Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pennsylvania the Beautiful: Part 5 Philadelphia: The City of Brotherly Love August 1 to August 4, 2013

A rainy afternoon met us as we trekked out of Lancaster County due east to the big city of Philadelphia, otherwise known as the City of Brotherly Love.

Philadelphia is of course a city steeped in history.  Our nation declared its independence from England in this city in 1776.  Besides the great review of American history and government you can take advantage of while you visit the Old City, there are plenty of colorful neighborhoods to experience, plenty of good food to eat, and art and culture to behold.

To really take advantage of Philadelphia, I recommend three full days. We had two.

One of the best parts of our stay in Philly was that my sister in law, her husband and daughter joined us here.  We had a great time catching up with Cindy and Dave who we hadn't seen in five years, and my kids got to spend time with their only cousin, Hannah, who is delightfully animated, talkative, and precocious beyond her eight years.

Where to stay--

Chances are once you have parked your car in your hotel garage on arriving in Philly you are not going to want to retrieve it until you leave, so to minimize your walking distances and cab fares, it really is best to be near what you want to see.  For us, that meant the Old City and Independence National Historic Park.
Finding a hotel room in Old City, however, was no picnic!  Literally by January, everything in the
Old City that could accommodate our group was sold out.  So we opted for the Embassy Suites at City Center, located at 1776 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, an easy 1.1 mile walk to INHP.
The Embassy Suites is great.  The room was quite spacious, with two double beds and plenty of drawer space in a bedroom separate from the living room where there is a desk, a table with four chairs, and a fold out sofa.
Once again there was a refrigerator, a microwave and some counter space for preparing food if you so desired.  The living room has a balcony which, from the 15th floor, had an absolutely gorgeous view of City Hall in one direction and Logan Square in the other.
Three fantastic amenities not found in many hotels these days:  1)  Coin-op laundry, 2)  a nightly reception featuring snacks and unlimited drinks--easy to spoil your appetite here!, and 3) cooked to order breakfast every morning in the TGIFriday's restaurant downstairs.

Not a bad view of Logan Square
from a room at Embassy Suites

Independence National Historic Park

Day 1

Really I have to start with this because, if you are coming to Philadelphia, the Independence National Historic Park is the one thing you must see. It took us the better part of two days to see what we wanted to see here, and we didn't see everything.  Aside from the National Constitution Center, which is an absolute must see, admission to the buildings in the INHP is free.  There are other sights within this general vicinity, such as the Betsy Ross house, which are interesting but are privately owned and therefore have an entrance fee.
You must start your day at the Independence Visitor Center.  Here you can get maps and information about the daily happenings in the area but more importantly, it is here that you are going to get tickets to see Independence Hall.  Tickets are free, but you are assigned a specific time to go.  You can reserve tickets in advance (we did) by going online to www.recreation.gov, for $1.50 per person.  I thought this quite worth it.  These tickets also are picked up at the Visitor Center.
Right across the street from the visitor center is the Liberty Bell Center, which is great to get done early as the security line gets quite long.  Half an hour is enough to see the LBC, once you get through the doors.  My son was quite impressed by how large the bell was and wrote a short paper about his experience seeing it when he got back to school.
Independence Hall
Your visit to Independence Hall and it's neighboring Congress Hall are actually tours led by very talented and knowledgeable NPS guides.  You get to see the actual room where the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Truthfully, the rooms themselves in either hall are not in and of themselves very exciting.  It is the knowledge of the guides that really ties this whole experience together.
After lunch on this day we headed to the National Constitution Center.  This in my opinion was the highlight of our time in the INHP.  We spent nearly four hours in here, and finally had to be kicked out at the 5pm closing time.  The NCC is open from 9:30 to 5 daily and costs $14.50 for adults and $8 for kids.  It is worth it.
Your tour of the NCC begins with a 17 minute 360 theatrical production, "Freedom Rising," which vividly illuminates the history of the US Constitution.   Audience members are transported through 200 years of constitutional history, and are inspired by a live actor to consider what they will do with their freedom.  It is well done, though borders on melodramatic at times.
You exit the performance directly into the main exhibit, titled "The Story of We the People." This exhibit is unique arranged in three concentric rings.  The outer ring chronicles the role of the US Constitution throughout history and the inner reviews the inner workings of the three branches of government through interactive displays and hands on experiences.  It is very interesting and very well done, and in my opinion had little political bias.
It took us a good 90 minutes to get through the main exhibit.  Thereafter, it is interesting to see
Nicholas meets some signers of the Constitution
"Signer's Hall," which is a room housing 42 true to size bronze representations of the men who signed the US Constitution.  Some are seated at desks, some are standing, but overall all are very lifelike.  A 6'4" George Washington stands at the front of the room, leading the proceedings.
A temporary exhibit going on while we visited was "1968," which happens to be the year that both Craig and I were born.  The exhibit spread out the year month by month and even day by day within those months. The week I was born was the bloodiest of the Vietnam War.  1968 also witnessed the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the election of Richard Nixon.
The exhibit also broke down all aspects of pop culture including sports, music, and fashion.  Televisions played montages of movie and TV clips from the year. While sitting on bean bags in a flower power room watching scenes from The Monkees, closing time arrived and we were told it was time to leave!  How rude!

