Just hearing the song “Home for the Holidays” conjures up images ranging from “Dixie’s sunny shore” to “Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie” – except, perhaps, for the hosts with the home. My own in-laws realized this a generation ago and started a grand, new holiday tradition when our two children were young: They gave their two adult-children’s families the gift of Thanksgiving with them at a Pennsylvania Dutch Country resort.
By arriving late on Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, we enjoyed biking the countryside alongside Amish farms, playing in the resort’s large, indoor pool and hearing traditional carols to kick off the season. A Thanksgiving feast at the resort meant no cooking or clean-up worries! We adults also recharged our batteries for the round of holiday activities coming up through the end of the year. Departing on Saturday, instead of the Sunday following Thanksgiving, our Richmond family missed the nightmare that Perry Como’s carol jovially referenced with the line, “Gee, the traffic is terrific” – and returned home refreshed, with even a few holiday cards ready to mail.
Driving into Amish Country still remains relaxing today: stone houses and fences; neat, red barns; signs proclaiming jobs like Mechanical Repairs – and no Walmarts in sight. Town and family names such as Lampeter, Burkholder, and Probst complement authentic attractions such as the Strasburg Rail Road that offers a 45-minute, round-trip steam-train ride between Strasburg in Lancaster County and Paradise, Pennsylvania.
When my husband and I repeated this family getaway with our grown family recently, we discovered the resort, Willow Valley Inn and Suites, had expanded over the years and now partners with the DoubleTree Resort next door. A fourhour drive from Richmond to Lancaster, the resort is conveniently situated almost halfway between our son’s family in New York state and ourselves – a natural meeting point. We chose to stay at the DoubleTree, as it featured an indoor water park for our granddaughters, Helena, 5, and Sophia, 11. Another perk was the more intimate restaurant, Café 24 Hundred, open nightly until 10 o’clock, two hours later than the Willow Tree smorgasbord-style dining room at Willow Valley Inn.
Our late mornings and early afternoons were filled with infotainment, educational activities that are also fun, but we reserved late afternoons before dinner for the ever-popular water park with its large slide and assorted tubes. After all of the daytime activity, everyone turned in early following a late dinner, though that meant we missed sampling the area’s evening shows such as one of the recommended stage productions.
A traditional Amish buggy ride provided an engaging orientation to the Amish area. Ben, our convivial driver and guide for the 55-minute round-trip, was one of several drivers leaving regularly from Kitchen Kettle Village, a destination-attraction dating to 1954 in the nearby village of Intercourse. Situated on the grounds of founder Pat Burnley’s original homestead, Kitchen Kettle Village proved to be a smart base for a day. We parked, scheduled our buggy ride, and returned for lunch at the Kling Family Restaurant (in the house in which Pat Burnley grew up). Much of the afternoon was spent exploring shops on site that demonstrate – and engage – children as well as adults in skills and activities typical of Amish life. Our granddaughters especially enjoyed contributing stitches to a quilt set up on its round quilting stand in the Quilt Shop – and took even greater pleasure in the activity when they learned the quilt would be given to a needy child when completed.
The Jam & Relish Kitchen enthralled the girls as they watched Amish women use a small-batch cooking process to achieve peak flavor, co-owner Pat told us – to make an array of jams, jellies, relishes, butters, preserves, and mustards as well as pickles and seven different salsas. Pat – who, with her husband, Bob, raised three children while building the business – scurried about the shop with the fast gait of someone who remains a dynamo behind the family operation. Boys as well as girls stopped at every food-sampling station with their parents, where we tasted everything from jalapeño jam and Vidalia onion relish to a peanut butter schmear, a cross between peanut butter and caramel, which goes just as well melted over ice cream as in a regular sandwich.
The Burnleys’ original garage, stables, and even an old chicken coop contribute to the authentic ambiance among the tree-lined lanes – which led us to more than 40 clothing, crafts, artisan, and food shops, a fine arts gallery, and two restaurants. They also have an inn with 17 rooms on site. We hadn’t intended this trip to be a shopping expedition, but we loaded up on jellies and relishes for teachers’ gifts as well as skeins of local wool at the yarn shop and quilting supplies for other gifts.
True Amish folk don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Ben the driver told us; but the well-known, traditional restaurants such as Bird-in-Hand and Plain & Fancy (whose daily Amish farm feasts are 35- to 50-year traditions) do offer a holiday meal (reservations required) that varies somewhat from the daily smorgasbord buffet. The Pennsylvania Dutch were among the first restaurant owners in the United States to promote farm-to-table dining. Theirs is a meat-and-starch diet, often bland for our personal tastes, though Amish buffet and menu favorites such as buttered noodles, fried chicken, and potpies attract large crowds, and require early reservations.
Lancaster County features a wide variety of other restaurants including ethnic ones such as Italian, Japanese, and Indian. We enjoyed excellent seated service at DoubleTree’s Café 24 Hundred, where we chose entrees ranging from grilled flank steak to a house specialty that has a Sicilian touch, Chesapeake Bay estafeta, with fish, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, crabmeat, chicken and sausage. At the adjacent Willow Valley Inn and Suites restaurant, Willow Tree, the girls loved the smorgasbord breakfast with its assorted do-it-yourself toppings for waffles featured among a seemingly endless line of tables bearing food.
Looking ahead to Christmas, we took note of activities ranging from the traditional trip aboard Santa’s Paradise Express on the Strasburg Rail Road (reserve early!) and the new, drive-through Christmas lights attraction, “Gift of Lights,” at Elizabeth Farms, where a lot of locals go to cut their own trees. These folks do right by the tradition, with horse-drawn rides into the fields of trees, hot chocolate and cider, animals for petting, Santa’s workshop, model-train displays, and now, a festive drive-through light display.
Thousands of lights and a Christmas train are also part of Dutch Winter Wonderland, a theme park with more than a dozen rides for children, games and holiday entertainment under the twinkling lights.
Lancaster’s Christmas theatre performances include a mix of traditional favorites and original stage productions: Miracle on 34th Street, Hairspray, Home for the Holidays, A Dickens of a Christmas, Miracle of Christmas, and the American Music Theatre’s Christmas Show. In 15 galleries and numerous smaller exhibits, the National Christmas Center seeks to preserve and share diverse Christmas memories past and present, near and far. From a depiction of Christmas during the World War II years to a reenacted journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the secular and sacred share 20,000-square feet of space on this site.
Small-town festivities, history and heritage make up a “Lancaster County Christmas,” including candlelight tours, community tree-lighting ceremonies, and even a Segway tour about downtown Lancaster. Central Market downtown is a great place for coffee or lunch when you’re in the area. Locals have gathered there for decades even if they’re not shopping for farm produce, meats and seafood, pastries and snacks, crafts and collectables.
Lancaster County museums feature every aspect of Pennsylvania Dutch culture, from local art and the Amish community to natural science, trains, and Lancaster history. You can visit an Underground Railroad center, a Pennsylvania German living-history village, or the home of the fifteenth President of the United States, James Buchanan.
Sophia and Helena and their parents were homeward bound on Saturday with lots of memories from this gift of travel – and a few Pennsylvania Dutch treats from the bakery at Willow Valley Inn and Suites, still as good as we remembered from three decades ago.