Pennsylvania Dutch Country
In addition to being culturally fascinating, the land of the Amish can be tourist-friendly and inexpensive
Just 60 miles and a 90-minute drive west of Philadelphia lies Lancaster County, a wrinkle in time where life seems to have remained unchanged since the Revolutionary War. This is Amish country, where many folks still get about by horse-drawn buggy, speak a dialect of medieval German, eschew modern conveniences such as phones and electricity, and plow their fields behind lumbering teams of Clydesdales. Amish men wear buttonless black suits, broad-brimmed hats, and Abe Lincoln beards; the women don white prayer coverings over their hairbuns and aprons over their modestly long, patternless dresses.
Dutch Country still exists in the modern world, of course; you will see far more cars than buggies, and housing developments encroach on farmland. But the Pennsylvania Dutch and their strong respect for tradition have helped keep large swaths of Lancaster County seemingly suspended in a bubble of time. Sheep and Holsteins dot the patchwork fields, whitewashed farmhouses and barns cap the low rises, and covered bridges help the two-lane roads cross meandering valley streams.
Mass tourism has, of course, discovered the Dutch Country, and tour buses clog Rt. 30 from Memorial Day to Labor Day (worst on weekends and in August). But thankfully, tours stick to the overdeveloped main routes (30 and 340), unloading the buses only at warehouse-sized quilt shops and overpriced smorgasbord restaurants.
When you go, avoid roads with route numbers and get lost on the country lanes carving through the lush farmscape. Turn down driveways with hand-painted signs advertising homemade goods to bargain with a farmer's wife for one of the patterned quilts piled high on the beds in an upstairs room (quilts will run $400 to $700, but you can get potholders for $2).
Pause at roadside stands as much to make conversation as to buy the homemade root beer and shoo-fly pies (a toothachingly sweet treacle tart). Stop into family-style farm restaurants for heaping platters of hearty home cooking at communal tables. Drive at buggy speed to see life at an Amish pace and better appreciate why they choose this simple but rewarding lifestyle.
Though Rt. 30 will get you here from downtown Philadelphia, it's clogged with truck traffic and is the least scenic road in the county. The Pennsylvania Turnpike (Exit 22 or 21) makes for a faster trip to Dutch Country.
The regional tourist office is on the outskirts of Lancaster at 501 Greenfield Rd., at the Rt. 30 exit (800/324-1518; padutchcountry.com and 800padutch.com). There's also a Mennonite Information Center at 2209 Millstream Rd., just east of Lancaster off Rt. 30 (717/299-0954).
Who are the Amish? What's a Mennonite?
Encouraged by William Penn's open invitation to persecuted religious groups, various sects of Christian Anabaptists-Mennonites and offshoots such as the Amish and the Brethren-emigrated from Germany and Switzerland to fertile Lancaster County starting in the 1720s.
Close to 40 different groups of Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch, German for German) thrive here today, from the most conservative of Old Order Amish and Mennonites to more liberal, progressive groups of both sects that few outsiders can tell apart from their Methodist neighbors. Though Anabaptists now make up only about 10 percent of Lancaster County's 466,000 inhabitants, theirs is far from a dying culture. In fact, the Old Order Amish population has actually doubled over the past two decades to about 18,000.
Whether Old Order or liberal, all groups stress family, community, modesty, hard work, and faith - though they believe church membership should be by choice, so only adults can be "baptized again" (what "Anabaptist" means) into the church. Most practice nonviolence and mutual aid, from the famous communal barn-raisings to caring for their elderly outside of the social security system. Many "Plain People" speak three languages: English, High German for worship, and Pennsylvania Dutch (a pidgin medieval German dialect) at home.
Old Order groups adhere more strictly to the "plain and simple life" philosophy, wearing those black suits and solid-colored shirts or dresses, and refusing to drive motorized vehicles (cars erode the sense of community by allowing members to stray too far too fast). The "stop and smell the roses of God's creation" outlook of the Old Orders prefers the slowness of a buggy or foot scooter (a few years back they also approved Rollerblades).
You, too, can see the country roads at a horse's trot on a half-hour, $10 (kids 5-12, $5) buggy ride with Aaron and Jessica's, Rt. 340 between Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand (717/768-8828; 800padutch.com/aaron.hmtl); or Abe's, Rt. 340 west of Bird-in-Hand, 2596 Old Philadelphia Pike (717/392-1794). Ed's, on Rt. 896 north of Strasburg, 253 Hartman Bridge Road in Ronks (717/687-0360), does them for $7.
Get Inspired with more from BudgetTravel.com
Budget Travel Real Deals