Mason-Dixon Arrive, February 2008
There’s just nothing sweeter than chocolate, and this month as Valentine’s Day urges everyone to be sweet to a loved one, for many, chocolate is the recipe for romance. So, if you love chocolate (who doesn’t?), head to “The Sweetest Place on Earth,” Hershey, Pa., home to the four-diamond Hershey Hotel, a quaint downtown, an amusement park, world-class spa and, of course, the Hershey Company. And, like everything in Hershey, a trip here is all about the chocolate.
Of course, there would be no Hershey, Pa., if it wasn’t for the relentless determination of businessman Milton S. Hershey, who not only built the world-famous chocolate business but also the town itself. Born in 1857 on a farm near Derry Church, Pa., Milton Hershey was the only surviving child of Fannie and Henry Hershey, who raised their son in the strict discipline of the Mennonite faith. The family moved often, and incredibly, Hershey only completed the fourth grade. After serving as an apprentice with a Landcaster candy maker, Hershey opened his first candy making business in Philadelphia; however, like many of his initial business ventures, it failed. Hershey finally found success with his Lancaster Caramel Company, which he sold in 1900 for $1 million, an enormous sum at the time, so that he could switch his focus to chocolate. In 1903, he returned to Derry Church to build his chocolate factory, capitalizing on the ample fresh milk available in the area.
At the time, chocolate was a luxury for only the elite members of society; however, Hershey loved children, and his goal was to mass produce chocolate and make it affordable for every child. In 1905, he finished building his chocolate manufacturing plant with an emphasis on producing luscious milk chocolate. Hershey then focused on building a community surrounding his factory and began constructing homes for the factory workers, utilizing the stones removed from the cornfield where his plant now stood. He also built a public transportation system, a public school system and extensive recreational and cultural venues. In 1907, he built Hersheypark so that his workers would have a shady place to picnic, boat and relax with their families (the park would later become the site of the current amusement park).
Located just 90 miles from Baltimore, Hershey is perfect for a day trip; however, there’s plenty to do to keep you there a few days. I decided to go for two nights, as I had always wanted to stay at the famed four-diamond rated Hershey Hotel, built in 1933 and a member of the National Trust Historic Hotels of America. The hotel was a dream of Hershey and his wife Kitty for many years, but her death in 1915 stalled plans. In 1930, despite the objections of his friends, Hershey announced he would build The Hotel Hershey, even though the country was in The Great Depression. Hershey had the hotel modeled after Mediterranean resorts he and Kitty had enjoyed with an emphasis on tiled floors, fountains and a Spanish-style patio. The construction cost of $2 million was staggering, but Hershey finally had the hotel of his dreams.
As you drive into Hershey, the hotel stands proud atop Pat’s Hill, a powerful, breath-taking sight. As I drove up the winding hill to the front entrance, I could envision the grand formal parties and dinners that have taken place here over the years. Jordan, a valet, immediately greeted us, a sign of the impeccable service we would enjoy during our stay. He welcomed us, took care of our bags and pointed us to the front desk for check-in while he parked the car (a welcomed idea as it was quite cold during our visit). Everywhere we went in the hotel, there seemed to be employees beckoning to help in some way. The bellman, Dustin, guided us to our room, gave us a tour and made sure our ice bucket was full – one of the many little touches that made our stay so enjoyable, things that seem unimportant at the time, but over a few days, you realize that every little touch combines to make a memorable stay. Our room, with soft music piping out of the CD player, overlooked the formal gardens, and we were given two chocolate bars upon arrival, some of the countless amount of chocolate we’d consume over our stay.
Once situated in our room, we headed to Hershey’s Chocolate World, a quick drive down Hersheypark Drive. Opened in 1973 as the official visitors center of The Hershey Company, Chocolate World includes fun activities for kids of all ages, and I found myself smiling and laughing all day, while singing along to fun songs such as the appropriate “I Want Candy.” Maybe it’s the sugar rush of chocolate, but if you don’t find yourself having fun, you’re in the wrong state of mind. Needing something in our stomachs besides chocolate, we checked out the Kit Kat “Gimme a Break” Café, located upstairs at Chocolate World. The casual café offers sandwiches, salads, soups, pasta, a kids’ menu and, of course, desserts such as Chocolate Lava Cake, and it overlooks all the happenings of Chocolate World, which is cleverly (without being over the top) decorated featuring iconic Hershey products.
Start your Chocolate World experience off with the free chocolate tour ride, a Disney-esque ride where you ride through the process of how a cocoa bean becomes chocolate. The ride is fun for kids as the “narrators” are hilarious singing cows who stress how it’s the milk that makes Hershey’s chocolate so good via an infectious song that will stay in your head all day (but actually not in an annoying way; it’s quite catchy). The ride is educational, too, as it traces the various steps – during the explanation of the roasting process, you travel through a tunnel that is heated – and you learn such amazing facts such as the staggering 34 million Hershey’s Kisses that are made each day.
