Travelogue: Fourth of July in Penn (July 2009)

The past two years in New York, the Fourth of July has been, well, not the best. I was on call both nights, and last year it rained. Besides, finding a spot where we could view fireworks and not be trampled by crowds (let alone be trapped in a hospital) would not be easy. This year, I had off the Fourth of July as well as the Friday before—and it is always hard for us to pass up an opportunity for a little exploring.

So, at the 11th hour, we secured transportation from our Chinatown to Philly’s Chinatown at the unbeatable price of $7.50 each on the Eastern Travel bus.

We arrived downtown 30 minutes prior our departure time to “check in,” and although was a serious crowd, no one was checking anyone in. The 7:15 a.m. bus arrived at 7:50 a.m. and, thinking it was our 8:15 bus, we hopped on. Ashley braved the crowd around the door to get on a save us seats while I stowed our things below. Fortunately, the bus was not sold out, so we got to leave “on time.”

We didn’t know exactly where Chinatown in Philadelphia is, but we were both hoping that the Reading Terminal Market might turn out to be between our arrival-point and the place where our zip car was to be found. When we got off the bus, I was about to use my iphone to figure out where we were when we looked up and recognized the area—the Chinatown drop-off spot was just blocks from the market! Last year, almost a year prior to the day, we’d spent a weekend in Philadelphia with my parents—it was over their anniversary—and the market was one of our favorite aspects of the city.

After a seriously great cup of coffee at Old City Coffee, Inc. and a buttery Amish-style, fresh pretzel from Miller’s Twist, (both enjoyed besides the old-timer-style piano player playing variations of Michael Jackson songs in tribute) we felt fortified for the walk to our zip car, which was parked about half-a-mile away.

We found our car in a small alleyway, in a cute neighborhood south of the market. We packed up our stuff, set the garmin to the avoid highways / shortest distance option, and headed out to Lancaster County. We’ve found that using these settings best takes advantage of the garmin and allows for a much more interesting journey than staying on the interstates.

We knew we were in the right area when the roads widened to allow for the
Amish horse-drawn carriages. Before long we were passing them on the left and right! After a quick detour for an Italian Ice with custard, we made it to the tourist mecca of Intercourse. A number of craftily worded, but not-to-be repeated jokes later, we
found a parking spot and looked around. A petting zoo for local animals and several craft and food stores were at the center of town. We tasted some excellent local Lebanon baloney from a neighboring county, bought some blueberries and cherries, as well as some preserves. And we couldn’t resist the siren call of another fresh pretzel—still hot from the oven.

Our next stop was Lancaster city, where another market promised to have a good supply of local produce and other products. When we arrived, the market was just closing, so it isn’t fair to truly compare, but from what I could see, the Reading market had everything this one did and more.
Leaving Lancaster, we weaved our way toward Ephrata, where we had booked a night at the Inn at Doneckers. The drive was lovely—filled with wide-open farm lands, so many shades of green. Seeing the Amish families tending to their fields with mules (sometimes using one just to assist in mowing the lawn), and dressed in their distinctive clothing gave one the impression of stepping back into another time. It’s really quite a scene to behold.

Ephrata’s claim to fame is the Ephrata Cloister, known apparently for distinctive calligraphy and clock-making, but the recession had clearly hit this city hard. In fact, upon arrival, we discovered the once thriving Doneckers dynasty had closed its fine-furniture store, its French inspired restaurant, its clothing store, and one of their two hotels. It was eerily quiet. We checked ourselves in using the key left for us by the door, dropped off our things, and headed out in search of the town’s Green Dragon market, held on Fridays. The market had special places for carriages to park and featured an animal market. Some cutie bunnies caught our attention, but in general this market too couldn’t really compete with the Reading market.

For dinner, we were torn between some of the classic Pennsylvania-Dutch restaurants: Miller’s Smorgasbord and the Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant. We decided on Miller’s as we wanted the definitive Smorgasbord dinner. Clearly, each of these operations have been fine tuned over years of tourists, but some very nice staff helped us through what is essentially an all-you-can eat buffet. It was quite good; we went a bit overboard in the dessert category (And yes, we tried the Shoefly Pie!).

We finished dinner and proceeded to drive home in what turned out be absolutely beautiful light
. The Amish were out driving down the road in their buggies, pushing their non-gear bikes, and
working in their yards; and horses not in use seemed to dance and shine in the yellow light. We stopped by a farm where deer were being raised and were interested to find them incredibly inquisitive. Ashley got out to take a photo and found she could hardly approach the fence without 4 or 5 dear prancing over to try to smell her and the camera’s lens!

After the sun went down the fireflies came out in force. Being from California, fireflies still hold a certain magic, and neither Ashley nor I could remember ever seeing them so thick. I felt I had to slow the car down, least I commit firefly murder we approached our hotel! It was a great drive!

The following morning we let the sunlight wake us up and went downstairs for the breakfast. The hotel had done a nice job of setting out breakfast despite clearly struggling. We were a bit shocked when only cash or check would be accepted, and that the innkeeper didn’t have any change when we offered the amount rounded out to the nearest ten. Hopefully they will recover; the inn—the 1777 house—is a lovely place.

We hit the road shortly thereafter and wistfully watched as the beautiful horses and their carriages became less and less frequent. We made one more detour to find a restored covered bridge and had a chance encounter with whoopee pies: we had pulled over to decide our course and suddenly an Amish gentleman knocked on my window to see if we’d stopped to buy pastries. We felt obliged to try something and opted for some whoopee pies. At 50 cents each, I wish we’d bought more than two because they turned out to be the best we’d ever had! Absolutely delicious!

