Friday, June 13, 2014

Pennsylvania: Chocolate & Amusement Rides! Does it Get Any Better?

10 years ago, I watched an episode of Samantha Brown on the Travel Channel.  She did a segment on Hershey, Pennsylvania where she ate Filet Mignon covered with a chocolate port reduction sauce at a 4-star restaurant called The Circular.  I took one look at that dish and I knew I just had to travel to Pennsylvania to try it!  I've never described myself as a "Foodie" but I guess that is the very description of one.  So, last summer, when my husband asked if I wanted to pack up the kids and take a road trip to Pennsylvania... I was in!  I just knew that Hershey would make the perfect family trip. 

Day 1
We awoke at 4:00am dashed into the car and arrived in Lancaster County by 1:30pm.

Aside from a few episodes on the Travel Channel, I did not know much about the state of Pennsylvania.  Turns out, it's quite different from New England!  In Marblehead, I can see into my neighbors’ backyard.  Here, the nearest neighbor is a few miles away!  The amount of farmland is astounding.  There were literally acres upon acres of corn stalks reaching 8 feet tall.  Tobacco, alfalfa and name it they had it.  It was nature at its best and it was spectacular.

Since Lancaster is just 45 minutes from Hershey, I wanted to stop to explore Amish Country.   We knew we were in the right place when we passed by families traveling on the road in their horse drawn carriages. I must say, I didn't expect them to be occupying the same road as the cars.  In fact, I didn't expect to see them in the modern world at all! I guess I always thought that they occupied a small community within Pennsylvania and didn't mingle with the "English".  Indeed, other than knowing how the Amish dressed and the fact that they didn't use electricity, I didn't know much about their way of life.  I have, though, always been curious about the Amish people. Perhaps it was my love for history or my profound appreciation for other cultures, but I was truly looking forward to learning more about their lifestyle.

Online I found what I thought would be the perfect first stop; “The Amish Farm and House”.  The website showed a picture of a beautiful 15 acre farm with a one-room school house and a Blacksmiths shop.  I envisioned driving down a secluded dirt road with crops on either side of us and Amish children playing in the fields. However, when we arrived we discovered that the farm sat in the middle of a strip mall!  Apparently, I should have taken a little more time to review their site!  For if I read on, I would have learned that it was once a farmhouse but after the construction of the main road and the building up of modern society, it has since become nothing more than a tourist attraction.  Needless to say, I was disappointed.  I wanted to meet real Amish people.  

Fortunately, after a little exploring we discovered that they offered bus tours into the Amish neighborhoods. This turned out to be exactly what I was looking for!  We embarked on the bus, found our seats and eagerly waited for our tour to begin. The driver wasted no time preparing us for what we were about to see.  She explained that while the Amish welcomed tourist they are indeed real people and we must remember to respect their way of life. It was a sunny, clear day and the bus drivers’ carefree spirit set the tone for our adventure.

As we drove through the neighborhoods we witnessed a living picture of historical America.  The images before me were surreal.  If you've ever imagined what it was like for the first settlers, this was it!   Everywhere we looked there were Amish people working on their farms; harvesting crops, plowing the fields and repairing their houses. The women worked side-by-side with the men and wore full length old-fashioned dresses.  I thought it was interesting that the Amish lived right next door to the "English". You can tell which houses were Amish since their houses have horse buggies in the driveway and no sign of electrical power lines.

The tour bus made 2 stops at genuine Amish Farms.   At the first farm, there was a man running a stand with his 2 children alongside the road.  They offered fresh lemonade, homemade root-beer and whoopee-pies. We bought a few of each.  The root-beer was the sweetest beverage I’ve ever tasted and enormously delicious. The Amish family was very polite to their guests. I was struck by how sweet the little girl was. She was probably 12 years old and she was wore a beautiful old fashioned dress.  Both children did not wear shoes and their father had a long beard which we were told meant that he was married.

At the second farm, we were greeted by the head of the household as he opened the door to his gift shop located in a basement-like room attached to the main house. Here, in this dimly-lit room were hand carved bird feeders, pillows and quilts. For a souvenir, I purchased a bird feeder that now sits nicely in my backyard.

Visiting this unique area of our country is worth the trip.  I find their way of life both charming and inspirational.  I admire these people for their hard work and their ability to stand by their beliefs in a world where everyone around them is so different.

After our tour was over, the driver brought us back to the “Amish Farm and House” next to the strip mall.  I would have liked to explore the grounds but we needed to quickly change into our formal attire and head for Hershey so we wouldn't be late for our dinner reservation at The Circular.  I do recommend, however, allowing time for exploration, especially if you have kids. They have woodcarving games and a playground.  You can even try milking a cow! 

Let the feast begin!
At 6:00pm sharp we arrived at The Hotel Hershey. Weary after being in and out of the car since 4:00am we stumbled out of our vehicle, looked up and were astounded by the grand hotel before us! "Are we eating in a castle?" my 8 year old asked.

