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WHY GO: When you come to Lancaster County, PA, please leave your Type-A personality at home. Time moves slower in this lush farmland, and, wandering the back roads, you will get stuck behind a clip-clopping Amish buggy. Though attractions and shops can be far apart, getting lost on undulating byways is half the pleasure.
Breath slowly while reveling in the stark beauty of early morning sun hitting the facade of a local harness shop, riveting scenes of draft horses and straw-hatted men at work in vast fields, the soft bustle of Amish women mixing jam in age-old kettles. Put away your cell phones. Be prepared to tuck in early for the night. The Pennsylvania Dutch are custodians of a simpler time, and this Getaway allows you to interact with them like never before. (To get the most out of your visit, combine this with a Lancaster City tour, and a History of Lancaster County visit).
Things to Do in Lancaster County PA
DO: Strasburg Scooters, across from Strasburg Railroad, Strasburg. If there’s a better, more pleasurable way to explore the back roads, farms, and landscapes of Lancaster County PA, I don’t know of any. As owner, Marc Crusemire says, “We have way too much fun! I can’t believe I make a living riding a scooter.”
What began as an unprofitable rental business morphed into a tourist favorite when Marc and his wife, Nikki introduced guided tours. Now, Strasburg Scooters does not rent their vehicles – and only runs tours. It’s been a boon to business.
Visitors love the highly interactive and educational excursions that make stops at Amish homes (sometimes to make Whoopie Pies or do other activities with the resident families), introduce outsiders to the PA Dutch way of life, and allow them to viscerally enjoy the beauty of the surroundings.
After checking in, I was issued an American Flag helmet (Nikki is a Navy vet), and a “Scoot-Coup” – a three-wheeled scooter with room for two. It’s a blast to ride – wind and sun at my face, alluring landscape unspooling before my eyes – all at 20-25 miles per hour.
My guide was Ross Immediato. He made sure all was clear when pulling out in traffic, and would ease to the shoulder when there was something to tell me. I learned about the Amish school system: 20-30 kids in a one-room schoolhouse K-8th; only single female teachers allowed; kids don’t speak English when they first start school; graduate at age 15 to learn a trade.
We passed a few horse-drawn buggies, and then stopped at a farm to meet some of the animals. (The family was not home). Ross hugged an affectionate baby goat. Several horses, branded with numbers on their necks (indicative of a prior life at the racetrack), hung out in the stable.
Strasburg Scooters, which also has a second location in Bird-In-Hand, runs a variety of daily and seasonal tours. Though the 3-hour Covered Bridges Tour is a staple ($89 pp, $189 for a two-person coup), there are Sunset Tours, Date Night Tours, Bridges and Brunch Tours, Spooky Scoots in October, Scootin’ With Santa, 4-hour Ultimate Amish Adventure Tour and more. Prices range from $69pp-$229pp depending on vehicle and tour.
VISIT: Eastland Alpacas, Mt. Joy. Though not associated with the PA Dutch, alpacas are sweet and gentle and a visit to an alpaca farm makes for a perfect addition to a serene Amish Country weekend. Plus, just-shorn alpacas are achingly cute. There is no word for the extreme cuteness of these little, trusting, giraffe-necked, big eyed creatures. So when you come to Sue and Kevin Zurin’s Alpaca Farm, where you’ll see 120 registered, named, and micro-chipped camel-cousins huddled together and waiting to be fed, it’s almost too much cute to bear.
Alpaca fleece – in 22 natural colors – is finer than lama wool, and you’ll find woven products (ie $19 for a pair of alpaca socks) in a small store onsite. You can tour the 30-acre property and get close enough to these sweet animals to give them hugs. If you fall in desperate love with them, the Zurins will sell their alpacas to good homes. Call or email for tour or appointment (though drop ins are ok for the store), donation only, 10am-4pm is the best time to come.
VISIT: Lil’ Country Store, Ronks. Speaking of cute, this Amish family raises miniature horses. Stop by to see them, watch owner Daniel working in his wood-shop (furniture for sale) and grab an ice-cream or other sweet confection at the makeshift concession stand.
