It's August. Late August. Time for the last ears of corn on the grill. The last chances to turn that belly-flop into a swan dive. The last drinks under the Chinese lanterns on the terrace.

So now what do we want? More, that's what. And more is what we can have, thanks to the sl-o-o-o-w, languorous, somehow Southern way autumn unfolds in that very Southern state, Virginia. Plenty of warm weekends between now and the upheaval of the holidays to get away to that country inn. To "do" Colonial Williamsburg (you've been meaning to go there for years, haven't you?). To hike into a forest and right back into history.

We sent some of our troops out into the field to scout the Virginian possibilities. The scouts were stalwart: They walked, they drove, they flew; they ate and drank and shopped; they braved rainstorms and health-spa attendants. Some of their trips were frenzied, some reflective. All of them were productive, and all were within weekend range. Their stories follow. Maybe yours will too.

IN WITH THE INN CROWD

The Inn at Little Washington -- ever since I moved here, I've been hearing about it. Out there, in rural Rappahannock County, some 70 fast-moving miles from the White House, was this celebration of gracious living, the kind most of us can only experience via design or gourmet magazines. Gastronomy with flair, reined in by good taste. Rooms festooned and draped, romantic to be sure, but stopping short of excess. Service that anticipates but does not intrude. And all this in a bucolic outpost that town-home developments have not yet reached.

Well, it's not an outpost anymore. Rappahannock County is experiencing, shall we say, a burst of hospitality. There's a new inn, a bevy of newish bed-and-breakfasts -- even a new Rappahannock County B&B Association. All of which presented a problem to this over-ambitious first-time visitor: Should I stick to the highly touted Inn and be caught forever behind the curve? What if the brand-new Bleu Rock Inn turned out to be brilliant from the get-go? What if the 16-month-old Thistle Hill Bed and Breakfast revealed itself as a minor treasure? I ask you: What's a lifestyle journalist to do?

The obvious compulsive's answer was to rocket around Rappahannock with a pal for 2 1/2 days, charging from meal to meal, pillow to pillow, with stops to taste the fruit of the local vines and hunt for treasures. Kinda like rushing off to relax.

Charles and Marianne Wilson's Thistle Hill, our Friday night destination, lay in Boston, a sleepy crossroads several miles north of the Culpeper County line. The gazebo on the front lawn was still atwinkle with little white lights when we pulled up at 11 p.m., but the barking Labradors let us know that country folks get to bed early. Met outside by Marianne Wilson, we headed for the twin-bedded Barbara B Room. That snug little bedroom revealed the Wilsons' other business -- country furnishings. We slept in Reproduction Pine Pencil-Post Beds ($450 each, according to the price tag hanging from one post), our clothes tucked inside the antique Cherry Country Chest ($785, "excellent dovetailing").

Morning found us in the kitchen, agog as Marianne and Charlie Wilson ticked off the first names of our fellow guests and took snapshots. And all this before 9 a.m.

The Wilsons' place is what real American country has become -- new construction, acoustic-tile ceilings and more wreaths and cornhusk bows than a crafts fair. But the breakfast is country from an earlier age. Charlie, who once cooked for Hot Shoppes and then studied with the renowned Marcella Hazan in Italy, had made raisin bread to go with the cold cereal and juice that preceded the rough-cut corned-beef hash. No twee little touches, just hearty cooking and second helpings all around.

No time to hang around and wait for tea in the gazebo, though. Charlie was taking off at noon for Alaska, to fish for halibut for the kitchen. And we were off to wineries in the Culpeper area -- Dominion Wine Cel- lars, a local cooperative, and the multimillion-dollar Prince Michel Vineyards, 10 miles south. Then north to Sperryville, on Route 522, and That Sperryville Emporium, cheerful acres of painted plaster lawn ornaments, hideous reproduction oak furniture and oddly beautiful Chinese fireworks. After another stop, at the Sperryville Antique Market, it was time to check in at the Bleu Rock.

