TRAVEL: Pennsylvania — Country, Chocolate and A Cheesesteak

Almost two months of living amongst the cramped, concrete jungle of New York City was beginning to get to us, and we felt like we needed a break from urban life – somewhere we could get back to nature, and away from the hustle and bustle of modern living. We wanted the simple life.

Researching into where we could find this kind of lifestyle, we read about the Amish communities and their shunning of modern technology. We read about their horse-drawn buggies, and their black and white clothes. Then we read that they lived only two and a half hours away from New York in the state of Pennsylvania. Throw in visits to the chocolate town of Hershey and the city of Philadelphia, and we had found our next American trip.

 

Spring had sprung, banishing a harsh winter into history, and Jessie and I wanted a premium view of the season. Soon enough, we had a packed car, a motel reservation, and driving directions to a little middle-of-nowhere town in Pennsylvania – we were getting our country life fix first, and then could get a taste of other parts of the state the next day. Next, we were driving out of New York City along practically empty highways at 7am on a Saturday morning to beat the traffic. It was time for a roadtrip.

 

PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY

Lancaster County, PA.

The signs were there…

Beforehand, we didn’t know much about Pennsylvania at all, but we had heard about the Amish people. These were communities of religious families that felt that modern technology was detrimental to a loving life under God so they decided they would have no part of it. This meant no television, no computers, no phones no electronics whatsoever. It also meant no cars, so they would get around in horse-drawn buggies or push scooters for shorter journeys. They were of Dutch descent, they dressed in modest, bland clothing, and often wore straw hats. We had now read that a huge community of them live in Lancaster County in towns called Bird-In-Hand, Intercourse, and Blue Ball. These are real town names, and despite the hilarious references to religious folk with firm beliefs in abstinence (for example, the Amish), all connections are coincidental.

We were headed to a motel in Bird-In-Hand, and after driving through New Jersey along the monotonous New Jersey Turnpike, we finally crossed the stateline into Pennsylvania. After a quick stop in my very first Walmart for snacks and beef jerky (which quickly became a staple item for all roadtrips), we continued westwards and noticed the scenery begin to change. The houses got further and further apart, and then the roadside trees cleared to reveal a view of quaint towns nestled amongst farmland, with white churches with tall steeples. There were red barns, cows and horses. I didn’t get the name of any of these passing towns, but for me, they were all Farmville, USA.

After a while, we were following signs to Intercourse and driving along empty country roads and then we saw it. At first, we weren’t sure, but as we got closer it became clear that our eyes weren’t fooling us. There ahead of our car, taking up most of our lane, was an Amish buggy being pulled along by a horse. We had made it to the Pennsylvania Amish Country.

An Amish buggy!

We had read not to drive too close to the horses as they can get spooked, so we kept our distance and when we had plenty of room to overtake, I tried my best not to stare as we passed. Driving along the main road, we drove through small towns, passing a few more buggies before we finally arrived at our little motel for the weekend around 9:30am. It was a small motel run by Amish people, located on an apple orchard, and when we went to check in we were pleased to find that the girl at reception was very Amish, with her extra friendly manner and little bonnet hat to match. Enquiring about our accents, she asked us where we were from, and after we said we were from New Zealand, she said she hadn’t really heard of it, and then asked if it was near Germany. I figured Amish people aren’t into the Lord of the Rings.

Bird-In-Hand Farmer’s Market: You will want to buy one of everything.

After putting our stuff into our little motel room, we were hungry and decided to head out for some food. We drove along the main road which links the towns of Intercourse and Bird-In-Hand, and came across the Bird-In-Hand Farmer’s Market. This indoor market had everything from souvenirs to wine, and fresh meat, fruit and vegetables to baked goods like pies and cookies, and it’s definitely worth the stop. I tried a sample of a Pennsylvania favourite known as ‘shoo-fly pie’, which is like a bit like a fruit mince tart, then we bought some delicious pastries and an amazing fresh fruit smoothie from a Amish stall before hitting the road.

Next, we found ourselves entering the town of Lancaster, where we had to pay for parking. Lancaster is the big city of the Amish Country area, and we had read about its large farmer’s market. However, when we got there we found that all the stalls were very mainstream and quite expensive, and it didn’t seem very farm-like or anywhere near as wholesome as the Bird-In-Hand market, so we decided to head back.

You simply must support the local Amish roadside bake-stalls.

Driving along again, we passed a lot of roadside bake-stalls run by Amish people so we decided we would do our bit and try one. We pulled over to one stall to find a shy Amish girl behind the counter. She was selling whoopie pies, shoofly pies, and ginger beer. We bought a chocolate whoopie pie, which is like a cake sandwich, with a layer of sweet cream between two soft sponge cake circles. It was delicious, and I was quickly realising that the Amish have a knack for making good food.