Day 2

We started out this day by heading to the US Mint, which is not officially part of the INHP but is right there at the same area.  Coins are still produced at the Philadelphia US Mint, but unfortunately we went on a Saturday, and the factory was not in operation.
Your self guided tour begins with a little presentation reenacting our founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, debating the establishment of a national currency in the US.  We take for granted that our currency is based on a dollar which is broken into 100 parts, but it wasn't always so.  The first coins were hand poured and stamped.
 The rest of the tour pretty much breaks down the history and process of coin making in the US.  It is interesting, though not fascinating, and it's free, so it's worth a stop.
Right across the street is the Christ Church cemetery, where Benjamin Franklin and four other signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried. The burial ground belongs to the nearby Christ Church (which you can also visit and sit in Ben Franklin's pew!) where many of our founding Fathers, including George Washington worshipped.  The cemetery is comprised of 2 acres and 1400 grave markers.  It is not free to get in, it's like 3$ per person.  Worth it?  Probably not.  But, we were able to merge with another large party to get a group rate, so we went.
Probably the most striking part of the cemetery are the markers themselves.  Some have been restored by historical societies and the like, but many are broken, some down to just a chip of stone at the grass level.  The names, dates and sentiments on these stones have been completely worn away.  Someone's remains are buried there, and have been buried there for more than 200 years, but the 2013 passerby has no idea who.  Thankfully, I did find out that there is a book/map available that documents who lies where and the original wording on the markers, so these souls have not been forgotten completely by the passing of time.
Down the street is Betsy Ross's house which also costs 3-5$ to enter.  Cindy took the kids, while me and the guys sat outside.  Enough money spending.
A really neat children's program is Once Upon a Nation storytelling benches.  Ten story

Kids enjoy "Once Upon a Nation" 
storytelling outside Betsy Ross's house
telling benches are set up at sites in and around the Old City environs, including Betsy Ross's House, Signer's Garden, the National Constitution Center, Christ Church, etc.  There are also two benches at Valley Forge.  The program invites children to here creative but true stories about people and situations during the revolutionary times.  For each story heard, kids receive a stamp or a sticker, and if all 10 are completed (we didn't get this far) a prize is awarded.  Our kids ate this up!  We found them trying to find as many benches as they could, and on several occasions got the storytellers to start early.  The stories are very well told, take about 5 minutes, and are interesting for all ages.  Okay, after all this history, we are hungry!

The Reading Terminal Market

For at least one lunch during your time in Philly, the Reading Terminal Market is a MUST.
The Reading Terminal Market is an enclosed public market located at 12th and Arch Streets in downtown Philly walking distance form both our hotel and Old City.  The market is open 8-6 Monday through Saturday and 9-5 on Sunday, but many of the vendors, particularly the PA Dutch vendors are not open Sundays at all.
Anyway, there is no type of food not available here--cheesesteaks, middle eastern, Pa Dutch, deli, Mexican, Chinese, salad bar, any thing you want.  Forget agreeing on anything.  I went to buy stuff for each kid and then had to go out again to get my lunch.  Just make sure someone is holding the table, as this place gets really crowded!  The kids went for two deli carved sandwiches and one cheesesteak and I went for a burrito.  My silly husband sat around waiting for someone's leftovers and there were NO leftovers to be had!
After lunch we all split up just to walk around and take in all the vendors--candy stores, desserts, olives, specialty markets, ice cream, wine, cheese, fresh fruits and vegies, bulk foods, spices, pickles--the list seemed to be never ending.  It was hard to find a place to decide to spend your money!
Well we found a place.  Right in the corner of the market was Beiler's Bakery, a PA Dutch owned operation.  Now the Beiler's owned three stands there in the RTM, the bakery, a doughnut stand, and a pickle stand.  The doughnut line was seriously wrapped around and down the aisle at 4 pm.  Craig was certain that the doughnuts had been marked down at the end of the day.  Then we got in the line to see what all the fuss was about. Fresh doughnuts of every conceivable imagining--pumpkin, apple, cinnamon twist, blueberry, jelly filled, custard filled, crème filled--oh just stop me now!  We got three and we swore they were the best doughnuts we had ever had.  But I digress..
Okay, about 4 pm we figured out that Beiler's Bakery, as it was close to closing on a Saturday, was little by little marking everything down to 2$-slowly and steadily moving items to a separate counter.  This was not common knowledge or well advertised, but once we got the news we were set.  Both we and our daughters sat there gripping our dollar bills waiting to snatch up whatever might be the next appealing discounted delight.  We only spent about 12$ but we came home with cinnamon bread, cinnamon rolls, 2 half pies, lemon bread, and some cookies.  Serious home made dessert heaven.

