‘The country’s first spa’: Berkeley Springs today houses spas, shops, great eats and more

Mirror photo by Cherie Hicks / This headland, formerly known as Prospect Peak, sits atop Warm Springs Ridge and overlooks the Potomac and Great Cacapon Valleys and three states: West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — George Washington discovered the “curative powers” of the warm springs here when, at the age of 16, he was a member of a survey party checking out the scenic land claimed by his mentor, British nobleman Lord Fairfax.

Later he bought property here, as did other Revolutionary War generals, Continental Congressmen and signers of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

And the town has been a popular health resort since.

“We like to say we have more licensed massage therapists than we have lawyers,” chuckled Jeanne Mozier, vice president of the Travel Berkeley Springs convention and visitors board.

The public baths in the Berkeley Springs State Park in the town’s center are open year-around, and the population of this community of about 5,000 permanent residents particularly swells when the weather warms.

It doesn’t hurt that Route 522 through here is a shortcut from central and western Pennsylvania to many points south of Washington, D.C. And it’s only a 90-minute drive from Altoona.

“At least a third of the people who end up visiting us say they’ve driven through several times and always wanted to stop,” Mozier said.

At least a day

You could enjoy the town in one day, but it would be jam-packed if you opted for spa treatments, a leisurely stroll around the town center’s baths, quaint shops and galleries and lunch.

If you choose to spend a night or two, lodging options include several bed and breakfast inns, a number of private homes for rent, the lodge at the Cacapon State Park 10 miles down the road, a couple of budget motels and three larger hotels, including the Country Inn, located on the town’s most historical site next to the famed baths at the state park.

On the site of the present-day Country Inn was a lodging house called the Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag. Scouting the western frontier of Colonial America for expansion, Washington stayed there in 1784 and met inventor and sawmill owner James Rumsey, who became a pivotal player in the town’s history.

Rumsey’s most important invention was the steamboat.

“He just didn’t get the good press that Robert Fuller got,” Mozier said, with another chuckle. “He was a genius who could never finish anything.”

That included a house that he was supposed to build nearby for then-President Washington in exchange for an endorsement Rumsey wanted for a patent, she said. The house that could have been a presidential summer retreat was never built, but the town loves Rumsey, anyway, with a monument to him and his steamboat invention in the town’s center in the state park.

Historic springs

Be sure to stroll around the park, which is anchored by several historic buildings and features that protect the springs. There are five in all within 100 yards that produce 2,000 gallons of clear, mineral water a minute at the unvarying temperature of 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

The main bathhouse that stands today was built in 1929 and still offers spa services from whirlpool and Roman baths to massages and more. Just outside, Plexiglass protects the Ladies’ Spring and its water that is directed into a concrete channel that also collects from the other springs and the overflow of pools, including one named after Lord Fairfax. Children — and adults — can splash in that knee-high channel water any time.

At the Gentlemen’s Spring, local residents still bring their jugs and load up on free water.

Across Warm Springs Run, a mountain stream that bisects the park, is an iconic gazebo that has housed events since it was dedicated on July 4, 1931. Next to it is a modern, public swimming pool fed by the springwater that is open to locals during the summer.

The springs also supply the local municipal water system, and there still is plenty left over to flow into Warm Springs Run and ultimately the Potomac River, 6 miles away.

The state park is anchored to the north with the oldest surviving building in town, the Roman Bath House & Museum, built in 1815.

Mineral springs

Today, you can slip into one of the nine tubs filled with 750 gallons of spring water heated to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. You can stretch out and float or just relax, but it doesn’t have jets as in a whirlpool or Jacuzzi.

“I’m not giving any medical advice, but the minerals in the water will make your skin and hair feel so much softer,” said state park employee Tammy Youngblood. “Parents have brought their kids with psoriasis, and they say it clears it right up.”

Upstairs in the museum, you can read where the townspeople in the 19th century advertised that bathing in and consuming the water heals more than psoriasis: gout, eczema, bronchitis and rheumatic conditions. Modern laws prevent them from making claims today, but the museum shows how the geology of the region formed 250 million years ago led to the community being founded.

“Berkeley Springs was built because of the water,” noted Mozier.

As the water gushes over the silica sandstone rock, it picks up the minerals that provide the so-called healing properties.