The French-born Campagne brothers, Bernard and Jean, own the French-Basque restaurant La Bergerie in Alexandria, and they created the inn out of their old farm, with its six-year-old vineyard, on Route 211 between Washington and Sperryville. Which explains how a three-month-old inn can already boast the bottling of its first cabernet and chardonnay.

We couldn't drink the wine yet (it became available in mid-July), but we were invited to gaze at the vineyard -- beyond the pond, in front of the foothills -- as we lingered on the flagstone terrace over a drink. The casual, genuinely warm welcome we received at check-in, and the cheerful though somewhat "suburban decorator" look of the sprawling house, didn't prepare us for the exacting, high-style standards of the kitchen (including an extravagant, high-style breakfast). The Campagnes have entrusted the food to chef Eric Stamer, who has worked in California, at La Bergerie and at the Inn at Little Washington. Their confidence seems well placed.

The Bleu Rock may owe some of its culinary aspirations to the Inn, but it has a friendly-puppy charm all its own. The Inn at Little Washington, in the center of town, is more jewel-like and, like a diamond, can be, well, icy.

It took considerable sang-froid for us to have a real good time at a place where everyone seemed to be on his best behavior. But we did. We strolled the town, visiting with the genteel local museum owner, who'd never been inside the 13-year-old inn. We poked our heads into other rooms, to see if our cramped -- albeit artfully swooped and draped -- space was the worst room (it seemed to be). After a world-class dinner (a genuine good value at a fixed-price $68 per person, $88 on Saturday nights), we had friends join us for a rather raucous dessert (we paid for that liberty: Each extra dish of ice cream cost $15!). And we set off next morning, after an additional $24 for a real breakfast, $669 poorer (but more worldly wise) after just one night.

Our Whitman's Sampler approach to Rappahannock County wasn't restful, but it was somehow refreshing -- and it did show us a good portion of the county's full spectrum. Next time, we may even sleep two nights in the same place.

-- NANCY MCKEON

Thistle Hill Bed and Breakfast, Route 1, Box 291, Boston, Va. 22713; (703) 987-9142. $65 to $115 per room per night (two-night minimum in October), including hot breakfast. Bleu Rock Inn, Route 1, P.O. Box 555, Washington, Va. 22747; (703) 987-3190. $125 per room per night ($150 on weekends, holidays and in October), including hot breakfast. The Inn at Little Washington, P.O. Box 300, Middle and Main streets, Washington, Va. 22747; (703) 675-3800. $210 to $410 plus tax per room per night ($80 extra on weekends, holidays and in October), including continental breakfast.

THE GHOSTS OF NICHOLSON HOLLOW

Where is that cabin!" I yelled over the roar of thunder from a bone-drenching rainstorm. Our hiking trail had turned into a mud stream, we were soaked, and the porch of the locked cabin was the only shelter for miles.

"It's raining so hard I can't see," my hiking partner shouted back to me.

It didn't seem that we had hiked this far past the cabin, deeper into Nicholson Hollow, but I wasn't sure. It was as though we'd entered another time dimension, another world entirely, when we left our car at Skyline Drive and began our descent along the trail, through a canopy of oaks, hickories and the last fading blooms of mountain laurel.

I had heard these Blue Ridge hollows were magical places -- tiny enchanted valleys carved into the mountainsides by rivers and streams flowing down from the top, "hollowing" out the land as they went. Covered by forest, the hollows are invisible from the roads and the more populated trails in Shenandoah National Park, reclaimed by nature when the park was established 55 years ago.

But for more than 100 years before that, an isolated, fiercely independent mountain people farmed the slopes by hand, the high valleys too steep for a horse to draw a plow. They built communities -- each hollow took the name of the predominant family who settled it -- established trade with "low-landers" in the Shenandoah Valley and for generations produced some of the best moonshine in Virginia. Today, the only reminders of that once-thriving culture remain along trails leading through the mysterious, constant twilight of the hollows.