Citizen's Bank Park

The first thing we did when we arrived in Philadelphia was to don the orange and black and head to Citizen's Bank Park to watch our San Francisco Giants play the Philadelphia Phillies. We actually altered our original itinerary to make this happen.
Our excursion to CBP was our only experience with SEPTA, the subway system in Philly.  It is as gross as you would expect it to be, with all its nasty smells and stale air.  We weren't exactly sure what train to board so I sheepishly approached a group of good looking Phillies fans, who looked like they were going where we were going, and asked them which train to get on.  No one killed me or threw me on the tracks--survival.
To get to CBP you ride the Broad Street line to the end, or the AT&T Station.  Both let you off at ALL the sports arenas.  It is a very short walk from there to Citizen's Bank Park. 
It is no secret that I don't like the Phillies.  Why would I?  My favorite Phillies memory is that of Ryan Howard striking out looking to end the 2010 NL Championship Series, to send our Giants to the World Series.  But Citizen's Bank Park is as lovely as baseball parks come, and, though rain threatened but did not materialize, what a beautiful night it was for baseball.  We were about in the 18th row let's just say, but we were able to hover right at the field level right up until game time.  We took pictures of our guys nearly as close as we did for spring training.  Phillies fans around us were warm and talkative.  Food was great, beer was yummy, seats were good, fun play spaces for the kids.  Oh yeah, the Giants won.

Our happy orange and black crowd at
Citizen's Bank Park
Where to eat

There is no doubt you can pretty much eat your way through Philadelphia, so choosing two restaurants that would envelop the spirit of the city proved to be a difficult task!
For the first night we settled on Ralph's Italian Restaurant, located at 760 S. 9th St.  Founded by Francesco and Catherine Dispigno in 1900, Ralph's has the distinction of being the oldest Italian Restaurant in America, a distinction it has held since May 2012, when Fior D'Italia closed in San Francisco. The food is good enough and the service is good enough and the ambiance is good enough and the price reflected such.  I don't have any complaints about this place but not particularly any rave reviews either.  I wouldn't kill myself to get here again but I wouldn't avoid it either.
We took a taxi to Ralph's, which was 1.9 miles from our hotel.  We walked home.  It was positively beautiful.  We took our time and saw many Philly neighborhoods.  At no time did we feel unsafe.

If Ralph's was not a Philly must, I say the opposite for City Tavern, located in Old City at 138 S. 2nd St.  City Tavern has been serving the Philadelphia public since colonial days.  Our founding fathers, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson came here on breaks from establishing our nation to discuss politics while sipping lagers and ales.  Congress held the first Fourth of July celebration in the Long Room of this establishment in 1777.
The tavern has a long history of fires, reconstruction, remodels, and general purposes, but today the National Park Service and the tavern's Chef Proprietor Walter Staib have made every effort to faithfully recreate the atmosphere to equal that of the period during the American Revolution.  The décor maintains a colonial theme and the wait staff is dressed in period style.  While you await your food a gentleman plays a historical instrument in the hallway.  The kids loved this and gave him quite an audience.
Enjoying the City Tavern
The food and the service at City Tavern are excellent.  "Ales of the Revolution"  give tribute to four of our founding fathers.  A tasting flight is available and all beers are available to take away (a strange service frequently offered by PA restaurants) to the tune of about 16$ for a six pack.  We left with Thomas Jefferson's 1776 Tavern Ale in tow, which we dolefully rationed during the remainder of our vacation.  All these beers are distributed by local Yard's Brewing Company, and we sadly discovered it was impossible to pick up any of these ales in California.  Sigh.
But I digress again...
Your meal begins with Thomas Jefferson's sweet potato biscuits and other warmed breads.  The menu boasts a lot of hearty American fare:  Turkey pot pie, Venison Medallions, Wienerschnitzel, West Indies Pepperpot Soup, Veal and Herb Sausage, Duckling, Rabbit, Pork Chop, and Chicken Breast Madeira, plus more.  I had the duckling and was quite happy!  There is a cookbook available for purchase:  City Tavern:  Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine which was quite tempting, but not very realistic cooking for this mom so it stayed on the shelf.
City Tavern was not exorbitant but was not cheap.  Most entrees were $25-35.
Reservations are a must.
We again taxied to City Tavern, which was about 1.2 miles from our hotel, but my husband and I walked home again through the beautiful city on a beautiful night.

