BERKELEY SPRINGS, W. Va. -- 'Welcome to wild, wonderful West Virginia' beckons the sign at the state line and that's what you get at Coolfont -- the wilds of rugged Morgan County and the wonders of relaxation.
Set in a hidden valley of 1,200 forested acres between Cacapon Mountain and Warm Springs Ridge, Coolfont resort, health spa and conference center is only a two-hour drive from Washington, yet it feels like the other side of the earth.
It's a stretch to find even a telephone. There are none in the rooms, which include rustic A-frame chalets and log cabins set back in the hills. Classical music plays softly through the main lodge where locally produced apple cider, grape juice and honey are sold.
The spring-fed Lake Siri is filled with swimmers, boaters and skaters as the seasons turn. 'There's a real need for people to have a place to escape, somewhere to go away and find themselves,' says Martha Ashelman, who runs Coolfont with her husband Sam Ashelman.
Coolfont is for winding down, toning up, escaping with the family, staging a business conference, or for sheer romance. Some cabins have two-person whirlpool baths, and special massage workshops for couples are offered each month.
Hearty meals are served in the dining room of Treetop House, a large A-frame of wood and stone that is perched high in the trees for a birdseye view of the abundant wildlife. A second dining room is available for non-smokers.
With rough walking sticks in tow, guests can be spotted at all hours weaving across the numerous hiking trails that slice through the oak, poplar and maple paradise. When snow blankets this eastern panhandle of West Virginia, the walking sticks are exchanged for poles, and the hiking boots are swapped for cross country skis that can be rented on the premises.
Wranglers take out horseback riders from the Coolfont stables as long as the weather permits. Sore muscles can be kneaded with a massage by one of the resort's nimble-fingered staff then soothed with a soak in the wooden hot tub while gazing out a window into the woods. A natural hot springs bath house is located in nearby Berkeley Springs.
For those seeking a rigorous spa retreat, Coolfont offers health and fitness programs with walking, aerobics, yoga, toning, stress management, diet and nutrition.
Spa guests are served meals in their own dining area, away from Coolfont's heaping buffets, an array which on a recent night featured corn soup, Mexican lasagna, thick slabs of rare roast beef, eggplant Parmesan, tamale pie, cod casserole, four-bean salad, pies and fresh fruit.
Breakfast spreads are equally girth-thickening -- eggs, bacon, corned beef hash, charred-skin potatoes, wholegrain muffins.
While the emphasis is on physical fulfillment, spiritual well-being is also a priority. Folk singers, string quartets and artists-in-residence provide a cultural dimension to the Coolfont community. Sometimes guests provide the entertainment -- Senate Majority leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has been known to play his fiddle when he visits.
This is how Coolfont has shaped up 26 years after Sam Ashelman dreamed the place up. 'You never get anyplace if you don't dream,',' says the white-haired septugenarian with the booming voice and knuckle-crunching handshake. Visitors hear the same voice at breakfast as he stops at tables with, 'May I say good morning. I'm the owner here.'
The low-key Ashelman was once a high-powered Washington businessman at the helm of a large cooperative. That ended during a camping trip to Berkeley Springs in 1961 when he spotted an ad listing a 1,200 acres estate for sale. He was struck by the land and the estate's Manor House, and by 1965 Coolfont (which means cool springs) resort was born.
Sipping a Hot Appalachian, a house specialty made of hot cider, cinammon and a shake of rum, Ashelman says his guiding principle over the years has been to keep it simple.
'Some of the physical comforts don't make that much difference to me. So the place reflects a certain amount of simplicity because that's the way I was brought up' -- as a Quaker in a Pennsylvania coal mining town. 'Martha likes some of the finer amenities,' he adds good-naturedly.
Indeed it is Martha, his wife of ten years, who is the force behind many of the updates at Coolfont, such as knocking out kitchens in some cabins and replacing them with big whirlpools and embellishing the fitness program.
She is proud of the health regimen she designed, which stresses personal follow-through at home. 'We are not a fat farm. We are into fitness. And if you're fit, you will not be fat,' says Martha, a vibrant fourth-generation Californian and a picture of fitness in a velour warm-up suit
More change is on the horizon in Coolfont's future. New chalets and cabins to accomodate some 100 more guests are scheduled to be built, as is an expansion to the main lodge.
The Ashelmans have also stepped up development of private homes on the vast grounds, 70 of which have already been built. Many of these rustic houses are available for rental.
In the midst of all this activity, tranquility still abounds. Cindy Stull, a Coolfont waitress for the past nine years, says she could never imagine going back to the days when she 'worked behind a stupid desk' as a secretary.
'I meet people from all walks of life and I love it,' says Stull, balancing four plates on her arm. 'A lot of people don't know what to expect. They think West Virginia is the sticks. But I feel when you come to Coolfont, you leave renewed. I can actually see a difference. People let their hair down here.'
Midweek prices through March range from $55-per person each night for rooms in the hotel lodge to $77-per person nightly for accomodations in the A-frames and log cabins with whirlpools. Weekends are about $10 higher, and all prices include breakfast and dinner as well as a complimentary massage. Three-night spa weekends are $195 per person, and the six-night week session is $395 per person. For further information, write Coolfont, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, 24511.