"Here gathered from the North and South great generals, famous statesmen and philanthropists, lovely ladies and reigning belles who left upon the silken shore of memory images and precious thoughts that shall not die and cannot be destroyed."
A plaque marking the site of "Old White," the famous resort hotel in White Sulphur Springs
LONG BEFORE there were hot tubs and Jacuzzis, there were baths. The Romans made them famous. They built luxurious public baths, some of which held as many as 3,000 Romans. During their conquests, the Roman Legions would seek out the waters, leaving behind a legacy that includes the names Bath in England, Spa in Belgium and Baden Baden (literally, Bath Bath) in Germany.
The great belief in the curative powers of the waters spanned the centuries and was imported to the New World. The first spas were founded in the late 1700s, with so many being built in the Virginias that one writer would call the springs region "America's Sanitarium."
These Blue Ridge and Allegheny springs share the same waters as their Old World cousins: West Virginia's Berkeley Springs and England's Bath have the same saline waters. Iron is found in the waters of England's Brighton springs and Virginia's Sweet Chalybeate springs. And sulphur and the accompanying "rotten egg" smell is found in the waters of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and Harrowgate, England.
The Virginia springs contained chemicals -- soda, sulphur, salts -- that may have helped some ailments. But visitors may have primarily benefited from using the relatively clean water of the mountains instead of the contaminated water of populous coastal lowlands. The mountain spas also escaped the summer outbreaks of yellow fever, cholera and malaria that ravaged the cities of the coast, making them a refuge for the rich.
The eventual shift in the springs' role from healing places to social centers is illustrated by an advertisement for one of the leading spas of the 1800s. Rockbridge Alum Springs, whose Grand Hotel and cottages 13 miles west of Lexington could accommodate 800 visitors, boasted: "Our place offers as good an opening as can be found anywhere in Virginia for young ladies who desire clever husbands."
There were once as many as 75 spring spas in Virginia. They flourished through two golden eras before and after the Civil War and then, like the lifestyle they reflected, began to vanish. Today, most of them are but names on a map, small signs on a country road.
Their decline and death were due to a variety of reasons. Many spas were destroyed during the Civil War, others were wooden hotels that fell victim to age or fire. Perhaps the cruelest blow to the spas was the loss of faith. As the 1800s ended, a better understanding of illness and improved medical care undercut any remaining belief in the healing powers of the waters. The final blow came when the auto and airplane made the great resorts unfashionable. Travelers simply went elsewhere and most of the spas became extinct.
A few of the spring spas still exist, and visitors can drink the waters or bask in their warmth. With the springs come histories and stories, and through them you can touch a gilded age.THE VALLEY OF WARM SPRINGS
The springs in this valley in Bath County, Virginia, have a long history. Indians are said to have used the hot springs in the 1600s, a century before colonists discovered it. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1787, wrote of the Warm and Hot Springs: "They relieve rheumatisms. Other complaints also of different natures have been removed or lessened."
The gem of this valley is The Homestead, one of a dozen five-star resorts in the country. The large red-brick Georgian-style hotel is the latest resort built around the Hot Springs. The first inn was built on the site in 1766. Larger inns and hotels would be built until the current 600-room building was constructed in 1902, replacing the hotel destroyed by fire the year before.
The new Homestead became a popular place for the aristocracy, attracting such names as Marjorie Merriweather Post, the Fish family of New York and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose parties were famous for their sheer luxury. Not much seems to have changed since the days of the Vanderbilt soiree's. The afternoon tea and concert is held promptly at 4 every day, dancing is part of dinner every night, and classic movies of the '30s and '40s are shown every evening in the theater.
The Springs are also unchanged by time. They continue to simmer at an almost constant 96 degrees and are used by The Homestead in its spa, where guests of The Homestead can receive a bath, shower or massage, and in its quaint 78-year-old indoor pool. The springs can be seen today on the hill down from the West Wing, not far from the spa that uses its waters.
Just up the road from The Homestead is Warm Springs, where on cool mornings water vapor can still be seen swirling out of the rooftops of two, simple, centuries-old bathing houses.
Legend has it that Jefferson himself designed the octagonal men's pool, built in 1761, and became a faithful bather. One of the oldest operating baths in the country, this Warm Springs pool ministered to such notables as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. With popularity came the Colonnade, a pillared guest house built in 1810-1812, and in 1820, the Warm Springs Hotel, consisting of a main building and several cottages, accommodating more than 300 guests.
