Berkeley Springs comes out of nowhere. You’re driving through the Eastern Panhandle and bam, there it is—colorful storefronts, historic buildings, a state park with a charming gazebo and a wealth of history—all in a quaint and walkable downtown. Eclectic stores line the streets offering local art, new age products, and antiques while spas and health shops dot each block.
“Having nice shops in the heart of downtown is so important,” says Jeanne Mozier, vice president of Travel Berkeley Springs. “About one-third of the people who come here literally say the same thing: ‘I’ve driven through your town so many times and promised myself that this time I was going to stop.’ It’s really important for all of the things on Main Street to look inviting.”
You probably already know a few things about Berkeley Springs—like how George Washington often visited the warm waters still visible at Berkeley Springs State Park in the center of town. There you can watch as overflow from the springs pours into the park’s channels at 74 degrees. The springs supply the town’s water and have made Berkeley Springs a tourist haven since the 1700s when people frequented Roman baths.
At the park, visitors can relax at the Old Roman Bathhouse—in continuous use since 1815—choosing from one of nine large historic baths with ceramic tile. The water is heated to about 102 degrees before you’re invited to relax for 30 or 60 minutes inside a private bathing chamber. “It’s magic water,” Jeanne says.
Back outside, past the fountain (legislation in 1776 said water had to be freely available to the public) and a popular photo op—George Washington’s bathtub—you’ll find contemporary, luxury facilities at the Main Bathhouse. Here you have the choice of not just Roman Baths, but also a Jacuzzi bath, massage, and dry sauna. “It’s an incredible facility,” Jeanne says. “This is the heart that brings people here.” Nearby, The Berkeley Springs Museum, open on Saturdays and Sundays or by appointment, has been telling the story of the springs and their impact on the region since 1987 at the park.
Spas in general are plentiful in this panhandle. At Atasia, Frankie Tan provides services that have garnered attention from The Washington Post, New York Post, and Southern Living, among others. Frankie studied massage in Thailand before opening Atasia in a 19th century building on Congress Street. The renowned spa offers manicures, pedicures, facials, and many types of massage, Reiki, and other services. Jeanne says, “Atasia is the gold standard.”
Just as seemingly endless fresh water pours into the Potomac from Berkeley Springs, there seems to be no end to the remarkable shops lining downtown’s streets. More than 20 stores offering everything from soaps and herbs to antiques and cigars make up the heart of town. On Fairfax Street, Portals and Gypsy Shop share a storefront, selling homeopathic products and a wide selection of books, jewelry, and other items up front while racks of cool vintage clothing fill the back of the shop. On weekends, Portals is just one of the shops that hosts tarot readers. Like many buildings in town, the store boasts beautiful old tin ceilings. “In 1901 there used to be a big hotel here on this whole block,” Jeanne says. “It burned down, and over the next decade or so all of these buildings were built.”
Even on chilly days visitors and locals hop from one shop to the next downtown. Everywhere you look folks walk to and from with coffee fromFairfax Coffee House or bags from unique stores like Himalayan Handicrafts and Sage Moon Herb Shop. Just up Fairfax Street, the adorable Jules Enchanting Gifts and Collectibles was opened when its owner—Happy—was just 17 years old, about 15 years ago. “She has become a major Internet retailer for some of these collectibles,” Jeanne says, pointing to the dainty figurines like that of Harmony Kingdom. The store also sells everyday gift items, from mugs and greeting cards to hot pink tool sets. And you could easily spend a day antiquing in Berkeley Springs. The Berkeley Springs Antique Mall on the corner of Fairfax is home to more than 30 dealers selling all the glassware and rare finds your heart desires, and you can shop even more great items at Things We Love, the Old Factory Antique Mall, andYoungblood’s Antiques.
Back on the main drag, you’ll find even more shopping on Washington Street. Lunar Herbsoffers organic, pesticide-free aromatherapy products and Lion’s Lair is one of at least a dozen examples of a shop owner who’s committed to all things inspiring. Angela Matthews gave up a corporate job in Kentucky to move to Berkeley Springs in 2001. She initially moved to find a change of pace and work with Frog Valley Artisans, a nearby artist collective (page 44). “The people in the area were very, very friendly. The artisans, in particular, were different,” she says. “There was not a single artisan here who had secret methods or who was too successful to help someone who wanted to learn.”