One other thing that seemed to be common along the side of the roads was signs advertising Amish buggy rides, so we thought we’d investigate. Exploring all the Amish buggy ride tour options available, we decided to go with one called Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides because it included a tour of an Amish family farm.

Amish buggy tours, as run by the Amish! Here’s John, our tour guide.

On arrival, we asked the operator who Aaron and Jessica were, and that’s when we stumbled upon a dark Amish secret. The truth is that there was no Aaron, and there was no Jessica. The first tourist buggy ride set up in the region was Abe’s Buggy Rides followed by a few other outfits, but as the list in the tourist guides were alphabetical, Abe’s was always at the top and leaving the other Amish family businesses in the dark. That’s when the Amish started getting strategic with their business names. All buggy businesses started with the letter A, then after that it was two A’s, as in Aaron. Some of them are throwing any sense out the window and one of the newest outfits was called AAA Buggy Rides. The Amish were tapping into capitalism and doing whatever it took to get the step up over their rivals.

All buggy business tactics aside, though, the actual buggy tour was great and we really felt that we picked the right one. Our tour guide and driver John was as Amish as they get, with a straw hat, bushy beard and a simple view on life. He also had a great Amish accent which was a huge plus. There were a few different sized buggies, but as we chose the farm tour option, we had the big buggy that held about eight people – a nice, intimate group. As his trusty steeds pulled us around town, John told us about the Amish way of life out here in the country, and it was great to hear about the Amish people first-hand.

Here’s a statement: A horse buggy in a carpark. Technology, shunned!

Just as I had read, they were reluctant to accept modern technology and conveniences because they could get by with loving family units without all the new-age distractions. On the other hand, John informed us of a few families of Mennonites (the less strict version of Amish people) who didn’t mind a bit of electricity, and there seemed to be a bit of hostility between the two groups. However, that didn’t mean the Amish were stuck in the dark ages, as they had adapted to using gas for their ovens, heating, and lighting, and all had large propane tanks outside their homes. In fact, John also told us that quite a few of the families were now looking at this fancy thing called solar energy, and were considering getting large solar panels fitted to their roofs. It was a strange concept to grasp, as it seemed that although standard forms of electricity were shunned, even more modern forms such as solar power were acceptable, and this made it seem like they were simply a few decades of technological innovations behind the rest of the world, and were just slow to catch up. The way John almost drooled as he spoke of fitting a huge shiny black solar panel to his roof was almost like a guy saving up for a bigger, flatter television with surround sound and 3D functionality.

Even if they appeared to be slowly getting more in line with our modern world, nothing would have prepared them for an armed madman to rush into one of their school houses one morning and start executing children. John described the 2006 Amish school massacre in the nearby Bart Township as a really shocking view of the outside world. For the simple Amish community without television or widespread news, it would have almost been like an alien invasion without sense or reason, and with no way to understand why it was happening. Of course, in line with the Amish way, the community forgave the shooter (who shot himself after the murders) and his family, but it obviously made them even more fearful of the big outside world. On a positive note, however, John told us that community are now closer and stronger than ever.

John’s Amish farm house – comes complete with buggy and kids’ bake-sale in the yard.

Soon we came upon John’s family farm, which just happened to be across the road from the orchard where we were staying, and we got to get off the buggy and walk around. John’s children, also dressed in black and white, stood behind a table selling cookies and whoopie pies to us, while their mother kept coming out of the house with more freshly baked goods. We couldn’t resist so we bought some cookies. We noticed a small child’s trailer in the yard, and as one of his sons rode around on a push scooter, John told us how when he reaches his teens he will be taught to handle a horse and buggy of his own, and then take over the farm. I was getting a sense that these Amish folk had been living this way for quite some time.

Next, we headed into the barn where we met the horses and mules (as they’re stronger for pulling harvesting equipment), along with pigs and a lot of dairy cows. John showed us how the milking process works, and even told us that a lot of the Amish farms in the region, including his own, supply milk to some of the biggest dairy companies in America. Following this, we were taken back to our starting point, and one of the friendliest, most wholesome tours I’d ever experienced came to an end.

The steaming mound of evidence on the ground shows that their drive-thru banks are also used by the Amish.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the nearby towns, and driving through Bird-In-Hand noticing the abundance of antique furniture stores, as the Amish are known for their amazing carpentry. We saw not only wooden mailboxes, birdhouses, sheds and rocking chairs, but also intricately detailed children’s toys. The town of Intercourse was much the same, with lots of red barn farms and carpentry stores, but also gift stores cashing in on the town’s funny name.

Before long, evening had arrived and the desire for a traditional Dutch country dinner brought us to a restaurant by the name of Good ‘N Plenty. You pay a fair share, but this place sits you down at a long table with other guests to converse and get to know one another while you get to eat all the authentic Pennsylvania Dutch cooking that you can fit in, with fried chicken, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and more. We found the food to be delicious, the company was great, and the overall experience was worth what we paid. We headed back to our motel to watch the sun set over the orchards to mark the end of our time with the Amish, for the next day we were planning on seeing another side of Pennsylvania.