Some 6,000 cure seekers plunged and promenaded in the 1838 season. Until the Civil War, the Warm Springs pools drew more of the posh and the promising than Dr. Thomas Goode's medicinal baths and hotel at Hot Springs five miles away.
Operated now by The Homestead and overshadowed by that resort's modern facilities, the Warm Springs pools are often overlooked. Because of disuse, the hotels were razed in 1925, but the original bath structures remain.
A sultry soak in these waters still soothes, and brings a centuries-old charm not found elsewhere. Arlene Di Cecco, violinist and co-manager of Garth Newel, the local classical music center, visits frequently. "After 45 minutes I feel that all my muscles have really relaxed. The baths are so rustic and beautiful. I feel part of nature there. And so often there's nobody else in them."
Inside all is wood, water, rocks, sky and softness. Things are as they were more than 150 years ago. The men's pool, 40 feet in diameter, holds 43,000 gallons of water; the slightly larger women's pool, 50 feet in diameter, holds 60,000 gallons, and has an outer ring of changing chambers, each brightened by a small window.
In both bath houses, wooden stairs lead you to the four- to five-foot-deep waters; you are lulled by the soft sound of bubbling, the steamy sweetness, and the shimmering reflection of sunlight from the polygonal-shaped opening cut in the roof, about 20 feet overhead.
In the mid 19th century, reports a spa visitor, women who desired to bathe properly should "have a large cotton morning gown of a cashmere shawl pattern lined with crimson, a fancy Greek cap, Turkish slippers and a pair of loose pantaloons." Now, men bathe nude, and women have that option. But, if a woman prefers a suit, she should try the full bath-house feel by donning the loose-fitting cotton-print rompers hand-sewn by Shirdell Pryor, the women's bath attendant.
The Warm and Hot Springs are not the only ones in the valley. On Route 220 about two miles south of The Homestead are the Healing and Little Healing Springs, whose roots also go back to the mid-1800s. The Healing Springs Hotel was built in the 1850s to take care of visitors to the Healing and Little Healing Springs. The hotel was used as a Confederate Hospital during the Civil War. It still exists today, but is a motel called the Cascades Inn. The non-thermal Healing Springs are almost forgotten now, covered up by a concrete slab and lid. The closest Cascade guests can come to taking the waters is by visiting the spa at The Homestead, which owns the Cascades Inn and golf course. MOUNTAIN SPRINGS, SUMMER MUSIC
By Virginia spa standards, Orkney Springs in Shenandoah County is a newcomer. By Virginians' standards, the springs have all the pedigree they need. The springs were owned by Robert E. Lee's family before the Civil War and perhaps as long as a generation after. The first buildings were erected in the 1850s, and the main hotel -- the five-story Virginia House with the 50-foot by 100-foot grand ballroom -- was built in 1873.
The Orkney Springs resort operated until the 1950s. Today, the 950-acre resort is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which uses it as a retreat. The Virginia Hotel is used for meetings and dining. Other resort buildings are used for accommodations.
The spa's two springs -- Orkney and Bear Wallow -- are used only for drinking.
The resort is open to the public at select times. The Shenandoah Valley Music Festival holds its annual calendar of concerts, arts and craft shows and black-tie benefit balls at Orkney Springs (703/459-3396). The concerts and craft shows are held the last two weekends in July, on August 14, and the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend. Visitors to the music festival can stay in one of the resort buildings at a rate of $45 a night per person, all meals included. A WEST VIRGINIA SPA
Incongruously set in the center of town, and thumped by a truck route, the 4 1/2-acre Berkeley Springs State Park offers healing waters, Roman baths, history and massages. The park, a collection of buildings ringing a community pool, sports a funky charm, along with a dirt-cheap price tag. This could be the K-mart of spas: a typical hour "tub and rub" treatment -- Roman bath soak followed by massage -- costs $18.
But it wasn't always so. Berkeley Springs, graced with a large hotel and several boarding houses, once attracted the wealthy and those wishing to be well-known. Between healing baths, rich plantation owners and merchants gambled at billiards and bet on cockfights. In a 1793 letter, William Smith describes his routine: "Bathes by five o'clock, rides, his breakfast, plays billiards, drinks the water, and plays whist the rest of the day."
Even George Washington soaked here. At 16, on March 18, 1748, Washington traveled here as part of Lord Fairfax's surveying team, recording the event with: "We this day called to see Ye fam'd Warm Springs." A plaque and tiny, stone-rimmed pool commemorate the famous plunge.
