BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — Full disclosure right up front: I live here. Have lived here for nearly 40 years.
I’ve written so many words about Berkeley Springs that it’s hard to imagine there is any West Virginian not familiar with the country’s first spa, tucked away in that protruding thumb of the state known as the Eastern Panhandle.
How many other places are there where people have been coming to “take the waters” for their health for nearly 300 years — not counting the native tribes?
Berkeley Springs loves being branded with slogans — true statements, but slogans nonetheless. Mostly the branding is in the superlative form. Center of the universe. Quirky business capital. Spa capital. West Virginia’s girliest town — that one got a couple guys with too much chest hair really riled up.
In the 18th century, Berkeley Springs was branded “that seat of sin.” Not so much anymore.
In the 21st century, it’s a best small art town and currently competing for Coolest Small Town in America. (Not to be excessively self-serving, but Berkeley Springs is the only West Virginia town competing in 2015, so you can help by going to BudgetTravel.com and voting — over and over again.)
The allure always circles back to the water, 50 million-year-old warm mineral water that the young George Washington called “ye fam’d warm springs” when he came surveying in 1748. In the early 19th century, historian Samuel Kerchival called it “the most ancient watering place in the Valley.”
It was the first of the Blue Ridge spa resorts and remains one of the most popular. As the slogan says: “Ancient Healing for the New Millennium.”
The springs emerge from the base of a sandstone ridge that today is Berkeley Springs State Park and has been public ground since that early George Washington visit.
When the newly independent Virginia General Assembly liberated the springs and their surrounding squatter town from a willing Thomas Lord Fairfax in 1776, they created a real town where folks could buy land. They called it Bath.
The Assembly specifically said the town existed to encourage housing those who came to take the waters, making it the country’s first tourism development project. They also allowed that the waters would always be freely available.
Today, the park boasts the largest open display of mineral waters in the Blue Ridge with pools, channels and a public pump all available 24/7. The park also has baths. And massages. And steams and saunas. There’s an outdoor public pool open in the summer fed from Lord Fairfax’s personal spring.
The one place you won’t bathe is George Washington’s Bathtub, although everyone makes it a selfie destination.
The town surrounding the springs may be “officially” Bath, but the world knows it as Berkeley Springs, the Post Office name. Promoters (meaning me) like to say Berkeley Springs is a postal address and a state of mind.
Berkeley Springs has no government, no boundaries and no rules. It may be America’s first “virtual” location.
Having three centuries of practice at being a spa resort, Berkeley Springs is very good at it. There have been four “Golden Ages,” by my count, and we are still at the peak of the fourth.
The long history may bring gravitas to the place, but you want to know what everyone wants to know: What’s there today? Three times as many massage therapists as lawyers and more than 60 different bodywork treatments from which to choose — in both the state park bathhouses and several private spas, open daily year-round — is a favorite activity.
Everyone has their own favorite massage therapist and will happily point you to the best facials. A Malaysian temple-trained massage therapist has been rubbing folks in Berkeley Springs for nearly 30 years and now has his own elegant spa, Atasia, where the flavor of the scrubs, steam and facials changes monthly.
There are two acupuncturists, one a Chinese physician. My massage therapist may be the best non-drug-related pain reliever anywhere, ever.
In spite of mid-19th-century bath keeper John Davis’ proclamation that the chief end of man is to bathe, bathing is simply not enough. There needs to be entertainment. And shopping. And dining. And outdoor fun. Have no fear, all these attractions are firmly in place and at the top of their game.
Dining is always an amazement for city folk arriving for the weekend. They are astounded that there is a James Beard-rated chef in Berkeley Springs — and he, Damien Heath, loves to eat so much that portions are as hearty as the food is delicious. Heath’s Lot 12 also has an exquisite small bar with an extensive and selective wine list.
Lot 12 is not at the top of the heap alone. Tari’s Café is a downtown favorite not only for its consistently good food over the past quarter of a century but also because it is open daily for lunch and dinner.