Philadelphia is a great city and well worth your time!

Anyway, do you see the date on this trip?  Maybe don't look...  Is it okay to report on events that happened three months ago?  Let me know..I'm not so sure.  Well, now I go to Vegas this weekend and though I will NOT be reporting on anything that goes on there, I will have plenty of time with my laptop and maybe I can finish this whole Pennsylvania vacation!


Friday, September 20, 2013

Pennsylvania the Beautiful: Part 4 Pennsylvania Dutch Country July 30-August 1, 2013

After spending every last minute we could on the auto tour in Gettysburg, we reluctantly got in the car and pushed our way east toward the city of Lancaster and the PA Dutch Country, which also includes the nearby cities of Bird in Hand, Strasburg, Paradise, Ronks, and who can forget, Intercourse.

I really did hope to go to the PA Dutch Country and see some really great farms and barn raisings and experience "Witness" all over again.  It was not to be.  There are some cool things to see in the general vicinity, and we had a great time while we were there, but I would not give it more than two nights and I would be pressed to say that the PA Dutch Country is a must stay and see, rather than a must drive through and eat, at least once.

The Pennsylvania Dutch Country is the area of Southeastern PA heavily populated by Amish, Mennonites, Moravians, German Reformed and other German Christian groups.  The PA Dutch are not Dutch at all, they are German, but they do not speak German, they speak Pennsylvania Dutch, which is also not Dutch, but most residents speak both PA Dutch and English.

It would be pointless to try to summarize the lifestyle or religion of the Amish, because regulations vary from community to community.  In general, the Amish are Christians.  They place a high value on humility and calm. They value hard work and tend to avoid innovations and technology that would make their lives easier.  Make no mistake, however.  The Amish are no prairie peasants.  They are successful business people with lovely farm properties, living life fully within the boundaries of their beliefs.

Where to stay-

We wanted to stay somewhere that was fairly centrally located so we chose the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotels in Lancaster.  The property was fine.  The rooms had the same
two beds and the pull out sofa, refrigerator, microwave, etc.  There was an indoor pool with a slide, a restaurant and bar, a very large lobby area, and a fitness facility.  There was no complimentary breakfast served.  Double Tree seems to pride itself on the fact that it serves cookies when you check in.  Big deal.  Also if you're going to give me a nice warm cookie, please don't include a wrapper that tells me it has 320 calories!
Like I said, it was fine.  Might have chosen to stay a little closer to the action in Bird-in-Hand, but then might not have stayed in as nice a place.

Where to eat!

Now we're talkin'!  One of the toughest decisions you will need to make when coming to PA Dutch Country is where you are going to eat and taste some of that fine PA Dutch cooking!
There seem to be two types of eating experiences in the area:  Family Style and Smorgasbord.  Eating family style can involve sitting other families you don't know and passing a plate of food around, which I really hate, SO our GoFamily went for the Smorgasbord-all you can eat buffet style PA Dutch goodness.  Bring it on, baby!

Miller's Smorgasbord and Bakery is located at 2811 Lincoln Hwy (Route 30) E, in Ronks, PA and has been there since 1929.  One of the beauties of this place is that they serve alcohol, not always the norm in these parts.  Soups, salads, carved meats, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, steamed shrimp, brown buttered noodles, seafood bisque--it's all here.  Making room for dessert is a must as the station monitor will personally warm your apple, chocolate pecan or PA Dutch Shoofly pie and then top it with ice cream.  Crazy good.
Another worthy stop was the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant, located at 2740 Old Philadelphia Pike, in (where else?) Bird-in Hand.  We ate breakfast here.  There is also quite a nice looking inn/motel here, might be worth checking out if we were ever to come here again.  The adults cost about 12$ and the kids are charged one dollar per year old.  Nice.

