Sisters in Search of Pampering Find a W.Va. Spa That Rubs Them the Right Way

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009

We hit the road at 8:30 one morning, flying up Interstate 270 north, then west on I-70 in my sister's fully gassed-up Mustang. We were headed for the historic spa town of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., to get as relaxed and well-fed as two busy gals could manage on a one-night, post-Christmas getaway with our part of the $2,009 Challenge budget.

I'd never been to a spa before, and I don't normally seek out beauty treatments (my haircuts tend to be rushed trims over the bathroom sink rather than sessions with hip stylists), but a day of pampering seemed like the perfect sisterly bonding trip. And with nearly $670 between the two of us, we figured we couldn't afford not to feel like princesses for a day. Our budget: $669.66.

Our first stop in town after the 90-minute drive: Berkeley Springs State Park, where George Washington "took the waters" and Lord Fairfax had his own private spring.

At the state park's white-brick Roman Bathhouse, we booked the next available slot for a two-person soak in a Roman bath, paid our $30, then browsed a few nearby antiques shops while the bath attendant filled our tub.

Inside the bathhouse, which has been in use for more than 75 years, are nine narrow rooms with blue-tiled Roman baths, five feet wide and nine feet long. They are filled four feet deep with 102-degree mineral water pumped in from the springs that run through the park, giving off steam as they course through stone-lined channels. Opting to share one tub so we could chat, my sister and I threw on our swimsuits and climbed gingerly into the piping-hot water. The tubs are just big enough for stretching out, maybe a little swimming, but the hot water and small space, even after we cranked open the window, had us sitting on the edge rather than floating.

We'd paid for only a half-hour soak, but since there were few bathers there, the attendant let us stay as long as we wanted; no wonder we felt like boiled lobsters when we finally left, almost an hour later. $639.66 left.

I filled my water bottle at the park's public taps next to the bathhouse, taking my cue from the bundled-up locals who were filling their plastic water jugs there. The water is sweet and filled with minerals, and a few companies sell bottled Berkeley Springs water.

Back in the Mustang, we cruised down Washington Street (a.k.a. Route 522) to take in the countryside, driving past churches dolled up for Christmas, a shuttered Dollar General store, a water bottling plant and roads that angled precipitously up the mountains on either side of the street. Then, our stomachs growling, we headed back to town.

We checked into the Country Inn, a Depression-era red-brick hotel with an attached spa, a restaurant and manicured gardens that abuts the state park. Every February the hotel hosts an international water-tasting contest called the Festival of the Waters; last year, Berkeley Springs' own Almost Heaven brand came in fifth out of 43 entrants in the category of noncarbonated water.

Taking advantage of the inn's on-site spa, we'd booked the $360 Supreme Spa Experience package: massages, facials and one night's lodging for two, plus four $10 vouchers for on-site dining in one of the four dining rooms.

Hungry after our Roman bath, we decided to eat lunch in the sunny West Virginia Room, where a crock of cheesy French onion soup, a BLT with a side of crispy shoestring sweet potato fries, a crab cake sandwich with a hint of curry, iced tea and a slice of cheesecake used up all four meal vouchers -- and would sate us till dinnertime. $279.66 left.

Before our afternoon of pampering began, I popped across Washington Street to the bank to pick up tip money for our facials, massages and pedicures ($10 per treatment; a 15 to 20 percent tip is standard). Rates at the Country Inn's Five Senses Spa are similar to those at other spas in Berkeley Springs but lower than at most day spas in Washington: $65 for a 45-minute European facial, $60 for a 45-minute massage. For even more pampering, we each added a $45 pedicure, which included a whirlpool foot bath, exfoliating scrub and a couple of coats of peppy nail polish. $129.66 left.

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