TOUR: Amish Experience VIP (Visit-In-Person) Tour. It’s one thing to see these simple folk as they go about their business. It’s quite another to engage with them in conversation. This unique three-hour, 14 person, end of day tour originates at the 10-acre Plain & Fancy Farm Amish Experience Complex. One of several Amish country tours, the VIP Tour makes stops at three different homes while granting golden sunset views of this magical land. “The Other” becomes a bit less so as you speak to dairy farmers, proud that their federally-inspected cow’s milk is considered of high enough quality to supply Land of Lakes, then watch craftsmen make use of compressed air and batteries to aid in weaving or woodworking.
The final stop is a meeting of the minds of a sort where you have an opportunity to sit with an Amish family in their own home and ask them about their culture. Though some stereotypes are true (Amish do not want to be photographed), others are not. They do not live a Medieval lifestyle – Amish homes are quite modern (its amazing what batteries, propane and compressed air can power), with indoor plumbing and large kitchens the envy of many “English.” Mid-June-Oct, Mon-Fri – 5pm-8pm, $61.95 adults, $41.95 6-16, – this experience sells out quickly, so reservations are a must.
SEE: Magic Lantern Show at Plain & Fancy Farm. A precursor to movies, the Magic Lantern combined aspects of motion pictures with stills and hand-manipulated paper puppets to create captivating entertainment. Though invented in the 1600’s, a new source of projected light in the mid 1800’s – heating limestone to create incandescent gas (the “limelight”) – led to larger Magic Lantern shows by professional showmen.
Plain & Fancy Artistic Director, Mark Sullivan, obtained one of these rare contraptions, and has written and developed several 1 ½ hour shows (Underground RR, Christmas, Bible, Patriotic), for this venue. Both kids and adults sit rapt through the more than hour-long program. “You have to listen and pay attention,” says Sullivan. A Halloween Variety Show, modeled after a European phantasmagoric production, will be new in October 2019. “A well-known local actor will play Edgar Allan Poe,” says Sullivan. “It should be fun.”
VISIT: American Military Edged-Weaponry Museum, Intercourse. I know; this surprisingly compelling museum is an anomaly in this peaceful place, but it does serve a purpose. Find the former Colonial Revival Bank in the center of Intercourse, and you’ll discover where the guys (and knife-collecting women) go when their spouses and friends are off shopping. In his 70’s now, owner/curator Larry Thomas has been collecting rare knives since High School, roaming the country for the most esoteric blades (and lately, guns).
Beautifully presented, and succinctly described in glass case after glass case, find the personal sword of “The Great Ghost of the Confederacy” – Col. Mosby – the only Confederate officer who never surrendered and was stripped of his citizenship (he was later pardoned by President Grant), a rare WWII Bazooka, a 13-stamp-part “Grease Gun,” and an attention-grabbing assemblage of “spy” weaponry including Coin Knives, Pencil Daggers, and real pen penknives. May-Nov, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, $5 adults, $2.50 kids.
SEE: Amos the Amishman, Ronks. Constructed in 1969 originally to draw tourists in to Zinn’s Diner on Route 30, this 15 ft. hunk of a farmer now stands on Hershey Farm Restaurant and Inn property. Stop by for a photo op (come on, you know you want to) and for “The Best Chocolate Whoopie Pie” in Lancaster County according to a blind taste test. Hershey Farms began in the 1970’s as a little pretzel stand, but has grown into a newly renovated hotel (rooms from $69 are nice and modern) and Smorgasbord restaurant where you can watch pretzel-makers hand roll the soft version of the snack.
SHOP/SHOOFLY PIE; Dutch Haven, Ronks. You can’t miss this place. It’s got the big windmill on the roof, and looks rest-on-its-laurels-touristy. Inside, shelves groaning with souvenirs add to the “tourist-trap” perception. But looks can be deceiving. This place sells more Shoo-fly Pie than all other bakeries in Lancaster combined. Why? Because Dutch Haven Shoofly Pie is awesome; and I don’t use that word lightly. Forget about that gooey, sickly-sweet stuff you endured on former trips to PA Dutch Country. Here, it’s amazing what flour, molasses and water can become. With no eggs or dairy, these pies can stay on your counter for two weeks and in your fridge another two. $10.95 per pie.
DO/SHOP: Kitchen Kettle Village. If you drove by you’d probably dismiss it as a hokey tourist trap, and though you will surely encounter a coach bus or two in the parking lot, there are several reasons to visit (and stay).