Just down the road, at 2710 Old Philadelphia Pike is the Bird-in-Hand Farmers' Market  It may seem kind of strange for me to put this in the "where to eat" section, but once you set foot in there you will know why.
My kids got really excited about visiting this spot after watching a YouTube video about it.
The Farmers' Market is open 2-4 days a week, Wednesday through Saturday, depending on the season, from 8:30 to 5:30.   There are shops here with local products and souvenirs.  I was most impressed by the doll furniture, which was sturdily made and cost a fraction of what you would pay American Girl.  Once again, the reason to come here is for the variety of food, much of which is available to sample--fudge, baked goods, popcorn, soft pretzels, candy, bread, jams and jellies, dips, smoked meats and cheese, apple cider, herbs and spices, fruits and vegetables, and more.  There is also counter diner type service serving German sausages, pot pies, hamburgers, all at a very reasonable prices.  Many of the vendors here are Amish, and have sent their teens to work at the Farmers' Market.
 We spent a LONG time here, thoroughly trying everything in order to determine what kind of "treat" to buy.  I opted for a soft pretzel and a whoopie pie.  Natalya got fudge and some lemonade and the two youngest bought some nasty lego brick candy that I think is still sitting in Ally's room.  Everything was great, and I probably could have been tempted to buy a whole lot more.

My kids took the sampling very seriously!

What to do:

There is a lot of little stuff to do in the Lancaster County area, nothing that will occupy a whole day.  We ruled a few things out simply because they were too expensive, or too far away, or not age appropriate for my kids, or we just couldn't get the timing right for reservations.  Such attractions included the amusement park, "Dutch Wonderland," and the very popular "Sight and Sound Theater," which portrays Old Testament Bible stories with over the top sets, music, and even live animals.
So we did about five different things in addition to the Farmers' Market while we were in Lancaster County.  I will go in order of not so worth it to worth it to exceptionally fun.  I'll also try not to bore you with too many details...

Landis Valley Museum

The Landis Valley Museum is a living history museum that honors the heritage of the Pennsylvania Germans specifically between 1740 and 1940.  There are 40 different structures within the 100 acres including a schoolhouse, a tavern, a gunshop, a blacksmith shop, and others.  Some costumed guides were there--a tavern owner, a tanner, and a blacksmith, for example, and what they did and said was somewhat interesting.  However, there were also whole buildings dedicated to farm implements--yawn.  Another big drag is that all the guides take lunch from 12-1 and close up their "stations" not to mention that many of the building are closed on any given day.
Landis Valley Museum was my attempt to see the daily life of the era-gone-by Amish.  It wasn't that at all.  It cost our GoFamily of 5 over $50 to get in.  Too much.

Buggy Rides

Now you'd think that this would be a lot of fun.  Once again, a buggy rides was an attempt to see some Amish farmland and become more familiar with Amish life.  Again, not to be.  I
would imagine that given the right company and guide, this experience could be quite informative.  Our experience with Abe's Buggy Rides, was not.
Sit in the cab, really...
The first order of business, after paying over $100 for a 45 minute ride, was to decide who was going to sit in the front with the driver.  It was determined that it was going to be me.  Well, the people sitting in the cab cannot hear the driver, when the driver decides to speak. Our driver offered little more narration than, "There's an Amish farm," or "there's a couple of ponies."  Anything he offered about Amish lifestyle I had to pry out of him.
The fact of the matter is that that horse raised his tail and relieved himself like four times not five feet from my face during that 45 minute ride.  Boy did I wish I had opted for the cab.


