Mineral water springs eternal at West Virginia retreat

September 25, 1994|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

Bet you didn't know the fountain of youth was a mere 100 miles from Baltimore, tucked away in West Virginia's panhandle.

That's what the region's early Native Americans thought, anyway. And while most people have dismissed the notion that a pool of water can make you perpetually young, plenty of folks still count on the warm mineral waters of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., to erase life's aches and pains -- if only for a few hours.

Berkeley Springs is more than warm water, although for some, that's enough. For visitors, there's also a half-scale reproduction of an English castle, dozens of antiques dealers offering everything from 19th-century presidential campaign posters to 1950s Coca-Cola machines, and, south of town, a state park offering serene beauty and abundant wildlife.

Nestled near the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, south of Hancock, Berkeley Springs has been an American treasure since Colonial days. The springs themselves are contained within a tiny state park that features old and newer bathhouses, an outdoor swimming pool, a pump from which you can draw your own free mineral water, a bandstand and a museum located in an old bathhouse.

Legend has it that the springs were opened to the public in the mid-18th century by their owner, British Lord Thomas Fairfax. "Ye Famed Warm Springs" was once the playground of America's elite. George Washington owned property nearby, and a stone bathtub he reportedly used can still be seen -- though not used -- about 100 feet from the operating wells.

Start your visit to Berkeley Springs with the waters: 2,000 gallons a minute flow from the springs at a constant temperature of 74.3 degrees. You could content yourself with taking a stroll, watching the water as it flows through concrete channels that snake their way through the park, maybe touring the museum or sipping from a drinking fountain.

But the real way to enjoy the waters of the town of Bath -- an 18th-century moniker that is still the town's official name -- is to go bathing. The prices aren't steep, ranging from $8 per person for 30 minutes in the Old Roman Bath Building (which is closed for renovations until early next year) to $30 for a 15-minute bath, plus a shower and 30-minute massage in the newer bathhouse at the park's southern end.

Reservations can be made up to two weeks in advance, and are highly recommended. The baths are always busy -- about 12,000 visitors used them last year -- and get particularly crowded on weekends.

Baths in the newer facility are for individuals only, men on one side, women on the other. In the old bathhouse, families and couples can bathe together if they choose. Facilities are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.

You're guaranteed to come out more relaxed than when you went in, and people swear the mineral baths do wonders for their arthritis, rheumatism or whatever it is that ails them.

When you're finished, walk over to the large building adjacent to the park's southern end -- if you're smart, this is where you'll

spend the night. The Country Inn, with its columned entrance and spacious dining room, is furnished with antiques that will make you feel as if you've stumbled into the 1920s. Try to get a room in the original building; rooms in the newer wing are fine, but they don't have nearly the charm of their older siblings. Prices range from $35 for rooms with a shared bath to $145 for a suite.

Next, how about a visit to the only English Norman Castle in America? Up the hill from Berkeley Springs State Park, off state ++ Route 9, 109-year-old Berkeley Castle can be toured for $5. Unless you're planning to hit England, this could be the closest you will come to experiencing the 16th century. (If you're interested, the castle can be rented for weddings.)

Berkeley Springs has two antiques malls and several individual shops. On a recent visit, my wife and I traded gifts: She gave me a 1950s bubble gum machine; I gave her a cellarette -- a half-barrel that you can hang on the wall and that opens into a mini-bar. We both came away happy, and we didn't spend much money.

You can also take a leisurely walking tour of the area, thanks to historic markers explaining what was where when the town was first platted in the mid-18th century.

Finally, end your day with a trip to the 1940s-era Star Theater, the town's only movie house. Tickets are $3, the movies generally are second-run, the owner opens every show with a stern lecture about proper behavior, they use real butter on the popcorn, and for an extra 50 cents, you can sit on the sofa in back of the theater (but you'd better make reservations early -- these choice seats go fast).

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