Before long, we had to move on from the country roads and rejoin the freeway to make better time.

Our next destination was the Delaware River and, ultimately, the town of New Hope. We paused first, however, at the spot where George Washington crossed the Delaware to attack British troops stationed in Trenton, NJ. In light of the holiday, the reenactors were in force, firing
canons and entertaining crowds. We walked along the river for a brief time and checked out Bowman’s Hill Tower.

Our hotel was three miles up the river from the town of New Hope itself, so we decided to first stop at Peddler’s village, where we expected to go to see the evening’s fireworks. The “village” was more like an outdoor shopping mall for local knickknacks and food. It was very carefully constructed, but cute. We checked out the space and talked with some of the vendors about when we would need to arrive. At the edge of the village was a stand that I have a hard time passing up: funnel cakes. Though they would be making those later, I learned, they did have some apple fritters… my other weakness. I bought one that was still warm and did my best to share some of it with Ashley and not finish the entire (huge) donut in mere seconds.

Having scouted out the fireworks grounds, we headed up the lovely Delaware River to our hotel. We stayed in the Centre Bridge Inn, which had been rebuilt in the 60s to the style of the same inn that had burned down there two-hundred years earlier. The Inn was very nice, but we were eager to keep exploring.

We headed 3 miles south, down the river to the city of New Hope. New Hope has a great setting

between gentle hills and the river. Ashley headed straight for the ice cream store we had read about which featured “exotic ice-cream,” but finding the flavors to be fairly familiar she chose to sample my sister’s favorite, Moose Tracks. We wandered the streets and found several restaurants that looked attractive, although were surprised to find that there were only two restaurants that had riverside seating. We had heard that New Hope was the more “party,” of the two cities (New Hope sits just a short walk across the bridge from New Jersey’s
Lambertville), but more “biker,” might be more apropos. We crossed over the river into the town of Lambertville in search of a wine-and-cheese store for our fireworks picnic. Though we found a great wine store, the gourmet cheese store was closed for the holiday weekend (the nerve!) which left us without a key ingredient. We decided to get sandwiches from one of the local restaurants instead, and headed back to the car.

Once at Peddler’s Village, we made our way out to the meadow from which we were told the fireworks could best be viewed. Oh, yes, I did happen to navigate us past the funnel cake stand where I bought a ridiculously huge cake. Snacking as we went, I likely had more fried dough in those few minutes than I had had over months in New York.

We plunked down amongst a surprising number of baby grasshoppers, and then remembered we had forgotten our chairs in the car. On the way back, I happened by a cheese store (of
course) and got some great Gouda (it really was great, although it may have been the only really good cheese in the store). Once we had our chairs we really settled in, uncorked the wine, and dug into the food.

As twilight fell, kids around us lit sparklers and grew impatient for the big show. Finally, the sky

had darkened enough and the fireworks were fired. Or perhaps I should say firework, as only one was fired at a time. We couldn’t help but laugh at the incredibly slow pace of the show. We
had found ourselves hoping for this type of small-town show, but this seemed small-town on a new level. Nonetheless, we had plenty of time to appreciate each firework before the next one took its place.

The following day, we left early for nearby Lumberville to investigate the option of renting a bike from its general store, but our Frommer’s had mislead us—curiously the store has never rented bikes. No problem—the village was still one of the loveliest along the river and we were happy to grab some breakfast pastries from the local store and walk across a foot bridge to a bench on the New Jersey side. After pastries and coffee, we drove back to Lambertville to explore the stores. We decided to eat lunch before heading back to Philly. We crossed the bridge to New Hope and
were happy to be seated right away alongside the river! We shared mussels sautéed in a romanesco and beer broth (biker style?), and a pulled pork sandwich while we watched baby ducks, rowers, and a bald eagle travel down-river.

On the way back to our car, we found an antique mirror with a great frame, for a great price and—though we knew it would be hard to get it back to the city on the bus—we bought it!

Once parked back in Philly, we struggled to bring the mirror and our bags back to Reading Market. Sadly, it was closing just as we arrived, but we bought some snacks before heading to the parking lot where we would wait for our bus.
The bus was only half an hour late, and while people tried to form a line, the order didn’t hold when the driver called for everyone with e-tickets to get on the bus first. I boldly protected our mirror and got onto the bus while Ashley stowed the bags. Once she was on, we sat it across our laps. Unfortunately, the bus was oversold and, while all the e-tickets were aboard, others (in particular a group of five young men) who had been waiting easily as long as we had been but who had bought round trip tickets from the bus-driver in New York didn’t all get seats. They were justifiably upset and were trying to come to an understanding as to how this occurred and refused to get off the bus. It wasn’t long before the crowd (who happened to all be white, while the five young men were black) started yelling at them to get off the bus, and making claims such as “what do you expect for $7.50” despite the fact that—as Ashley pointed out from purchasing our tickets—the company hadn’t held up their end of the policy that is stated on the website. At one point, the girl in front of us even threatened to call 911 because they were making her late!? We were shocked when moments later we overheard her trying to explain the scenario to the emergency dispatcher! Where were we, and who were these people!?

The group of men, realizing they were getting nowhere, shortly got off the bus and we arrived just one hour after our scheduled arrival. We had intended to catch a cab home from Chinatown, but I think being cooped up in the bus for the ride home made us eager to walk.

We had an amazing trip to Pennsylvania—and it’s amazing how much we saw in such a short visit— but it was good to be back in the City!

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