Lots to see and do in the eastern panhandle of W.Va.


The number for the West Virginia Department of Commerce was incorrect in Sunday's Travel section of The Sun. The number is (800) 225-4982.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Not too long ago, Baltimore's favorite hometown brewery presented a series of commercials proclaiming the area "the Land of Pleasant Living." From the Baltimore region, one can travel less than 200 miles in any direction and discover more history, heritage, tourism sites and natural attractions than most places in the world.

Many of them have been well-documented and promoted: the Eastern Shore; Pennsylvania Dutch country; Hershey, Pa.; Washington; Annapolis; Civil War battlefields in Virginia and Maryland; and the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania. To that list you can add West Virginia's eastern panhandle, a nearby destination with a lot to offer.

West Virginia was carved from Virginia during the Civil War. Its boundaries follow mountain ridges and the courses of streams and rivers, making it among the most irregularly shaped states in the Lower 48.

Barely more than an hour away from the Baltimore area, via Interstate 70 and U.S. 340 (south from Frederick), the eastern panhandle historically begins with Harpers Ferry, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. There, John Brown and his band of 22 abolitionists attempted to capture the federal arsenal in October 1859, striking the tinder for the Civil War.

Lovingly restored by the National Park Service, the brick-and-stone buildings seem to have changed little in the last century, despite floods that periodically hit the town and ultimately caused its demise. For some reason the park rangers seem to have a special love for the local history and often describe the events in excited, animated fashion. The National Park Visitor Center at Shenandoah Street, near High Street, offers an introductory video program that sets the stage for a visit to the National Historic Park.

As one ambles uphill from the meeting point of the rivers, one sees that Harpers Ferry's few streets offer a pleasant mixture of historic display and modern convenience. Quaint dining facilities and snackeries are neatly tucked alongside craft shops and antiques outlets that often specialize in Civil War items. Thomas Jefferson loved the area, and favored a point above the town where he could watch the two rivers flow together where Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia meet.

Nearby, hiking, biking, white-water rafting, camping, canoeing, backpacking, kayaking, tubing and fishing are enjoyed in abundance. Blue Ridge Outfitters -- (304) 725-3444 -- offers half-day raft trips on the Potomac for beginners and veterans alike. River and Trail Outfitters -- (301) 695-5177 -- provides necessities for canoeing on the Shenandoah and North Fork of the Potomac River, or tubing on Antietam Creek.

For those who enjoy sports in a more leisurely fashion, there's year-round thoroughbred racing in Charles Town, six miles away.

If strolling is your interest, there are few places better than Shepherdstown, the oldest town in West Virginia. Known originally as Mecklenburg, it was settled by Germans about 1719. It was there that James Rumsey invented and successfully demonstrated his steam-powered boat on the Potomac River in 1787.

Although Shepherd College is located there, Shepherdstown is hardly what one could call a "college town." There are lots of shady streets and old brick houses, little changed over the past century or two. Along Main Street, there are handsome craft and antiques shops, and a pizzeria or two. But follow your nose to the Olde Sweet Shoppe for authentic Old World breads and pastries. You won't be disappointed.

For dining, try the Yellow Brick Road Restaurant. And just a few blocks away, on the outskirts of town, don't miss O'Hurley's General Store, a sprawling country outlet filled with homestead supplies. You're bound to find a trunkful of treasures that you never suspected you'd need.

But no visit to Shepherdstown is complete without stop at the Bavarian Inn and Lodge, West Virginia's top-rated country inn and restaurant. It's all the name implies: Seasonal specialties and wild game are highlights of the menu.

Westward toward the Cacapon Mountains, Martinsburg recently has been rediscovered by astute bargain hunters as the home of the Blue Ridge Outlet Center. A turn-of-the-century wool mill has been converted into a factory outlet that features dozens of well-known brand names. Call (800) 445-3993.

The Woods Resort, one of West Virginia's finest complexes, offers lodging and conference facilities, a magnificent new golf course, pools, tennis courts, a complete gym, jogging and hiking trails, a clubhouse and dining. It's an ideal place for an active family retreat, yet it promises solitude to those seeking it. The Woods is located near Hedgesville, about halfway between FTC Berkeley Springs and Martinsburg. Call (800) 248-2222.

A few miles farther west, along state Route 9, and you'll be in Berkeley Springs, site of the nation's oldest spa and originally known as Bath. The springs, once owned by Lord Fairfax, were a favorite retreat for George Washington; his yellow-ringed bathtub, fashioned from a rock-lined hollow log, is worth a brief look. Today, the springs are part of the West Virginia park system, and non-presidents as well can enjoy swimming, massages, whirlpool therapy and infrared treatments.

An interesting assortment of antiques and gift shops can be found along the few blocks that comprise Berkeley Springs' main district.

Since the entire Cacapon area is famous for apple orchards, it seems only fitting that Berkeley Springs is host to an annual autumn Apple Fest; fall also is a favorite time for leaf-peeping. But don't wait until October to visit the Eastern Panhandle. Its lure is year-round.

Both the Jefferson County Visitor and Convention Bureau -- (800) 848-TOUR -- and the West Virginia Welcome Center -- (304) 535-2482 -- are located in Bolivar. If you plan to make the Eastern Panhandle a full weekend, these agencies will assist with information on sites, activities and various kinds of accommodation -- bed and breakfasts, chain motels and small, comfortable inns.

For a West Virginia Tourism kit and events calendar, call (800) 225-5962.

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