THE FASHIONABLE HAVE moved on from Berkeley Springs. The big old wooden hotels that could house 500 guests seeking relief from arthritis, Gout, high blood pressure or nerves, have mostly burned to the ground. The clear warm waters still gush from the steep ridge as they did when George Washington lowered himself into them back in 1748, but the Pullmans that once brought the crowds from Philadelphia and New York are gone, and the town is now just a small village sleeping in the West Virginia sunshine.
No matter. In fact, all to the good. This is a wonderful village, an anachronism that will charm you. It has everything -- a nice country inn, a view that will make you catch your breath, a romantic castle, a gentle purveyor of handmade musical instruments, a movie house with funky overstuffed chairs for box seats (25 cents extra), and of course, the baths.
Berkeley Springs, I love you.
Right off the bat, you're in a good mood because the drive to wild, wonderful West Virginia is pretty. West (by God) Virginia, as the natives call it, has some of the last really unsullied-by-development scenery in this part of the country. Two or three miles beyond Berkeley Springs on Rte. 9 is an overlook from which you can see the Potomac River winding its way through three states, a view rated by the National Geographic (according to a nearby marker) as one of the most beautiful in the country.
And then there's the Country Inn.
Adele Barker, with her husband Jack, runs this inn in a way that makes you feel cherished. Adele laughs when she thinks back to how it was when they first took over.
"The place was an old ladies' home," she says flatly, rocking away in one of the wonderful old chairs on her front porch. It isn't now. There are campers in the parking lot, and young couples with babies in canvas totes stroll through the lobby. The new honeymoon suite is greatly in demand though nobody was surprised the other day when a pair who had been married 25 years booked it for their anniversary and stayed a week.
Why not? This inn is a charmer, with its nice old antiques, its framed magazine covers and sheet music from the turn of the century, its wind-up Victrola and comfortable lobby. The new garden dining room, partially roofed and partially open-aired and surrounded with redwood fencing hung with flowers, is pretty and pleasant. Friday and Saturday night there's music for dancing -- fox trotting. This is an old-fashioned inn.
Berkeley Springs is a village of under 1,000. It needs paint, and even on Saturday night things are pretty quiet after 10 p.m. On the Saturday night we visited, the Berkeley Spings High School class of 1940 was having its 40th reunion, dining in the garden and giving out prizes for the most recently retired (a frisbee) and the prettiest smile of 1940 (a handbag). Tomas, the young flutemaker who runs a nearby store selling beautifully crafted dulcimers and flutes (and is known simply by his first name), says the town is made up of farmers, carpenters, house builders and one poet. It seems to have a slightly schizophrenic difficulty with its name. Officially it is the town of Bath, W. Va., but the post office calls itself Berkeley Springs.
I didn't take the baths because I couldn't get a reservation. The state of West Virginia, which runs Berkeley Springs Park a few feet from the side door of the inn, takes reservations for the baths every morning at 8:30 a.m., noon on Sunday, and no amount of teasing and cajoling will cause them to make an exception. First come, first served, and why weren't you here? Tomas, however, kindly described it for me, calling it close to an emotional experience. "It takes you outside your body", he said.
You can choose between a conventional bathtub or the Roman baths, in which case you descend into an individual sunken pool and soak away your troubles in water as hot as you care to have it. The water gushes from the rock at 74.3 degrees, but the bath attendants heat it until you cry for mercy. Afterwards you can have a massage.
Outside they will point out the natural stone bathtub into which george washington lowered himself at the age of 16 when he was surveying with Lord Fairfax in the vicinity. Kids gambol in long canals of the runoff from the springs, and people sit in the park and watch. The National Register of Historic Places has put the baths on its list.
And then there's the castle. Nobody who comes here should miss it, if only to find out about the man after which Suitland, Md., was named. It seems a Colonel Suitland, aged 48, met a 16-year-old girl named rosa to whom he proposed marriage. He was rejected. Hearing that she sighed for a castle, he promised to build her one if she would reconsider. The offer was too tempting, and they were married. Work on the castle began in 1881 and was finished in 1885, but by that time the colonel was dead.
A disembodied voice with a West Virginia twang tells you all this, along with the sad sequel. For Rosa lived high, wide and handsome, "orchestras playin' all night," says the mechanical voice, and her guests stayed on expensively a week or more. What with all this, Rosa had to mortgage the castle and eventually lost it. She got by for a while raising chickens, but at length one of her sons appeared from the west and took her home to live with him. She died there in her 90s.
