A German Escape on the Potomac
Hiking * Kayaking * Biking * Contemporary theater
A fun little historic town just upstream from Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown is West Virginia’s oldest town. And this is one of the many reasons why I don’t think West Virginia deserves its bad rap, for all those who think it’s just about hillbillies and coalminers. Shepherdstown’s tree-shaded main street, German Street, is chockfull of indie shops and one-of-a-kind restaurants, many housed in brick buildings dating from colonial times. And Shepherdstown is surrounded by the great outdoors, including hiking and biking along the C&O Canal, and kayaking and rafting the Potomac River. Antietam Battlefield, a five-minute’s drive away, not only gives a swing through the bloodiest one-day of battle in US history, it offers some peaceful, bird-song-serenaded trails. But perhaps the most unexpected thing here is its quirky theater scene, with the Contemporary American Theater Festival taking place every summer.
[sleep] Bavarian Inn
Many of the town’s earliest settlers were German; there was even a German school here as early as 1762. So if you need a dose of German, you’ve come to the right place. The Bavarian Inn seems to have been extracted direct from the German Alps. It sits on a hillside overlooking the Potomac, in a West Virginia version of the Rhine. You can stay in the main building, a 1932 stone mansion with rooms looking out on the garden area; or pay about $20 more to stay in one of the chalets. I say, go for the splurge, which includes a riverview balcony to watch the Potomac peacefully floating past.
The rooms are spacious, though a tad on the dark, fusty side, with heavy wood antiques and dark-colored carpeting. The fireplaces, however, are the joies de vivre—a simple switch turns them on, instantly submerging you in the cozy warmth of a European-style getaway.
[eat] Bavarian Inn
In 1978, Erwin Asam and his wife, Carol, sold their DC home and started a restaurant in Shepherdstown. He was a native of Bavaria (Munich, to be exact), and so named the restaurant Bavarian Inn. They had no idea the single-room dining establishment would grow into one of the region’s best restaurants, but an inn as well. But it made since, given the fact that many of the diners were from DC and, after eating a heavy, fulfilling (and perhaps a touch of wine-enhanced) meal, no one in their right mind would feel like driving all the way back home. Keeping with the German theme, the Bavarian Inn restaurant specializes in bratwurst, schnitzel and other Teutonic fare. The 25-page wine list has vintages from every region in Germany. You can choose among three different dining rooms: an Old Europe library; a Bavarian hunt room (including heads on the wall); and the more modern Potomac Room. The Rathskeller in the basement, very traditional with its wood-beam ceiling and shelves of beer steins, serves German beers.
[fun] Bike (or hike) the C&O Canal
The C&O Canal lies on just the other side of the river, at mile marker 73 along its 184.5-mile journey from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland. It’s about 13 miles south to Harpers Ferry, making for a really nice bike ride. The trail here is lovely and tree shaded, sidling alongside the Potomac. In Harpers Ferry, stop for an ice cream, or explore John Brown history at the famous armory, which the abolitionist attempted to raid and failed, ending up captured and hung. Or you can just walk along part of the towpath, as far as you wish.
[fun] Deep dive into the nation’s single bloodiest day of battle at Antietam (which doesn’t really sound like fun, but it’s interesting in an important, historic way)
Civil War buffs will want to go to Antietam, where the bloodiest day in US history unfolded in the cornfields in 1862. There’s a film at the visitor center that provides some background, and you’ll want to go to the observation tower to get an overview of the battle layout, as well as Burnside Bridge, which played a key role in the battle. That said, there are some pretty hiking trails here. There’s a bucolic trail that departs from the Burnside Bridge, following in the wake of some of that day’s brutal battle; though today, it’s all about birds singing, rustling tree leaves, and a slow-moving creek.
[fun]Discover the nation’s foremost petri dish for contemporary theater
As a college town, Shepherdstown reaps the benefits of new thoughts and ideas, a fact that feeds its famed theater program. For starters, its Contemporary American Theater Festival has drawn thousands of theater-goers for more than a quarter century every summer with the presentation of five cutting-edge American plays. Productions delve into modern-day topics, sparing no feelings as they explore politics, religion, race, gender, and everything in between. Lectures, behind-the-scenes events with actors, and more complement the productions. But theater is not just a summer thing in this theater-crazy town. You’ll find performances year-round at multiple theaters, including the Black Box Art Center and Shepherd University Theater.