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Thank You For Soaking

Sunday, May 28, 2006

TRIP: Berkeley Springs, W.Va., where small-town America meets big-time pampering.

MILES FROM BELTWAY: About 182 miles round trip. Take I-270 north until you hit Frederick, then hop on I-70 west. You'll be shocked how quickly you come up to Exit 1B, which will take you south on U.S. 522 into downtown Berkeley Springs. From Virginia, take the Dulles Toll Road to the Dulles Greenway, which ends at Route 7. Head west on Route 7 to Route 9 north, a mostly rural road through Charles Town and Martinsburg, W.Va., to Berkeley Springs.

BEST FOR: Those who want to soak, sup and shop . . . and have money left over when they come home.

THE RIDE: Time it right (don't leave during the evening rush) and you can be in Berkeley Springs in well under two hours -- provided you don't stop at the Prime Outlets in Hagerstown. In any case, the pastoral scenery will make you forget D.C. in a hurry. Upon arrival, find your hotel or B&B and park the car. You won't be needing it for a while.

THE DESTINATION: Funny thing about Berkeley Springs. Some come to take the waters, others look around and take the first road out of the place.

Trucks frequently thunder through the middle of town, lodging choices are down-home cheery but far from fancy, and fine-dining choices are limited. Numerous spas sponge off the town's eponymous warm-water springs, but no one will ever mistake them for Canyon Ranch.

To that, we say: Thank goodness. It's not for everyone, but we'll take Washington Street, the town's Mayberry-like main drag (complete with the old-fashioned Star Theatre movie house), over Rodeo Drive any day. Along with relatively low prices and a friendly vibe, Berkeley Springs whispers, "Relax!" (Screaming it would be counterintuitive, wouldn't it?)

The town was incorporated in 1776 and, fittingly, George Washington bathed here. So have we, in the Rockwellesque Berkeley Springs State Park (800-225-5982, http://www.berkeleyspringssp.com/ ), where George's alfresco tub is duly noted. On this visit, we bypassed the tiny, tree-filled square's ancient facilities, where you can soak in a horse-size trough of spring water or get rubbed down in a gender-divided bathhouse. Instead, we luxed out in a whirlpool tub at the Origin Spa (1 Market St., 800-822-6630, http://www.originspa.com/ ; $20 for a 15-minute bath), lounging in a tornado of bubbles. Down the street at Atasia Spa (41 Congress St., 877-258-7888, http://www.atasiaspa.com/ ) -- all bamboo and hardwood compared with Origin's carpet-and-glass decor -- we treated ourselves to a 45-minute massage ($60).

Elsewhere around town, an outdoor plant fair featured high prices ($25 for a fuchsia hanging basket) and grumpy vendors. We had better luck at the shops along Washington Street, including Lion's Lair and YouBawtWhat!, stocked with home furnishings and the sort of neat knickknacks we wish we had room for.

Still, the older stuff is always more fascinating here. At the Ice House (Independence and Mercer streets, 304-258-2300, http://www.macicehouse.org/ ), a collection of exquisite quilts adorned the walls, with volunteers standing by, eager to take questions. And inside the Old Factory Antique Mall (282 Williams St., 304-258-1788), one of several dealer-crammed spaces in town, we unearthed a so-ugly-it's-ugly cow creamer that's perfect for our goofy collection.

Hmm. Turns out we do still have room for knickknacks.

WE'D GO BACK BECAUSE . . . a 90-minute drive to West Virginia takes us a lot farther than we thought it could.

WE'D STAY HOME BECAUSE . . . that traffic on Washington Street can really undo a massage in a hurry.

EATS AND SLEEPS: Cabin lovers who want their space in the woods have a lot of choices around the area (see tourism below for info). But if you'd prefer to stay in town, consider the Inn & Spa at Berkeley Springs (1 Market St., 800-822-6630, http://www.theinnandspa.com/ ; from $49), which is quaint on the outside, functional within. Rooms are simple but serviceable and a fine place to crash after a pedicure at the on-site Origin Spa. B&B options include the Inn on Fairfax (151 Fairfax St., 304-258-4502, http://www.innonfairfax.com/ ; doubles from $100) and the Manor Inn (234 Fairfax St., 800-974-5770, http://www.bathmanorinn.com/ ; from $85), both of which sit on a hill a few blocks from downtown and away from traffic.

Several restaurants also offer lodging, including the always reliable Tari's (33 N. Washington St., 304-258-1196; from $49). Dinner entrees, which include such vegetarian options as angel-hair pasta with mozzarella and spinach, start at $13.50. Tear yourself away from the Virgin Mary collection at Maria's Garden & Inn (42 Independence St., 888-629-2253; from $75) and you'll find a mean $10 plate of spaghetti with homemade sauce. For heaping platters of good Mexican food, stop by Mi Ranchito (87 N. Washington St., 304-258-4800); lunch for two, with iced tea, runs about $15. Foodies can't do better than the menu -- contemporary American with northern Italian influences -- at Lot 12 Public House (117 Warren St., 304-258-6264), where dinner for two with wine can easily exceed $100.

ONE COOL DETOUR: Nature buffs and duffers should drive nine miles farther south along U.S. 522 to Cacapon Resort State Park (800-225-5982, http://www.cacaponresort.com/ ). Besides an 18-hole golf course and a lake for swimming, there are more than 20 miles of hiking trails. Our favorite thing about Cacapon, however, are the accommodations: a lodge that looks as if it came out of a national park (48 rooms from $61 per night double) and 31 cabins tucked into the woods. Some are made of logs and are open only part of the year, while others are more modern, have stone fireplaces and are open year-round. Rates start at $63 per night.

BOTTOM LINE: If you like valet parking, a rockin' night life and a thousand ways to max out your Visa, avoid Berkeley Springs. But if you're simply looking for a break from the Washington clamor, this place may rub you the right way.

-- John Deiner

For more information: Travel Berkeley Springs, 800-447-8797, http://www.berkeleysprings.com.

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