You can try it for free in the pools and channel waters of the state park. But there is a fee for the services at the state park; a half-hour soak in a Roman tub costs $27. And, as with all spa services — public or private — call ahead for an appointment, especially on weekends.

A half-dozen private options include Country Inn’s Renaissance Spa and Atasia, owned by Frankie Tan, who moved from Thailand where he was trained in the temples more than 30 years ago.

A lot of shop owners in Berkeley Springs today are not from here.

Escaping the rat race

Mozier and her husband, Jack Soronen, moved from Washington, D.C., 40 years ago to escape “life in the fast lane.” They bought and renovated the old Star movie theater and show first-run films on the weekends.

Laurah and Irv Miller moved from Baltimore in 1999 when they realized they could operate their mail-order business of self-defense supplies anywhere. A year ago, they opened The Naked Olive, a retail store on Main Street that sells specialty balsamic vinegars with specialty olive oils from around the world.

Stainless steel vats, called fustis, line the store’s counters where you can step up and taste-test for free. You can learn when and where olives were crushed with blood oranges to create a combination called Blood Orange olive oil; it serves well with fish, chicken or fruit salad and pairs nicely with their cranberry-pear white balsamic vinegar.

Laurah, with the help of her sensitive palate, developed mixed drinks using ingredients in her retail store that they serve in a speakeasy they opened in the back last October. You can select The Naked Mimosa that uses equal parts vodka and moscato, some orange juice and their own orange balsamic, or the Pineapple Coconut Rum Soda, which is only 110 calories because “we’re not adding the sugars and the syrups you usually get” with mixed drinks, said Irv.

From one mountain

to another

Two doors down is the Himalayan Handicraft shop owned by Kishor Shrestha, who moved from Nepal 12 years ago. All of his handcrafted items come from Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. Items include healing bowls, or bells used in meditation, and thanka scrolls made by Buddhist monks.

Another few doors away is Berkeley Springs Books, which has a few new, but mostly used books, including classic paperbacks.

Around the corner is Portals, A New Age Shoppe, that Tom Grinder opened 11 years ago after leaving the corporate world in Baltimore. There, Crystal Bowser, formerly of Roaring Spring, reads tarot cards and practices reiki, a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation.

It sits between Berkeley Springs Antique Mall — one of several antique stores in town — and Mountain Laurel Gallery, one of several art galleries in town.

The largest is the Ice House Co-Op, called so because it was an apple cold storage facility built in 1911. It is home to the Morgan (County) Arts Council, permanent displays of local artisan work that is for sale and other exhibitions.

Other shops that are in walking distance sell items ranging from herbs and wine to gifts and tobacco. There even is a flea market.

Eats

You won’t have to walk far to eat. The Naked Olive has a light menu, and Tari’s Cafe, also on Main Street, has been serving original recipes and daily specials for nearly three decades.

The Country Inn serves American food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And EarthDog Cafe is a little further south of town, about three blocks, and has excellent omelets and breakfast all day, as well as modestly priced barbecue.

Lot 12 Public House is only a block off Main Street and is open for dinner only. The owner and chef, Damian Heath, was named a “best chef” earlier this year by the prestigious James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards, the only one in West Virginia.

The most recent addition to downtown is the Cat Cafe. While the barbecue wagon out back is operated by Heath’s son, the main purpose here is not to eat but to save and adopt out stray kittens and cats, which freely wander the multiple floors of a Victorian-style home. Patrons can pay $7 and stay and play all day, which is less than half of what New York City cat cafes charge for an hour, said owner George Farnham, who works with different rescue groups.

The scenery

No visit to Berkeley Springs is complete without driving Route 9 out of town up Warm Springs Mountain. About 2 miles up on the right is a castle built in the late 1880s in the English-Norman style. You can pull into the driveway and face down the concrete gargoyles, a tall iron fence and “no trespassing” signs. It hasn’t been open to the public since the last owner died without a will.

Keep driving up the mountain to Panorama Overlook, where you can view three states — West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Take in the scenery and realize the other reason Washington liked to come here.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

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For more information…

visit the Travel Berkeley Springs website at www.BerkeleySprings.com or call 800-447-8797. In addition to places to visit, the website lists a number of community events, including the most famous Apple Butter Festival in October.

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