In 1930 Dr. William E. Fitch, Bedford Springs Hotel’s medical director, developed the “Bedford Cure,” a three-week, medically supervised treatment program that included mineral waters for ingestion and bathing, a regulated diet and supervised exercise in the “spruce-laden” air. The infirm, the infamous and the just plain rich flocked to the resort, located in the Allegheny Mountains, about halfway between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pa.
I’ve recently returned from three days at Bedford Springs Resort and I can tell you that Dr. Fitch was onto something. The resort, which had welcomed guests for more than 200 years, reopened in July after being closed since 1986. It’s been restored beautifully to its 1905 splendor, when business was at its peak, and the likes of John Wanamaker and Henry Ford took of its mineral waters, which bubbled up like so much restorative champagne.
With Bedford’s reopening, Baltimoreans desiring the Grand Resort Experience now have another within driving distance in addition to The Homestead in Virginia, The Greenbrier in West Virginia and the more contemporary Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in western Pennsylvania.
Like its well-bred brethren, Bedford Springs boasts a destination spa and a destination golf course— one that traces its roots way back to 1895, making it one of the first in North America. And while it doesn’t match the culinary chops of The Greenbrier (at least not yet) or the something-for-everyone activities of Nemacolin (Hummer driving course, anyone?), the resort is the closest of the four to Baltimore— as well as the least expensive. (But certainly not cheap. Rooms start at $199.)
The sprawling inn itself consists of six “houses,” five built over time in the 1800s, plus a newly added spa wing. The Greek-Revival Colonnade, with its heavy Doric columns, is the oldest, dating to 1843. The other three-story buildings all feature sweeping, white Italianate porches lined with black rocking chairs and screened doors leading to guest rooms. Despite its central Pennsylvania location, there’s something decidedly Southern about Bedford Springs, both in its architecture and its relaxed demeanor. Approaching the genteel resort along Pennsylvania Route 220, you feel as if you should be arriving via horse-drawn carriage.
The resort’s main entry foyer is downright modest compared to many properties of its scale. Instead of bowling guests over with soaring height or bejeweled chandeliers, the room’s 14-foot-tall walls are jammed with mementos and photographs depicting life at the old Bedford Hotel. There’s a reproduction of the first trans-Atlantic telegram sent on Aug. 12, 1858, from Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan, who used the hotel as his “summer White House.” And there are photographs of men in Navy whites, a reminder of the days when the federal government took over the hotel in World War II to house and train its naval radio operators. (After the war, the resort served as an internment camp for captured Japanese diplomats and their families, much to the consternation of townsfolk who worried the men would escape while playing golf.)
Throughout the hotel’s meticulously restored corridors and guest rooms, more fantastic black-and-white photographs depict circa-1890s guests sporting straw boaters and exuberant floral hats while enjoying a game of whist (a precursor to bridge), a “lemonade party” or “Mrs. Robinson’s morning German,” apparently a cotillion of sorts. In the library, the lead glass windows still sport etchings made by brides with their diamond rings. (Mrs. Millie C. Swartzwelder, married Sept. 3, 1888— I wonder, was he a good man?)
Most of the hotel’s pictorial history might have been lost were it not for a local collector, who snatched up items at various fire sales as the hotel changed hands and owners tried to make a buck by selling anything of value. The property had been in decline for a number of years until a devastating flood in the early ’80s and a lack of funds turned out the lights for good. In the ensuing years it went through four owners before an investment group purchased it in 1998 and pumped $120 million into renovations, which began in 2005. During my visit, I encountered a steady stream of tour groups wandering the hallways and excited locals, who’d last visited the hotel as children and hadn’t seen the inside since Ronald Reagan (who stayed there in 1975 for a party fund-raiser) was president.
Most of my days at the resort were spent doing exactly as Dr. Fitch had prescribed. In the resort’s brand-new, 30,000-square-foot Springs Eternal Spa, I partook in the Bedford Bath Ritual, which began with a cleansing shower, using a black walnut and ginger root body scrub made from ingredients found on the 2,200-acre property. Next came a menthol-scented steam bath that opened my pores as well as my sinuses, followed by a soaking in alternating hot and cold spring-fed, whirlpool tubs. By the time my masseuse, Jessica, got to me, I was a prune in a white bathrobe.
The next morning, I went for a swim in the resort’s spring-fed indoor pool, one of America’s first when it was built in 1905. The stunning black-and-white marble pool room reminded me of the famous bath-house from the movie “Cocoon,” minus a half-naked Wilford Brimley. A tour guide told me that senators’ sons once leapt from the balconies into the water and that a string quartet used to serenade bathers from the opera box at the head of the room.
I don’t golf, but I enjoyed looking over the course, designed by Baltimore’s own Spencer Oldham in 1895 and tweaked by another couple of legends, A.W. Tillinghast in 1912 and Donald Ross in 1924. The course is peppered with 200-year-old maple and oak trees along Kentucky bluegrass roughs that wend their way down the Cumberland Valley and back. I’m told it has several signature holes, including No. 2, which has remained virtually unchanged since Oldham first designed it, making it one of the oldest— if not the oldest— continuously played holes in the country. Arnold Palmer himself was walking the course the day I arrived.
Again, following Dr. Fitch’s orders, I also went for a hike in the “spruce-laden” air. The resort boasts several miles of walking trails along Evitts Mountain, directly across from the property, and I went for a late afternoon constitutional with the walking stick supplied in my room. The trails were peaceful and quiet but, unfortunately, poorly marked and I just barely made it back in time for my dinner reservation at the Crystal Room, one of the resort’s three sit-down restaurants.
Among its dangling imported chandeliers and white-on-white color scheme, more of those classic photographs of 19th-century guests are on display. Amazingly, many are identified by name. A Miss Minnie Bosler, an attractive 20-something blonde, her blouse jauntily emblazoned with a sailor’s anchor— likely au courant in 1896— gazed down at me from her perch on the wall. And as I tucked into my white marlin with basil sauce and mascarpone polenta, I imagined she would have been quite pleased that such a magnificent place had gained a new life.
Bedford Springs Resort is located in Bedford, Pa., approximately three hours from Baltimore. 866-623-8176, http://www.bedfordspringsresort.com. Rates: $199 to $550. Spa and golf packages available.