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The Late Billionaire Didier Primat's Family Completes the Rugged and Ritzy 26-room
 Lodge at Primland in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains; The Quest Is
 On for Diamond Status
By John Bordsen, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

September 12, 2009 - MEADOWS OF DAN, VA. A hospitality conglomerate selects a site in a four-seasons climate -- near the coast, at least one interstate and various attractions. It builds a golf course or two, adds amenities, and takes it from there.

This is how most modern resorts come to pass.

Not Primland.

The sprawling mountaintop compound, just over the Virginia-North Carolina border, is a quiet newcomer created the old-fashioned way -- by an outdoorsy tycoon who favored the rugged and ritzy.

Primland most resembles the estates created close to a century ago by the Carnegies, Reynoldses and other millionaires on the Georgia Sea Islands. Over time, those retreats often went from primitive to posh to public, retaining touches that reflect their founders' fancies and flourishes.

But this resort is coming out of left field in a number of ways. Primland is atop a finger of the Blue Ridge at close to 3,000 feet above sea level. Its grounds encompass 12,000 acres: Primland is a just a tad smaller than Bermuda. And as a late-blooming recreational fiefdom it is still being shaped by the proclivities of its founder -- French-Swiss billionaire Didier Primat, whose family built petro giant Schlumberger.

Primat died last year at 64, but his personal stamp is quite fresh at this particular Primat family estate: A luxury lodge just opened -- one with an observatory whose telescope images can be seen via closed-circuit TV in its 26 suites.

An odd choice of expensive amenities? Perhaps. Just keep in mind that Primland's award-winning mountain-vista golf course was added to the complex just a few years ago to fill the activities gap between the spring and fall hunting seasons.

About the Highlands Course: We'll defer to Observer golf writer Ron Green Jr., who played Primland's 18 last year: "It is one thing to build a mountain golf course. It is quite another thing to do it splendidly."

Green loved the scenery, the links-course design (by Donald Steel) and how the game played out from tee boxes to pins: "The Highlands Course earned the high praise of being named the best new public course in America (with greens fees $75 or above) by Golf Digest magazine in 2007."

Play continues until frost settles on the greens -- probably at the close of October, around the time deer season opens. In the meantime, non-golf options include fly fishing, shooting clay pigeons, hiking nature trails and riding 90 miles of all-terrain vehicle trails.

Spectacular views do not require the closed-circuit feed from the observatory's Celestron CGE Pro 1400.

18 cabins, cottages

This is rugged terrain, where deer, wild turkey and moonshiners held their own in hard-to-reach forests. A Primat subsidiary bought the ridge in 1977 to market low-grade scrub oak as Primlumber fireplace kindling. Lumbering continued into the 1980s.

Historically, the tract also functioned as a hunting reserve and held a number of hunting cabins. Primat added more. Besides the new lodge, there are 18 cabins or cottages, plus the Primats' own.

There are two gates into the property. Because there are no billboards or markers on U.S. 58 or Va. 103, both checkpoints jump out from the back roads. Past either guardhouse, the asphalt snakes into heavy woodland; it's at least 10 minutes to the accommodations and the spur that goes to the links and the new lodge next to it.

You're struck by the sheer size of the property and how the thick underbrush comes within feet of the well-manicured shoulders. You drive at deer-crossing speed, and deer are abundant.

With this comes the feeling you have the place to yourself. On and off Primland's private roads during a weekend in August, you were more likely to see deer than guests. Occasional golf carts on the links were outnumbered by construction trucks heading toward the lodge site or vehicles from the Primland motor pool. There are about 100 staffers on the payroll.

All was at the ready, as if a platoon of serious golfers would unexpectedly turn up ... or if the Primat heirs would jet into Piedmont Triad International. (Among the eight children is Harold, a professional Le Mans racer, who keeps a red Aston-Martin down at the motor pool.)

On TV, this could have been "Lifestyles of the Rich & Elsewhere."

In hunting season, Primland's size allows up to 12 hunting parties to shoot at any given time -- and portions of the undeveloped acreage are divvied up: Here's where you can shoot; just stay within your area.

Hunting is semi-guided. Staffers drop you off at your stand, get you for lunch, and pick you up at day's end. About 100 deer are harvested a year; a bit under half are bucks.

The staff can get the nonresident tags taken care of for you. And if you shoot a deer, the staff will drag it out and clean it -- and can outsource it to someone in the area who can pack your meat in vacuum wrap.

For bird hunting, there are a semi-cleared "courses." (Raised fields are planted with sorghum and millet, which pheasant like.)

For most other activities, you get your own guide -- a boon for slickers who like to shoot (clay pigeons), fish or ride (ATVs, horses or mountain bikes).

Aside from some wines and maybe an entree at the Stables Saloon -- the on-site restaurant -- the feel was unvarnished Patrick County, Va. From vice president Steve Helms down, the majority of staffers come from small-town or rural Virginia, and quite a few started work in the logging-hunting days.

Riding ATVs, Helms says, was Didier Primat's favorite activity.

Diamond status is goal

For practical purposes on a recent Sunday evening, we were lords of the manor, the only diners having a superb meal in the restaurant. Later, from the second floor of the modern and deluxe "cottage" adjacent to a fairway, we did not see anyone until a greens- keeper groomed the 18th hole early the next morning.

Summer is quiet here; fall-spring occupancy, they say, is higher. Peak capacity? The cottages and cabins have beds for perhaps 120. That's one guest per acre, and roughly one employee per guest.

You have to wonder: What does it cost to keep this sprawling venture afloat?

The Primats run Primland through a holding company that includes a rural resort in western France plus a hunting estate in England. Two or three family members come over three or four times a year, but are primarily involved in ... aesthetics.

I was told the logic works like this: With the roads and other infrastructure in place -- including the fabulous golf course -- the family could easily and profitably sell off parts of the grounds if they chose. But their aim is "building wealth into the property" -- achieving five-diamond status on a variety of fronts, and marketing the resort accordingly: In bad times and good, the rich will always be with us.

That's why tee times are 20 minutes apart at the Primland course -- as opposed to a mere eight, as is the case at the venerable, posh Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. And why the new sales manager was imported from Greenbrier and the new general manager was recruited from the uber-swank and five-diamond American Club in Kohler, Wis.

The ridgetop lodge -- observatory and all -- debuted at the end of August and brings to the expensive table a venue for corporate retreats, plus side amenities for spouses and kids of execs and/or sportsmen.

It was built at the golf course as a 26-suite chalet. Inside: a fitness center, ballroom, theater, 600-square-foot indoor pool, kids' playroom and pub. With reservations, Elements, the 72-seat restaurant, will be open to non-guests. A day spa also opened in the lodge and will be expanded over the winter.

The quest for diamond status is manifest. Walls from one end to the other are special-order wormy oak, though some in suites are done completely in leather. The conference rooms are tricked out with high-tech equipment. The place is quite "green," too: The roof's green shingles are made from recycled tires.

The faux-silo at the corner holds the ground-floor golf shop; above it is the two-level Pinnacles suite ($1,200 per night). It's topped by the observatory deck and the observatory itself.

The telescope debuted Aug. 26 with a look at Ursa Minor, about 27 million light years away. Besides closed-circuiting to a channel on lodge TVs, the images are transmitted to Primat homes in Europe. Nonetheless, the Primat clan came for the ribbon-cutting and for a view euros can't buy in France and Switzerland.

From the mountainside deck of their cabin, the lights of Winston-Salem -- 50 miles south -- can be seen with the naked eye.

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

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