The last time I visited Lancaster County in central Pennsylvania, I was nine years old. My family took a trip to Dutch Wonderland, a generic amusement park near the much more enticing Hershey Park. I have vague recollections of sun-drenched cornfields and farms where creamy-complexioned women churned butter and bearded men raised barnsor, wait, were these scenes from movies?
In the years since, I'd read and heard about the affordable antiques and Amish quilts in Lancaster County. Intrigued by the prospect of finding a relative bargain and hoping to make some local food discoveries, I packed up a rental car and set out for a long weekend in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Remembering the theme-park experience of my youth, I worried that the area had become even more touristy. Nearing the three-hour mark of our drive down from New York City, my boyfriend and I got stuck in the crawling lane of traffic on U.S. 30 heading into the town of Lancaster. Things didn't look good. When the cars finally moved along, we drove past the Tanger Outlets, where avid shoppers were creating a bottleneck at the Coach and DKNY storesanother bad sign.
Our first stop was the Mennonite Information Center, run by a religious group with a history and lifestyle similar to those of the Amish. The nice woman at the front desk told me that I could have a local Mennonite guide show us around for $10 an hour. Already I'd scored a deal. For less than what I'd pay a New York City dog walker, a real live Mennonite could help me navigate the tricky roads and give me an insider's tour.
I was half hoping our guide would look like Alexander Godunov, the strapping blond actor from the movie Witness. Instead, I was met by a local granny named Fay Landis. I was afraid she would wither before we'd seen all the sights. I wanted to see quilt makers, craftsmen, churches, woodworkers, bakers. We had a lot of ground to coverall by five o'clock. But with 15 years of tour-guiding experience, Fay was extremely knowledgeable and resilient. In our five hours together, she remained energetic and, more important, delightful company.
Before we got started, Fay filled us in on the history of the Mennonites and the Amish. I already knew that the Mennonites are less strict than the Amish in hewing to 18th-century traditions: Most Mennonites use electricity and drive cars. Fay explained that Jakob Ammann founded the Amish sect in 1693 because he didn't think the Mennonites, a group that traced its roots back to the early 1500s, were disciplined enough. Both groups began arriving in Pennsylvania around 1700 to escape religious persecution in Europe.
Fay also gave us a crash course in Amish etiquette. "The Amish don't like to be photographed," she warned. They consider posing for photos an unacceptable act of pride. Some tourists, she said, are under the impression that the Amish are paid entertainerslike the actors in period costume at Colonial Williamsburgand get upset when someone refuses to pose for the camera. "Keep in mind that you're interrupting their lives," Fay explained.
We started our day by driving through the back roads of Pennsylvania Dutch country, a magnificent, peaceful landscape of barns, tobacco farms and cornfields. Pieces of laundry in somber Amish colors hanging on clotheslines were like national flags, signaling our crossing over into Amish territory. In addition to couples in horse-and-buggies, every so often we'd spot a group of Amish teens racing by on Rollerbladesa sign that some modern methods of transportation are accepted. Fay pointed out the simple Amish homes, distinguished by their green window shades. Then we came across an unexpected sight: a cell-phone tower next to a windmill. I was a little disappointed to discover that most people in Lancaster County use a cell phone; Fay said even her kids use them. I'd assumed everyone in Lancaster was either Amish or Mennonite, but these groups actually make up a little more than 10 percent of the population.
After a ride over a covered bridge and 15 minutes on what looked like just another country road, Fay led us to the home of Dorothy Mowrer, who collects and sells American country furniture, prints and tableware for Beech Tree Antiques, the shop she runs out of her barn. Her store feels more like an intimate historical museum, with some items dating back to the early 1800s. I loved her collection of housewares, like a butter churn ($500), a wooden sewing trunk ($200) and a silver cream dipper ($30). Since Beech Tree Antiques is way off the tourist path, we were the only visitors there. In fact, we wouldn't have discovered it without Fay's guidance.
Back in the car, we passed through the historic town of Strasburg, home of America's oldest short-line railroad, on our way to the Amish-owned Eli's Countryside Road-Stand in Ronks. We dodged the tourists oohing and aahing over the apples and gourds at the farm stand and stepped into the open-front shed, with its displays of baked goods, preserves and pickles. I couldn't resist the homemade sour-cream-and-onion potato chips, which were thin, crackly and utterly delicious. I also picked up jars of elderberry jam and pickled beets that I later found out were too sweet for my taste.