From Skyline Drive, our first trail led a mile and a half -- and 1,000 feet down -- toward Corbin Cabin, formerly the home of mountaineer George Corbin, who lived among the Nicholsons. Corbin Cabin, restored to nearly its original condition -- no running water, no electricity -- by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, is rented out to hikers at PATC headquarters in Washington. We had opted, instead, to spend the previous night at the basic, but comfortable, motel accommodations owned by the National Park Service at Skyland. Tonight, though, after another foot-pounding day on the trails, we were heading to Strasburg for the good food, Victorian comforts and big whirlpool tubs of the Hotel Strasburg.

We were about a mile down the mountain when we spotted our first ruin, a former cabin to the left of the trail. A large, rusted metal smokestack, undoubtedly from a wood stove, lay in the yard, and the huge stone fireplace was largely intact. This had been a prosperous Nicholson -- the cabin was large and the owner had cemented over the rock-and-mud foundation and log-and-mud exterior walls when cement came to the mountains.

Back on the main trail, we clambered down, down, down another third of a mile into the hollow, then saw a path to the right up a steep hill. At the top was an old, rusted decorative metal gate, propped up against two trees. Floating in the middle of the forest, the gate looked eerie, as though it protected the entrance to something. I climbed up the path to investigate.

"Look over here," I said, walking along the small ridge at the top of the hill near the gate. "See the way this one thin, flat stone is placed standing on end? That's the way they marked graves. I wonder if this could be a graveyard?" We pulled away some underbrush and found another stone standing on end, and then another and another, all unmarked. Two were very small, perhaps children's graves. One larger stone lay flat on the ground, as though it had fallen over.

"Come here," my friend said, inspecting the stone on the ground. "There's writing on this one, script carved with a knife maybe."

I traced the script with my fingers. "April . . . 29 . . . 1895. April 29, 1895! A family graveyard!" The name below the date was, sadly, too weathered to read.

After a breather on the porch of Corbin Cabin, we set off to find the ruins of a cabin that a century ago belonged to Aaron Nicholson, fearsome patriarch of the Nicholson clan and, according to legend, one of the finest moonshiners in the Blue Ridge.

Suddenly, the hollow turned black as night, the deep forest illuminated only by bolts of lightning, and the temperature dropped dramatically as the sky opened with a torrential downpour.

"We could be trapped down here!" my partner shouted over the thunder. It's no wonder, I thought to myself as we scurried back toward the shelter and higher ground of the cabin's porch, that the mountain people watched for certain omens that were said to herald a storm -- a circle around the moon, lightning in the north, dreaming of the dead. You could join the dead if you

weren't careful.

After about 20 minutes we were back on the porch of Corbin Cabin, understanding why hikers might settle for its rustic charm after all. Waiting out the rain, I noticed the rock foundation of another house, across the field in front of us. Then, back in the trees to the right, walking tentatively toward us, were a doe and her fawn. We sat very still and speculated in whispers that hikers who stay in Corbin Cabin probably feed her.

But then the doe led her fawn over to the ruin of another cabin, one we had not seen before. She nosed around it, circling, nibbling, expecting something, as though she had known whoever lived there many years before and they too had fed the deer. Some- thing there was familiar to that doe, some smell, some sight, some apparition she was showing to her fawn. The past was indeed alive in these hollows, but there were things that we could never hope to see. -- AMANDA SPAKE The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (1718 N St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036; 638-5306) has the necessary Shenandoah National Park trail guide and maps. Shenandoah National Park accommodations: The trail club's six cabins, including Corbin Cabin, rent for $14 a night for up to four people on Friday and Saturday nights, $3 per person during the week, plus $2 processing fee. For reservations, call 638-5306. Skyline Drive accommodations: Skyland Lodge, ARA Virginia Sky-line Co. Inc., P.O. Box 727, Luray, Va. 22835 (open from April through mid-December) and Big Meadows Lodge (mid-May through October); (703) 999-2211 or 1-800-999-4714. $34 to $115 per room per night (higher on weekends and in October, November and December). Hotel Strasburg, 201 S. Holliday St., Strasburg, Va. 22657; (703) 465-9191. $69 to $149 per room per night.