It is always fun to see how things are made, especially food, especially when you get to sample at the end.  In the town of Lititz, PA, about 20 minutes from Lancaster, are the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery and the Wilbur Chocolate Co.  The two are right around the corner from one another and are both worth a stop.
Julius Sturgis opened the first commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz in 1861.  Though no
commercial pretzels are baked in the original Lititz ovens today, the Sturgis family remains in the pretzel business.  Products are available online (I know, because I just ordered some!) and of course, at the gift shop.  Tours describing the old pretzel making process, including starting with giving everyone some dough and the chance to earn your "official pretzel twister" certificate,  run every half hour.  The tour guide is lively and informative.  There are plenty of samples in the gift store, but for a treat have the baked soft pretzel, the only pretzel actually baked on the premises.
 Incidentally, right behind the Sturgis Pretzel Factory is a small warehouse featuring , Whiff Roasters, a small local coffee producer.  They have a wide variety of coffee and also make a delicious dark chocolate bar with the coffee beans embedded in the chocolate. You can sample both the chocolate bar and the coffee in the warehouse!   Whiff Roasters products are also available online (I know, because I just ordered some!)
There is also no chocolate being made currently at the Wilbur Chocolate Co.  There are a few workers in there you can watch pouring chocolate into molds for effect, but it's not that
exciting to watch.  However, the gift store almost becomes like a museum due to the wide variety of chocolate everything that is available for purchase:  milk chocolate, dark chocolate, Wilbur buds, chocolate chips, mini chocolate chips, chocolate covered everything--cashews, raisins, almonds, coffee beans,  peanuts, maltballs, pretzels, English toffee, sugar free, once again, you name it.  Also there are molded chocolate gifts for just about any interest--chocolate tools, chocolate baseballs, footballs, and hockey pucks, chocolate cars, trucks, and trains, chocolate band aids, chocolate ballet slippers, chocolate aspirins, chocolate baby bottles.  There is also a wide variety of candy that is not chocolate. The Mocha Java chocolate bar produced by Whiff Roasters is also sold here!   Again, we spent plenty of time here, trying to decide how to best spend our precious chocolate dollar and making sure we had our share of the all important Wilbur bud (kind of their version of the Hershey's kiss) samples.  We left with a package of mixed Wilbur buds and a catalog, as Wilbur Chocolate Co. products can be purchased online, though I have no personal experience-YET!

My little family of Official Pretzel Twisters
The Reading Fightin' Phils

So how did you guess that I would save the best for last and the last would have something
to do with baseball.  I don't know if it was the best thing, but it was pretty fun.
The Reading Fightin' Phils is the AA affiliate for the Philadelphia Phillies and play ball in First Energy Stadium in Reading, PA, about a 50 minutes drive from the immediate Lancaster area.
For only 10 dollars a piece we had box seats to watch the Fightin' Phils beat the Erie Seawolves.  It was nice to not really have a team to root for.  We got to just sit and drink beer and eat and hang out.  The weather could not have been more pleasant.  Parking (if you don't mind a little walk) was free and, wow, we came on Ryan Howard action figure night.  We're not sure if we still have those.  All we know about Ryan Howard is that he was the guy that Brian Wilson struck out to win the NLCS on a Saturday night in October in 2010.
Anyway, there is a pool at this stadium out in right field and you could definitely see some Little League boys splashing around out there.  We stayed till the bitter end and then they almost had to kick us out of the gift store.  No work tomorrow for us...

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball..."

Still cranking out these posts about Pennsylvania the Beautiful!  Stay by your computers as upcoming posts will feature our time in the City of Brotherly Love and the Pocono Mountains!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Pennsylvania the Beautiful: Part 3 Hershey and Gettysburg July 28-30, 2013

On Sunday, July 28th we left McKeesport and headed west for our 4 hour drive to Hershey, PA.  The drive probably should not have taken that long. Actually Google will tell you it should take 3 hours and 19 minutes.  Somehow in the planning, however, I told MapQuest to avoid all the toll roads, not necessarily on purpose.  Well the extra 40 minutes saved us about $17.50 in tolls--worth it, I guess.
I can still hear my husband's disbelieving voice, "We're not getting on the Turnpike???"


Hershey, also referred to as "The Sweetest Place on Earth," is a small town of about 15000 residents.  The area really is so small that it is not a municipality at all; all municipal services are provided by Derry Township.  I have heard it said that the air actually smells like chocolate here.  It doesn't, possibly due to the fact that Hershey's chocolate hasn't been made here for years.  The factory that stands here is just a landmark.

There are several attractions in the Hershey area.  There is a visitor center (Hershey's Chocolate World), Hershey Stadium, Hershey Arena, Hershey Museum and something called Giant Center, but really the only reason to come out to Hershey is to spend a day in the famed theme park, Hersheypark.

