When your body screams ‘no more!’ wend your way west along scenic Highway 70 to Berkeley Springs, the West Virginia town whose raison d’être is its warm-water mineral springs. Stressed-out city slickers flock here in droves as they have for generations: Berkeley Springs is America’s first spa town and dates back to the days of George Washington, who stumbled upon the town during a scouting mission.
The multitude of local spas all employ the healing waters in their treatments, which range from ‘raindrop therapies’ to detoxifying body wraps that will leave you feeling blissed-out and worry-free. But there’s more than just water. Art is a big deal in Berkeley Springs, and many of the town’s restaurants and shops double as galleries carrying everything from pottery and paper, to leather crafts and stained glass. It only takes an afternoon to walk the town’s two main streets, but don’t rush home. A couple of days here, and you’ll feel a million miles from the big city.
- Melt your muscles in one of the fabulous spas.
- Catch a flick from the comfort of a sofa in a Depression-era movie theater.
- Check out George Washington’s bathtub in the tiny state park.
- Dine alfresco on the most scenic porch in town at Lot 12.
- Two hours from the Mall in DC.
- Limited cell coverage.
- Bridge traffic; the 522 bridge off US 70 in Hancock is currently one lane and gets jammed during rush hour.
- Many businesses close on Mondays and Tuesdays; plan accordingly.
See & Do in Berkeley Springs
The town centers around Berkeley Springs State Park, a grassy area no bigger than half a football field, with a New England-style gazebo at its center. The grounds get mobbed during festivals and summertime concerts. I like the outdoor public swimming pool ($3.50 per person), which is fed directly from the hot springs.
The park’s yellow-brick building houses the public baths (aka the Roman baths), where you can get a no-frills soak and massage, so long as you don’t mind getting rubbed down with mineral oil and 190-proof ethyl alcohol. Don’t get any high-minded ideas about the beauty of these Roman baths. They remind me of a haunted sanatorium, with echoey tiled cells and steps leading down to a rectangular hole filled with 102-degree mineral water from the spring. Still, the baths are inexpensive and give a budget-friendly taste of the town’s waters. Note: opposite sex couples and groups are not permitted. There’s also a tiny, free museum on the second floor with exhibits on the town’s early history.
Who needs Evian? Look for the public hand pump next to the public baths, where you can fill your water bottle with the slightly tangy mineral water for free. Locals wheel gallon jugs and massive water containers to the pump to take the celebrated waters at home.
Nobody knows for certain if George actually stripped naked and dunked himself in the tiny, rectangular stone-lined hole in the state park, but the town believes it is the site of George Washington’s bathtub—they even spend an entire weekend celebrating this quirky factoid during George Washington’s Bathtub Celebration.
Many people believe there is a special energy in Berkeley Springs, which has drawn a huge number of holistic healers, alternative health therapists, and spiritual shamans. Contact the chamber of commerce for a list of healers—if you’re into past-life regression and tarot card readings.
The Bath House is my hands-down favorite spa. Try to book Michael Pushkin, a master masseur and bodyworker. On my last visit, I had a pounding migraine, and by merely moving his hands above my head, he swept the pain right out of my brain. Spooky. But I’m a convert! Try the spa’s refreshing Balinese body polish or the yummy chocolate-covered-strawberry body wrap that may leave you wanting to lick yourself afterward. Step into the adjacent shop for soothing lavender and calendula lotions, potent aromatherapy oils, and fizzy bath bombs, among other delicious-scented gifts.
Don’t even think of leaving town without experiencing a rubdown at Atasia Spa. Owner Frankie Tan studied massage at the Wat Po Buddhist Temple in Bangkok, and you’ll become soft as putty under his strong hands. His Asian-inspired spa has a lush central garden—the setting for manis and pedis—and warm treatment rooms with furnishing custom-designed for the spa. The herbal wraps, mud treatments, and raindrop therapies are good, but for a special treat, hit the Hawaiian room for a two-therapist Lomi Lomi healing massage. Aloha! Note: all bookings must be made by phone; no walk-ins accepted.
Five Senses Spa is tucked into the side of a mountain at the back end of the imposing The Country Inn at Berkeley Springs (see lodging review, below). It’s not my favorite spa because its rooms feel more clinical than inviting, but its has a wall of windows that provide an unobstructed view of the adjacent Berkeley Springs State Park. You’ll get this delicious vista while soaking in a double Jacuzzi tub before a body treatment. I’m particular to the peppermint sea twist wrap—the cool tingle lasts all day. Manis and pedis are done in a large open room, so choose somewhere else if you prefer more privacy.
Spend the extra 50 cents to upgrade your red leather seat to a comfy couch, and kick back for a first-run film at the historic Star Theater . Arrive early to browse the museum-like lobby, which is heavy on local nostalgia. The popcorn here kicks ass.
Amber glass bottles line the wooden shelves of Washington Homeopathic Products pharmacy, which is filled with potions and pills to cure what ails you. Skeptical? I was too, until I had to buy ‘throat drops’ for my husband, who got sick during our romantic weekend in town. Darned if they didn’t work. Get a chuckle from the remedies for excessive flatulence, nightly aggravations, worms, and even sadness.
Since this is an artistic community as much as a spa town, you’ll find myriad galleries and boutiques carrying the work of local artisans, particularly jewelry, metalwork, and sculpture. Look for the kitty in the Mountain Laurel Gallery; she usually hides in one of the handcrafted wooden bowls. I like this place for its eclectic collection of glass and metal pieces—I bought a springy metal frog that entertained my own cat for days.
