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The Good, the Bad And the Oily

Afterward we headed to Troubadour Lounge, a bar about eight miles from downtown that hosts country and bluegrass acts. The parking lot was filled with trucks and the interior was a joyous jumble of Christmas lights, disco balls and portraits of country singers. The crowd was laid-back and the bluegrass band onstage that night harmonized beautifully. Karen and I were befriended by two gentlemen named Dave and Billy, who -- in the contradictory style we were growing to expect from Berkeley Springs -- waxed lovingly about guns, all-terrain vehicles and some beautiful etchings Dave had seen in Amsterdam.

On Sunday, with fear in my heart, I returned to Berkeley Springs State Park, where a small museum tells how George Washington used to take the waters here. The inside of the yellow brick bathhouse, built around 1930, looked exactly the same as I remembered it, with all the institutional charm of a minimum-security prison. Once I'd wrapped myself in a sheet in the women's-only area and placed my possessions in a crumbling locker, I was escorted to a bathtub filled with mineral water. Then, just as it happened last time, I had to hand my sheet to an employee and clamber awkwardly into the tub as she looked on. A shrill timer signaled the end of my 15-minute soak.

Frankie Tan, above, is one of the most popular therapists in the spa town of Berkeley Springs, W. Va. (Melissa Cannarozzi For The Washington Post)

The massage itself was straightforward. I was coated in olive oil. My masseuse had reasonably good hands, and I might have been able to relax except that only a curtain separated me from two groups of women engaging in animated conversation. After 30 minutes, my body sticky and hair stringy with oil, I suffered the indignity of disrobing in front of three sullen-looking employees and stepped into a shower, where I found a liquid soap dispenser and a sign saying "Thank you for not shampooing your hair."

Wet, oily and dispirited, I walked one block over to my next appointment, at Atasia Spa. There are five massage therapists on staff, and I'd made an appointment with the most renowned, owner Frankie Tan, who is originally from Malaysia and arrived in Berkeley Springs in 1988. Tan came through for me. His technique incorporates elements of Western and Thai massage; his hands are strong and sure. For the last part, I was sitting in a chair. Tan pinned my hair up, placed hot stones and steaming washcloths on my shoulders and back, and gave me a scalp massage.

Afterward, I put on a robe and stepped outside, where Tan offered a cup of water and invited me to sit in one of the huge round chairs in the "serenity room." It was dark. I curled into a fetal position and decided this chair was my destiny, at least for the moment.

Escape Keys

GETTING THERE: Downtown Berkeley Springs, W.Va., is about two hours from Washington. Take I-270 north 30 miles to I-70 west, which you'll follow for just over 50 miles. Take Route 522 south about six miles right into town.

STAYING THERE: There are plenty of places to stay, from small B&Bs to camping to downtown apartments to vacation homes. See www.berkeleysprings.com for information. Rates at the River House B&B (Rock Ford Road, Great Cacapon, 304-258-4042, www.riverhousewv.com), which has three rooms, are between $75 and $85. Coolfont Resort (3621 Cold Run Valley Rd., 800-888-8768, www.coolfont.com) has many housing options, including cabins, a manor house and a lodge. Rooms in the lodge start at $160 on weekend nights in high season, and one-bedroom cabins are $215. Maria's Garden & Inn (45 Independence St., 304-258-2021, www.mariasgarden.com) offers summer rates from $70 to $150.

BEING THERE: There are several spas in town. A 45-minute massage at Atasia Spa (41 Congress St., 304-258-7888, www.atasiaspa.com) is $55; request owner Frankie Tan if you want his hybrid technique and hot stones. Pedicures, including salt scrub for your lower legs, are $45, and herbal wraps are $70. The Bath House (21 Fairfax St., 304-258-9071, www.bathhouse.com) offers 30-minute sugar ($50) and salt ($45) scrubs. A refreshing one-hour seaweed facial is $70 and a one-hour massage is $65. Attached to the spa is a store filled with body butter and massage oils. Other spas include the one at Coolfont Resort, the Origin Spa at the Inn & Spa at Berkeley Springs (1 Market St., 800-822-6630, www.originspa.com) and the Berkeley Springs State Park (2 S. Washington St., 304-258-2711, www.berkeleyspringssp.com). If hiking or horseback riding are your preference, try Cacapon Resort State Park (www.cacaponresort.com) or Coolfont.

EATING THERE: It's advisable to make reservations days in advance for the delicious Lot 12 Public House (117 Warren St.), and if you're early, bring your drink outside on the steps and admire the view. Entrees are in the $20 range. Tari's (123 N. Washington), a restaurant and inn in the heart of downtown, has a full bar and pretty good jambalaya, and it's moderately priced. Maria's Garden & Inn has okay subs and good stuffed shells , but go there for the decor, which has more religious icons than you can count.

INFO: Travel Berkeley Springs, 800-447-8797, www.berkeleysprings.com.

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