The castle is owned now by a retired gentleman of means who has filled it with inherited furniture and a few pieces of residual Rosa. It is great fun, from the nude holding electric light bulbs in each hand at the top of the huge staircase to the public restrooms labeled "Kings" and "Queens." Go, and remember to deck, in your mind, the ballroom with roses floor to ceiling, as the announcer bids you.
But that's not all. There's more to look at in this lovely corner of the world, just over the Pennsylvania line. Head north on Rte. 522 and take the scenic Rte. 30 west, avoiding the Pennsylvania turnpike, and in about an hour you'll be in Bedford Village, Pa.
A potpourri of grants including some from the Appalachian Regional Commission has underwritten a recreated and restored colonial village here on 72 acres of land with 40 buildings, many of which were built well over a century ago.
The Village, now in its fifth summer, is approached through a covered bridge built in 1884. You start with an orientation program presided over by an elderly genealogist and his tiny dog, Pepe, and move on to visit those houses that suit your fancy. Volunteers in colonial costume act the parts of schoolmistress, clockmaker, jailer, tavern keeper, doctor, and myriad others. All are friendly and wrapped up in the work they are doing.
Everything is beautifully handled, from the McGuffey reader in the schoolhouse to the woodworker who shows the little girls how to put wood shavings behind their ears for pretend curls. If you're interested in the printed word, visit the printer and see the press that printed 1,300 books of Mennonite history page by page. The Octagon schoolhouse is also fun, with its varying rows of chairs for students from 6 to 19, all taught simultaneously and all doing their lessons on slates. The general store offers everything from poke bonnets to "anti-nervous cigars," and the storekeeper looks as if he has always been there.
Two miles beyond the town of Bedford itself is the old Bedford Springs Hotel, a huge, rambling piece of the past with its own curative springs. It first opened its doors in 1806 when the guests arrived behind a team of horses. It boasts 242 bedrooms, a grand old resort in the elegant tradition. It's a fine place to drop by on the way back home for its Sunday buffet lunch, a bit of a bargain at $6.25. The meal is served in the hotel clubhouse right behind the first tee, and you can eat it while watching the guests on the links.
The Country Inn has one rival in Berkeley Springs, the mountain retreat of Coolfront, a recreational area hidden in 1,200 acres of wooded land in a valley between Cacapon Mountain and Warm Springs Ridge. If, instead of poking about in small-town history, you prefer boating and swimming and organized recreation, you can pay a reasonable price and do these and more at Coolfont. Food with a view is offered in their Treetop House Restaurant, and there's plenty of planned activity -- a monthly "healthy happening," sketching classes, diet regiments -- and it draws the crowd which likes scheduled play. It is handsome, and a great favorite for business meetings and conventions.
Probably the quickest and most direct way to Berkeley Springs would be Rte. 20 to Hancock, Md., and after that a drop down Rte. 522 to Berkeley Springs. We decided to shun the turnpike, and took instead Rte. 7 to Winchester and 522 all the way there. One of the reasons was to check out the White Palace, an entry in "Roadfood" (Random House, 368 pp., $7.95), the glove compartment guide to inexpensive regional restaurants by Jane and Michael Stern that James Beard, the crown prince of cookery, called "a fabulous job."
You'd go right by, if you weren't looking hard. It's an unimpressive cafe in Purcelleville, Va., a great local meeting place and open from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. everyday but Sunday. The family-operated eatery is presided over by a single waitress, Millie, who literally runs in her efforts to wait on everybody at once. The counter, at least on Saturday, is a sort of unofficial bar at which several gentlemen could be seen downing a beer or two at 9:30 a.m.
In spite of Millie's best efforts, we waited half an hour for our hot cakes and Virginia ham (we had decided on a second breakfast rather than an early lunch.) The hot cakes got an A, though the ham was hard to chew.Veal cutlet is mentioned as a favorite at the White Palace, but it was not being served when we were there. This was a two-star entry in "Roadfood" -- good food, a nice reliable place to stop, says Sterns.
Looks like a handy book to have if you motor much and like to eat cheap somewhere besides McDonald's or Hardee's.