BERKELEY SPRINGS WEST VIRGINIA
an entire town of healing
By Lynn Seldon
Many towns in the Mid-Atlantic claim, ‘George Washington Slept Here,’ as a tourism slogan. Washington traveled extensively in the region and the various towns and inns where he spent the night are well-documented. But few towns can claim that ‘George Washington Bathed Here.’
Washington enjoyed stopping in the historic West Virginia town of Berkeley Springs for the healing powers of the spring water. Today, travelers still flock to the town for the waters and much more.
I grew up about a half-hour from Berkeley Springs and enjoyed the area’s various outdoors pursuits, like hiking, biking, and camping. However, I now return as often as possible for the various spas and healing-oriented facilities that have sprouted in the small town. There’s a healthy Berkeley Springs vibe I feel every time I arrive—it must be the water!
“We have three times as many massage therapists as we do lawyers,” says Jeanne Mozier, vice president of Travel Berkeley Springs. With a wide variety of stand-alone spas, and the very popular spa at Coolfont just outside of town, the story of Berkeley Springs as a spa town has a long history with a modern twist.
WASHINGTON BATHED HERE
As with many historic spa towns throughout the nation, Berkeley Springs was first a destination of Native Americans. They frequented the area to enjoy the healing mineral- and gas-laden spring water, which flows at a rate of 1,500 gallons per minute and at a constant temperature of 74.3ËšF.
Early settlers and surveyors began visiting the area in the 1700s and, in 1776, a charter to establish the town of Bath (named after the health- and tourism-oriented Bath, England) was granted. The town quickly grew in popularity with both visitors and land speculators. One of Bath’s earliest proponents was George Washington, who originally surveyed the land and later frequented the town as a retreat.
The popularity of the water led to the construction of the Roman Bath and the Shower Bath Building during the 1780s. The Gentleman’s Drinking Spring was added in 1815. In the 1920s, an administration building, a bandstand, a swimming pool, and a bathhouse were also added. Incredibly, parts if not all of these structures are still standing and in use as part of a unique West Virginia state park spa.
These facilities remained to be popular throughout the 20th century, operating under mostly public stewardship. However, in 1970, Berkeley Springs State Park was formed to preserve both the buildings and experience of this national spa treasure. In fact, in 1976, Berkeley Springs State Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But a spa town can’t survive on history alone. The 1990s led to a revival of the town of ‘Bath’ as a destination honoring its past, but also providing many modern spas and amenities.
Much of the success of modern-day Berkeley Springs as a spa destination is thanks to the creation of the “Winter Festival of the Waters” in 1991—a three-month umbrella event to alert the world that Berkeley Springs was in fact a year-round resort.
For January, town officials created ‘Spa Feast,’ held the weekend after Martin Luther King day. This free Saturday morning fair brings all the spa and health-related businesses together to offer samples of their wares.
There are typically lines for free fifteen-minute treatments which include massages, facials, pedicures, manicures, and more. They also give away door prizes, and local companies, like Tari’s Cafe (a popular restaurant) and Coolfont offer spa food specials.
For February, they created the ‘Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting’ (now approaching its thirteenth year). This phenomenal event has grown from twenty-four waters in 1991 to ninety-one waters this past year. There are now five categories, including municipal, sparkling, bottled, and purified, as well as one for packaging.
The March weekend went through several permutations, until Travel Berkeley Springs created ‘George Washington’s Bathtub Celebration’ in the mid-1990s. The weekend affair celebrates Washington’s love of the area through a variety of events and activities including readings from George Washington’s diaries about his time in Berkeley Springs, spa specials, and Tari’s traditional White House dinner.
THE SPAS OF TODAY
George Washington wouldn’t recognize Berkeley Springs today. Mozier’s comment about three times as many massage therapists as lawyers is obvious the minute any visitor arrives. The town square features the varied facilities of the Berkeley Springs State Park; The Bath House, a health-oriented shop and full-service spa; Homeopathy Works, a huge homeopathy museum, shop, and producer; and the historic Inn and Spa at Berkeley Springs (formerly the Country Inn). Options like the renowned Atasia Spa, Coolfont Resort, and several independent therapists round out the health-oriented options of this long-time healthy getaway.
