Historic Pennsylvania landmark undergoes an amazing renovation.
by Jeanne Mozier
The opportunity to sleep with history is almost irresistible to 21st century travelers, especially when the historic hotel has amenities that meet their high expectations for contemporary luxury. Centuries-old Bedford Springs Resort, nestled on 2,200 acres in nearby southern Pennsylvania, fits the bill perfectly.
Turn off the highway and travel a narrow entry road that was once a stagecoach toll road from the town. It tracks Shober’s Run, spring-fed and prized as a trout stream. Around the final bend, the vista of a many-windowed, low-rising white hotel unfurls. Even the most sophisticated traveler can barely suppress a gasp of pleasure.
Once the Summer White House of Pennsylvanian James Buchanan, Bedford Springs Resort even has a charming small town a couple miles down the curving road. The attractive streets of Bedford are lined with prosperous shops, trendy restaurants and businesses ranging from plumbers, chocolates and quilts to an Art Deco gas station and a 200-year-old inn. Bells ring regularly. A coverlet museum is on the walking edge of town and a 1925 giant coffeepot sits at the entrance of meticulous fairgrounds.
Within a few miles, resort guests can explore everything from the living history of Old Bedford Village to caverns to the Flight 93 9/11 Memorial to nine covered bridges. Development of Bedford Springs Resort followed a familiar pattern for historic spas strung along the eastern edge of the Appalachians. Native tribes used the waters and colonials soon followed. Seeing the need to lodge those who came for health cures, Dr. John Anderson began the resort in 1796.
By 1804, there was a cluster of warm and cold water bathhouses and the first lodging house was built. The railroad arrived in 1872 launching a major expansion and building boom. An early golf course was added in 1895 and continues to provide a major attraction. As the 20th century closed, so did the resort. It then achieved the dubious status of “endangered landmark.” A group of investors stepped in spending $120 million to renovate the resort to original plans. Part of that investment included balancing the historic facade with a new spa wing. The bonus? They discovered the Eternal Spring bringing the resort’s total number of springs to eight.
Water remains a hallmark of Bedford Springs. Where once there was a “serpentine circuit” of the seven original springs, marked in the 19th century by fanciful pavilions and springhouses, now it’s a rustic hiking trail. The footbridge to the centerpiece Magnesia Springs is transformed to an engineered bridge. Walking sticks were traditionally kept at springhouses for use in navigating the springs circuit. Now a pair of walking sticks is placed in every guestroom.
Negotiations are underway with regulating authorities to revive the 19th century bottling of still and sparkling water from the springs. An elaborate outdoor water course and pool was part of the recent renovation and there’s a secluded spring-fed lake for fishing. Indoors, the Edwardian elegance of the 1905 pool was described as a “magnificent labrum, scrubbed clean and freshly filled daily from Caledonia Springs.” Today’s regulations add a slightly chlorinated aroma to the restored splendor.
The Bedford Bath Ritual that comes with every treatment in the 30,000 square foot Eternal Spa evolved over the centuries from the original system developed by Dr. Anderson and the Bedford Cure of the 1930s. It uses water from all eight springs, a rare experience in spa-dom. A deluge shower, aromatic steam and alternate hot and cool soaks are all part of the ritual which concludes with a botanical mist. The extensive menu of spa treatments has facials, pedicures and massage. Flavors for treatments span more than two dozen botanicals, gems and caviar.
I encountered a quartet of women at the resort for a spa getaway. They were enthusiastically pleased with their stay at Bedford, which included a complimentary upgrade to one of the two-bedroom suites. Discovering I was from West Virginia, they wanted to know how Bedford Springs compared to the Greenbrier. I was prepared. I’d been making that comparison myself since the two resorts were once part of the same 19th century summer pilgrimage where travelers wended their way up the Blue Ridge visiting storied springs along the way.