YE OLD OUTLET SHOPPES

Colonial Williamsburg is lovely. Really. It is.

But the extended family of Pakistani tourists (mother, father, baby and sari-swathed grandmother) are having a little trouble figuring it out. You can tell by their befuddlement as they stand there in front of the Governor's Palace. This re-creation of 18th-century colonial America is just not computing.

Plus, it's hot. Really hot.

They do the sensible thing. The thing most visitors to Colonial Williamsburg do (though they won't always admit it). They turn their backs on history and head for the 150 or so factory outlets located on the outskirts of town.

Now this is America.

Calvin Klein, Evan-Picone, Van Heusen, Levi Strauss, Anne Klein -- these are the names they've come to know and revere. Those other guys -- Thomas Paine, Francis Fauquier, Patrick Henry, George Mason, James Madison -- don't have their own clothing lines.

When history gets boring, the bored go shop- ping. And that's the secret of "doing" Williamsburg: Hit the outlets by day and save the village for night.

I lost track of the Pakistanis but, a few miles west of town on Route 60 in Lightfoot, I fell in with a busload of outlet hounds from New Jersey. While their bus, and about a dozen more, sat idling in the parking lot, we waded into the throng combing the Williamsburg Pottery Factory.

The factory is unlike anything you've ever seen before, unless it's the markets of Bangkok. It isn't pretty, and it isn't air-conditioned, but it is a trip, a bargain-hunter's garish dream come true. The sheer size of the place is stunning: 32 buildings, 200 acres, 1.5 million square feet of display space. You can buy clothes, furniture, plants, cement gardenware, jewelry, luggage, wine, fancy foods, baskets, oriental rugs, "silk" flowers, lamps, candles, soap, Christmas trees (live, cut or fake) and, of course, pottery. The offerings go on, but you get the idea.

Drunk on the fragrance of bayberry candles, bayberry potpourri and bayberry soap, I headed east toward town for a stop at the Williamsburg Outlet Shops (Pinehurst Lingerie, Tanner Factory Store) and the Williamsburg Outlet Mall (Just My Size, Hanes Activewear, L'eggs, Levi Strauss & Co., Kidsport USA and lots of shoe stores). I could feel myself getting shorter and worn down as the day went on, but, hey, this is what America is all about.

Another mall, Berkeley Commons, boasts more upscale offerings with the aforementioned Kleins (Calvin and Anne), Mikasa and Royal Doulton china, Liz Claiborne, J. Crew and Jindo Furs. Closest to town are outlets for American Tourister, Dansk, Villeroy & Boch, Towle, WestPoint Pepperell and Lenox.

Here's what I bought: an Anne Klein handbag, a Stone Mountain cosmetics bag, a pair of Reeboks and a turkey sandwich. I paid full retail for the sandwich.

After dark, most of the tourists disappear from the historic section and take their Bart Simpson and Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts with them. The whine of "Mommy, will you carry me?" gets replaced by the low laughter of couples strolling among the taverns and historic buildings.

I took advantage of the evening to roam the streets and peek in windows. The forge, the bootmaker's, the wigmaker's, the bookbinder's and all the other shops are closed at night, but I like them uncluttered by crowds.

The windows are dark and the street lights dim. Occasionally one of the colonial "character interpreters" would pass, all tired and rumpled, headed home. In the torchlight outside the capitol, I passed a man whose quiet greeting echoed the mannered tones of Williamsburg's past. His vest buttons were undone and his buckles askew after a long day playing the part of a blacksmith, or maybe a harness maker. The weight of history was all around, and the dark romantic little town was mine. The gardens are closed at night too, but I stood at the gates and made up my own 18th-century fantasies to be played out amid the boxwood mazes and well-tended herb gardens.