Berkeley Springs State Park is frequently the first stop for visitors and it’s also often their first spa experience in town. Most clients opt for a ‘package’ that includes a fifteen to twenty-minute soak in either a walk-in 750 gallon ceramic tub or a Victorian-style bathtub, as well as shower, and thirty or sixty-minute massage. Each of these options are available separately, as are heat cabinets, steams, and infrared heat treatments.
The Inn and Spa at Berkeley Springs located in the heart of town offers a unique experience. Registered as a Historic Hotel of America, The Inn and Spa with its colonial architecture and exquisite design truly reflects the nature of the area. The Origin Spa offers a complete spa menu.
Just across the town square, The Bath House offers alternatives to the atmosphere of the historic park and spa. “We started more than ten years ago as a shop with lots of spa-oriented items,” says owner Maria Spencer.
The Bath House added six treatment rooms eight years ago, taking over the space next door once occupied by attorneys. They even added modern apartments above the shop and spa, for those who wanted to create a spa getaway right in town.
Just a block away, Malaysian-born and Thailand-trained Frankie Tan started Atasia Spa four years ago. He had worked at the Country Inn’s spa for ten years, where he provided more than 10,000 massages. To pursue his dream of owning his own spa, Tan gutted a historic building that had grown dilapidated.
Thanks to Tan’s business acumen, an interior design background, and lots of local help, Atasia has grown into a successful full-service spa with a wide variety of treatments and facilities. Tan has added pedicure chairs, a steam room, creative post-treatment relaxation areas, and even a hair salon down the street (he wisely elected to keep the noise and smells separate from the spa).
Just outside of town sits yet another spa which offers much more. Coolfont Resort, Conference, Spa & Wellness Center was founded by the Ashelman family back in 1968. Patriarch Sam Ashelman, who is still very active at eighty-nine, is a testimony to his premise of creating a retreat for relaxation, recreation, and improved fitness and health. He and his family have obviously succeeded.
Coolfont consists of 1,300 wooded acres just above Berkeley Springs. The sprawling facilities include a lodge with nineteen rooms, a variety of popular A-frame cabins set in the woods, vacation home rentals, the popular Treetop House Restaurant (all meals are typically included in a package stay), a lake, hiking trails, horseback riding, and tennis. Its incredibly successful spa facility also offers an indoor pool, hot tubs, a sauna, an aerobics room, a meditation room, treatment rooms, and a full-service salon.
“The spa is a big part of what makes Coolfont such a special place,” says Mara Ashelman, wife of the resort’s president, who previously served as spa director and is now director of public relations. “People are taking more time for themselves, staying closer to home to do so, and seeking what we have to offer,” she continues. “At the same time, we are building programs that will meet their needs, such as the new ‘Odyssey of the Soul’ program.” Coolfont’s health-oriented packages have been extremely popular—the aforementioned one will feature a Sunday-to-Thursday package including exercise, healthy eating, varied topical lectures, a full body massage, and more.
PRE- AND POST-SPA
As Berkeley Springs developed around the town’s waters and spas, other businesses sprouted to enhance the area. Thus, spa-goers now have more to see and do before and after their treatments.
Along with resorts like Coolfont, where there are a range of activities, health-oriented businesses have also opened. Located right on the town square, Homeopathic Works provides a perfect example. An expansion of Washington Homeopathic Products, which began in Washington, D.C. in 1873 and moved to Bethesda in the 1960s, this Berkeley Springs ‘branch’ opened in the early-1990s.
Owner Joe Lillard says Berkeley Springs is an ideal place for his business, which offers a great homeopathy museum, shop, and lab for visitors and locals. “The synergies are great. We often refer our visitors to area spas and many therapists refer their clients to us for specific ailments with which we can help.”
Other area businesses also support health-oriented visitors. From a health food store (Community Garden Market) and health-conscious restaurants to resorts and hotels that offer whirlpool tubs filled with mineral water, Berkeley Springs has grown into a spa getaway that would make George Washington proud
Atasia Spa: (877) 258-7888 or www.atasiaspa.com
The Bath House: (800) 431-4698 or www.bathhouse.com
Berkeley Springs State Park: (800) CALL WVA or www.wvparks.com/berkeleysprings
Coolfont Resort: (800) 888-8768 or www.coolfont.com
Community Garden Market: (304) 258-8300
Homeopathy Works: (305) 258-2541 or www.homeopathyworks.com
The Inn and Spa at Berkeley Springs: (304) 258-2210 or www.countryinnwv.com
Travel Berkeley Springs: (800) 447-8797 or www.berkeleysprings.com