West Virginia Wild and wonderful: Whether your tastes run to English castles and wax museums or to white-water rafting and steam-engine trains, there's something for you in the Mountain State.

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April 21, 1996|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN STAFF

The birthplace of the mother of one of our greatest presidents. A city carved out of the side of a mountain. A movie house that's been showing films since the silent era. A wax museum depicting what many historians consider the first shots of the Civil War. A castle straight out of the Norman Conquest.

And all an easy day trip from Baltimore.

Come to West Virginia for a day, and you'll want to spend a week. There's so much to do: Rent a cabin in a state park, go white-water rafting down the New River Gorge, hike a mountain. Recharge your batteries.

Even if all you have is a day or a weekend, West Virginia has some interesting sites to visit. Here are just a few suggestions:

Berkeley Castle: Nestled in the hills overlooking Berkeley Springs, just 100 miles from Baltimore, sits the only English Norman castle in the United States, an architectural oddity that is testimony to what a man will do for love. The structure oozes unkempt charm, and it's probably one of the few castles around with artificial turf on the roof.

It also may be unique among castles in that, if you're 6 feet tall, you have a good chance of bumping your head on the doorways and stairwell ceilings.

That's because the 111-year-old structure is a half-scale reproduction of England's Berkeley Castle. Col. Samuel Taylor Suit, a Civil War veteran who later served as ambassador to Great Britain, built it to impress his fiancee, Rosa Pellham, who was 29 years his junior and apparently had quite a taste for the lavish.

Befitting its royal demeanor, the castle ([304] 258-4000) lords it over Berkeley Springs, looking down on it from a ridge just north of the town center. And while the current owners could probably use some cash to spruce things up -- some of the potholes in the entrance driveway could swallow a small car, and some of the explanatory text inside is handwritten on cardboard or paper -- a self-guided tour of the castle's interior is a neat way to spend an hour or so.

Berkeley Castle is like the museum most people might set up if they owned a really cool house and figured they could make a buck by letting people inside: To call the furnishings (including a 1940s-era Coke machine) eclectic would be an understatement. There's not a lot of gloss, and historic preservationists might let out a howl of protest. But the place can be a lot of fun for people with imagination. And, you can rent it for your wedding reception.

Shepherdstown Opera House: OK, so an opera's never been performed here. The owners didn't make up the name all they did was buy an old movie theater and continue an 87-year tradition in this tiny college town 75 miles from Baltimore.

The opera house ([304] 876-3704) has been showing films since 1909, and thanks to an extensive restoration by its current owners some 20 years ago, it's never looked better. A pale blue streak of neon accentuates the entrance (the effect is quite elegant), the refreshment stand offers real butter on its popcorn and an assortment of fancy sodas and ice teas, and the film offerings tend to be on the offbeat side, not the sort of stuff you'd see at the local cineplex. (You won't see "Toy Story," but you might very well catch "Restoration" or "Beautiful Girls.")

Nicest touch: The seats are originals. And while they may not be the most comfortable they've been reupholstered, but they are metal and don't have a lot of spring in them it's nice to know you're laughing at Woody Allen in the same seats from which people laughed at Charlie Chaplin 80 years ago.

Nancy Hanks Farm: There's not much to do here, save read a 60-year-old tablet attached to a rock, poke around the cabin and reflect on the young woman born in these hills who would become the mother of Abraham Lincoln.

But maybe that's enough.

Little is known about Nancy Hanks Lincoln; she died when Abraham was a young boy and is buried at the old Lincoln farm (now a national historic site) in southern Indiana. But she must have done something right.

The farm here, about 200 miles from Baltimore, is a nice place to reflect on what it must have been like to be a young girl growing up in the wilds of Virginia in the latter part of the 17th century. It's no longer in the middle of nowhere, but it's pretty far off the beaten path. Chances are you'll be the only visitor here, so you'll be able to ponder things in silence. And after you've read the plaque and walked around the cabin, that's pretty much all there is to do.

One tip, however: When you leave, continue west on U.S. 50 until you reach the top of the mountain. There (after a good hour or so of mountain driving, with enough curves and switchbacks to make you swear off cars forever), you'll see a general store where you can stop for a bite to eat. A hand-painted sign outside notes that Abraham Lincoln's mother was born here and urges visitors to look back east and see why the nearby landmark is called Saddle Mountain.

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