The first thing you notice in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, is people filling jugs with water.
Free water for the public was part of the town’s charter in 1776. And to this day, you can fill jugs at the state park.
Native Americans introduced colonists to the healing waters. Early developer George Washington envisioned a sanitarium like Britain’s Roman Bath. Visitors indulged in gambling, cock fights, and horse races. Today at the bathhouse operated by West Virginia State Parks, you can soak for as little as $55 with massage.
Bath became Berkeley Springs but the official municipal name remains Bath. Historian and movie theater owner Jeanne Mozier explains, “When George Washington and his colonial cronies established a town around the warm springs in 1776, they had visions of a health and social center like the famed Bath in England. The post office was established at Bath, called Berkeley Springs since there already was a Bath further south along the Blue Ridge. Up until the Civil War both names were used.”
Now the tiny state park on Washington Street is the hub of town. In addition to historic bathhouses, you can experience New Age therapy at Sage Moon, Asian massage at Frankie Tan’s Artasia Spa, and beauty rituals at the Country Inn’s Renaissance Spa.
Theories about the water’s medicinal benefit vary (see analysis on the park website), but mineral content comes from the silica-rich soil. Gushing from the hillside, 2000 gallons of mineral water per minute at a constant 74 degrees. Purists beware: chlorine has been added at the public pump.
For a serious soak, reserve one of the nine private pools at the Roman Bathhouse, dating from 1815. Holding up to 6 people, these step-down pools recall the spa’s golden era.
Only pure mineral water is used at the park bathhouses, we learned from Trena Scott, supervisor of spa services. Built in 1929, recently updated, it’s still basic: Soak in a tub or pool, followed by massage. Separate curtained alcoves for men and women. Heated to 102 degrees F., the soothing whirlpool prepares you for a rubdown. Towel, robe, and locker included: 30 minutes $55 ($60 weekends); 60 minutes $99 ($111 weekends). A sauna sweat can be added.
For a serious soak, reserve one of the nine private pools at the Roman Bathhouse, dating from 1815. Holding up to 6 people, these step-down pools recall the spa’s golden era. Filled with 750 gallons of fresh water, a pool can be rented for 30 minutes ($27 for first person, $17 for additional persons). Reservations 304-258-3976.
Stroll Washington street to sample authentic Appalachian hospitality. Long-time favorite Tari’s restaurant is a stone’s throw from the venerable Star Theatre, owned by Jeanne Mozier, marking her 40th anniversary showing weekend movies for $4.50, plus the best popcorn. Summer concerts at the park bandstand are free.
Stay in town at the Highlawn Inn, a Victorian B&B mansion filled with antiques (304-258-5700; 888-290-4142); The Manor House (800-974-5730). Adjoining the state park, cozy Country Inn offers restaurant, tavern, rooms, and suites, plus hillside hydrotherapy, facials, and massage (800-822-6630, 304-500-2642). Nearby, Cacapon State Park has lodging, golf, hiking, and lake, plus spa package at Berkely Springs (800-225-5982 or 304-258-1022).
Reopening this fall, the Coolfont Resort where Martha and Sam Ashelman started the fitness fad. Other signs of economic development: A new bottling plant trucks in water from the park. And homeopathic remedies made here are sold in shops.
Berkeley Springs is a great getaway, about two hours by car from Washington, DC.
Just bring jeans and relax.