Celebrations of Washington’s birthday take a local splash in the spa town of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
Located 90 miles from Washington, D.C., Berkeley Springs claims to be America’s first spa. To prove it, they have enshrined George Washington’s bathtub and Martha’s bathing costume.
The tiny town where George and Martha Washington took the waters in the 18th century now has five full-service spas, a homeopathic pharmacy, and more healers per capita than any place in the Mid-Atlantic states.
The future president first visited this mountain hamlet in 1748 as a surveyor for a British peer who had been granted a large hunk of the Virginias in return for helping King George III in the colonies. Young George, then 16 years old, noted his visit to “ye fam’d warm springs” after bathing in a rock-walled open-air pool, now in the center of Berkeley Springs State Park.
George and Martha Washington returned many times, had a cottage built near the springs, and helped develop plans for a health resort modeled on the British spa town of Bath. Located near the source of the Potomac River, wedged into Pennsylvania and Maryland, this scenic part of West Virginia is a pleasant drive on I-70 from Frederick, Md.
“Many places claim Washington slept there,” comments local historian Jeanne Mozier. “We have his bathtub – the only outdoor monument to presidential bathing – as well as free spring water from wells given to the American colonists by King George and Lord Fairfax.”
Taking the waters became fashionable, along with horse racing and cock fighting. Bathhouses with Roman-style pools were the ultimate in privacy and sanitation. Still in use, the eight Roman baths are part of the Berkeley Springs museum of bathing.
Fresh from a recent $2-million makeover, the baths are the centerpiece of Berkeley Springs.
Operated by the State of West Virginia, the historic bathhouses offer the best bargain in town. The basic “rub-and-tub” ($45-$50) gets you a soak in a jetted tub, 20-minute massage, plus towel, locker, and use of exercise equipment. Longer massage costs $75 weekdays, $85 weekends, plus gratuity.
Built during the Depression of 1929, the main bathhouse has changing rooms with lockers and showers. Mineral water from mountain springs, heated to 102 degrees by massive copper boilers, fills the baths in separate facilities for men and women.
For a more relaxing retreat, reserve one of the rooms at The Roman Bath House (circa 1784). Step into sunken pools that hold up to four bathers. Upstairs, displays of early days at the springs include a bathing costume worn by Martha Washington that has weights built into the skirt hem to prevent exposure of ladies’ ankles.
Tasting the waters
Taste waters from around the world at Berkeley Springs’ 23rd annual Festival of the Waters.
With a new location, the event’s highlight challenges a panel of judges to rate the taste of hundreds of waters. Tutored by a pro, Arthur von Weissenberg, tasters go to work at public sessions. Poured from unmarked pitchers, each water is rated for taste, after-taste, and feeling on the tongue. Municipal waters compete for the coveted honor of best tap water; Bottled waters, both still and sparkling, come from around the world.
After the Saturday evening finals, you can take home free bottles contributed by the entrants.
The Best Western Berkeley Springs Inn will host The Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting February 21st - 24th. Preliminary judging is Thursday, February 21 and the final tasting is conducted Saturday, February 23, followed by a reception announcing winners for both bottlers and municipalities.
Said to be the largest water tasting competition in the world, it’s the best free show in town. Tickets can be picked up at the visitor center, or from your innkeeper.
Washington's summer White House
Made fashionable by the Washington residence, Berkeley Springs may be America’s only town devoted to well-being. Shop owners actually explain nuances of their wellness products. Healers have set up shop in Victorian houses along Washington and Fairfax streets near the vintage Star Theatre where movie classics are shown weekends. Stroll to the Ice House where craftsmen and antiques dealers add country charm.
Clustered near the four-acre state park at the center of town, an apothecary called Homeopathy Works fills prescriptions, Stock up on skincare products and schedule a facial at The Bath House day spa. Or try Thai massage at Frankie Tan’s Atasia Spa, two floors of treatment rooms for bodywork based on Eastern and Western traditions.
You may still drink freely and fill water jugs at Lord Fairfax's public tap, and wade in the ancient stone pools in the nation's smallest state park. The town has endured cycles of notoriety, fashion, war, and depression, but remains the country's First Spa, a quiet, friendly haven surrounded by West Virginia's natural splendor.
For information, call Travel Berkeley Springs at 1-800/447-8797, and ask for a Winter Festival of the Waters calendar covering events through March, or check Berkeley Springs’ website at www.berkeleysprings.com for dates, lodging, and spa contacts. Reservations at State Park bathhouses: 1-800/225-5982 or 304/258-2711.