Angela has since started her own business, but her heart is firmly rooted in the creativity of Berkeley Springs. “The friendships I have here are strong, creative, intellectual, and inspiring,” she says. At Lion’s Lair, she sells everything from handmade messenger bags and colorful aprons to fair trade products and pillows made by a middle school girl who uses them to raise funds for a local nonprofit. Light music plays in the background of the store and an inspirational message behind the cash register reminds Angela of why she’s there. The quote from Anna Lappe of the Small Planet Institute says, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” Angela smiles as she turns to help a customer. “If I have to stand here seven days a week I may as well feel good about what’s here,” she says.
Most businesses in town are locally owned, and it’s clear shop owners are passionate about what they do.The Lone Wolf is a new business on North Washington Street that sells custom tobacco blends and fine cigars. Nearby, Berkeley Springs Memories is another new store selling souvenirs like T-shirts, George Washington bobbleheads, leather wristlets, and Christmas ornaments. Tanya’s Gathering Place, a vintage consignment store, opened in 2012 and offers shoppers three large rooms with racks and shelves overflowing with clothes, handbags, jewelry, shoes, and décor.
Then there’s The RAG Shop up the street, another large consignment store focused on recycled American goods, including furniture. Berkeley Springs Books offers used and new books, and Nature Niche sells everything from birdseed and squirrel feeders to wind chimes and cleaning supplies. Nearby, Hunter’s Hardware is a local institution, and on neighboring Wilkes Street, the Wilkes Street Wine Shop offers wine and gift items and often hosts wine tastings on weekends.
Alive With Art
Art of all kinds thrives in Berkeley Springs. Downtown, you can’t miss the colorful Mountain Laurel Gallery on the corner. One-of-a-kind gift ideas abound with wooden boxes, jewelry, bags, and more inside.
About a block away, the Ice House Arts Center reopened after extensive renovation in September 2013. The four-story, 40,000-square-foot building is open on weekends and hosts music, theater, and a large local co-op gallery with exhibits that change quarterly. The gallery is home to paintings, pottery, jewelry, photography, quilts, baskets, and countless other items. The building is about half complete, with its two top floors unfurnished. “This was a three-year project in 1996,” Jeanne laughs. “Raising $3 million is not easy.” New bathrooms were completed in 2013, and modern art is sprinkled throughout the building on walls and in common spaces. Jeanne says the project was an ambitious undertaking when the previous owner, U.S. Borax, gave the Morgan Arts Council the building. “When we first got it we said, “Oh, well, we may never do anything but store our sound system in it,’ but of course once you acquire a building like this everybody has all these ideas five minutes later.”
The Ice House has classrooms, a large prop storage area, a movement studio with a wall of mirrors and ballet bar, and plenty of studio space. In winter, the Ice House Gallery will continue to host special exhibits, including Silver Linings—displaying local senior artists’ work from January 10 to February 23, 2014—and a Community Youth Art Show on February 28, 2014.
Berkeley Springs is also home to American furniture manufacturer Gat Creek. Gat Creek builds beautiful eco-friendly wood furniture for the home from solid Appalachian Cherry in West Virginia.
Festivals & Fun
You might also know Berkeley Springs as the spot for more than two decades of the International Water Tasting, the largest and longest running water tasting competition in the world. Every year during the last weekend in February, judges from near and far sample nearly 120 waters from 95 countries and 46 states. “It brings in bottlers and waters from all over the world. It’s been wildly successful,” Jeanne says.
While the public also gets a kick out of the water festival, locals and visitors alike have a blast no matter the season in Berkeley Springs with its many options for art and entertainment. An estimated 17,000 people live in Morgan County, and even more make it their home on weekends. “We have a big second home population here and probably 5,000 people who are weekenders,” Jeanne says.
