Health and history in Berkeley Springs

George Washington favored the W.Va. spa

Trips

Road Trips / Regional Events

April 28, 2005|By Ronald Hube | Ronald Hube,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Many places boast that George Washington once slept there, but Berkeley Springs, W.Va., might be the only locale that brags that the Father of Our Country bathed there.

Washington often visited the warm mineral springs that emerge from the base of a mountain in West Virginia's eastern panhandle, and his fondness for the waters helped spawn what is said to be the country's first health spa and the surrounding town of Bath. Unofficially renamed Berkeley Springs, the area today continues to attract relaxation-starved tourists who wade in the waters or soak in the spring-fed baths.

Bubbling mainly from five spots in the ground, the springs produce as much as 2,000 gallons of water per minute, warmed - possibly by molten rock far below the earth's surface - to a constant temperature of 74.3 degrees. As directed by Thomas, Lord Fairfax, who owned land at the springs in the 1700s, access to the water (there are pools and a shallow trough in the center of town) is free and open to the public. Spring drinking water from a tap is free too - jugs are for sale, or you can bring your own. (Each February, the town hosts the Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting, which includes a judging of municipal tap waters from around the world.)

Fees start at $18 per half-hour to enjoy heated spring water in a conventional bathtub or a Roman bath - a private, sunken 750-gallon pool. The Old Roman Bath House, which dates to about 1815 and is the oldest public building in Morgan County, W.Va., has nine of the baths, each of which holds four adults comfortably. But bath attendant Ashley Miller says she has seen as many as 10 people crowd into one.

Said to be curative, the spring waters contain minerals including magnesium carbonate, an antacid. The springs and baths are in Berkeley Springs State Park (2 S. Washington St., 304-258-2711, www.berkeley springssp.com), which also offers massages and steam and infrared heat treatments. Reservations are recommended on weekends. A swimming pool, filled with chlorinated spring water, is open during the summer.

There's more to Berkeley Springs than its water, as visitors will see at the Museum of the Berkeley Springs, on the second floor of the bathhouse. The museum includes exhibits on fossil shells and silica from the area. "It's among the purest in the world," Lois Machemer, the museum's head docent, says of the silica, which is shipped elsewhere for glassmaking.

But the springs are the town's claim to fame - an expansion of the museum's displays on the water and its geology is expected soon. "That's what we're really known about: the spring and the spa," Machemer says.

Where to visit

When he wasn't lounging around in the water, George Washington was apparently enjoying the Bath/Berkeley Springs area's mountain scenery. He often rode his horse to a nearby vista now known as Panorama Overlook.

More than 200 years later, sightseers flock to the spot three miles east of town on Route 9 to take in an impressive view of the Potomac River 1,000 feet below and the mountains of three states beyond. Panorama Overlook has been named by the American Museum of Natural History in New York as one of the five best views in the United States.

Berkeley Springs itself rates high for beauty, too - beauty of the manmade variety. Of the 663 people who live there, about 125 are working artists, musicians and writers. American Style magazine has placed the town among the top 25 art destinations in the nation, and one reason is the Ice House (Independence and Mercer streets, 304- 258-2300, www.macicehouse. org), a four-story, 40,000-square- foot former cold storage building that is now a visual and performing arts center. Coming events include a concert by folk musician and storyteller Bill Wellington on May 6.

Where to shop

It seems only natural for a homeopathy medicine shop to sit across the street from Berkeley Springs' famous baths. Homeopathy Works (33 Fairfax St., 304-258-2541), which bills itself as a museum and a store, offers medicine made on the premises. Also in keeping with the town's self-nurturing nature is the New Age store Portals (81A N. Washington St., 304-258-5200), which sells crystals, of course, plus jewelry, music, books and clothing.

Two antiques malls, The Old Factory (112 Williams St., 304-258-1788) and the Heritage Trail Antique Mall (109 N. Washington St., 304-258-5811), host between them about 80 dealers who offer items such as old glassware, ceramics, magazine covers and campaign buttons.

More old things can be had at the RAG Shop (109 N. Washington St., 304-258-7742), which sells "recycled American goods" such as furniture and appliances.

Where to eat

Inspirations Bakery and Cafe (174 N. Washington St., 304-258-2292), with its bright and cheery dining area, is an inviting place to have a morning meal. Items on the breakfast menu range from Huevos Mexicanos to homemade oatmeal.

The bar/dining area at the American Grill (The Inn and Spa at Berkeley Springs, 1 Market St., 304-258-2210) is a small, dark space that is inviting in its own cozy way. Offerings include sandwiches, pastas and steaks.

Eating at Maria's Garden and Inn (42 Independence St., 888-629-2253, www.marias garden.com) is a religious experience, literally. The Italian restaurant is decorated with more than 100 images of the Virgin Mary, including a grotto in the outdoor garden area. The restaurant is listed in the book Way Out in West Virginia, a guide to oddities of the state written by Berkeley Springs resident Jeanne Mozier.

Getting there

Berkeley Springs is two hours from Baltimore. Take Interstate 70 West to U.S. 522 South near Hancock, then drive six miles to Berkeley Springs.

More information

Contact the Berkeley Springs-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce at 800-447-8797, www.berkeleysprings.com.

For more regional trips, see Page 36.

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