Where to stay

As I stated before, Hershey is not a very large town, so places to stay (and eat for that matter) are fairly limited.  The accommodations that exist are pretty much your run of the mill Days Inn and America's Value Inn type.  If luxury is what you're looking for, there are the Hotel Hershey and the Hershey Lodge.  Both are very expensive and at least one or both could not accommodate a family of five.  We arrived in Hershey at 7 pm, spent the next day at Hersheypark from 10 am to 10pm and then left early the following morning.  We were not concerned with luxury accommodations, so we stayed at the Hampton Inn and Suites.
The Hampton Inn is a clean and comfortable place to stay and had the amenities to suit our needs.  The room had 2 Queen beds and a sofabed, a microwave, a good sized refrigerator, and plenty of drawer space.  There was an indoor pool, a game room, and hot beverages available in the lobby 24 hours a day.  The staff is courteous and helpful.  Complimentary breakfast is provided, but it's really pretty gross--Styrofoam plates, reconstituted eggs, potatoes, badly processed pastries--quite unappetizing.
One of the reasons we chose to stay here is the fact that it was only just over one mile to Hersheypark, and we had hoped to walk and avoid the parking fee.  However, there is no safe way to walk to the park and therefore we were stuck paying the $12.
It's fine--just don't expect a great breakfast.

Hershey's Chocolate World

Hershey's Chocolate World is essentially the visitor center for the Hershey area and the focal point of all things chocolate.
Within HCW the only thing that is free is the 10 minute Great American Chocolate tour. 
There is nothing great, American, or chocolate about this tour.  The ride takes you through a badly simulated chocolate factory which traces the steps of chocolate bar production.  In 2006, they added some singing cows mooing about the milk in the milk chocolate.  It is pure torture.  On exiting the ride your get a mini Hershey bar and then are dumped out into a gift shop full of more chocolate and chocolate themed paraphernalia than anyone could imagine. Don't forget Twizzlers, Jolly Ranchers, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, or anything else that Hershey makes.  I think we bought one bar which we split and finished that very night.
There are other chocolate "experiences" within HCW, but they all cost something ranging from $7 to $15 for experiences ranging from 20 to 60 minutes.  Nothing looked overly exciting and with a family of five it didn't seem worth it to spend $40 to see the 20 minute Great Chocolate Factory Mystery in 4D.  You can also do a Chocolate Tasting, Build your own Candy Bar, or take a trolley tour through Hershey. Packages combining the experiences are available.  We did none of it.  Hershey's Chocolate world is really only worth a stop if you want to buy or eat chocolate, otherwise save your time and money.
Hersheypark is a 121 acre theme park founded by Milton S. Hershey in 1905 as a leisure park for the employees of his chocolate empire.  The park now has 11 roller coasters and 68 rides/attractions.  Park hours vary during the May to September months, but pretty much in the swing of summer, the park is open from 10 am to 10pm.  Admission to the park also gets you into The Boardwalk (Hersheypark's water park area) and the adjoining ZooAmerica, a worthwhile diversion.

Tickets for Hersheypark are expensive.  Discount tickets are available in Hershey area GIANT food stores.  We ordered our discount tickets through the local (meaning PA local) Boy Scouts of America.  We saved $15 on each ticket (all adult) and we were able to print them out at home.  Just don't forget to bring them with you!

I felt that Hersheypark was a little hard to navigate as a first timer.  They also had a very strange assignment of a Hershey's candy name and a corresponding letter to height brackets which somehow designated which rides you were permitted to experience.  Thank goodness we were all in the "allowed to ride everything" bracket (Jolly Ranchers-J) or I would have never figured it out.  Each ride is also assigned a "thrill index" based on a number between 1 and 5. Somehow a "high thrill ride" was different from an "aggressive thrill ride" but I never really figured out what the criteria was--some 5's I found to be quite tame and borderline boring (sooperdooperlooper) while some 4's I wouldn't dare attempt (The Claw).  My intensity scale would be based on how likely you were to vomit; I think theirs was more about how likely you were to throw out your neck riding it.  Both are practical I suppose.

And how about those rides?? Some of the roller coasters at Hersheypark are so intense that even the heartiest of riders may have to sit out.  I was fooled by Hershey's newest addition, SkyRush, which seemed manageable as I watched it from the sidelines, as I like to do before
This is about where the praying began
experiencing a new attraction.  Riders sit in rows of four with the only restraint across your legs, so that feet and torso dangle freely.  As soon as I was hurled over the lift hill, I had met my match.  The speed (max 76 mph) and G-forces were so intense that I found myself silently praying that I would make it to the end of the ride without my eyes rolling back in my head and passing out.  No one in the family, except Nicholas, had any interest in riding again.

