My expectations were high as I turned onto the long driveway at Conley Resort in Butler, Pa. On either side of an asphalt road that looked as if you could eat off it, a line of pin oaks created pools of shade on greens that rivaled the Emerald City. Although fall was in the air, there was nary a leaf on the ground. The sound of a working yard vacuum provided the reason for that.
I passed a white house with a graceful porch on my left; ahead on the right were lodgings with hunter-green Tudor trim. No welcome mat, though. The resort entrance was up the hill, around the corner. The view must be even lovelier up there, I thought.
It amounted to a parking lot, a towering stand of trees and a goodly number of doors to guest rooms.
That, as it turns out, was a perfect introduction to the place.
There’s nothing much pretentious about Conley Resort. The R-word is most accurate in reference to the environs; in this case, western Pennsylvania farm country, about 25 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. If you’re a midlevel golfer, Conley’s 18 holes will provide a suitable challenge (slope rating: 120). If you’re a local or a passer-by, its Knickers Tavern will cut you a good deal on crispy, “giant” chicken wings during happy hour while you root for the Penguins or the Steelers on wall-mounted wide-screens.
If you’re a guest, you’ll find that the rooms are plain and sparsely appointed. The under-counter fridge might rattle just a notch above white noise, and you’ll find what the real estate folks like to call “builder-grade” fixtures in the bathrooms. The closet’s a rack-with-shelf on the wall. The door has an old-school lock and key. Room service? Nah. But chances are good that you came to propel a small white ball around all day, not relax in luxurious surroundings, right?
And when you’re a guest who doesn’t play golf, you can pass the time poolside in the sauna or hot tub. As soon as the busted parts get fixed.
Wayne Conley’s father and mother bought the resort in the early 1970s. It was humbler then – a working pony farm transformed into a duffer’s paradise with a 12-room motel to attract the “golf package” set.
“A dozen (rooms), because that’s what was needed to acquire a liquor license,” Conley says. The previous owners were the ones who placed the main building with the back facing the front.
Conley, 61, has worked there since 1974 and is now the owner. There’s a nice Conley family portrait at check-in that seems to watch over the friendly front-desk clerks.
“We have a very good staff,” Conley says. “They’re all local people who seem to enjoy working here. The grounds superintendent has been here for 30 years – started washing golf carts and educated himself on turf management.”
The owner credits Myrtle Beach, S.C., with his resort’s steady April-to-October stream of business.
“They were promoting themselves as a golf destination,” he says. “People driving down from Canada or from Buffalo found us along the way and said, ‘Hey, if we just stopped and played here instead of going all the way to South Carolina, we could get in more golf! We could play in the morning before we have to drive home!’ ”
Such things matter to the traveling golfer.
The hotel would sit nearly empty in the offseason, however. So Conley turned the uniformly shallow indoor pool with a single slide into Pirates Cove Waterpark by adding a ship’s hull, a water cannon, eye-patched mannequins, two swervy water slides and a party/video game room for the kids. It has proved to be an inexpensive getaway and an easy venue for celebrations – popular with the after-school crowd, especially in winter.
The white house I’d passed is the original farmhouse, which the Conleys renovated to sleep 16. “It’s rented every weekend all through the season,” he says. To those golf package people.
At Knickers, on the course’s closing night, I enjoyed the meatloaf dinner special (with two sides, $6.99). Post-happy hour, I was the only non-employee woman around. A few small groups of older gentlemen in golf gear populated the U-shaped bar and the tall tables with stools. Soon, I’d struck up a conversation with Earl Dillner, Conley’s tender of fairways and flowers. He was chivalrous and charming. When the carts are running, Dillner works five days a week plus one weekend morning. Turns out, he’d worked on the original pony farm, then at an ironworks, until he retired at 65.
He came back to Conley afterward and asked Wayne for a job. “He thought I was going to say he was too old,” his boss says. “He can still outwork the young guys.”
Now Dillner’s 90. Didn’t see that coming – nor the polite request that I call out jukebox titles for another senior at Knickers with money to burn. It was all downright neighborly.
As I drove away the next morning, after my complimentary full breakfast, my view of the Conley resort looked just as good as when I’d arrived.
If you go
740 Pittsburgh Road, Butler, Pa.
Rates, with breakfast, from $119 double occupancy Sunday-Thursday; from $129 Friday and Saturday.