However, if you haven’t had enough of the simple country lifestyle, on a separate trip with kids, we also visited Cherry Crest Adventure Farm, which has a large corn maze, tractor and farm tours, and lots of things to do with kids. There are also a few touristy Amish village attractions to learn about their way of life, too.

 

HERSHEY: THE CHOCOLATE TOWN

Welcome to Hershey, PA.

Hershey Kisses street lamps!

Early the next day, we packed up the car and headed further west towards the town of Hershey. On the way in, we were hungry so stopped for brunch at the Cocoa Diner – our first diner, where I tried something different and ordered creamed stripped beef on toast, which I later discovered was a navy staple known as ‘shit on shingles’. Strangely enough, I quite liked it, and it was my first taste of country-style white gravy, and it would certainly not be the last. It was also my first taste of American coffee, as I ordered a ‘cup of Joe’. It seems that in America, coffee means something else – something really not good. It was time to head further into the town.

This place came to be because of a man named Milton Hershey, who started a chocolate factory then started building a town around it for the workers’ families. When they got bored, he had an amusement park built for them, and a school, and a hospital, and the rest of it. The town itself doesn’t offer much else besides chocolate-themed attractions, apart from a large stadium and convention center and large letters on a hillside spelling out the town’s name, but you might get a kick out of the street lights having lamps shaped like Hershey’s Kisses.

Milton Hershey and the Chocolate Factory.

Apart from that, you have the actual Hershey chocolate factory, then you have Hershey Chocolate World, which is a partial chocolate factory built for tourism, which teaches you about the history of the town and how its chocolate is made. Next to this is Hersheypark – the fun park originally built for the factory employees which is now a tourist attraction filled with an assortment of huge rollercoasters. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the fun park as we didn’t have time to explore it, but I can say it looked exciting from outside.

Hershey’s Chocolate World, where tooth cavities are made!

We did spend quite a bit of time at Hershey Chocolate World, however, and this place is worth a visit. The first thing you should do is take the free chocolate factory tour, where you can read about Milton Hershey and the town while waiting to get on a little ride that takes you through the factory and teaches you how the chocolate is made and at the end you get some free Hershey’s chocolate. The problem with this, at least for us, is that we think Hershey’s chocolate tastes awful, with an after-taste as if you’ve just finished throwing up. On the plus side, Hershey also makes other types of chocolate and candy, and you can buy all of these in the giant chocolate store on site. The only thing we bought from the Hershey chocolate store, though, was a lot of Cadbury chocolate, as they distribute it around the United States. They also have a bunch of Hershey-themed cafes, bakeries and dessert bars in the building which are worth trying. In addition to this, there are a few other attractions you can pay for, such as a tram tour of the actual factory, and a 3D movie about the place.

After this, we’d basically exhausted our time in the town of Hershey, so after parking up for a few photos of the street signs at the intersection of Chocolate Ave and Cocoa Ave, it was time to head back east towards New York City.

If you still haven’t had enough of small town Pennsylvania, one other town in the area that we visited on another occasion was Elizabethtown, also known as E-Town, although I’ll admit we didn’t find much there.

 

PHILADELPHIA: THE CITY OF BROTHERLY LOVE AND CHEESESTEAKS

The road to Philadelphia, PA.

Our souls were feeling free and replenished after our stay in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and we were all sugared up from Hershey, so we were headed back to New York City. Suddenly, we realised this might not be such a good idea, as going straight from Farmville, USA to one of the busiest cities in the world might be too much of a shock – much like going diving and coming up for air too quickly then getting the bends. We’d need a stepping stone, and Philadelphia would be the perfect midpoint.

We soon found that even Philadelphia, AKA Philly, the city of brotherly love, was a huge leap from the red barns of the day before. We drove into the frantic traffic of the city with our hearts racing as we searched for a place to park the car. When we finally found one, we fed the meter and headed into the city on foot.

The LOVE sculpture at JFK Plaza, with the Rocky steps in the background. I’m sure it looks more impressive when the flowers are there and the fountain is on.

The most famous bits of Philly are the LOVE sculpture at JFK Plaza (AKA Love Park), the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as seen in Rocky, and the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Firstly, we walked over to the LOVE sculpture to take photos of the famous icon which sits in front of a fountain with a few other sculptures scattered around it, such as oversized Monopoly game pieces. When we finally managed to get a photo without other people in it, we decided to move on and walk along the main road of Market Street towards Independence National Historical Park.

