'Tis the season for family and friends, it's true, but what a demanding bunch they sometimes can be. How about taking a break, maybe a quiet weekend away just for the two of you in the next few weeks? Some place offering a bit of pampering and a lot of relaxation. If you go right now, look on it as a pleasant cure for any excesses of holiday spirit. If you go later, it's an antidote for the midwinter blahs.
The ideal getaway at this time of year is probably a romp on a warm and sunny Caribbean beach. But the tropics are out of reach for a convenient one- or two-day escape from Washington -- and rather expensive, considering all those holiday bills due soon. However, the alternative, a winter weekend within a three- or four-hour drive of Washington, can be almost as inviting.
Given the meteorological facts of life in the Washington area, no matter how fast you drive in those few allotted hours, you are not going to reach any place warm. Sunny, maybe -- if you are lucky -- but almost certainly nippy or even bitter cold. But that's the only real drawback of a winter weekend close to home.
All the other components of an enjoyable getaway are readily available, the most important being comfortable lodgings, good food, scenic surroundings and perhaps some light diversion -- a country road to stroll or a bit of history to explore. The choice of destinations -- given the chancy weather -- is surprisingly wide.
From now through March, Washington weekenders can take winter in stride and head for the mountains of West Virginia to revel in a frosted landscape -- taking sanctuary, of course, in a warm, rustic-looking woodland lodge. Or they can head east across the Chesapeake Bay to a fine inn in St. Michaels, a delightful bayside village in Maryland where they are likely to avoid any sight of snow.
For the sybarite -- and why not? -- consider a weekend in scenic Berkeley Springs, W. Va., that features a muscle-softening soak in a hot tub followed by a professional, and very soothing, body massage. Or indulge yourself in the best of Virginia's wines on a wine-tasting tour that begins right at your inn.
You can go skiing at Wintergreen Resort in Virginia (or simply enjoy its splendid views); sample the bright lights and brassy shows in Atlantic City's gambling salons; walk the streets of historic Lexington, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley; or find a pleasant inn in practically any direction you take. Surely the most convenient getaway is a weekend package at a downtown Washington hotel.
Here, then, is a roundup of winter weekend escapes from the blahs:
A mountain lodge: By midwinter, the snow usually is piled high around Blackwater Lodge, a rambling 55-room stone and wood structure in Blackwater Falls State Park just outside Davis, W. Va. But inside, this pleasant (and inexpensive) state park retreat is kept invitingly warm by a roaring fire in the large stone fireplace. It is a cozy sanctuary for snow-covered guests tromping in from the woodland winterscape outdoors.
The lodge, secluded from any highway traffic, nudges up to the edge of the rock-strewn canyon of the Blackwater River. The views are nice from inside, but why not plunge right into winter?
You can hike to Blackwater Falls, where the spray has frozen into the giant icicles of an icy wonderland. The park has an excellent ski-touring center (with rentals and instruction). And for the first time, the lodge this winter is opening an outdoor ice-skating rink (with skate rentals). For a little old-fashioned fun, bundle up for a ride on the lodge's horse-drawn sleigh.
Blackwater has a restaurant serving three meals daily, a TV room and a cocktail lounge. It is a popular place, and winter weekends fill quickly though there's usually plenty of space midweek. The weekend rate for a room for two is $46. A two-night package Sunday through Thursday is $36 a night. Meals are additional.
A wine sampler: High Meadows Inn, which occupies a stately old home dating from 1832, sits in the midst of Virginia's wine country about 15 minutes south of Charlottesville. On the scenic road from Charlottesville, you will pass five vineyards open for tasting. But that's only the beginning of a wine-sampling weekend.
Innkeepers Peter Sushka and Mary Jae Abbitt grow pinot noir and chardonnay grapes on the inn's 22 acres of grounds, and they will be glad to share their experiences in managing a vineyard while walking you among the vines. Each evening from 6 until 8:30, they host a cheese and wine-tasting party for guests with samples from the neighborhood wineries.
