arrangement they’ve created there. Not at all. Your wildlife neighbors may be of another realm, but so are the hospitality levels, the array of accommodations, the amenities and the golf (including a new Pete Dye design which opened in 2017). In fact, given its perk diversity, Nemacolin Woodlands belongs on the shortest list of America’s VERY Best Family Resorts -- easily in the same breath as Omni Amelia Island, Big Cedar Lodge, the Hilton Waikoloa, Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and whatever other destination YOU might love.
It doesn’t have an ocean and doesn’t need one. It’s still America’s Casa de Campo—a pamper-packed paradise with plenty of Pete Dye golf.
But let’s just say you’re unconvinced -- that my laud and applause are not enough to get you to vacation in (or move to) Southwestern Pennsylvania. Allow me to apply a little more magnetism to the pitch in that case.
Beyond the Wild Kingdom there is a wilder Adventure Center. The “AC” has a Fatbird Superflyer with over 3,000 feet of dueling zip lines that will whip you at 60 mph over the slopes of Mystic Mountain. There’s a canopy tour and towering ropes course with obstacles named Leap of Faith, Walk the Plank, X-Factor, The Weave, Tight Rope and C.Y.P. (an acronym you’ll figure out mid-experience). The 50-foot freestanding climbing wall is also not for the faint of heart, but the disc golf is (the mini-golf too), and the AC has mountain biking, tennis and paintball if you can find any extra time in your days here. There are even shooting and Jeep Off-Road Academies. Speaking from experience (and exhaustion), the Adventure Center does NOT respect a parent’s wish for vacation R&R.
But that’s okay. There are other places on the property that allow time and opportunity for unwinding, beginning with the spas. Nemacolin Woodlands is all about the entire family experience. Accordingly, there are two spas—The Grove Kidz Spa for ages 5 to 15 and the award-winning Woodlands Spa for ages 16+, with forty treatment rooms and a full-service salon. Here’s your R&R. There are also four pools on property: a Kidz pool, a lap pool, an outdoor pool and a most luxurious aquatic setting at the exquisite Falling Rock Lodge—the Infinity pool.
This place runs a gob of gamut. From the animals to the activities to the escapes. The six lodging options provide another: RV Park, private houses/townhomes (The Links models are even pet-friendly), the English Tudor-style Lodge, the five-star Falling Rock and the Ritz Paris replica the Chateau Lafayette. There’s lodging to please every visitor and family, but once I got into Falling Rock. I refused to leave.
Part of that had to do with one of the resort’s marquee restaurants, Aqueous, being on Falling Rock’s main floor. Sitting just off the 18th green of Pete Dye’s Mystic Rock golf course, this could be the nation’s most glamorous 19th holes, except that you’d never think of Aqueous and “hole” in the same sentence.
There are two other fine-dining establishments on property (including the world-famous Lautrec) and six far more casual eateries, including The Caddyshack -- a more stereotypical “19th Hole” -- housed in the original clubhouse. Throw in seven bars and lounges, and a loaded wine cellar for the aspiring Sommelier and you can’t possibly need anything else.
This is a four seasons resort, and the skiing/Sundial Lodge combo no doubt ranks among Pennsylvania’s best winter stay and plays, but it’s the three-season Pete Dye golf that serves as the bow to perfectly wrap the colorful 2,000-acre package all up.
The magnificent Mystic Rock golf course is a powerful draw to Pittsburgh’s professionals of every occupation (just 70 miles southeast of the metro area), even hosting the PGA Tour’s 84 Lumber Classic for four years (from 2003-2006). There’s a statue of Pete Dye overlooking the picturesque second hole (it’s good luck to rub his head) and at least a dozen other photographic moments scattered throughout a highly underrated round.
The other marquee golf attraction is Dye’s new Shepherd's Rock, the only Mid-Atlantic course to open in 2017. I haven’t yet had the chance to play it, but I have it on good (fellow professional rater) authority that Shepherds Rock features more of the Allegheny Mountain majesty showcased by Mystic Rock in an equally beautiful and remote slice of golf heaven. One of these days I’ll get out there to write an extensive golf story. For now, just know that this place Rock-ed when I visited it a couple years ago, and now it “Rocks” (plural) even more.
Shepherd's Rock will gain plenty of acclaim as it matures, a significant complement to what Mystic Rock already celebrates: 20+ years of greatness, Golfweek’s designation of it as the No. 1 public course in Pennsylvania and Golf Digest ranking it in America’s Top 100. Resort founder Joseph A. Hardy had grand plans for this countryside plot of land. I have to believe that even his loftiest of expectations have been exceeded. Mine sure were.