We began to notice that the city had a lot of homeless people, a lot of skateboarders and a lot of religious people handing out flyers in the street. In fact, I met my first May 21st Doomsday guy in Philadelphia, trying to tell me that the world would end on the 21st of May, 2011, which just so happens to be my birthday. Obviously, considering today’s date and the news coverage of this particular apocalypse group, the world did not end, and as much as I’d like to say that guy moved up to the status of skateboarder, he probably just became a bum. Religious nutters really need to have back-up plans.

We then found ourselves at Independence National Historical Park, which holds a few educational institutions such as the National Constitution Center, but most famously it is home to Independence Hall and the famous cracked Liberty Bell.

Independence Hall is the famous site where the Declaration of Independence was first signed, and where the US Constitution was written, so now it is seen as a symbol of the nation’s liberty and rights. In our travels around America, Jessie and I were quickly beginning to notice that whenever we go to see a famous building, it would be in middle of a renovation and covered in scaffolding – something we came to call the Scaffolding Curse – and unfortunately, our experience with Independence Hall was much the same. When we arrived, our eyes feasted on full scaffolding with canvas covers hiding the entire building. On a positive note, however, the canvas covers were designed with the details of the building, so it was like seeing a 3D painting of the original.

The Liberty Bell, with Independence Hall behind it disguised by scaffolding.

Next we went through a few security checks and headed over to the Liberty Bell Visitor Center. Here, you can read all about the Declaration of Independence and after reading of how it came to be, you get to see the actual Liberty Bell – the iconic symbol of America’s independence. The large crack running down one side of the bell is a bit of a mystery and has many stories around it – some of which I’d like to believe involve vampires and werewolves. However, looking at historical references and scientific findings, the bell first cracked the very first time it was rung, and material analysis shows that the bell was just made out of crappy metals and never stood a chance.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have long in Philadelphia because we wanted to get back to New York City before it got dark, but there was one thing we still needed to complete a brief taste of the city. Rushing back to the car to make sure we didn’t get a parking ticket, we still made a stop for the city’s famous dish – the Philly Cheesesteak sandwich. Finding the first hot food place on Market Street, called the Honey Restaurant, we ordered one giant sandwich to share and after a few minutes, it was bagged and handed over to us, and we were out the door racing against time to get back on the road.

We were around ten minutes late getting back to the car but luckily there were no wardens or tickets in sight, so we navigated our way out of the city and back onto the interstate with the succulent scent of our cheesesteak filling the car and teasing us as we drove. Finally, we found a place to stop in New Jersey, and were happy to find that when we unwrapped our sandwich, despite looking a bit soggy and less appetising that it would have looked when we first got it, it was still hot, and oh god how it delicious it was. Thin, tender stripped beef, mixed with sliced bell peppers and melted cheese, bedded into a long, soft white bread roll about twelve inches long. I was in heaven in a Walmart parking lot in New Jersey, but the sun was going down, and it was time to move on.

A genuine Philly Cheesesteak sandwich, after staying wrapped up for a little too long. It still tasted incredible.

 

BACK TO THE BIG CITY

After a while on the road, we realised the car’s GPS was not taking us back the way we came, and soon night was upon us and we were heading over a giant bridge and into New York City – only this time, instead of going straight over into Manhattan, we went over a giant bridge and a sign welcomed us to the borough of Staten Island. We found ourselves driving along on a dark, run-down highway surrounded by old factories with no idea how far away we were from home.

Pennsylvania had given us a taste of the simple country life of America, which we would see a lot more of later in the year when we headed into the Midwest. Even though we only saw and experienced a tiny fraction of what is actually a huge sprawling state, it quickly became one of our favourite destinations. Getting out of the city to a place where we can drive along an open road and not see any other cars (then occasionally come across a horse and buggy) was exactly what we needed, and provided a wholesome goodness that really contrasted life in New York City. We may have liked Philadelphia more if we had spent more time there (it’s filled with historical stuff), but at the time it just looked like another city… although I would probably return for more of their Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches.

After getting caught in traffic and navigating our way through Manhattan and surprise detours, we finally arrived home at around 9:30pm – our heart rates through the roof. We had officially made it back to New York City.

 


Background:

The first time Jessie and I visited Pennsylvania was a weekend trip from March 19th to the 20th, and we stayed at the Orchard Inn in the small country town of Bird-In-Hand. This place is run by a super friendly Amish family and is located on a farm, so if you really want to experience the Amish country lifestyle of the area, this place is the perfect place to stay.

The next time we visited Pennsylvania we went with kids for a weekend from September 16th to the 18th, and stayed at the Elizabethtown/Hershey KOA Campground, which was actually closer to Elizabethtown than Hershey. While the landscaping of this campground was quite nicely developed, there wasn’t much to do compared to other KOA Campgrounds, and it was quite a bit more expensive. On the plus side, it was full of fancy RVs that were in town for the World RV Show in Hershey.


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