You can cover a good many of the town's historic 173 acres at night, stop at one of the four taverns for a late dinner (I had never had peanut soup before, and the spoonbread is heaven) and linger over wine in a candlelit atmosphere thick with the chords of "Greensleeves." It takes something like the crunch of a late-night jogger on the gravel paths to jar you back into the 20th century.

Stay someplace really fussy like the Williamsburg Inn. I did. The bell captains have these dignified, languorous Tidewater accents, and you have to dress up for the dining room or lounge. The valet even scolds you if you park your own car. I love that sort of thing.

The only thing I don't love is getting there. Even at hours when you think it wouldn't be, I-95 is clogged with traffic that creeps the 100 miles from Washington to Richmond. The final 50 or so miles on I-64 aren't much better.

Traffic aside, go for the shopping, the history and the mobcaps. By day or by night, Williamsburg is a lovely outlet. -- KATHY LEGG Accommodations inside Colonial Williamsburg: The Williamsburg Inn is $185 to $235 per room per night. Rooms in the inn's colonial homes and taverns range from $141 to $211 per room per night. Other historic area facilities range from $55 to $169. Accommodations in the outlet area: Days Inn Pottery, Econo Lodge East, Howard Johnson Lodge, Quality Inn Francis Nicholson and Ramada Inn West range from $59 to $65 per room per night. For all lodging information and reservations: Williamsburg Hotel/Motel Association (1-800- 446-9244; in Virginia, call 804-220-3330).

JEFFERSON'S MIRROR

Though it's too hot to be wearing gray flannel slacks, a blue blazer and a bow tie, John Rudder, tour supervisor at Mon- ticello, is bearing up well. Rudder, who graduated from the nearby University of Virginia in 1988, does not ordinarily give guided tours through Thomas Jefferson's home, but today he's been pressed into service. It's a Saturday and the place is crawling with tourists, many of whom have waited an hour or more to get in.

As you stand with a group of 25 others in the center of the high-ceilinged entrance hall, Rudder directs your attention to the dual-faced, seven-day calendar clock designed by Jefferson; the elk and moose antlers from a Lewis and Clark expedition that was commissioned by Jefferson; and Jefferson's delightful architectural riffs here and there that make Monticello one of the most fascinating meccas in America.

Then, as he ushers your group from the room, Rudder points out one last item: a concave mirror. "The glass probably came from one of Jefferson's telescopes and is an example of his interest in optics," Rudder says. "But you might also notice, as you look into it, that your reflection is upside down."

Sure enough, you pause for a moment and gaze at your topsy-turvy self. "It was probably hung there for the amusement of his visitors," Rudder says.

As the tour progresses, however, you get the feeling that Jefferson seldom did things just for amusement. He seemed to have a practical reason for his actions. For instance, though Jefferson was a public figure, he was a retiring, reticent, introspective man, so he set aside half of the first floor -- a bedroom, library, sit- ting room, greenhouse and study -- as his sanctum sanctorum, and very few people were invited in. It was here that Jefferson pursued his life studies.

Throughout the rest of the house, how- ever, Jefferson shared his knowledge. Though he rebelled against the governments of the European peoples, he obviously appreciated their way of life, their sense of tradition, and he attempted to create in Monticello a link to the cultural past and a museum of Western civilization.

Jefferson began building his home on the hill in 1770, when he was just 27 years old. Construction of the main house took 12 years, during which time young Jefferson was elected to the Continental Congress, to the Virginia House of Delegates and to the Virginia governor's office. Between 1784 and 1789, Jefferson served as the United States commissioner to France, and when he returned -- in- spired by the Europeans and determined to fashion Monticello as a paradigm of culture for Americans -- he began extensive remodeling and rebuilding until the house took the shape that we see today.

Visitors to Monticello can glimpse at every turn Jefferson's studious passion for things European, for instance the Roman friezes on the walls; the paintings in the parlor; Venetian blinds; ornate columns; indoor privies; narrow staircases; and the domed room on the third floor. One 18th-century Frenchman remarked, "Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather."