The inn was once two homes, but they are now linked by a "great hall." There are eight antique-decorated guest rooms with private bath and several public rooms for relaxing, including music room, library and parlor. Dinner is by candlelight, served on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
High Meadows is also nicely located for tours of the homes of presidents Jefferson, Monroe and Madison or for a hike to Crabtree Falls near the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The rate is $75 a night for two for lodging, full English breakfast and wine sampling. Dinner, depending on the menu of the day -- usually continental, with game in season -- is about $20 to $25 a person. A house wine is complimentary.
A trip into history: Few history lessons are so pleasant as a visit to Lexington, Va., a beautiful Shenandoah Valley college town that plays tribute to the South's two most famous Civil War generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and to George C. Marshall, World War II chief of staff who went on to become secretary of state.
From the Historic Lexington Visitor Center at 107 E. Washington St., weekenders can take an easy walking trip that leads past sweeping lawns and lovely homes. Stops include the house where Jackson lived when he taught at Virginia Military Institute; Lee's burial place at Washington and Lee University, where he served as president after the war; and the museum honoring Marshall at VMI, where Marshall was a student.
Lexington looks like a sleepy Southern town -- a good place to slow your pace. But thanks in part to those two universities, it's also vibrant and rather sophisticated. Visitor accommodations are excellent, and the cluster of good downtown shops may tempt you from the history lesson. At Virginia Born and Bred, the focus is on Virginia-related products such as Virginia-grown peanuts, locally made jams and books about the state. Creative Dimensions is a fine toy store for a gift for any youngsters left at home.
Among the lodging possibilities are two downtown inns, the seven-room Alexander Withrow House or the 15-room McCampbell Inn (both $65 to $80 a night for two with private bath and continental breakfast). For dining, try the Willson-Walker House, a fine restaurant serving American cuisine.
Washington for lovers: Getting away doesn't necessarily mean a long drive. Consider a trip no farther than downtown Washington -- actually one of the most interesting and entertaining places in the country. Many of Washington's spiffiest hotels offer substantial discounts on weekend rates, putting you within walking distance -- or maybe a taxi or Metro ride -- of the city's museums, galleries, shops, theaters and restaurants. On a getaway from home, you have time to enjoy them.
For example, the new Westin Hotel, which radiates an easygoing elegance at 24th and M streets NW, cuts its weekday rates by 50 percent on Friday and Saturday night. A standard room for two on the weekend is $92.50 (regular, $185); a deluxe room is $122.50 (regular, $245). Tax and parking are extra.
One feature that sets the Westin apart from some of the city's other hotels is its excellent fitness center, one of the best of any hotel in the country. At no additional charge, guests can use the swimming pool, sauna and whirlpool bath. For a $10 fee, they have full run of all the weight-training equipment.
For light meals, the hotel offers the Bistro. A second restaurant, the Colonnade, serves a set-price menu at dinner ($26 per person nightly) or a Sunday brunch ($26.95 per person with "free-flowing" champagne).
Treating the body: A soak and a rubdown -- it's a fitness regimen that nourishes without demanding excessive energy, perfect for end-of-the-holidays relaxing. To find such agreeable treatment in a weekend setting in the country, head for little Berkeley Springs, W. Va., a historic spa that dates back to the days of George Washington.
For this kind of pampering, you have at least two choices in Berkeley Springs.
In the village itself, Berkeley Springs State Park -- no larger than a town square -- provides an hour-long treatment that includes a soak in an indoor "roman bath" and a professional massage. The water comes from the natural springs at about 73 degrees, but is heated to 102 -- warm enough to sooth chilled muscles. The facilities are clean but spartan -- and separated by sex -- but the feeling afterward is good. The cost of a soak and a massage is $18. Open daily.
Convenient accommodations are available in the Country Inn, a large, hotel-like inn and restaurant adjacent to the park ($55 to $75 a night for a room for two), or at Highlawn Inn, a six-room, bed-and-breakfast establishment high on a hill overlooking Berkeley Springs. The regular rate at the Highlawn with full country breakfast is $70 a night for two people. All rooms have a private bath. But the inn also offers a "Royal Escape" package on weekends -- two nights at the inn plus a candlelight English-style dinner at Berkeley Castle, an 1886 mansion built to resemble a castle. The package is $189 for two.
An alternative is Coolfont, a woodsy, 1,200-acre retreat just outside Berkeley Springs in the middle of a small mountain valley. Famous for its massages and its massage classes, Coolfont offers 14 hillside chalets with hot tubs for two. The weekend rate for chalet lodging and two meals is $89.95 per day per person. A half-hour massage at the health spa is $22.
