Pennsylvania Dutch Country

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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.

One note: Always ask before photographing someone - the Old Orders especially take the biblical injunction against graven images very seriously.

Exploring Pennsylvania Dutch Country

The bustling mercantile city of Lancaster (cityoflancasterpa.com) is the capital of the Dutch Country. Its Central Market is the nation's oldest farmers market (est. 1730s), open Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday in a Victorian redbrick at the heart of town, where Queen and King Streets cross (717/291-4739). Next door is the free Heritage Center Museum, with exhibits on Anabaptist and other local cultures (717/299-6440; closed Sun-Mon and Jan-April). On the west side of town lies Wheatland, the stately 1828 Federal-style mansion once home to President James Buchanan (1120 Marietta Ave/Rt. 23; 717/392-8721; wheatland.org; $5.50, $1.75 for kids 6-11).

Just north of town lies one of the Dutch Country's top sights, the Landis Valley Museum, a preserved farming community whose 18 buildings represent a range of Dutch Country styles from the 1700s and 1800s. They're filled with some 75,000 objects of daily life, and host costumed demonstrations on the lifestyles and practices of Pennsylvania Germans (off Rt. 272, 2451 Kissel Hll Road, Lancaster; 717/569-0401; landisvalleymuseum.org; $7; closed Jan-Feb).

There's an excellent new interpretive center on Anabaptist life, history, and culture in Intercourse called The People's Palace, with a highly informative museum and a 20-minute slide show on the Amish (Rt. 340, 3513 Old Philadelphia Pike; 800/390-8436; closed Sun; $4 each for museum or slide presentation, $7 for both).

Strasburg takes its railroad heritage very seriously. There is the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania (Rt. 741; 717/687-8628; rrmuseumpa.org; open limited hours Nov-Apr, check website; $6, $4 kids 6-12); the National Toy Train Museum (717/687-8976; traincollectors.org; closed Jan-Mar and weekdays Apr, Nov, and Dec; $3); and its competitor, Choo Choo Barn (Rt. 741E; 717/687-7911; choochoobarn.com; closed Jan-Mar; $4, $2 kids 5-12). The Strasburg Railroad offers trips to Paradise-45-minutes round-trip-in a nineteenth-century steam train (717/687-7522; strasburgrailroad.com; Dec-Mar weekends only; $8.50-$12.75 depending on train car).

Head to Lititz (lititizpa.com) for some edible history. Tour the Sturgis Pretzel House and learn to roll this traditional German snack in America's first pretzel bakery, est. 1861 (219 East Main St. (717/626-4354; sturgispretzel.com; $2). At Wilbur Chocolate's Candy Americana Museum and Store you can see historical chocolate-making paraphernalia and watch the ladies hand-dipping sweets.

Ephrata Cloister, outside Ephrata, is the preserved wood-timbered village of one of America's first communes, started in 1732 by an order of Pennsylvania German religious mystics renowned for their music, publishing, and Frakturschriften calligraphy (632 West Main St.; 717/733-6600; $6. $4 kids 6-12; Mon-Sat 9-5, 12-5 Sunday). If you're in the Ephrata area on a Friday, don't miss the massive Green Dragon Farmer's Market & Auction on Rt. 272.

Adamstown, at Rt. 272 and Exit 21 of the Turnpike, is jam-packed with Sunday flea markets-such as Renningers (717/385-2177; renningers.com), whose second-hand wares have helped furnish my home - and antiques malls such as Stoudts (717/484-4385; stoudtsbeer.com), behind a fab microbrewery selling rich, German-style brews. It's great sightseeing even if you don't turn up a diamond in the rough amid the bric-a-brac.

Amish accommodations

Cheap motels line Rt. 30, including Lancaster Motel, between Ronks Rd. and Rt. 896 (717/687-6241; $39-$42). Far more interesting is a stay at a guest-friendly working farm. These usually consist of three or four country - simple rooms with Amish quilts, bucolic vistas, and shared baths.

Two dairy farms let you watch the morning milking and help feed the calves. Neffdale Farm is just south of Paradise and closes December to Easter (604 Strasburg Rd./Rt. 741; 717/687-7837; 800padutch.com/neffdale.html; $45-$50). Eby's Pequea Farm offers rooms in an 1814 farmhouse or in modern "Grandma's house," around the bend, overlooking a covered bridge. The Ebys can arrange a unique dinner/history lesson at their Amish neighbor's for just $12 (459A Queen Rd. just north of Rt. 30 in Gordonville; 717/768-3615; $55-$65).

Groff Farm House, between Gap and Kinzer, has cozy doubles plus a sunny $50 family room sleeping four (766 Brackbill Rd.; turn left off Rt. 30 at Stagecoach Motel; 717/442-8223; $35).

If you prefer your B&B without livestock, Lydia Lantz's Clearwood is like staying at your Amish granny's, with religious admonishments posted in the simple rooms - all shared baths except for one efficiency apartment with kitchenette and private bath for $45 (494 Compass Rd. in Gap, one mile south of intersection of Rts. 340 and 10; 717/442-8229; $35). At the intersection of Rts. 340 and 896 in Smoketown, check out comfy Smoketown Village Guest House (2495 Old Philadelphia Pike; 717/393-5975; $32-$38); or the slightly classier Old Road Guest Home (2501 Old Philadelphia Pike; 717/393-8182; proclaim.net/oldroadguesthome; $39-$55).

In train-obsessed Stroudsburg you can even stay in a bona fide converted caboose at The Red Caboose; kids love the idea - and the buggy rides and little petting zoo (717/687-5000; redcaboosemotel.com; $39-$85).

MennoniteEats

The Pennsylvania Dutch farm the land with their muscles and sweat, so they require huge, German-hearty meals heavy on the meat (sausages, ham loaf, fried chicken, chicken potpie), carbohydrates (mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, buttered noodles, bread slathered with apple butter), and vegetables (beans, sweet dried corn, chow chow pickled veggies). You, too, can feast Amish-style, but steer clear of widely advertised, overpriced, "tour buses welcome" smorgasbords like Miller's, and search out a genuine farm atmosphere.

At Amish-run Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant you'll find long common tables laden with platter after platter of all-you-can-eat PA Dutch specialties for just $14. They actually seem disappointed if you're too stuffed for seconds (3716A East Newport Rd. in Gordonville; 717/768-8156; closed Dec-Mar, and weekdays Apr & Nov).

Isaac's Deli is a mini local chain charging $2.60-$6.95 for its remarkable sandwiches and real homemade soups (my recent chicken and vegetable was a genuine chicken stock laden with hunks of white and dark meat and farm-fresh veggies). Its locations include: 44 North Queen St., Lancaster (717/394-5544); 555 Greenfield Rd. near the visitors center, Lancaster (717/393-6067); in The Shops at Traintown on Rt. 7412 East, Strasburg (717/687-7699); and in the Cloister Shopping Center (Rt. 272, 120 N. Reading Rd., Ephrata; 717/733-7777).

Famed 1950s Zinn's Diner looks like a tourist trap with its giant Amish Farmer out front, but you'll hear as many customers speaking Pennsylvania Dutch as English. Breakfast platters are $2-$4, sandwiches $2.35-$4, and entrees just $6.75-$10.25 (2270 North Park Rd./Rt. 272, one block north of the turnpike at Exit 21; 717/336-2210).

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