When a friend heard that my husband and I were planning a vacation with our two young children in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., she was surprised.
"Isn't that the spa / resort town where people go for romantic interludes and relaxing getaways?" she asked.
Well, yes. Berkeley Springs is known for its upscale spas, budget-busting accommodations and eclectic art galleries, but it's also family-friendly and affordable if you know where to look.
The more I learned about this small town just two hours from Baltimore, the more convinced I became that it could be an ideal family destination. All we needed was an affordable place to stay.
River House was just what we were looking for. Located about five miles outside of Berkeley Springs, the B&B; has prices that fit our budget -- $50 to $80 a night -- and it welcomes children, in our case a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old.
Owners Kit Patten and Connie Wilson go out of their way to make guests feel at home and to assist travelers on a budget. They allow guests to store a small amount of food in the fridge, for example. And they also offer shuttle service for canoeing or tubing trips on the nearby Cacapon and Potomac rivers.
"I traveled through Europe when I was 12, and we stayed in B&Bs; where people opened their homes," Kit says. "That's the model we wanted -- to make the B&B; available to everyone. We didn't want to do the frilly Victorian thing."
With a great place to stay, we were ready for exploring.
Famed for centuries
During a survey trip for landowner Lord Fairfax in 1748, George Washington came upon the natural springs. In his diary, Washington referred to them as "ye fam'd warm springs," alluding to the mineral waters visited by Indians and local settlers for their alleged curative powers.
Washington was so impressed with the springs that he returned several times over the years with members of his family, in hopes of finding cures for their various ailments.
When the town was incorporated in 1776, most of the land was auctioned off to private buyers, but according to Lord Fairfax's wishes, the springs remained accessible to the public.
Located in the center of town, the mineral-rich waters are now surrounded by tiny Berkeley Springs State Park. The park contains two bathhouses, a pavilion with water pumps (for drinking), wading canals and a swimming pool.
That's where my 5-year-old daughter sprinted as soon as we arrived. Nearby, mineral water flowed from beneath Warm Springs Ridge into small rivers and sandy-bottomed canals, where children of all ages, grasping nets and buckets, chased after tiny crustaceans and minnow-like fish. We picked up a net at a gift shop, and my daughter jumped in to try her hand.
From the state park you can see most of downtown Berkeley Springs, home to about 900 residents. Many of the businesses cater to the spa clientele and offer products such as homeopathic medicine, alternative healing books and organic produce.
But the town also has an old-timey feel. At an open-air flea market, vendors sold everything from rusty tools to patchwork quilts, and a nearby thrift store offered an old-style bicycle I hadn't seen since I was a kid.
Back at the state park, I tried to entice my daughter to take a dip at the nearby Roman Bathhouse -- a two-story yellow brick building that offers family bathing in tiled pools of untreated, heated spring water. She was far too busy collecting fish with a gaggle of young girls. So we lazed around the canals until lunchtime.
Bring an appetite
Berkeley Springs has a number of family-friendly, affordable res-taurants. Our favorite was Tari's. The walls of the cafe / bar / restaurant display local artwork, and the restaurant offers culinary creations such as crab-stuffed artichoke and Calypso chicken salad, as well as more traditional fare.
For $20, my husband and I enjoyed garden burgers and rosemary-basil focaccia with grilled portobello mushrooms, while the kids munched happily on grilled cheese and fries.
Maria's Garden and Inn in town and the Treetop Restaurant at the nearby Coolfont Spa also provide kids' menus, reasonable prices and decent food. Our most memorable meals, though, were at River House.
Kit Patten made breakfast fun by using wild berries and garden herbs as garnishes. His French toast arrived stuffed with cream cheese and topped with homemade blueberry syrup, while eggs Florentine were delivered on a bed of fresh Swiss chard and creamy soy-milk hollandaise sauce. He was also ready with a bowl of Cheerios for the kids.
River House itself is a 1930s white stucco bungalow with blue trim, set behind a grove of young fruit trees. The living room features comfortable old couches, a pingpong table is on the front porch, and the bedrooms are simply decorated.
The B&B; takes its name from the nearby Cacapon River, a tributary of the Potomac. As we descended the steep path and pitched stairway through the woods behind the B&B; to the river's edge, I could hear birdsong and the slow gurgle of the river.
I scanned the steep shale outcroppings along the riverbank for birds Kit had mentioned-- woodpeckers, ospreys, bluebirds, red tailed hawks -- while a small black snake sunbathed on a nearby rock.