Two of the original buildings designed in the 1780s by James Rumsey, the inventor who powered a steamboat on the Potomac in 1787, still stand. Locals still fill jugs with water from the springhouse, and families and friends soak in the 18th-century Roman Bath building, now white tiled, and a bit shabby. But oh-so-cheap, and available on a first-come basis. You rent these Roman hot tubs -- coed company is fine -- for $8 a person. Soak for an hour by yourself or with friends in these 3 1/2-foot-deep tubs, holding 750 gallons of spring water heated to 102 degrees. The five contributory springs at Berkeley surge at 74.3 degrees, without warming, a bit rough for long dunks.
The main bathhouse, a 1929 Depression Era yellow-glazed brick rectangle, takes reservations up to two weeks in advance. Here your no-frills treatments come with a locker-room ambiance. Almost everything -- except for the non-coed Roman baths -- is found in one big room. Massage cots beckon from open cubicles, steam cabinets line walls and relaxing tubs -- oversized clawfoots heaped to the top with spring waters -- stand in alcoves across the main aisle. While there's little privacy, no soft music and some noise, the room sports the off-beat charm of plain '30s therapies.
A long way from its first-family elan, Berkeley Springs offers down-home Blue Ridge healing. Arrive in this mountain town with a jeans attitude, and a sense of humor. SPA OF THE OLD SOUTH
To best capture the flavor of the five-star Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, stroll the hilly grounds until you come to the President's Cottage Museum, a two-story white frame cottage set into the hillside overlooking a "folly," a classical cupola sheltering the spring pool.
The cottage was built in 1825 by Stephen Henderson, a New Orleans sugar planter, and is flanked by other private cottages built by visitors in the early 1800s before a hotel was erected. The cottage got its name because presidents Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan stayed there. But more important than the presidental visits are the ties between The Greenbrier and Robert E. Lee, who is canonized in one room in the cottage. The Lee Room is a shrine to the Old South. It displays a large mural of General Lee on his famous horse Traveller. This mural wraps around the room, moving from the scene of Lee and his colleagues to depictions of battles of the war. Two other large prints dominate the entrance lobby, one of Lee and the other of another Southern saint, Stonewall Jackson.
This connection to the Old South is real, not manufactured. Before the Civil War, the resort was known as "The Old White," after the grand white frame hotel there, and was the social center of the South. After the war, "The Old White" resumed its place in Southern society, solidifying its station as the preeminent Southern resort in 1869 when General Lee, a visitor both before and after the war, was reunited at "Old White" with a number of his generals. A photograph records the event.
The springs prospered and became more famous, attracting the Vanderbilts, Armours, Dukes and their entourages and private railroad cars. The old hotel survived a civil war but failed modern fire safety codes and was demolished in 1922. It was replaced by the elegant white hotel that exists today.
The White Sulphur Springs that gave birth to the spa can be viewed in the "folly" downhill from the President's Cottage Museum. (Atop the folly is a statue of Hygeia, the virgin goddess of health.) The springs are cold and the waters must be heated before they are used in the Greenbrier's elegant new spa. The spa, decorated with green-, white- and pink-accented tiles of rhododendrons, offers baths, showers and msssage, but its facilities are available only to guests. SPRINGS PAST & PRESENT
The Greenbrier and The Homestead were not the only grand spas in the Virginias. There were other spas just as luxurious, but they failed to survive the years. Some of interst include:
BLUE RIDGE SPRINGS -- About 10 miles east of Roanoke on Route 605, the Blue Ridge Springs resort was built after the Civil War and prospered after Capt. Philip Brown, an Atlantan, first managed and later bought the property in 1884.
Brown built a four-story hotel and several large cottages that he furnished with antiques. Blue Ridge was a popular spa around the turn of the century, but Brown's death, Prohibition and the automobile endangered it. Its death is clouded in mystery: In 1934, the resort was owned by Mary Hastings, a widow. Maj. Robert C. Kent, described as a "man of the world," either convinced Mrs. Hastings to go North with him or simply kidnaped her. Either way, her body was found beside a road near Stroudesville, Pennsylvania. Kent was arrested after he returned to Blue Ridge Springs. He attempted to plead insanity, feigning attacks of madness and a comatose state, but was found guilty and sentenced to prison, where he died. After Hasting's murder, Blue Ridge declined very rapidly. Today, only the ruins of a spring house remain.