* When first posted in 2013, I wrote about the wonderful “Banjo Jimmy” LaRue (photo above), who’d been strumming and entertaining visitors for over 35 years. Jimmy used to joke that, he “babysits all the husbands” who get comfy in the center courtyard while their wives shop. Sadly, Banjo Jimmy passed away in June 2018, but left his mark.
For the most part, visitors swarm here for the chow-chow, pickled beets, pepper jam and other small-batch jams and jellies that emerge from decades old kettles; foodies on the lookout for authentic, natural-ingredient condiments are finally discovering this place.
Quick history: just about the time that the Broadway musical Plain and Fancy exposed New Yorkers to Amish culture in 1954, Pat and Bob Burnley began canning jams, jellies and relishes in their garage. The Kitchen Kettle Village, which evolved from that garage as curiosity about the Amish flourished, now encompasses 42 shops, restaurants, and an Inn, and though modernized, still retains those original kettles and canning methods. Pat Burnley, now in her 80’s, remains a fixture here though her children and grandchildren help run the place.
Jam and Relish Kitchen; An incredible million jars of jams and jellies (90 varieties) emerge from these old fashioned kettles per year with just eight Amish women working at any given time. You can watch these industrious ladies – who learn this lost art by helping their own mothers at home– bustling about in an open kitchen. But “take pictures” only with your eyes; photographing them is prohibited. What you can do is sample from the myriad jars that abound in the store. In fact, there are folks who visit JUST to eat, and don’t buy anything. Many jars are a reasonable $3.99, soup mixes $9.99. Pepper Jam, the “Caviar of Lancaster County,” is the number one seller – perfect as a meat glaze or topping cream cheese. There’s Chow-Chow, Shoofly Pie in the bakery section, and Mint Chocolate Chip Whoopie Pies – my personal favorite.
Cloverfield Bags – Diane Vincent makes and sells these cool fabric handbags, duffels and totes. Even better, her designer bags start at $32 for one funky fashion statement.
Garnet Pottery. Find casseroles, plates and unique knitting bowls in a range of beautifully fired colors.
Village Quilts – It takes an artisan 300 to 600 hours to finish a 100% cotton quilt made by hand. These heirloom-quality quilts – from traditional to contemporary – each made by one of 140 local quilters, may be pricey but keep in mind you are purchasing an individual work of art. Even if you don’t buy – gawking at the colorful bedding is expected and entirely free. Kitchen Kettle Village is open-Sat 9am-6pm, closes 5pm Nov-April.
Where to Stay and Eat in Lancaster County PA
EAT: Smokehouse BBQ at Plain & Fancy Farm. All is not coach-bus family-style meals at Plain & Fancy – the ten-acre complex that encompasses restaurants, gift shops, shows, Tours, and buggy rides. While the Plain and Fancy Farm Restaurant books groups of 20 or more, the Smokehouse BBQ provides a great lunch or dinnertime meal for small parties. Though you can certainly order a’ la carte, get the “Smokehouse Sampler” ($21.95) for a taste of many PA Dutch items. You’ll choose from 2 meats, 3 sides, and a dessert.
STAY: Inn at Kitchen Kettle Village. There’s something quirky about staying in what at first glance seems like a “tourist trap.” But guest quarters nestled among the shops and streets of this commercial enterprise are surprisingly fine, with reasonable rates and friendly service that befits a family run business – right down to the welcome treat in each room that includes a complimentary travel mug you can have refilled with coffee any time of day throughout the Village.
If you like your own “cottage,” but care less that the room itself is somewhat plain, choose a Cottage room. For the best luxury bang for your buck, the rooms over the Quilt Shop building are jaded-luxury-traveler-tested stylish. Ask for 902; a two-level charmer with couches and flat screen TV downstairs and a leather reading chair, subtle greens and ecru pallet, a big, sponged-wall bathroom and, like every single room here, features locally-quilted bedding.
In the morning, order your complimentary breakfast in the Burnley’s former home – The Kling House. Chances are, you’ll meet the famous Pat Burnley, who likes to greet guests in what was once her living room. Rooms and suites, $149-$209 include home cooked breakfast, travel mugs (with complementary coffee fill-ups throughout the day), wi-fi and parking.