It rained the next day, and with coats and umbrellas we trooped off to see if Berkeley Springs had enough indoor activities to keep the kids entertained.
Berkeley Castle was our first stop. It's a looming sandstone replica of its English namesake, built as a summer home by a wealthy businessman for his bride. The enormous ceilings, grand central staircase and rooftop turret lend an air of authenticity.
(Last month the castle was sold, and, for now, the inside is closed to the public.)
Also worth a stop is the public library on Main Street, with a cozy children's corner and a large selection of picture books.
The Museum of Berkeley Springs, located above the Roman Bathhouse in the state park, is also a good bet. The museum charges no admission, and the exhibits are diverse: swimming gowns and suits used over the years at the bathhouses, old newsprint photos of festivals from the region's pre-World War II days, and relief models detailing the formation of nearby Cacapon Mountain and the springs.
Cacapon Resort State Park, nine miles south of Berkeley Springs, is a popular site for families. You can stay in cabins or the main lodge, and activities include hiking, horseback riding, tennis and golf. The park is open year-round and is often booked months in advance, especially during fall foliage season and the Columbus Day Apple Butter Festival in Berkeley Springs Oct. 7-8.
Hancock, five miles north of Berkeley Springs, is an entry point to both the C&O; Canal and the new Western Maryland Rail Trail, where my daughter and I headed one morning. The rail trail parallels the canal towpath and Interstate 70 for about 10 miles to historic Fort Frederick.
Along the way you can visit historical and natural points of interest: Licking Creek Aqueduct; a graveyard that dates to the 19th century; and Little Pool, an excellent birding site. The rail trail has smooth pavement and a shady canopy, although the roar of cars from the nearby highway was distracting.
You can head north on the C&O; trail to explore the ruins of an old cement mill and enjoy the restful accompaniments -- the crunch of gravel under your tires, a few bird calls -- or in my case, the incessant chattering of a 5-year-old. Blanketed by a dense, hardwood canopy, this stretch of the canal offers spectacular hiking and biking throughout the fall.
A successful trip
When it was time to head home, my daughter wanted to know why we couldn't just move into River House and stay in Berkeley Springs. I shared her sentiments.
Even though my husband and I hadn't gotten to try the chic new restaurant or peruse any of the art galleries, for an affordable price we had a successful vacation, in large part due to our stay at the B&B.;
Berkeley Springs had delivered.
With no downtown McDonald's or chain stores, a diverse mix of gift shops, alternative businesses and funky thrift shops, and many outdoor and noncommercial activities, the town had taken us on a gentle trip down memory lane. It is a gift for those old enough to remember life before downtowns became homogenized and lives became so harried. And, I realized, it was also a gift for my daughter, who had been so entertained she didn't notice that she had gone four days without TV and Pokemon.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: From the Baltimore Beltway, take Interstate 70 west toward Frederick and continue west to Hancock. Then take U.S. 522 south about five miles to Berkeley Springs.
River House, P.O. Box 254, Great Cacapon, W.Va. 25422
* Phone: 304-258-4042
* Online: www. berkeleysprings.com / riverhouse
* Children and pets are welcome. A room with shared bath is $50; rooms with private baths are $70-$80.
Cacapon Resort State Park, Rt. 1, Box 304, Berkeley Springs, W.Va. 25411
* Phone: 304-258-1022
* Online: http: / / wvweb.com / www / travel_recreation / state_parks / cacapon / cacapon.html
* Cabins start at $54 a night. Rooms in the lodge are $51. There is a restaurant in the park.
Coolfont, 1777 Cold Valley Road, Berkeley Springs, W.Va. 25411
* Phone: 800-888-8768
* Online: www.coolfont.com
* If budget is not a factor, consider this spa and resort with a variety of accommodations. Prices vary based on the type of lodging and meal plan you select.
Berkeley Springs State Park, 121 S. Washington St., Berkeley Springs, W.Va. 25411
* Phone: 304-258-2711
* Online: http: / / wvweb.com / www / travel_recreation / state_parks / berkeley_springs / berkeley_springs.html
* The park is open all year, except for the swimming pool and museum, which close in September and October respectively. Try the 15-minute soak and 30-minute massage at the Main Bathhouse for $32 (reservations required).
Information: For more information about lodging, restaurants, the Columbus Day Apple Butter Festival next weekend, and a calendar of seasonal events, contact Berkeley Springs Chamber of Commerce at 304-258-3738 or online at www. berkeleysprings.com.