BEAR LITHEA SPRINGS -- These springs are just off U.S. 340, about a mile north of Elkton, Virginia. Few records remain to describe the facilities of what was said to be a popular resort in the 1800s. The springs remain today, sheltered inside a concrete-block warehouse built by the Adolph Coors Brewing Co., which bought the springs when it acquired property for its large brewery nearby. The spring waters are not used for making beer (although other mountain springs are). Waterhaulers and passersby are allowed to use the Bear Lithea waters.
BOTETOURT SPRINGS -- These springs are off U.S. 11, on the campus of Hollins College in Roanoke. The spa, a complex of a large hotel and cottages on the main mail route from Washington, was operated as a resort only between 1823 and 1839. After the death of its founder in 1833, the resort passed through several mismanaging hands before it closed. Three years later, in 1842, the Valley Union Seminary, a coeducational school, bought the buildings. In 1856, Hollins College was established on the site, and today the West Building at Hollins incorporates the original Botetourt Springs Hotel.
The sulphur springs still bubble away, but the springhead was moved 100 yards west recently to accommodate construction of a new swimming pool. Another spring on campus, Limestone Springs, is sheltered under the oldest building at Hollins, the small limestone block and hand-hewn wooden-roofed building called William Carvin's Spring House. It is named after the original holder of the 1746 land grant from King George II.
ROCKBRIDGE ALUM SPRINGS -- The alum in the water at this Rockbridge County spa on Route 633, 13 miles west of Lexington, was reputed to cure internal disorders, diarrhea and skin diseases. By the 1850s, the resort was a 2,000-acre complex that included a large L-shaped hotel, numerous cottages, bath houses, bowling alleys and other structures. During the Civil War, the resort was used as a hospital. Its glory years faded with the Confederacy, and litigation with a neighboring springs, recessions, and finally an owner who demolished the Grand Hotel to build a laboratory wrote the end to Rockbridge Alum Springs.
Today 16 cottages remain on the last 267 acres of the resort. The elegant wooden bathhouse remains, a tall building set into the side of the hill. Inside, there are five or six alum springs, with each containing different strengths of alum. The property is not open to the public. Buck Holland, whose General Holland Contractors of Lexington owns the resort, said he drank the waters for several years. Now, he says, he hopes to sell the resort. GETTING INTO HOT WATERS
If you want to take the waters, consider these places to overnight between baths: THE WARM SPRINGS VALLEY
THE HOMESTEAD -- Room rates range from $135 to $175 per person per night, based on double occupancy. Breakfast and dinner included. Use of the spa is additional. The Homestead is in Hot Springs, VA 24445. 703/839-5500.
THE CASCADES INN -- Room rates range from $90 per person per night, based on double occupancy. Breakfast and dinner included. Guests may use the facilities of The Homestead, but use of the spa is additional. The Inn reopens for the season April 11 and will close in early November. Hot Springs. VA 24445. 703/839-5355.
VINE COTTAGE INN -- Just 500 yards from The Homestead, this 13-room inn was built in 1903 by The Homestead. The rooms are furnished with a mixture of antiques, art deco and 1940s-era furniture. Nine of the rooms have private baths. Rates are $60 a night per couple, including a continental breakfast and tax. Two dormitory rooms -- one with four beds and the other with five -- are available. For an additional fee, guests can use all facilities at The Homestead except the swimming pools and tennis courts. The inn is on Route 220 in Hot Springs. P.O. Box 918, Hot Springs, VA 24445. 703/839-2422.
THE WARM SPRINGS POOLS -- Route 220, Warm Springs, Virginia. Open April 22. 10:30-5. Closed on Sunday. $5 admission allows you up to an hour bath, towels, shower cap and suit. For more information, contact The Homestead. 703/839-5500.
THE INN AT GRISTMILL SQUARE -- An imaginative restoration of 19th-century buildings, including a blacksmith's shop, hardware store and mill, whose water wheel (still attached) was powered by the Warm Springs Run. This inn offers comfortable rooms, each with television, and antiques. Favorites include the Dinwiddie Room with its elegantly carved mantle rescued from a manor house, and the country suites in the Steel House, complete with quilts and corner spinning wheels. Try dinner in the cleverly restored Waterwheel Restaurant, where the old 1900s beams and mill gears add a warm ambiance. Rates $60-$75, includes continental breakfast. Sauna, swimming pool and tennis courts. Located on Route 645, POB 359, Warm Springs, VA 24484. 703/839-2231.