I started to believe that the Lancaster diet was 50 percent sugar. At the Bird-in-Hand Bake Shop five minutes away, the 15-foot-long pastry case was stocked with legendary Pennsylvania Dutch pastries, like rich shoofly pie with a gooey, sweet molasses filling, sticky buns and whoopie piea cream-filled chocolate-cake sandwich shaped like a burger. Fay buys her bread here; cheese bread and raisin bread are two of her favorites. Along another wall are local specialties with cute names like chow-chow (sweet pickled-vegetable mix) and snitz (dried apples). There's a tiny petting zoo out back, but I decided against touching the little goat since my hands were sticky with shoofly-pie goo.
This is where we parted ways with the inexhaustible Fay. Leaving the world of the Amish and Mennonites, we headed to Hotel Hershey, a 20-minute drive west of Lancaster. (I'd finally have a chance to ride the loop-de-loops of the Lightning Racer at nearby Hershey Park, but it turns out I'd lost my enthusiasm for roller coasters years ago.) Locals kept telling me the Hotel Hershey was the most deluxe accommodation in the area, and, in fact, the formal gardens and sculpted fountains were elegant touches, prime for photo ops. I was amused by the chocolate motif: the complimentary Hershey bar upon check-in, the Hershey's Kisses on the pillow with turndown service, the cocoa bath products in our bathroom and the chocolate-fondue wrap treatment in the spa. I ate more potato chips to fight the oncoming sugar rush.
Not eager to test my appetite at one of the many touristy all-you-can-eat farmhouse buffets in Lancaster County, I got a tip to have dinner in Harrisburg, 20 minutes west of Hershey. I was assured a small restaurant renaissance was going on there. Who knew that Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, would have really good food? Who knew that Harrisburg was the capital of Pennsylvania? On a colonialesque street paved with cobblestonesa street Benjamin Franklin could very well have traversedwas Char's Bella Mundo, which opened last year. The chef, Edward Monuteaux, prepares eclectic tapas like the perfectly rare lamb lollipop with curried cucumbers and the intensely flavorful garlic-saffron shrimpboth delicious. The next night, we were equally impressed by Empire Restaurant & Bar in nearby Carlisle. In a town where people had been content to dine on shrimp cocktail and prime rib, Culinary Institute of America graduate Carrie Bogar is turning out dishes like crab cakes coated in panko (Japanese bread crumbs) and flecked with shiitake mushrooms.
Sunday may be a day of rest for some, but it was a day of shopping for us. We headed to non-Amish Adamstown, an antiques mecca about 50 minutes east of Hershey. Covering "the strip," an avenue full of antiques shops, is no small feat, as it boasts "2,000-plus dealers in seven miles." (Many of the vendors are here only on Sundays.) Just off the avenue is Shupp's Grove, a sprawling outdoor flea market in the woods that rewards patient browsing with deals on antique furniture, midcentury tableware and kitschy collectibles. I was drawn to one stand, called Merd, whose owner, Meryl Ruiz, sells vintage juice glasses and salt-and-pepper shaker sets in rooster, pineapple and whale designs.
We headed back to the strip and perused the mostly dark rows of random merchandise at Renninger's market, a large building that's filled with antiques stalls, then stumbled upon the dazzling displays of brightly colored 1920s-to-1950s kitchen collectibles at Today's Pleasures Tomorrow's Treasures. Run by Barbara and Jim Mauzy, a wife-and-husband team who have written 10 books on vintage tableware, the shop offers color-coordinated shelves of Fire-King, Bakelite and Depression glassware, all well-priced given its excellent condition. There was an entire wall of jadite bowls that even Martha Stewart would covet. I could have spent hours sorting through the adorable vintage aprons, tea towels and tablecloths.
Farther down the road is Stoudt's Black Angus, a market similar to Renninger's, but showcasing the most well-edited merchandise, in the best conditionand, of course, for the highest prices. I was drawn to a wooden farm table ($3,800) and card-catalog drawer set ($5,900) at Shop Around the Corner, and to the American quilts from the late 1800s and early 1900s at Nailor Antiques (priced from $400 to $1,400). But I'm sad to report that the only thing I could afford at Stoudt's was a beer from the adjacent restaurant.
On our way back to New York, we stopped at the Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, a small town about 15 minutes north of Lancaster. We paid $2 for admission and got a pretzel as a ticket. I couldn't help nibbling on it, but had to stop and make sure I saved a little piece so I could get in. When the tour started, the instructor gave each of us a mound of dough to shape into a pretzel. I noticed we were the only adults without kids on the tourbut we also made the best-looking twists.
On that triumphant note, it was time to go home. We'd spent the weekend in a quiet, beautiful area, had some unexpectedly wonderful meals, found places off the tourist track and even made it to Hershey. Then, on the Triborough Bridge heading back to Manhattan, we hit traffic.
Susan Choung, a former F&W editor, now lives in Berkeley, California, where she works with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse.