No beach. No mega theme park. No TV or electronics. What kind of vacation is that? Just one of the best our family has ever enjoyed.
My suggestion to take our grandchildren, Madeline, age fourteen, and Loren, age thirteen, on a different kind of vacation received mixed reviews. “It sounds soooo boring,” their mother said. “Oh, your poor grandkids,” a client chided. But I had an inspiration: I wanted our granddaughters to see another part of the country, experience a different culture, and explore new ways of having fun – and what better time than during their early teen years? So we broke tradition, left the beach bags (and parents) behind, and travelled north. Four hours later, we discovered Pennsylvania Dutch Country – a region chock full of adventure and yes, fun for the whole family!
Wanting to immerse ourselves in the Amish way of life, we opted to forgo hotels (though the region offers an abundance of affordable and convenient options). With expert guidance from lancasterfarmbnb.com, we reserved a guest house on a working farm in Leola, about eight miles from the heart of Lancaster. Little did we know that we would arrive as strangers and depart as friends. Katie Stoltzfus, who was outside tending her lush flower garden, greeted us with the broadest smile and most genuine down-home hospitality anyone could hope for: “Welcome to Country Lane Farm!” And what a welcome it was. Countless birds chirped, almost in unison. Windows of our quaint, cottage-style house were open wide, taking advantage of nature’s symphony and summer’s breeze. Living areas and bedrooms were simplistically, yet beautifully adorned with colorful, handcrafted quilts. Instantly, we felt at home.
Madeline and Loren were invited to explore the farm to their hearts’ content, and how they loved their newfound freedom. They discovered never-ending surprises, starting with a retired Standard-bred racehorse. T.J. may no longer win races, but he instantly won the hearts of our granddaughters. They visited his stall several times a day, feeding him hay and apples. What a thrill when Katie’s husband, Chris, harnessed T.J. to the family’s black buggy for a bouncy, twenty-mile-per-hour ride through the Amish countryside. And then there was the farm’s fun-loving mascot, Kelly, the silver lab; a family of goats who demanded equal attention; a pair of swans who graced the pond; and chickens – some 9,000 hens that lay close to 8,000 eggs a day. The next morning amid nonstop cackling (and yes, typical farm smells that you learn to ignore), we toured the production house and gathered fresh eggs for our breakfast. By adding some country bacon and toast slathered with Amish butter, a.k.a. fresh peanut butter blended with marshmallow cream, we enjoyed a four-star breakfast without leaving our home away from home.
Believe it or not, it was day two before we realized that our guest house had no standard electricity. Power for the lights, fans, and appliances was generated by diesel fuel and solar panels, while water for the crops was pumped from the pond by a larger-than-life, bright-red windmill. That made for an impromptu science lesson (and to be honest, GrammaLynn learned quite a bit, too!). What a wake-up call for us as we watched farmers, women, and teens plow fields with teams of mules. Young girls worked barefoot in the pristine vegetable gardens, chatting while helping one another harvest, hoe, and plant the next seasonal crop. Nearby, younger siblings performed odd jobs and helped care for the animals, toting buckets of water to and fro. Whatever the chore, whatever the temperature, they always dressed in traditional Amish garb: trousers with suspenders, long-sleeved shirts, and straw hats for the men and full-length, long-sleeved dresses with aprons and bonnets for the women. Wearing mini replicas, the youngsters stole our hearts.
Though it was hard to leave the farm, we were lured by the countless stops and shops dotting Lancaster County’s highways and towns. At The Amish Village, tourists explore an 1840 farmhouse, smokehouse, and blacksmith shop, experiencing life as it’s been in that region for almost 300 years. The schoolhouse is similar to those the Amish still use, a one-room setting for twenty-or-so students of all ages. In addition to the Village offerings, mini-buses provide 90-minute backroad tours, and coincidentally, several included our farm’s quilt shop on their itineraries. Like the tour groups that stopped by, we wanted to hear how Ms. Katie and her neighbors made the multi-colored, multi-patterned quilts that she displayed for sale. Some required an entire year of hand stitching – definitely treasured labors of love. We browsed through a surplus of colorful book bags, purses, and accessories with quilting resembling that of Vera Bradley. Finally (geesh!), each granddaughter selected a quillow, a decorative pillow that unfolds into a cozy quilt with a foot pocket for snuggling. Apparently it was the perfect choice, for they slept under their quillows the rest of vacation. I chose a cookbook with recipes and photos documenting the family history of our hosts. Later, after countless free samples at the Intercourse Canning Company across town, Granddaddy loaded the trunk with his vacation souvenirs, jars of flavorful veggies and fruits, plus still more Amish peanut-butter cream.
Next on the agenda was Lancaster’s Sight & Sound Theatre (sight-sound.com), which presents live performances as exciting and professional as some on Broadway, but based on biblical themes. While munching on the theatre’s traditional hot-roasted almonds (now, here was an aroma we could get used to), we were enthralled by the antics of Joseph and his eleven brothers. The audience was royally entertained by a cast of talented actors, as well as a bevy of live animals that try not to steal the spotlight. Lavish staging, rich musical scores, ever-changing vignettes, and high-tech special effects kept our attention while communicating the power of healing, forgiveness, and family. Joseph, which is an original production, runs through October 17, and Samson will debut in 2016.
The region’s entertainment options (discoverlancaster.com) outnumbered our remaining vacation days. We were tempted by the thrill of ziplining at Refreshing Mountain; biking country roads; tubing at Sickman’s Mill Creek; horseback riding at Ironstone Ranch; hiking at Chickies Rock or Tucquan Glen; hot air ballooning at Bird in Hand; visiting train museums; playing at Dutch Wonderland; and exploring Hershey Theme Park, which is less than an hour away.
