There is a sense about Berkeley Springs that it doesn't quite know what it's doing, which is part of its charm.
It is a spa town, but not a high-end spa town. It is uneven. It is the kind of place where a poster for a Nurturing the Goddess Weekend is mounted next to a poster for Meet Your Morgan County Biker Buddies Day. Berkeley Springs is small enough that you can walk from one end of downtown to the other in less than 10 minutes. You wind up visiting the 7-Eleven more times in three days than you would in six months back home, because it's the only place that's open late. In Berkeley Springs, you can get a fabulous massage -- perhaps the best of your life -- for $55, and you can also get the worst. The food, as a general rule, is mediocre, yet there's one restaurant that's up there with the best of Washington.
My friend Karen and I had been to Berkeley Springs, in West Virginia's eastern panhandle, three years ago. We decided to go back on Memorial Day weekend because it's close and inexpensive. And, in a spirit of self-sacrifice and journalistic inquiry, I also wanted to revisit the most punitive spa experience I've ever had, at Berkeley Springs State Park. Could it possibly have been as harrowing as I'd remembered?
On Friday evening, Karen and I arrived at River House, a three-bedroom B&B just outside Berkeley Springs. Kit Patten and Connie Wilson bought the 21/2-acre property about 10 years ago, after living near Burlington, Vt., for many years and getting sick of the cold. Like a lot of Berkeley Springs newcomers, they were attracted to the cheap land, laid-back lifestyle and the lively artists' community. Their property extends down to a private deck overlooking the swirling Cacapon River, the ideal spot for reading. Guests can take advantage of a horseshoe bend in the river to tube a two-hour loop that starts and ends at the River House property, though the weather wasn't warm enough when we were there.
Patten makes mobiles, paintings and earrings, and Wilson teaches homebound schoolkids. Patten used to work as a cook, and he makes inventive breakfasts -- cheese and red pepper omelets with dill from the garden, pancakes with ginger-rhubarb compote, homemade bread. They don't have a television, a computer or a dishwasher, and in the summer months they sleep outside in a screened gazebo.
We were tired from a long day. The B&B's lawn seemed like the perfect place to sit with a cheap bottle of red wine (from the 7-Eleven), so that's what we did.
On Saturday, Karen and I headed to some morning appointments we had made at a downtown spa called the Bath House, which we'd heard was good. There, a cosmetologist gave Karen a sugar scrub and me a salt scrub, exfoliating our legs, shoulders and backs. The treatment was vigorous and matter-of-fact; I felt ever-so-slightly like a car being waxed. We wandered around town after that, passing a community grocery that advertised soy coffee, whatever that is, and a place called Portals: A New Age Shop.
Berkeley Springs seems to specialize in eccentrics and extremes. A place called the Sage Moon Herb Shop sits across the street from a Methodist church with a billboard that threatens sinners with the Devil. Maria's Garden and Inn, where you can eat great stuffed shell pasta, is covered in crosses and religious paintings; there are rosaries and prayer cards for sale and an almost life-size statue of the Virgin Mary. The Ice House Artists Co-op had quilts, jewelry and an oddly captivating collection of octopus sculptures.
Propelled by the strange New Age forces surrounding us, we stopped by a store advertising spiritual readings. In the back, a spacy bottle-blonde psychic offered a dim assessment of my work and love life, provided her opinion on the war ("poor Saddam" was the phrase she used) and espoused the benefits of a radically non-monogamous lifestyle.
That night, we had dinner at Lot 12 Public House, which could be a reason all by itself to go to Berkeley Springs. We shared an earthy foie gras appetizer in an apple marsala pan sauce and a feathery chocolate torte. Karen's bouillabaisse had such interesting spices I had to keep sampling it. The only sour note was my entree, a bland napoleon of portobello mushrooms, zucchini, squash and goat cheese.
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.
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.