The Berkeley Springs Antique Mall is a huge warehouse of hodgepodge items ranging from old record albums and posters, to Royal Doulton dish sets, to coins and slogan buttons from long-since-forgotten presidential campaigns. It’s paradise for patient bargain hunters with patience (I found a complete colored Pyrex bowl set), but could prove overwhelming for shoppers on a mission.
Pick up a spiritual singing bowl at Himalayan Handicrafts. It isn’t your average tourist junk shop: every item has been brought back from Nepal. Retrodini pays homage to a time when rockabilly was hot and the pompadour was high style. The store is expanding again in August, and will increase their stock of wild, vintage clothing and retro luggage, furniture, and swanky pop-culture tchotchkes.
Berkeley Springs Restaurants
From April to October, sample home-grown, West Virginia goodies at the Sunday morning farmers market. Jams, fresh produce and herbs, local meats and a variety of house and dried plants are on offer. Kids can enter contests for prizes of candy.
Go casual at Tari’s ($-$$), a friendly tavern dishing up monster burgers and healthful salads. The spicy sausage jambalaya comes with homemade cornbread, and the creamy buttermilk slaw goes with just about anything on the menu. Decorated in whimsical family heirlooms and the namesake owner’s personal collection of stringed instruments, the restaurant also doubles as a local art gallery with pieces from more than 30 artists.
The top table in town, Lot 12 Public House ($$$) occupies a gorgeous 1913 house, with a wraparound porch overlooking the state park. The contemporary menu lists hearty classics like roasted duck and coq au vin, and specialties like grilled venison sausage. Save room for the scrumptious desserts. Ladies, if you walk here from town, leave the high heels home. The hill is s-t-e-e-p. Closed Mondays, Tuesdays, and the entire month of January.
The potent java at Fairfax Coffee House kicks you into high gear. There’s also a small lunch menu of paninis, soups, and sandwiches. The cafe doubles as a gift shop loaded with hand-painted mugs and teapots.
With a name like Panorama at the Peak, you know the view has got to be great—National Geographic Traveler even featured it as one of the best in the country. Breaking the old axiom that you have to trade food quality for vistas, the kitchen uses top-notch local ingredients, and makes a mean slow-roasted prime rib. Other standouts include the spicy butternut squash and cider soup, and the steaming-hot pot pies. Vegetarians and vegans are also well respected here. At the wildly popular Sunday brunch (make reservations), portobello benedicts and pecan-studded amaretto French toast draw rave reviews.
I haven’t yet had a chance to check out La Luna Gallery and Wine Bar, but I hear it’s ideal for a glass of vino after a summer evening concert in the park.
- $ = entrées under $10
- $$ = $10 to $15
- $$$ = $16 to $22
- $$$$ = $22 and up
Berkeley Springs Hotels and Inns
The Country Inn at Berkeley Springs ($$-$$$) is the grande dame of lodging, with plantation-like white columns and a rocking-chair front porch. It’s got the best location in town, adjacent to the state park, and mere steps from shopping and restaurants. There are 62 rooms and five suites divided between the main house and the motel-like West Wing in the back. I prefer the large rooms in the main house, overlooking the mazelike gardens. Guests get first dibs on spa appointments at the onsite Five Senses Spa (see review, above). The jury is out on the restaurant: new owners promise to improve the once-lackluster cooking (see comments, below), but I’ve not tasted it yet. Give it a try and let us know.
Four Victorian homes comprise the Highlawn Inn ($$-$$$). Rooms are heavy on the lace (think Grandma’s house), but have floor-to-ceiling windows. The floral-print furnishings—lamps, curtains, and rugs—drip with fringe. Nine rooms are divided between two of the homes. All nine have private bathrooms, working fireplaces, and Jacuzzi tubs where you can draw your own mineral bath; only a few have old-school TVs (no remote!). Families and groups should consider booking either of the remaining two homes: the carriage house or the bathkeeper’s quarters, both of which have exposed ceiling beams, old-fashioned clawfoot tubs, and stained-glass windows. Innkeeper Sandra Kauffman uses herbs from her garden for the exceptional breakfast omelets. If you can, plan to attend one of her silver-service dinners (monthly; $49 per person), when she breaks out the good china and silverware, accompanying an amazing spread of locally grown vegetables and meats, homemade breads, and wines from West Virginia’s Fisher Ridge winery.
Some restaurants and shops rent rooms upstairs from their business. The park-view suite ($-$$), is a three-bedroom apartment atop the Washington Homeopathy Products shop; it includes a full kitchen. Above the Bath House is another park-view suite ($$-$$$); this one is slightly smaller, with one bedroom, a full kitchen, high-speed internet access, and a great living-room view of the state park. Around the corner, Tari’s ($) rents four bare-bones-basic rooms; if you’re staying for two nights, take advantage of the super cheap $179, two-night, two-lunch, two-dinner special—for two. YouBawtWhat! throws free bike rentals in with their suites, which feel more a living room than a hotel room. Each sports slightly worn but cozy sofas, reading chairs, queen-sized beds, and a kitchen outfitted with basic utensils and pots and pans.
Into camping? Sycamore Landing ($) sits right on the Cacapon River, a short, twisty drive down Rt. 9 from Berkeley Springs. Cacapon Hideaway ($-$$) has primitive sites, in addition to not-so-primitive camping cabins and homes (with satellite TV!).
Berkeley Springs Vacation Homes
Consider renting a private vacation home or cabin for the weekend. Two of my favorites are Sunset Mountain Farm ($$), which has a large deck with views of your own private pond, and Gobbler’s Knob ($$$), which has an awesome stone fireplace. Both are a ten-minute drive from downtown Berkeley Springs.
- $ = standard double under $100
- $$ = $100 to $150
- $$$ = $150 to $200
- $$$$ = $200 and up