Jefferson was also a teacher. And you get the feeling that each thing in and around the home was put there by Jefferson as some kind of lesson. The man had an amazing range of interests. He was a gardener who designed an exquisite English landscape garden. He was a farmer, a botanist, an astronomer, a surveyor and a musician. An architect who loved light, Jefferson installed 14 Parisian-style skylights in the house, and giant windows and mirrors at strategic points so that sunlight would be reflected throughout the rooms. An inventor and designer, Jefferson delighted in gadgets such as the revolving tabletop, swivel chair and five-book rotating reading stand in his study; the wine-cellar-to-dining-room dumbwaiters in the dining room; the automatic double doors to the parlor; and the sliding glass doors separating the dining room from the tea room.

"Mr. J has been 27 years engaged in improving the place," wrote Washingtonian Ann Thornton, who visited Monticello in 1802, "but he has pulled down & built up again so often, that nothing is compleated, nor do I think ever will be."

Until he died, Jefferson tinkered and tampered with Monticello, rebuilding, reshaping, improving, overhauling, never really content with the way things were.

As the tour ends on the north piazza, the crowd disperses, making room for the next group. Rudder politely answers a few questions, then wanders off, and you are left alone feeling inspired and patriotic, but also a little puzzled and full of questions. Will you, as Jefferson did, leave the world a better place than you found it? Are you, as Jefferson was, curious and open to new experiences? And why did Jefferson hang that damn mirror in the entrance hall? It makes you wonder. -- LINTON WEEKS A "Historic Inns/Charlottesville and Albemarle County" brochure is available from the Virginia Division of Tourism (1629 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006; 659-5523). It features area inns such as Clifton: The Country Inn (Route 9, Box 412, Charlottesville, Va. 22901; 804-971-1800; $115 to $165 per room per night), once owned by Jefferson's son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph; and Prospect Hill (Route 3, Box 430, Trevilians, Va. 23093; 703-967-0844; $180 to $220 per room per night), built circa 1732.

TAKING THE PLUNGE AT THE HOMESTEAD

Standing buck-naked beneath an arch of Swiss shower nozzles, I took a moment to size up my spa attendant. The kid looked harmless enough . . . high school age, clean-cut, all in white like a Good Humor man. Why was I worried? Wasn't this supposed to be relaxing?

A few minutes before, he had applied a cooling compress to my brow while I soaked in a tepid 106-degree mineral bath. The exfoliating "Salt Glo" rub he had given me was deft and gentle. So far, so good.

But now there was a glazed-over, almost alien, look to his eyes. Within seconds I would be at his mercy. It was time for my "Scotch Douche."

First-timers "taking the cure" at the Homestead spa, in Hot Springs, Va., might well recoil at the sight of the century-old hydrotherapeutic equipment. Secured to a gleaming island control platform are oversize, old-fashioned cross faucets, pressure gauges and dangling needle-nose hoses, the guts of the douche.

"Now cover yourself," came the command, one he didn't have to repeat. Like Bull Connor in a police action, the attendant threw open the valves and let me have it. This kid had a future delousing prisoners in cell block A, I thought. His parents probably beat him.

He shot me toe to shoulder, front to back, snaking the hoses in an alternating hot, cold, 85-pound high-pressure cataract. Yes, the burning salt was gone from my pores, but in the process I was whammed around and tingled to death. Is this any way to run a spa? You bet it is.

Weekending at a dated mineral resort with quirky regimes is like entering a time warp. That's what attracted me to this isolated southwest Virginia valley. The Homestead, first opened as a spa in 1766, has evolved from a natural bubbling version of Shangri-La to a sprawling red-brick corporate pleasure palace. Sporting and leisure facilities are spread throughout 15,000 acres in the towns of Healing Springs, Hot Springs and Warm Springs. But there is far more to get into than hot water. In fact, one weekend is barely enough time to get your bearings and locate the seven restaurants, 28 meeting and club rooms, ballroom, nightclub, theater, bowling alley and specialty shops.

