Amish Country, Here We Come!

It’s strange to me that many New Yorkers have not been to the top of the Empire State Building or taken a ferry to the Statue of Liberty. But, then again, during the time I spent outside of Philadelphia attending college, I never bothered to visit Pennsylvania Dutch Country — a mere 30 minutes away by car. Now 25 years after graduating, I find myself driving out to Lancaster County, PA to see why the area is so popular with tourists.

With my boys along for the ride, I thought it would be “different” to spend a day on a working dairy farm that offered B&B accommodations. Upon our arrival at the Verdant View Farm, owners Don and Ginny Ranck greeted us with a hearty, “Welcome to Paradise!” Paradise happens to be the name of the village in which their 96-year-old 115-acre property is nestled. It’s also a great place to get a taste of rural life in America — and for parents who might normally hesitate to stay at a B&B with young children.

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Even though most young children would be thrilled to bottle-feed newborn calves or pet baby rabbits and goats, I was relieved to see that my 12- and 15-year-old boys hadn’t outgrown playing with the animals (especially their family dog, Scooby). After waking from a good night’s sleep, we joined the Ranck family and other guests for a full farm breakfast which included fresh eggs the boys retrieved from the chicken coup and milk from the cows they milked that very morning.

If your family prefers more traditional creature comforts, including an indoor water playground, fitness center, full-service restaurant, tennis courts, and a nine-hole golf course, then the Doubletree Resort in nearby Lancaster would be a good alternative. There are also several farm-to-table restaurants in the area that are ideally suited for families, including the Plain & Fancy Farm restaurant in nearby Bird-In-Hand. Yes, that’s the name of the town – conveniently located next to Intercourse, PA.

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The railroad line that runs behind the Verdant View farmhouse is also quite popular with the kids (particularly young boys), especially when Thomas the Tank Engine rides along its 4-mile track into the historic Strasburg Rail Road Station three times a year. As many as 40,000 Thomas enthusiasts converge on the region during these special weekends, but there’s plenty to do and see any day of the year. Every hour, one of America’s oldest short-line steam engines departs on a 45-minute round-trip, where you can ride in an authentically restored passenger car. We selected the first class parlor mainly — because it housed a snack bar!

You don’t have to be a diehard train geek to enjoy the behind-the-scenes tour through the mechanical shop where the trains are refurbished. As cool as the boys thought that was, it couldn’t compare with the model trains at the Choo Choo Barn a short distance away. Designed and operated almost entirely by owner Thomas Groff, this attraction features more than 1,700 square feet of miniature animations of life around Lancaster County interwoven between 22 operating model trains. Thomas’s infectious enthusiasm for his  accomplishment can turn costly if you’re not able to drag your kids out of the gift shop in time.

The area’s biggest draw, however, is its Amish community, and you begin to understand the fascination the moment you pass your first horse-drawn buggy. The Amish’s old-fasioned lifestyle stems from deeply religious, family-centered traditions brought from Europe almost 300 years ago. Taking a buggy ride or guided tour of The Amish Village might help you appreciate their heritage, but the best way to truly experience their charm and warmth is to have a family-style dinner in one of their homes. These opportunities aren’t advertised or promoted (ours was arranged by Don and Ginny from the B&B), so we weren’t sure what to expect. But we had a wonderful meal featuring delicious made-from-scratch fried chicken and homemade ice cream for dessert, and, though the conversation felt a little awkward at times, our hosts made us feel right at home, which is something you don’t often experience when you’re on vacation as a family.

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On the ride back home to New York, we talked a lot about the Amish culture. I don’t think the boys fully understood why the Amish choose to set themselves apart from mainstream society, but the opportunity to be exposed to their simple way of life has at the very least given them – and me — yet another perspective on how people live around the world — and in this case, just around the corner.

Follow Rainer’s travels on Twitter at @JenssTravel

(All photos: Rainer Jenss)