MEADOW LANE LODGE -- This inn offers a spectacular setting on 1,600 acres surrounded by the Alleghenies, and cut through by the Jackson River. While some of the rooms are small, all are inviting and comfortably furnished, featuring fresh flowers and lovely views. Come here for country walks, fields of wild-flowers, and barns filled with peacocks, goats and Chinese chickens. Rates, $82-$115, include continental breakfast. Croquet court, tennis, swimming hole. Star Route A, Box 110, Warm Springs, VA 24484. 703/839-5959.
THREE HILLS INN -- Mary Johnston, a 19th-century writer of romantic novels, built this impressive house with its hillside views in 1908. Transformed by the current innkeepers from a rooming house, most of the accommodations are suites, which feature a kitchenette along with a parlor, bedroom and bath. The combination of antiques and eclectic '50s pieces can sometimes be odd, and other times, pleasing. Rates $75-$100. POB Box 99, Warm Springs, VA 24484. 703/839-5381. BERKELEY SPRINGS
THE COUNTRY INN -- Across the street from Berkeley Springs State Park, this inn offers 72 rooms, and upscale soaks and massages in its recently opened gray and mauve tiled Renaissance Spa. The 1932 building, whose lobby breathes a cinnamon and spice aroma from the hot cider brewing in the pub, has a restaurant and 32 guest rooms furnished with brass beds, antiques and flea market finds. Rooms in the new building soften their motel feel with country floral wallpaper and hand-crafted oak furniture. Fifteen-minute mineral whirlpool soaks cost $15, and 45-minute massages $40. Room rates, $35-$75; 207 South Washington Street, Berkeley Springs, WV 25411. 304/258-2210. D.C. toll free: 737-1071, no area code required.
HIGHLAWN INN -- This well-done hilltop Victorian charms with a wrap-around porch, sweeping town view, and the soft 19th-century feel of settees, oak tables, brass beds, lace curtains and clawfoot tubs. Rates $70-$85, include full breakfast. 304 Market Street, Berkeley Springs, WV 25411. 304/258-5700.
COOLFONT RESORT -- Just a few miles from town, Coolfont is a 1,200-acre resort that offers private chalets with woodstoves and Jacuzzis, a stocked lake, trained masseurs and miles of woodland walks. Rates vary with accommodations. Cold Run Valley Road, Berkeley Springs, WV 25411. From Berkeley Springs, take Route 9 west for 3/4 mile, turn left onto Cold Run Valley Road and drive four miles to the resort. 304/258-4500.
CACAPON STATE PARK -- If you book months in advance, you can rent one of the small but serviceable main lodge rooms, or a rustic hillside cabin complete with kitchen and several bedrooms. Besides blooming with dogwood and trillium, this 6,000-acre park offers miles of hiking trails, golf, horseback riding, fishing and lake swimming. Even if you don't stay here, take a wildflower walk. May 22-June 15 rates: $25-$75; weekly rates available. The park is 10 miles south of Berkeley Springs on U.S. 522. 304/258-1022.
FOLKESTONE -- For complete privacy, this English tudor bed and breakfast home one mile from town hosts one couple at a time, or two travelling together. In the spring, azaleas, tulips, rhododendrons and hundreds of dogwood lace the 10 acres. Relax in the back porch hot tub and the antique-filled guest rooms complete with cozy, sitting area. Rates: $35 single, $60 double. Martinsburg Road, Route 2, Box 404, Berkeley Springs, WV 25411. 304/258-3743.
MARIA'S GARDEN AND INN -- For decidedly non-spa cuisine, ignore the plastic flowers and try Peg Perry's good, Italian home-cooking. Fill up with pastas, hot apple dumplings and cheesecake. In the heart of town, this restaurant, complete with Our Lady of Fatima garden grotto, adjoins an eight-room bed and breakfast carved from two non-descript brick homes. The rooms, with a slightly store-bought country feel, offer Berkeley bathers another place to stay close to the springs. Rates, $35-$55. 201 Independence Street, Berkeley Springs, WV 25411. 304/258-2021. ORKNEY SPRINGS
ORKNEY SPRINGS HOTEL -- Rooms are available at this spa only during the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival held the last two Fridays and Saturdays in July. Rooms are $45 per person per night, all meals included. The springs are used only for drinking. Orkney Springs, VA 22845. 703/856-2198. WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS
THE GREENBRIER -- Room rates range from $128 to $170 per person per day, based on double occupancy. Breakfast and dinner included. Use of the spa is additional and available only to registered guests. The Greenbrier is in White Sulphur Springs, WV 24986. 304/536-1110.
Co-writer Candyce H. Stapen's latest book is "City and Country Inns: The Best From New Jersey to North Carolina.