Today you're far more likely to find exhausted golfers, hot off the three championship courses, in the three mineral swimming pools than debutantes trying to soak their freckles away. And on my last visit, a gear manufacturer had booked a slide show into the grand ballroom where each summer Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt threw "the party."

Most rooms are standard, well-apointed cubicles the Homestead calls "deluxe." Then, for an extra $50 and up a night, there are drop-dead, killer suites that I would call deluxe. In our upgraded room, No. 1802, a terraced suite in the tower, we had a mini-Marlo of overstuffed furniture to flop around on plus an aerial view of the action on 19 tennis courts and half a dozen gazebo-enclosed springs with names like "Boiler Spring," "Soda Spring" and "Magnesia Spring."

Then there is the food ritual. Remember those '30s musicals in which decked-out couples are escorted past waltzing patrons across a columned 600-seat dining salon? It's that kind of scene, with Shamu-size portions of hearty, old-time continental and Southern specialties.

What better way, I thought, to work off such a meal than a trip to the Zander gym, named for Gustav Zander, a Swedish physiotherapist. Back in 1910, he sold the Homestead a line of mechanical resistance machines, each beautifully detailed in polished woods, cast metals, some with leather braces and mohair seats. Unfortunately, the Zanders are now for viewing only, in the Zander Room, just gathering dust.

Five miles down the road from the san- itarium-like main spa in Hot Springs (which is open all year) is an older Homestead bath facility in Warm Springs. In the late 1700s, when it was fashionable to do a seasonal circuit of watering holes, the Warm Springs "Plunge" was Southern aristocracy's first stop and counted Thomas Jefferson among its habitues. It is open from mid-April through October.

Of all the mineral spas I have ever visited, Warm Springs ranks as No. 1 in its simplicity and animating spirit. The original octagonal wood structure, built in 1761, still stands, with a few new boards here and there. Open to the sky is a bubbling lagoon, perfectly clear, carpeted in smooth stones, naturally aerated, like a pool of Perrier.

I drifted, near-weightless, bobbing on tiptoes. It was pure physical luxury. I passed through an unmarked door, down a flight of narrow, wet wooden stairs to find the forerunner of the "Scotch Douche" -- the "Sluice." I soaped up, grabbed a knotted rope and held on. I called out. An attendant opened the sluice gate. Knocked off my feet, I was lifted on a roaring tsunami of mineral water. Magnesium sulphate . . . calcium sulphate . . . po- tassium sulphate . . . iron carbonate . . . barium carbonate. Ommmmm. Ahhhhh. Ommmmm.

After Jefferson's last visit to this hot spring, he wrote to a friend that he stayed for two hours treading water and sluicing. His health, he said, was so damaged that he never completely recovered from the experience. So who are you going to believe, a Founding Father or me? -- WALTER NICHOLLS Getting there: Those who don't want to drive the 220 miles from Washington to Bath County can take USAir to Roanoke (weekend excursions as low as $166 round trip per person), then go by limousine to the Homestead ($95 one-way by private car, $150 for a van of 10 people). The Homestead, Hot Springs, Va. 24445; (703) 839-5500. $140 to $185 per double room per night, including breakfast and dinner. Spa facilities are available to non-hotel guests. A "combination bath" (mineral bath, Salt Glo, Scotch Douche and spray) is $22. Nearby bed and breakfast accommodations: Anderson Cottage, an 18th-century tavern (Box 176, Warm Springs, Va. 24484; 703-839-2975; $45 to $75 per room per night, including breakfast; open from April to November 1). Meadow Lane Lodge, a 1,600-acre working farm (Star Route A, Box 110, Warm Springs, Va. 24484; 703-839-5959; $90 to $110 per double room per night, including full breakfast; two-night stay required on weekends May through October).