“The Greenbrier is grander and much bigger,” I explained. “Bedford Springs is elegant but homier.” The intimate feel comes from endless nooks, crannies and sitting rooms tucked into curving hallways. Walls are hung with photos like family albums except that they are images of 19th and 20th century guests shown at hayrides and surrey outings, card games and cake parties. Miss Hiles Willow Party is captured in sepia tone next to a Tally Ho party at the Colonnade. For someone not steeped in 19th century hotel lore, Tally Ho was a type of stagecoach often used to transport guests from railroad to hotel. Museum-quality display cases are filled with artifacts ranging from original 19th century guest registers to a collection of hats.
The path from the dining rooms and central lobby to our rooms in the spa wing passed through my favorite public space. A library is often found in historic hotels. This one was not only lined with books and boasted a chiming grandfather clock but had two standing height tables devoted to jigsaw puzzles—and they were always occupied. Since I never saw a completed one, I assume people whiled away a period of time before moving on. For the puzzle-addicted, the official shop has two sizes of hand cut wood puzzles of the resort, mini and full. There are also touches of grandeur. One of the most striking features is original to 1842 – the grand staircase, a Chinese puzzle of levels and flights crafted for dramatic entrances. A three-floor span and giant skylight illumine the entire lobby.
Both sleeping rooms and dining areas benefit from 21st century upgrades. The Frontier Tavern is now part of the circa 1806 Stone Inn, first on the property. Highbacked overstuffed leather chairs huddled around tables create privacy. Its two levels are strewn with sturdy glass dividers that double as showcases for antique implements and tools. Dark wood gives it all a tone of wealth that is old and comfortable. Walls of windows look out on the manicured grounds and a nightly fire pit.
My husband, Jack, and I enjoyed a memorable dinner in the 1796 Room adding a few dishes to the tasting menu. Tastes and textures were complex, portions substantial, and the pace leisurely as we lounged on a side-by-side couch served by solicitous black-clad staff. The giant seared scallops served with corn puree and decorated with pea shoots and bacon lardons were perfect. Jack’s spinach salad was filled with giant raspberries. He decided on truffle dressing, then asked me as soon as the server left, “What are truffles?” I had no idea how they would taste but responded confidently, “They’re like mushrooms only rare.”
My wild mushroom dish was exceptional — a rich, full-bodied soup with slightly woody flavor. I muttered about the pan roasted quail on smoked cheddar grits and the time wasted eating such a minute scale bird but even the teeny wings were tender. The robust side dish of Cajun crayfish macaroni and cheese stretched our imagination and was virtually a meal in itself. Be warned: Executive Chef Dave Noto makes this a restaurant for eaters, not those who choose to admire three droplets of food artfully arranged on a plate.
During our dinner in 1796, I watched our young waiter ponder for a second whether to continue clearing the next table or respond immediately to my request for more water. When he chose correctly to serve the present guest, I wanted to tell him “Good boy, you made the right choice. Your supervisor would be proud.” I felt validated in my almost immediate impression that the most notable feature of Bedford Springs Resort is not the elaborate hotel, the spa or even the food. It’s the impeccably trained staff from attentive front desk and concierge to restaurant workers and valets.
Down the Road ~
A short spin east on the century-old Lincoln Highway (US30) takes the traveler to Everett, Pa., and a food stop at the historic Civil-war era Union Hotel, recently resurrected as a 12-room B&B. Featured is the Bullshead Tavern where everything from the flatbreads and soups to the gluten-free pasta, is made from scratch at the hotel. Saffron lends a piquant taste to the seafood bisque. The corned beef is “corned” the traditional way, soaking it in brine for 30 days then smoking it. The famous wings are smoked first before being flash fried and served in a selection of 22 custom made sauces. Popular burgers are made from fresh ground brisket and meatballs are a blend of ground beef and pork. Microbrew ale is used in the fish batter.
Bar fun is as popular as the food with a packed house Trivia Night, and 12 specialty owner-selected beers on tap are served from pre-cooled kegs refrigerated in a basement area that once served as a jail.