County of Bath: Listen to the music in a magical mountain playground

By Gwen Woolf-

The first time Shawn Puller drove over Warm Springs Mountain and surveyed the breathtaking vista of the County of Bath in Western Virginia’s Alleghany Highlands, he thought he was in Shangra-la.  He came to know that beyond the wild, largely rural landscape—a sportsman’s paradise—was an enchanting cultural oasis that fed his soul.

“I am in love with this place,” says Puller. “It’s almost like the world falls away.”

Puller is in charge of the Garth Newel Music Center, midway between the villages of Warm Springs and Hot Springs. The center, now in its 42nd season,  attracts world-class musicians and a dedicated following to its concert hall—an estate’s converted horse barn.

World-class musicians perform at the Garth Newel Music Center, located in a one-time barn.

World-class musicians perform at the Garth Newel Music Center, located in a one-time barn.

With 60 concerts a year, the center is best known for classical music but is embracing a broader definition of chamber music in its “infinite variety,” as Puller puts it. The idea is to make music more accessible to everyone. Thus,  country, bluegrass, blues, and jazz music also fit into the center’s  repertoire, as well as edgy, adventurous music, pub concerts, and tea concerts. Last year, the center held a “Hollywood night” fundraiser, complete with a red carpet, glammed-up guests posing for photographs, and chocolate Oscars.

At Garth Newel, which means “new home” in Welsh, sublime music is performed in a relaxed, intimate setting. The center’s wooden walls contrast with the elegantly appointed tables, where patrons enjoy wine and gourmet meals following concerts. Interacting with each other and the musicians makes for a lively evening.  Overnight stays are also available in the 1920s manor house.

The center has its own artists-in-residence, the Garth Newel Piano Quartet, as well as guest artists, who have performed around the country and internationally.

The Bath venue is a hit with musicians, who enjoy the respite from urban areas.

“I love coming to Garth Newel because the setting could not be more perfect for great music making,” says cellist Andres Diaz.  “Everyone is so warm and welcoming,” raves violinist Juliette Kang.  “The awesome cuisine is an added bonus!”  Jazz singer René Marie, a Grammy nominee this year, says she feels right at home when she performs there. Pianist Lura Johnson also gives the center high praise: “Garth Newel really feels to me like music camp for grownups, in all the best ways.  I call it ‘Garth Renewal.’ I end my stays there feeling rested, refreshed, fulfilled, excited, and happy.”

As for the patrons, “they come for the totality of the experience, the gestalt of it,” says Puller.

Perhaps the “gestalt” explains the overall attraction of the County of Bath. Visitors who come for the golfing, boating, hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, camping, and birding often are surprised  to also find cultural opportunities, fine dining, unique shops, and unusual accommodations.

Artistic adventures

Artists are inspired by the great outdoors in the Plein Air Festival in Warm Springs This year's festival is Sept.28-Oct.4

Artists are inspired by the great outdoors in the Plein Air Festival in Warm Springs This year’s festival is Sept.28-Oct.4

The community arts scene is flourishing, especially in the Warm Springs Arts District. The Gallery at Seven Oaks has one-of-a-kind furniture, pottery, sculpture, rugs, and decorative items. Unique jewelry is handcrafted out of fine gemstones at McGraw Minerals. The Warm Springs Gallery, which offers high-quality fine art, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The gallery will sponsor a Plein Air Festival Sept. 28-Oct. 4  in which visitors can watch as 30 artists from Virginia and the mid-Atlantic work outdoors, incorporating  natural light, color, and movement in their art.

Another annual event is the Bath County Arts Association’s show each July that  drews up to 800 artists from around the state.

While you’re in Warm Springs, check out the county historical society’s museum to see local and military items or to research genealogy.

Two new galleries have sprung up recently in Hot Springs.

Sparrows Nest is in the Omni Homestead’s historic Cottage Row next to an Orvis fly-fishing shop. Work by 40 local artisans includes Ron Shifflett’s custom furniture, fine art, stained glass, photography, pottery, jewelry, leather items, scarves, ornaments, and soaps.  Sweaters, socks, and gloves made from alpaca wool are especially popular with  hunters. Artist Donna Ramsey Nevers established Hot Springs Gallery, which represents several local artists. One of them is Kay Sutherland, known for painting scenes live during wedding ceremonies. The gallery also sells painted furniture, jewelry, antiques, and Mud Pie gifts. It’s located next to Laura’s Boutique, which has high-fashion clothing and shoes.

“When the guys come for golf, the women head for our corner,” Nevers jokes.

Antiques lovers and shoppers can explore three unusual venues: Old Ashwood School Antiques is housed in a 1908 schoolhouse; Springhouse Antiques is in a former country store; and Ashwood Station sells collectibles in a one-time gas station.  The Warm Springs Market has homegrown and Made in Virginia items.