Then there is the down-home splendor of Betty Lou’s Cafe at Roy’s Garage, where locals and clued-in visitors eat and Betty Lou herself makes a dozen or so pies every day.
A full list of eateries adds more locations ranging from coffee shop to Mexican.
An art town has, by definition, art and artists — other than “retiree” and “teacher,” “artist” is probably the largest job title category.
Berkeley Springs has musicians and dancers, painters and fabric artists, published authors and photographers. There are so many accomplished visual artists that a recent exhibit at the Ice House Gallery was called “Plan B,” which filled the room with professional-quality work from artists working in some medium outside their primary one. Studio tours in spring and fall draw hundreds of visitors each year. Berkeley Springs’ becoming the first of West Virginia’s nine certified arts communities was no surprise.
Along with several galleries, shops and individual art studios, the Ice House is an art magnet. The 40,000-square-foot former apple cold storage building in the center of town was rescued from dereliction by the Morgan Arts Council. It is being transformed — hopefully in my lifetime — into a thriving art center where digital media classes and concerts stand cheek by jowl with an artists’ co-op gallery, revolving special art exhibits, community theater productions and art classes for adults and children.
The community also uses the space for the biggest single indoor event of the year: the annual Festival of Light Psychic Fair and Alternative Healing Expo, highlighting still another quirky aspect of Berkeley Springs.
Live local music can be found weekends at several locations in town, mostly in the summer and fall seasons.
The psychic fair is not the only quirky festival. In October, the annual Apple Butter Festival, now in its 42nd year, is delightfully participatory. You can stir apple butter in big copper kettles, or compete in the hog calling competition — no experience necessary.
If you have facial hair, the beard and mustache contest is for you. Or maybe you’d rather be a contest judge.
The Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting is serious business. Celebrating its 25th anniversary at the end of February, the event now has more than 100 entries from around the world and across the country.
Although there are experts on seminar panels and media judges for the water, the public can taste along and cast the only votes for best packaging. The big draw for the random water groupie is the highly competitive “water rush” at the end, where the public gets to take home the waters on display. Experienced attendees travel from as far away as Manhattan and come armed with large tote bags to stash away as much rare European bottled water as possible.
This is the place for pampering your body, but folks who like to play outdoors come visit too. Most of the outdoor fun is centered at Cacapon State Park — yes, tiny Morgan County has two state parks.
Cacapon is a standard-issue resort park with an exceptional golf course, a lake with a sand beach and a spectacular hiking trail made for people who like to walk on top of a mountain but level. The 12-mile fire road leads to incredible rock formations that drove the decision to make the 6,000 acres a state park.
Hunters head to Sleepy Creek and are especially impressed by dove hunting in September. As for fishing, if you buddy up to a local, you get to discover when the fish hatchery down the road dumps the trout it raises into the lake at Cacapon. Not very sporting in my mind, but it doesn’t seem to bother the fishing folks.
The list of outdoor adventure is even longer, including boating on both rivers — the Potomac and the Cacapon — as well as biking.
I can honestly say I’ve never slept a night here except in my own bed, but I’ve toured most of the lodging places and can affirm there is a pillow with your name on it. Lacy pillows at B&Bs. Dozens of pillows in fully equipped vacation homes buried in the woods or along the rivers. BYO pillows at a couple campgrounds. Comfy pillows and even pet pillows in certain places.
Whether it’s warm water or fortune tellers or local playwrights or gorgeous scenery or friendly folks, it’s all closer than you think in Berkeley Springs.
Jeanne Mozier, of Berkeley Springs, is the author of “Way Out in West Virginia,” considered a must-have guide to the wonders and oddities of the Mountain State. She and noted photographer Steve Shaluta recently released the second printing of the coffee table photo book “West Virginia Beauty: Familiar & Rare.” Both are available in bookstores throughout the state and from wvbookco.com.