Berkeley Springs, West Virginia: Wet and Mild
“George Washington slept here” may be the foundational lie of American tourism marketing -- a claim easy to make, nearly impossible to disprove, and therefore ubiquitous. But Berkeley Springs, West Virginia has a more novel claim: “George Washington took a bath here.”
Unlike many assertions about the hospitality record of the big dog of American history, this one appears to be true: It’s well established that as a young surveyor of what was then considered the American west Washington visited the mountain hamlet known as Bath. There, clear mineral springs flowed at 74.3 degrees Fahrenheit all year. This attracted not only the native residents who’d been coming for thousands of years, but many 18th century travelers who simply wanted to wash off the road grime.
Washington returned many times, sometimes bringing various founding fathers with him to take what were believed to be waters with the power to heal.
This put Bath on the map, literally and figuratively.
George Washington's Bathtub? Um...
At the Berkeley Springs State Park in the town square park, a sign above a shallow stone rut, around the dimensions of a grave, reads “George Washington Bath Tub.” This, at least, is a lie: It’s a 20th century historic replica. Regardless, it makes very clear just how rough and rustic a warm springs spa was back then.
And unadorned country spa-going is what Berkeley Springs is all about today. The waters still flow, funneled via various geological ruptures into the town square park at about 1,000 gallons per minute. They feed the main stream that runs through town. They feed the great tiled soaking tubs that are the town’s main attraction. They flow through spigots, where anyone can grab a gallon for a one dollar donation.
And the springs produce a steady stream of visitors -- not a flood, happily, but enough to support sufficient food, lodging, and entertainment to make this small mountain town a lovely place to spend a weekend.
Berkeley Springs' Old Roman Baths
Berkeley Springs is in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, not far from its more famous mountain town counterpart, Harper’s Ferry. It’s about an hour and a half from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, and is manageably drivable from the Richmond, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia metro areas.
The most important thing to know when planning your visit is to make a reservation long in advance for a session in the Old Roman Baths, which features 750-gallon soaking tubs. This is why you should come to Berkeley Springs in the first place. The tubs are filled with genuine spring water, captured from the mountain flow and heated to 101 degrees.
The rectangular tubs, each in its own snug room, are big enough for a family and private enough for couples.
You descend three stairs into the water. It feels soft, barely above body temperature.
It all makes you wish George Washington had been lucky enough to bathe here.
The state of the spas, the spas of the state
The tubs, operated by the state, are drained, hosed clean, and refilled for each guest. West Virginia also operates the Old Bath House, located just across the park. It features soaks in 150-gallon hot tubs, saunas, massages, and other spa services.
The facilities are clean and simple. Services are provided by friendly, well-trained locals. But if you expect a Danish masseuse skilled in exotic manipulations of obscure tissues, New Age music, and aromatherapy tuned to your yin, you will be disappointed. But you will emerge relaxed, refreshed, and feeling well-tended-to.
In warmer months folks linger at the stone walls that now contain the springs, rolling up their pants and walking the length. Kids splash around, and others dangle their legs into the flow and watch the minnows nibble their toes. Across the park stands the small Museum of the Berkeley Springs, a simple collection of artifacts, photos, and signage that can absorb another hour if you’re so inclined.
But that’s pretty much it: There isn’t much more to the springs part of Berkeley Springs. But it’s enough.
The Country Inn at Berkeley Springs
Which brings us to the Country Inn, another place you should book well in advance of your visit. The hotel abuts the state park, making it an ideal base for a weekend exploring the town. (It is not part of the Country Inn chain of discount hotels.)
The Inn’s several antecedents, each increasing in grandness, hosted various Revolutionary-era potentates, among them -- you were about to guess this -- George Washington.
Splendid balls were thrown, important meetings were held, wealthy families presented their daughters in cotillions, and so forth. In 1898 a fire burned down the 500-room-resort that stood there.
The land fell to various uses, among them a carousel and a campground. Today’s inn was built by a local family in 1933, and has been independently operated by various families since then. It has been expanded multiple times.
The Inn’s be-columned facade doesn't quite prepare you for the rambling, lovably worn old place inside, which earns every one of its three stars. The lobby has a comfortable area for gathering and conversation, and a gallery on local history. There is a country restaurant, a bar, and a full-service spa. At the spa you can of course bathe in mineral water piped in from the springs.
If you can score one of the rooms in the main inn building (about $150 to $200 per night), I recommend it. The spaces are comfortable and largely modernized without sacrificing their rusticated charm, including imperfectly matched antique furniture and appointments. Our family once stayed in the newer buildings out back, and they just didn’t have the same wayback appeal.
My wife and I enjoyed a pleasant early dinner at Morgan Tavern, the Inn’s warmly paneled pub just off the lobby. The bar was full of day-drinking locals, one of whom said he returned at least once a week for the Reuben sandwich.
The menu, which also serves the adjacent full-service, white tablecloth restaurant, was strangely eclectic. And that afternoon, so were we: We had General Tso’s Cauliflower and Tuscany Flatbread. The food and drinks were perfectly serviceable, the company a delight.
The Town of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia: Proto-hip
You may read that the town of Berkeley Springs is a hip little mountain town, an up-and-coming star in the mid-Atlantic region.
Well: As someone who has visited many such towns, I can tell you that’s a generous interpretation.
It’s true that you can spend a pleasant hour strolling the several few blocks around the park.
On the main drag, North Washington Street, you’ll see the historic Star Theater with a wonderful preserved marquee and an old-school big screen that still shows movies; the Naked Olive, a gourmet foods retailer attached to a bar and restaurant; an art gallery; an utterly unexpected Himalayan gift shop; a tony private spa; and Inspired Chaos, a frisky, funny housewares and clothing store in a sprawling old house one street back from North Washington, said by a certificate on the wall to be among the best small retailers in the state.
Back one street on the other side of the street you’ll find Hunter’s Hardware, a longtime community retailer of tools, appliances, and guns that makes no attempt to be cool and therefore is.
Around the corner there’s a small antique mall.
There are gift, coffee, and ice cream stores. But that's about it.
The best restaurant in Berkeley Springs
The best meal we had in Berkeley Springs was at Lot 12 Public House, the area’s first cheffy, farm-to-table restaurant. It’s a few blocks away, up in the residential quarter. For dinner it offers a three-course fixed price menu, at $75 per person. We had tasty, well-plated entrees of scallops and lamb chops, and glasses of wine from the small but well-curated list. All of it was well-sourced and -executed. Lot 12 could easily compete with its counterparts in bigger cities.
The Lot 12 Public House restaurant could also be a breakthrough for tiny Berkeley Springs.
Restaurants like Lot 12 can become area magnets for travelers seeking sophisticated experience, and can spur the development of additional upmarket eateries and attractions.
Who knows? Berkeley Springs could actually become a hip little town, an up-and-coming rising star in the mid-Atlantic region. Whether that would be a good or bad thing is a topic for another time.
In the meantime, it’s a lovely place to spend a weekend just as it is.