The call of the wild did catch our attention, though, and we’re glad it did. The Wolf Sanctuary of Pennsylvania, thirty minutes away in Lititz, was well worth the side trip. What an incredible adventure to walk through natural woodlands that provide safe havens for eastern timber, grey, and hybrid (dog-mix) wolves. Most of the latter had been displaced after owners across the country realized that wild wolves do not make good (or sometimes legal) pets. The volunteer curator encouraged the wolves to come closer by throwing over the safety fences a variety of raw-meat treats (mainly hot dogs), which the wolves greedily devoured in a gulp. On display were the only remains of a deer – hide, fur, and jawbone – which was easy to understand once we witnessed the wolves’ powerful, razor-sharp teeth. We watched the alpha-beta relationship in action and learned fascinating tidbits about packs, territories, and hunting. Who knew wolves can smell scents up to four or five miles away and hear sounds emanating from eleven or twelve miles? “Their eyes search your soul,” the guide said, and we experienced that very eeriness as Thor, Running Bear, Lazarus, and Galahad, to name a few, stared back with somber curiosity equaling ours. Mika, who we learned hails from Virginia, received our special hello from the folks back home, but Cinderella never divulged her hiding spot. The highlight came when our guide, after many years of practice, howled to the wolves. One by one they responded in high and low pitches across the thirty acres, until most were howling in chorus. The information center’s wolf-themed souvenirs ranged from related books to plush toys and handcrafted jewelry. Since wolves are extinct in many areas of our country where they used to roam, perhaps the most meaningful takeaway was the opportunity to adopt a wolf. Details on adoption, special events, and full-moon tours with bonfire fun are posted on the nonprofit’s website (wolfsanctuarypa.org). Onsite lodging is available at the historic Speedwell Forge Bed and Breakfast, circa 1760.
No less wonderful than the entertainment was the food – all of it. Our favorite dining experience was Miller’s Smorgasbord, where we chowed down an award-winning feast of chicken and waffles, steamed shrimp, fried chicken, apple cider pork, and every kind of fresh-cooked veggie, seasoned casserole, and soup imaginable. It was kind of like that feeling you get on a cruise when you know you can’t possibly eat, let alone taste it all. The finale was a lavish dessert bar, complete with warm chocolate-pecan pie, saucy bread pudding, luscious cheesecakes, and Amish favorites like cream-filled whoopie pie and molasses-based shoo-fly pie.
Katie’s Kitchen, with comfy lunch-counter and booth seating, was another favorite that serves up authentic Amish meals. Loxley’s Restaurant features outdoor dining in a two-story treehouse that’s surrounded by nature. Of course, Lancaster County offers the typical array of fast-food eateries, from Sonic to Chick-fil-A, as well as restaurants featuring breweries to fine cuisine at a variety of price points.
At the end of the week, we may have had more questions than answers. Why do some Amish use the Internet, yet reject standard electricity? How come some drive cars, others horse-drawn buggies? What’s the difference between the Amish and Mennonite faiths? Why do they decline having their photo taken? What’s with the metal-wheeled, low-to-the-ground scooters used by children and adults? And why do they set themselves apart from the outside world, yet welcome inquisitive tourists into their homes? Fortunately, our hosts were open and comfortable answering our countless questions, though we were probably the millionth to ask. In fact, they typically set aside time for cozy chats with their overnight guests. No wonder their guestbook logs rave reviews year after year.
Vacation was too short. Our teens not only welcomed the slower-paced, back-to-nature lifestyle, they relished every minute and wanted more. We adults did, too. By week’s end, none of us was ready to leave, but when we did, we took with us more than souvenirs. We left with fun-filled, forever memories tinged with personal insights. “Gosh, I didn’t realize how little work we have to do,” Loren admitted, reflecting on her routine chores back home. “We have way too much stuff – maybe even too many electronics,” Madeline added, which is a significant statement from a teen who loves to text.
Not surprising, they’ve already asked to return next summer. But why wait? I hear Pennsylvania is gorgeous in autumn, and the apples will be ripe for picking.
T. J., we’ll be back!
select photos courtesy: Wildlife Photography by Chuck Rineer,and Miller’s Smorgasbord
If you go…
• If reserving an Amish or Mennonite guest house, verify whether it has air conditioning, heat, and a backup generator. Electrical outlets may be few, TVs may be non-existent, and you’ll need your own hair dryer.
• Reserve accommodations and theatre tickets far in advance to avoid disappointment. Mid-week savings may cover the cost of staying an extra day(s).
• Time your travel on the I-95 corridor to avoid rush-hour frenzy.
• Prepare for a more leisurely pace. Kick back, relax, and go with the flow.
• Take old tennis shoes for farm walks and barnyard tours.
• Unlike RVA, enjoy the great outdoors without mosquitoes, thanks to all the birds and chickens on the farms.
• Shops and markets close early in the small towns, so plan accordingly.
• If you seek modern conveniences and shopping, don’t despair. Lancaster has everything from Starbucks and Target to a children’s water park and outlet mall.
• If you plan to visit the Sight & Sound Theatre, read or reread the Bible story in advance so you’re prepared for questions and deeper discussions.
• If allergies require special foods and beverages, consider bringing these with you. We never found almond milk, but then again, we didn’t make it to a traditional grocery store.
• When driving the back roads, allow extra travel time. GPS reception sometimes fails, buggies and scooters slow your pace, and seldom is there a direct route since roads tend to follow the farmland. When a horse and buggy is ahead of you on the highway, use patience and pass with care.
• Encourage your children to journal their experiences. The info will make for great essays.
• Without exception, respect the Amish people’s request never to take their photo.
• Bring home lots of Amish (peanut) butter. The extra calories are worth the taste!