Baltimore Sun, April 13, 2008
In today’s hectic world, Americans always seem to be on the go, and even when we are standing still, we’re connected to the world via Blackberries, iPhones, e-mail, cell phones … you name it. Wouldn’t it be nice to escape for a few days and return to an old-fashioned way of life, where you’re encouraged to slow down a bit? Well, you can, and the good news is that this magical place is only a short drive away from Baltimore – the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
A simpler life
More than 8.3 million people visit Lancaster County each year – the heart of the area – and one of the main reasons is to see the fascinating lives of Lancaster County’s Anabaptist population, which includes the Amish, Brethren, Mennonites and United Zion and totals approximately 52,000.
Unfortunately, the tragic schoolhouse shooting in October 2006 was for some Americans their first introduction into the lives of the Amish people, sans for popular movies like “Witness.” Through that horrific tragedy, though, people got to see first-hand the beautiful, close, loving community that is the hallmark of the Amish, who are similar to one large family, always helping others in need. Lancaster County is home to more than 25,000 Old Order Amish, the oldest and second largest community in the United States. The Amish do not own cars or computers and their homes do not have electricity or telephones, as they focus on a simpler life, just like they did when they first settled in the United States in the late 1600s. Most outsiders (or “English” as the Amish call them) are familiar with the Plain clothing and horse-drawn buggies that are signature aspects of their lives.
To get an up-close and personal look at the Amish lifestyle, your best is to take a buggy ride by one of the many local Amish tour companies, says Janet Wall, vice president of communications of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The guides – some of who are Amish; others Mennonite – are an incredible wealth of information on Amish life and the area,” she says. One such company is A is for Amish Buggy Rides (www.amishbuggyrides.com), which offers four different routes through real, non-commercial working Amish farms. The company, based in Bird-in-Hand, says that reservations are not necessary and because of the number of buggies they have, there is rarely a wait. The tours, led by tour guides with Amish, Mennonite and Brethren backgrounds, take you through small back roads where no cars are allowed so that you can really experience the Amish lifestyle. Tours range from 3 ½ miles to five miles and are about 30 minutes. Some of the sites you’ll see along the way are one-room schoolhouses, Amish stores, farm stands, buggy factories, blacksmiths and shoe stores. At many of the stores, you can purchase handmade goods; while farming is still an integral part of the Amish life, many have branched out to woodworking, iron making, clothing, quilting and crafts.
Wall says another great way to see the countryside is to stop by the Mennonite Information Center (www.mennoniteinfoctr.com), where you can hire a guide to accompany you in your car. All guides have a Mennonite or Amish heritage and take you off-the-beaten path to see homes and farms. Many guides will make arrangements with their neighbors so that you can visit and see what life is like there. Most of these tours are two-plus hours and are tailored to match your interests, such as churches, schools, farms, covered bridges, cemeteries, shops and historical sites.
Wall also touts the area’s hot air balloon companies. “It’s so beautiful up there; you can see the amazing tapestry below of rolling hills and farmland,” she says.
Rise and shine!
Farm life has always been a fascination for me, mostly because of the gorgeous scenery and because of my love for the movie “Field of Dreams.” However, I, like most people I presume, don’t have what it takes to be a farmer, with the pre-dawn rising and the backbreaking work that’s involved. However, if you’re looking for just a little taste of farm life, you can stay at a bed and breakfast that is also a working farm. Several in the area allow guests to take part in the daily “chores,” including milking cows, collecting eggs and learning all about what it takes to be a farmer (you can find a complete list at www.padutchcountry.com/lodging/working_farm.asp). One such working farm/bed and breakfast is Country Gardens Farm Bed and Breakfast (www.thecountrygardensfarm.com) in Mount Joy, Pa. After guests partake in a homemade breakfast, they can join the owners in the “morning chores,” which are scheduled obviously at a time more conducive to a vacation stay, to be topped off with a hayride.
Shop ‘till ya drop
Of course, no vacation would be complete without a little shopping, right? And unlike some destinations where you buy gifts and collectibles that are made abroad and could be picked up just about anywhere, the Pennsylvania Dutch Country is home to countless shops run by locals who specialize in homemade goods. We already touched on the opportunities to pick up Amish-made goods, so let’s focus on another signature element to the area – antiques.
If you’re looking for antiques in this region, it’s fairly easy, as shopping opportunities abound in Lancaster County’s many charming, quaint towns. Park the car and walk around; you’ll never know what you’ll find, and unlike big box stores, the shop owners are anxious to talk to you and educate you on the history of a piece. A must on your list is a trip to Adamstown, Pa., which is called Antiques Capital, U.S.A. (www.antiquescapital.com), located in the northern part of Lancaster County where you’ll find over 3,000 antiques dealers. Also in Adamstown are Clock Tower Antiques and Stoudt’s Black Angus Antiques Mall (www.stoudtsbeer.com), located alongside the brewing company. Clock Tower is the smaller of the two, while Stoudt’s Black Angus Antiques Mall is Adamstown’s largest under-roof antique mall, including four outside pavilions and over 500 dealers. After you’ve shopped, you’re bound to be hungry and thirsty, and Stoudt’s also has a bakery, Black Angus Restaurant & Pub and the Stoudt’s Brewing Company – talk about one-stop shopping!
Nearby, check out Ziegler’s in the Country (www.zieglersantiques.com), located between Hershey and Elizabethtown, which has gorgeous French County home accessories and garden statues. Lancaster County also has several auction houses where you can bid on anything from real estate to antiques, cars, carriages, sleighs, tools and even horses.
No matter what your interest is, Wall says that the best way to see Lancaster County may be just to get lost. “I tell people to get lost on purpose. Get off Route 30 and take a back road. This is the best way to really see the area, and you’ll make memories that will always stay with you. I grew up here, and I still make a point to try new routes all the time.”
For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-PA-DUTCH or go online to www.padutchcountry.com.