Artists and writers even have their own summer enclave. Nimrod Hall, established in 1783 as a stagecoach stop, is an artists’ retreat. Participants stay in a rambling old house or in cottages on the 100-acre grounds next to the Cowpasture River.  They can attend workshops, collaborate, or work in soltitude. The summer-camp atmosphere (no TV or air conditioning) fuels creativity; artists find it appealing to escape from the daily grind and focus on their work.

Nimrod Hall is a summer enclave for artists in search of a quiet place to focus.

Nimrod Hall is a summer enclave for artists in search of a quiet place to focus.

Hook that line

People began traveling to Bath 250 years ago to “take the waters” of the healing mineral springs. Today, those weary of  city stresses and traffic gridlock still find this county—200 miles from Washington, D.C. —a place to rejuvenate. Just driving on Bath’s winding, tree-lined roads amid the mountains and meadows is a pleasure, especially for motorcyclists and car clubs. No stoplights or street lights mar the dark skies for star-gazers, and many couples hold their weddings in the picturesque surroundings. Only 4,700 people reside here, and their friendliness to visitors leaves a lasting impression.

Bath’s rugged wilderness calls sportsmen in all seasons. More than half of the 540-square-mile county is protected by national and state forests and The Nature Conservancy. Migratory songbirds, deer, foxes, bobcats, raccoons, wild turkeys, and black bears are among the wildlife that roams freely.

“The early explorers saw endless mountains and we can come here today and have that exact same view,” says Marek Smith, who oversees The Conservancy’s 9,000-acre Warm Springs Mountain Reserve. Stop at Dan Ingalls Overlook for a particularly scenic vista.

Major recreational attractions include Lake Moomaw, which has a marina with boat rentals, a beach, hiking trails, fishing, and camping. Douthat State Park has a large lake, boat ramp, fishing pier, beach, amphitheater, wildlife interpretation center, and former CCC cabins available for rent.

The Omni Homestead Resort offers everything from skiing and golf to falconry, and several bed-and-breakfasts have recreational opportunities. Outfitters and fishing guides can supply gear and knowledge.

For the youngsters, there are summer camps like Camp Mont Shenandoah, where girls ages 7 to 16 acquire skills and self-confidence.

Where to stay

You won’t find the usual chain motels  in Bath, but you will find diverse accommodations, ranging from a luxury resort to a vacation home rental from Natural Retreats to a tent in the woods. Personable innkeepers are a great source of local information.

The luxurious Omni Homestead Resort is one of the Old Dominion's treasures.

The luxurious Omni Homestead Resort is one of the Old Dominion’s treasures.

The luxurious Omni Homestead Resort is the county’s jewel and one of the Old Dominion’s treasures.  With beginnings in the 18th century around the mineral springs,  the hotel has hosted 22 presidents.  Guests still take afternoon tea in the Grand Hall, “dress” for dinner, and enjoy the numerous amenities.   There are 483 guest rooms, conference facilities, a state-of-the-art spa with an aqua thermal suite, and a springs-fed water park.

The picturesque Inn at Gristmill Square offers gourmet dining and unique accommodations.

The picturesque Inn at Gristmill Square offers gourmet dining and unique accommodations.

The Inn at Gristmill Square is a cluster of  elegantly renovated 19th-century shops and

residences, where picnic-basket breakfasts are delivered to guest rooms and gourmet cuisine is served in an old mill. Proprietors John and Kate Loeffler have backgrounds in upscale hospitality.

At Fort Lewis Lodge, John Cowdon turned his family’s cow/calf farm into a 3,200-acre mountain playground for outdoor recreation enthusiasts. A range of lodgings includes  log cabins, and a country bell summons guests to the 1850s mill, where Cowdon’s wife, Caryl, produces creative breakfast and dinner buffets.

Guests can really get away from it all when they stay at the 3,200-acre Fort Lewis Lodge.

Guests can really get away from it all when they stay at the 3,200-acre Fort Lewis Lodge.

Staying at the Vine Cottage Inn is “like coming to Grandma’s,” says innkeeper Jonah Windham, who runs the B&B  with his wife, Jo, in a pre-1900 house.  Guest rooms feature vintage bathtubs and Jo’s hand-picked collectibles. Similar comfort can be found at the 1899 King’s Victorian Inn B&B, run by Liz and Richard King, and at the Hidden Valley Bed and Breakfast, an 1848 Greek Revival mansion restored by proprietors Pam and Ron Stidham and used in the movie Sommersby. The property adjoins a large recreational area.

A range of dining options includes Les Cochons d’Or, a new French-American restaurant; Sam Snead’s Tavern, which displays memorabilia of the famous golfer; and Country Café, a local favorite.

For additional relaxation, soak in the mineral springs-fed pools inside centuries-old wooden bathhouses at Jefferson Pools; indulge in a hot stone message at Warm Spirit Spa; or pet the alpacas at the Diamond Triple C Ranch. The fuzzy animals are appealing and diverse in personality—much like the county where they live.

For more information or to request a visitor guide, visit discoverbath.com or call 540-839-7202.

Gwen Woolf is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Va.

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