Next, we headed over to the indoor “rainforest” to meet our guide for “Chocolate: The Experience,” a chocolate tasting similar to a wine tasting. I can’t stress enough how important it is to do this activity, which must be booked in advance (buy tickets at the box office at the front entrance to Chocolate World) and is offered just once a day. The hour-long activity is $12.95 for adults and $5.95 for children, as an expert chocolatier will educate you on the chocolate-making process as you sample nine different chocolates ranging from creamy milk chocolate to traditional dark chocolate and premium chocolates that you won’t find at your neighborhood grocery store.
Our guide first showed us the three cocoa trees that grow in the atrium of Chocolate World and explained how the trees’ roots spread out in the ground and pick up the flavors of neighboring trees; hence, if the tree is next to a banana tree in the forest, the beans extracted will have a fruit taste, while a tree planted next to a coffee plantation will emit coffee flavors. This fascinating process, she explained, allows Hershey’s to utilize cocoa trees from all over the world, providing different flavor options without adding any artificial flavors. Next, the good part – the tasting! I am a die-hard milk chocolate fan, but I found myself appreciating all types of chocolate, even the dark ones that I usually shy away from. I also found myself mesmerized by the sophisticated chocolate-making process and how an expert chocolatier can instantly tell if a bean was harvested in Costa Rica vs. Madagascar by its smell and texture. Like a wine tasting, we were encouraged to first look at the color and texture of each piece. Then, we broke it in half holding it by our ears to listen to the sound – milk chocolate makes a “thud” sound due to the milk, while a sharp “crack” can be heard from dark chocolate. We then smelled each piece before allowing it to melt in our mouth – no chewing allowed!
Now high on sugar, we headed to the “Really Big 3-D Show.” Tickets can be purchased at the box office and show times are listed on the board. This fun, interactive 3-D show is a hit with kids and adults, as iconic Hershey product characters jump off the screen and whiz by your eyes. After the show, you may want to take the kids over to “Factory Works,” where they can work on a replica assembly line.
After acting as a kid for a day, the following morning we experiences the gorgeous Spa at the Hotel Hershey, a three-story, 30,000-square-foot spa overlooking the formal gardens that is modeled after High Point, the Hersheys’ mansion. After checking in, we were provided with luxurious robes and slippers in the recently remodeled men’s locker room, featuring wood lockers, flat screen TVs, private showers and a steam room. Our attendant then showed us around and encouraged us to relax in either the inhalation room or one of the quiet rooms, comfortable sitting areas with bread, water and hot cocoa to enjoy. After a few minutes, my massage therapist retrieved me, as I had signed up for the spa’s signature Cocoa Massage (Paul opted for the Cuban-themed Mojito Body Wrap). My massage therapist explained the chocolate-scented massage oils are a big hit with guests, and the traditional Swedish massage was just what I needed after the holidays, as the elegantly-appointed room and expert massage therapist put me at ease. This was, by far, the best massage I had ever received. Afterwards, it was back to the quiet room and then off to lunch at the Oasis, the spa’s guest-only restaurant where we enjoyed delicious food while relaxing still in our robes and slippers! Guests are urged to relax in the adjacent Marrakech-themed sitting area after lunch, another sign of the spa’s mantra to make a day out of your visit.
After lunch, we explored the Hershey Gardens, the year-round 23-acre gardens that include a Butterfly House, interactive Children’s Garden and in the spring, it’s home to over 30,000 tulips. After strolling around for a while (it was chilly during our trip), we drove over the Hershey Museum, which tells the fascinating life of Milton Hershey, as well as the evolution of the company. The exhibit “Kisstory” celebrates the beloved Hershey’s Kiss, while “Mixing It Up” tells what it was like to work in the factory in the 1930s. You can even lift a bucket that weighs the same amount as a bucket of chocolate, and you’ll really appreciate the back-breaking work that goes into making a chocolate bar. The museum also celebrates the wonderful philanthropic achievements of the Hersheys, including the school for orphaned boys the couple opened in 1909. Milton and Kitty were unable to have children of their own, and in 1918, Hershey endowed the Milton S. Hershey School with his entire fortune of Hershey Chocolate Company stock. Today, the school still serves more than 1,100 financially needy boys and girls in grades K-12.
Besides the Hotel Hershey, the Hershey Lodge offers convenient lodging, as do several nearby national chain hotels and the Hershey Highmeadow Campground’s 22 cabins.
On-site dining at the hotel ranges from casual dining at The Fountain Café to fine dining at the Circular Dining Room. We had dinner at the Hershey Grill in the Hershey Lodge, a recently redesigned casual restaurant featuring steaks, pasta and seafood. In town, our favorite dinner spot was DeMarco’s, a local Italian place popular with locals.
Most of the nightlife scene takes place in nearby Harrisburg; we opted for the elegant Iberian Lounge at the hotel, which offers chocolate martinis and an enormous wine list. The cozy wingback chairs, the gas fireplace and the lounge’s décor – it was once an exclusive men’s lounge since the hotel’s construction date fell during Prohibition – ooze romance.
The Hotel Hershey offers many packages and specials. In February, “Chocolate-Covered February” features over 300 special events, while in the summer visitors can enjoy Hersheypark, ZooAmerica and golf.
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