Built in the 1930’s, The Hershey Hotel sits upon a hill, high above Hershey Park.  To call it a castle is an understatement.  It is a spectacular representation of Mediterranean architecture. It hosts 232 guest rooms and has 23,500 square feet of event space.  Tall arched entrances, 3-teired fountains, mosaic tiles; a walk through this building and you feel as if you are visiting Spanish royalty.

Inside, The Circular was equally majestic.  Classic in décor, the dining room was surrounded by high windows overlooking their 23-acre garden.  This was no ordinary garden!  In fact, The Hershey Garden is an attraction all on its own.  It includes an arboretum, a butterfly house and a rose garden of 275 varieties!  My children were in awe of this place. 

I began my meal with a "Death by Chocolate” Martini.  I was, after all, in Hershey!  My husband enjoyed a "Hemingway Daiquiri".  I didn’t even have to look at the menu.  I’ve been waiting 10 years for this meal.  I eagerly ordered the Filet Mignon with their signature sauce and I wasn’t disappointed.  Tender, sweet and savory are words that come to mind. I am not a chef by any means but I am a bit of a connoisseur in regards to dining.  This was a meal to remember!  The port wine and the bittersweet flavor of the chocolate were a perfect combination.  I relished each bite!  As a side dish I had asparagus grilled with a citrus zest, chili flakes and olive oil. (I had to have something healthy.)  My husband enjoyed a pomegranate glazed Lamb Shank with chanterelle mushrooms, red wine sauce and twice baked potatoes.  Both of my kids ordered Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup.  Everything was over the top delicious!  We ate every last bit of it and then proceeded to treat ourselves to rum flambéed Chocolate Fondue for desert served with cinnamon marshmallows, caramel cheesecake, berry skewers, rice crispies and candied pineapple. Do I need to say more?  It was amazing!

When the check arrived, the waitress gave each of us a small box.  Inside there was a piece of salted caramel with a note that read:

"Thank you for dining at The Circular.  Please enjoy this sea-salt caramel, compliments of our kitchen.  This sweet treat is a tribute to our founder Milton S. Hershey's first successful candy business.  The Lancaster Caramel Company which preceded his iconic Hershey Chocolate Company.  Enjoy!"

Day 2 - Hershey Park

Day 2 of our road trip involved something else entirely.  We set our sights on Hershey Park!  The first order of business…breakfast.

Hershey Park Place offers a character breakfast that includes early entrance into the park.  While my kids are a little old to enjoy a “character breakfast” the benefit of early admittance was definitely worth it.  For an hour we enjoyed the rides without the hustle and bustle that comes with a crowded amusement park on a hot summer day.

There are 12 different rollercoasters at this park.  For the extreme thrill seeker this is a dream! Unfortunately, I regret to admit that at age 44, the Carrousel is more my speed.  However, my husband’s stomach is much stronger than mine so our kids had the pleasure to experience each and every roller coaster Hershey had to offer.  My daughter’s favorite was the “Great Bear”.  This coaster starts off by lifting you 90 feet off the ground!  Riders also ride below the track, rather than above it.  Needless to say, I couldn’t watch!

At lunch time we went back to Hershey Park Place where they made a chocolate covered hotdog especially for my son.  The waiter asked if he wanted the barbecue chocolate sauce but my son wasn’t going to be satisfied unless he had authentic Hershey’s chocolate.  They were happy to oblige. “This makes my tongue happy!” he exclaimed.

Back at the park, there was so much to see; railroad trains, Ferris wheels, aquatic shows, we even spent an hour in the giant wave pool!  We ended our day in Chocolate World where we bought a Hershey’s Kiss the size of a small child, took in a 4D movie, and learned what it was like to work in a chocolate factory!

I asked my family what they thought was the best part of the trip:
Dad:  “Chocolate World”

Brianna:  "The Wave Pool at Hershey Park"

Colin:  "Eating my chocolate covered hotdog!"

Me:  "All of it! I never thought of Pennsylvania as a tourist attraction but it's was a wonderful place to visit."

Onward to our next adventure!

What to do:
Amish Farm and House
2395 Lincoln Hwy

E. Lancaster, PA
(717) 394-6185

Hershey Park
100 W. Hersheypark Drive
Hershey, PA  17033
(717) 534-3860

Where to eat:
The Circular
At The Hotel Hershey
100 Hotel Road
Hershey, PA   17033
For reservations call (717) 534-8800

Hershey Park Place
100 W. Hersheypark Drive
Hershey, PA   17033
Reservations for Character Breakfast required:  (717) 437-7439
Character Breakfast available daily June 30-August 31

Where to stay:

The Hotel Hershey
100 Hotel Road
Hershey, PA   17033
(800) 678-8946
$450-530/night during the summer months

1825 Inn Bed and Breakfast
409 S Lingle Ave
Palmyra, PA   17078
(717) 838-8282
This 3-star hotel is affordable and only 9 minutes from Hershey! 
$130-$270/night during the summer months.

Copyright by Michelle Fiore 2014