Guests at the Coolfont lodge get a massage included in their room rate. Before the massage, you soak in the hot tub and head for the sauna afterward. With two meals daily, the weekend lodge price is $77 per person per day.
A bayside village: No snow at all, you plead. Well, no promises are made, but you have a good chance of escaping any threatening flurries by heading east across the Chesapeake Bay to the sailing port of St. Michaels. The port's attractions are its splendid bayside setting, its collection of cafe's and restaurants, a choice of pleasant inns and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, an 18-acre complex of buildings -- including a very photogenic six-sided lighthouse -- that chronicle the lore of the bay.
If you book far enough in advance, you may be fortunate to find a weekend room at the quite splendid Inn at Perry Cabin, once the home of Samuel Hambleton, who served with Commodore Oliver H. Perry in the War of 1812. The inn has six elegantly furnished guest rooms -- three with water views -- and an excellent public dining room, also with views. A room for two is $90 to $135 a night with a continental breakfast.
Nearby is The Parsonage Inn, which has seven guest rooms that have been decorated to reflect the inn's Victorian origins. During winter months, afternoon tea and hot spiced cider and cookies are served in the parlor. The parlor fireplace is kept going into the evening. A room for two is $68 to $78 a night with a continental breakfast.
Winter sports, or just the view: A mountain setting, a hillside chalet, a warm fire, a fine wine and just the two of you. You can put yourself in that romantic picture in any of three nearby Virginia ski resorts -- Wintergreen, south of Charlottesville; Massanutten, near Harrisonburg; and Bryce at Basye near Mount Jackson. You can ski if you choose -- that's why most people are there -- but there's no reason you can't stay in one of the resorts just to enjoy the splendid surroundings and the pleasant lodging and dining facilities.
All three resorts offer a selection of private chalets or condominium apartments, most of them with good views and some with splendid panoramas. And each has attractive dining rooms, the only time you need to mingle with the athletic crowd.
Wintergreen is the classiest of the three, the place to go for a special winter weekend. It sits atop 3,850-foot Devil's Knob in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with many of the chalets and condos commanding a magnificent view of the countryside below. Massanutten sits in a tree-lined bowl at the southern end of Massanutten Mountain; those trees sing when the wind blows. Bryce is tucked into a forest-ringed valley; many of the lodgings have a view of the ski slopes.
Of course, winter is the high season at ski resorts, so don't expect any bargains, especially on weekends.
Wintergreen requires a two-night stay for Friday and Saturday. The rate for a one-bedroom condo is $172 a night; the rate for a two-bedroom chalet is $227 a night. The price includes use of the resort's spa, which has a beautiful indoor swimming pool as well as a hot tub and sauna.
At Massanutten, a chalet sleeping up to four people rents for $160 per night; a townhouse "villa" with both whirlpool and sauna is $200 per night for up to four people. There is a two-night minimum on weekends. Villa guests also get free use of Le Club, Massanutten's new spa, which has an indoor swimming pool, fitness room with 22 weight-training stations and two outdoor hot tubs. The fee is $5 a day per person for chalet guests.
Bryce Resort offers efficiency condo apartments overlooking the ski mountain at $95 a night for two people. A two-bedroom townhouse on the valley floor is $115 a night. A hillside chalet, sleeping six, is $250 to $370 a night. There is a two-night minimum stay on weekends.
Any skiing, of course, is extra.
For the bright lights: Head for one of the big casinos in Atlantic City and pretend you are on a cruise. Play the gambling tables and slot machines, take in a big show, treat yourself to a massage, dine extravagantly, go dancing, have a midnight snack and a nightcap and take the elevator to your ocean-view room.
At Trump Plaza, a 39-story beachfront hotel and casino, you might even think you have anchored off a tropical isle. On its seventh floor, the hotel features a large glass-enclosed swimming pool and lounge area that looks out over the Atlantic. The warm, soothing water and the decorative palms at poolside provide a hint of the tropics. And when you float on your back, you can watch the clouds play overhead and escape into your daydreams. The winter rate at Trump Plaza for a room for two is $120 to $130 a night.