BlackCat Music Shop & Studio hosts free monthly concerts, and there’s a new movie playing every weekend at the historic Star Theatre, which Jeanne has owned with her husband since 1977. When the marquee is lit up she says passersby go nuts. “Tourists go berserk for this,” she says. Inside, an old popcorn machine and red wooden seats are favorites. “Movies have been shown here since 1928. We left it at the 1949 décor. People love it.”
Dining in Berkeley Springs is equal parts fine dining and fun. Tari’s Café on North Washington Street is inviting and spacious, with local art on the walls and products like their very own salsa for sale. Grab a window seat to people-watch and try the Jumbo Lump Crab Cake or the Middle Eastern Falafel Burger, and enjoy fast, courteous service in a laid-back atmosphere.
Also downtown, Mi Ranchito is a family Mexican restaurant offering all of the traditional favorites, while nearby Lighthouse Latte is an early morning favorite with homemade doughnuts and slices of delicious fruit pie. On the same block, Creekside Creamery Market and Café offers sandwiches, soups, and salads as well as hand-dipped ice cream and even gift items. Speaking of ice cream, Pollick’s Sweets back on Fairfax Street is a favorite in summer, inviting folks to walk right up to the window for ice cream or hot dogs.
But Jeanne says fine dining in Berkeley Springs is what has many other small towns beat. “There are restaurants here that are award-winning restaurants that are very active and cutting edge in the local food movement,” she says. “Lot 12 could stand up to any restaurant in the D.C. area.”
Lot 12 Public House is just up a hill overlooking town—but still walkable from downtown—and serves upscale, seasonal comfort food from a beautiful early 20th century house with a large front porch. Chef Damian Heath was one of the southeast’s best chefs in 2012 as ranked by the James Beard Foundation.
Panorama at the Peak is another unique and tasty restaurant, but this one you’ll want to drive to. Passing what locals call the Berkeley Springs Castle (available to rent for weddings and special events), Panorama sits at the top of Cacapon Mountain, and its small parking area boasts a picture-perfect view over the valley. Depending on the season, you can enjoy everything from lamb meatballs to veggie burgers, and Panorama hosts special dinners around the holidays.
Jeanne says having a place to rest your head is a crucial part of the tourism puzzle, and luckily for Berkeley Springs, locals figured that out early. In the middle of town, next to the state park, The Country Inn at Berkeley Springs is a local favorite with a long history. A local family purchased the inn in 2013 and was set to re-open in November. Inside, the new Renaissance Spa run by Dawn Forsythe was also scheduled to open in late fall.
Quaint overnight options abound in the area, from the three large suites at Ambrae House, where there’s also a nice restaurant and bar, to the Catholic-inspired Maria’s Garden & Inn with a variety of rooms and a restaurant. Also walkable to the heart of town, Highlawn Inn is a Victorian bed-and-breakfast with charming rooms in a residential setting.
For a more private getaway, Berkeley Springs Cottage Rentals offers seemingly countless retreats across the county. And just outside of town, River House in Great Cacapon is a year-round vacation rental that is pet-friendly.
Even in winter Cacapon Resort State Park—approximately 20 minutes outside of town—offers an unforgettable getaway. Cacapon has three types of cabins (modern, standard, and bungalows) for year-round vacation rentals. You can also choose from Cacapon Lodge, which has a full-service restaurant and other amenities, or the charming Ole’ Inn, created by the Civilian Conservation Corps as the first overnight accommodating lodge in the West Virginia State Park System.
This area is made for scenic drives, and the Washington Heritage Trail offers up a wild and wonderful journey through Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties. More than 50 miles of the 127-mile driving tour go through Morgan County with historical must-sees like Dutch Cemetery, the Paw Paw Tunnel, and Coolfont Manor House.
While spas and the great outdoors bring thousands of visitors to the area every year, many folks find they have a hard time leaving and relocate to Berkeley Springs permanently. Jeanne and her husband moved there from Washington, D.C., in the late ’70s and never looked back. Decades later, people are still drawn to the area. In the early 2000s, Angela left the corporate world, too. “The Eastern Panhandle was slower paced, absolutely gorgeous, and gave me so many outdoor sports options that I was immediately enchanted,” she says. “I am one of the many great transplants to this area. We were once told that Berkeley Springs is where wounded souls come to heal and find comfort. I truly believe this.”