CAPON SPRINGS — When I first wrote about Capon Springs in the late 1990s, it was a secret, tucked away in the far Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia at the edge of Hampshire County. It’s not a secret any more. An avalanche of state and national attention is bringing lots of interest.
Now the concern is how to stay a hidden gem but find the right people to enjoy the unique experience of the family camp style that is the Capon way. Accurately but affectionately describing our overnight stay at the Hampshire County resort should help.
We arrived from the west, entering what seemed like a small village with green-trimmed, white, Victorian-style resort buildings lining the road. Later, we found out people coming from the east were sent over a twisting dirt mountain road with no signs — and they loved it.
Arriving through monumental cliffs and eccentric rock outcroppings to find the resort village pop up before them is apparently a thrill too great to pass up, even for picturesque but paved West Virginia roads.
Soon after we checked into our comfortable room in the Pavilion, complete with a rushing stream of spring water at the edge of our deck, we heard the old iron bell ring to call everyone to lunch. We walked over to the main building, outdoor music playing as another meal signal, and followed the crowd inside.
Dining may be the most honored of the many traditions at Capon Springs. Everyone eats together in a homey, sun-filled room. Meals are served family style at the same time every day. Tables are assigned, and the menus for each day have not changed in 34 years.
Actually, there was a change recently when fried chicken was moved from Tuesday to Friday, and there was nearly a revolt. When folks come the same week every year for a couple of generations, they build expectations. Changing fried chicken night can be a crisis.
Food is abundant, bread is fresh-baked and seconds are encouraged. The desserts are a real prize. We enjoyed excellent fresh-baked cherry pie at one meal and chocolate cake at another.
One recent change in the dining program has not inspired any resistance. For decades the food has been cooked exclusively by local ladies from traditional comfort-food recipes. Now there’s a chef as well as the ladies. But as owner Jonathan Bellingham proudly said, “He fits into the Capon way.”
Though Capon Springs maintained extensive gardens to provide food for the table before it became trendy, it has recently expanded farm-to-table with its livestock operation. It has a herd of beef, about 40 piglets and pigs, and a large flock of about 800 egg-laying chickens. A pair of longtime guests with whom we shared breakfast one day were impressed to learn their eggs came from Capon Springs chickens. Feeding the pigs on Saturday is a major guest event.
There are other new things happening. Capon Springs has an appealing nine-hole golf course guests can play anytime, as much as they want, no tee times necessary. Now that there is a golf pro, day players are allowed, and the pro can arrange tee times for them and is available for lessons and clinics. But the sloping lawns of the golf course are still used as a playground for outdoor events in the pavilion on top of the hill.
About a decade ago, the resort hearkened to its past and added Hygeia, a spa using brick for the walls to reflect the 19th-century baths and highly polished wood floors for today’s spa look.
My husband, Jack, and I indulged ourselves in the exquisite large private blue-tiled baths with jets. Water is heated to 102 degrees, and my improved damaged knee can attest to its healing power; maybe it’s the lithia emerald. Family nights are popular, and a larger swim spa with cooler water is ideal for frolicking children and water aerobics.
During its 19th-century heyday as one of the prominent Blue Ridge spa resorts, Capon Springs’ four-story Mountain House was one of the largest structures in the South, and its oval pool of pure spring water was the largest in Virginia.
The Mountain House burned in 1911, but the pool remains and was recently voted Retreat Central’s Best Retreat Center Pool — no added chemicals, just fresh spring water that bubbles out of the ground at a constant, if chilly, 65 degrees. The pool is emptied and cleaned regularly, initiating walking the bottom, another tradition.
“Unplug” is a common description in visitors’ comments. For now, conference and meeting rooms in the Meeting Hall are the places to go for television and Wi-Fi, and cell service is spotty but improving. Fortunately, other activities fill the time and space. There are six hiking trails on the 4,700-acre resort, a shale pit ideal for digging fossils, a well-stocked library, the ever-popular sport of porching and a campfire circle every Saturday night, where hot dogs are part of the program even though everyone had a turkey dinner earlier.
Being unplugged thrives on the family reunion ambiance of the resort, where everyone acts like the cousin you haven’t seen in a year who wants to catch you up on what they’ve been doing.
The basic appeal of Capon Springs remains its family tradition from the owners — now in the third generation with the fourth moving up — to the guests. Multiple generations coming for multiple years to the same lodging place at the same time each year is a standard practice, but space is always available for folks to come and enjoy Capon Springs for the first time. The big news this year is that four weekdays in early October have opened with no previous dibs on rooms, providing a prime opportunity to grab a space and start your own tradition.
The 120 rooms at the resort come in various configurations from cabins, cottages and private rooms to dorm rooms in the main building with a central bathroom.
The dorm rooms are surprisingly popular, with guests feeling very possessive and putting up hooks and other personal touches. The corner and adjoining rooms are often the informal happy hour location for the bring-your-own resort. The most recent addition is four fully handicap-accessible rooms with private baths and air-conditioning.
Personalized service comes with every room. Many staff members are third and fourth generation, and relationships blend: staff, owners, guests. Folks stay in touch with their server at dinner. People hunt with the maintenance workers. One surprising feature is that no pets are allowed.
“Maybe the fourths will find a way to make that work,” Bellingham said.
Tradition is not exorbitantly priced at Capon Springs, and best of all, there are no nickel-and-dime annoyances. One personal check (or credit card) at the end of a guest’s stay covers everything.
The Capon way is home and family down to the molecular level. Life is casual, with dressing up, even for dinner, discouraged. Newcomers are quickly absorbed. Not that we want to turn anyone away, but be aware, fancy amenities are not part of the program, and hot nightlife means sitting too close to the fire circle.
Occasionally guests choose to venture outside the historic district and explore the neighborhood. Capon Crossing is a working farm and music venue up the road. Buddy and Aliza Dunlap have a farm market with local products and their own grass-fed beef, lamb and chickens.
Mid-month bluegrass concerts in the barn draw hundreds for the music, the brisket sandwiches and the exceptional music, then buy some local beef to take home.
The closest real town is Wardensville, where there is a miracle of 21st-century development taking place. It was started by the folks at the Lost River Trading Post, which is a must-stop for just about everything from West Virginia wines to antique oddities.
It expanded to a mile of road front-bounded by the Cacapon River across the highway, where its Farm Works Wonders Foundation has a remarkable work-study program for local teens. There’s an indoor market, a farm outdoor market and a bakery with coffee.
It grows heirloom produce using organic methods, maintains a greenhouse and has the only high-tunnel growing space with a disco ball. Workshops are staged every weekend.
Jeanne Mozier, of Berkeley Springs, is the author of “Way Out in West Virginia,” a must-have guide to the wonders and oddities of the Mountain State. She and noted photographer Steve Shaluta have released the second printing of the coffee-table photo book “West Virginia Beauty, Familiar and Rare.” Both books are available around West Virginia and from WVBookCo.com.