The sooperdooperlooper, the first roller coaster on the east coast to flip upside down, and the wooden Comet were quite tame.   My girls braved the super crazy Storm Runner and Great Bear, while we sat out watching YouTube videos of what they were experiencing.  No thank you.  A 5 on my aforementioned vomit scale.
Anyway, the Lightning Racer and the WildCat were my favorites, and as a family we rode them both several times.  They are both intensely fast and rickety and rough and you are hanging on for dear life.  It is a strange feeling to hurtle along so quickly on a wooden coaster.

"Mom, I don't want to be
an astronaut."
My girls convinced me to ride Fahrenheit at the end of the day.  Despite the daunting six inversions, I spent some time watching this one as well and though quite wild, it did not look too fast.  Besides, it was the end of the day, so if I felt horrible afterwards I didn't have much more to endure.  The ride starts by taking you straight up (I mean you are lying on your back--it was here than my 11 year old informed me she did not want to be an astronaut) 121 feet and immediately plunges you into a 97 degree drop-yes that more than vertical.  Then there's a Norwegian loop, a Cobra roll, a Barrel roll and a few corkscrews--whatever it was you have no idea where you are. Anyway, in 85 seconds it's over.  It really wasn't that bad--SkyRush was worse.  My husband still can't believe I rode it.

Hersheypark has a log ride, bumper cars, a swinging ship, a train, a ferris wheel, and multiple kiddie rides.  One ride of note is the Kissing Tower, which elevates you to 250 feet above the park and offers spectacular views of the park, though it did not inspire me to kiss anyone.

One view of Hersheypark from the Kissing Tower
From here you see Great Bear, SkyRush, Comet and parts of sooperdooperlooper
Gettysburg National Military Park

The town of Gettysburg is one hour southwest of Hershey.  Within the town of Gettysburg is the Gettysburg National Military Park, the area dedicated by the National Park Service to the remembrance of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863 and was the bloodiest battle fought during the American Civil War, resulting in somewhere between 46 and 51 thousand casualties.  Though the war continued to rage another two years, the battle is often seen as a turning point in favor of the Union.  In November of the same year, president Abraham Lincoln used the dedication ceremony of the Gettysburg National Cemetery to deliver his historic and moving Gettysburg Address.  We arrived in Gettysburg on July 30th, just one month after the historic commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the infamous battle. 

Craig had checked out children's books about Gettysburg prior to our departure, so we spent the hour ride getting familiar with what we were about to see.

We started our time in Gettysburg by taking a very scenic and pleasant 1 hour horseback ride with Hickory Hollow Farm.  It is recommended that you take a 2 hour tour with an official battlefield guide, but I knew what 2 hours on a horse was going to feel like, and besides, the trip was going to cost twice as much.  Our one hour tour really was more like 90 minutes.  It left McMillan Woods and trolled along Seminary Ridge past the Virginia Memorial and through some farmland.  It is a nice way to see some of this area.  I would recommend a very early ride or no time restriction on the other end, because where you really want to spend your time is the Visitor Center.

Entrance to the Visitor Center itself is free, but this will only allow you to see the cafeteria, the restrooms and the gift shop.  To truly experience what the visitor center has to offer you must buy the $12.50 (8.50 children 12 and under).  This will get you into the 20 minute film, "Birth of a New Freedom," (narrated by Morgan Freeman), the Cyclorama, and the museum.
AAA discounts are available.
At the conclusion of the very informative and very well done film, you are directed to the room that houses the Cyclorama.  The Cyclorama is a 360 degree cylindrical type painting depicting Pickett's Charge, the climactic Confederate attack on Union forces on the third day of fighting.  It was painted by the French artist Paul Philipoteaux in 1883, and stands 27 feet high and is 359 feet in circumference.  The viewing of the Cyclorama also comes with its own narration, which makes it easier to understand.  The Cyclorama is a wonder in and of itself.
The museum is also very well done.  By the time we got to the museum we had only about an hour to go through it, and we felt rushed.  The museum goes through in detail what happened before, during and after the three day battle.  There are several videos, interactive exhibits, and well preserved artifacts.  Rushing back into my memory were names and places I hadn't recalled since high school:  General George Meade, Robert E. Lee, Little Round Top, Culp's Hill, Devil's Den, to name a few.

The Pennsylvania Memorial
A 24 mile auto tour starts at the visitor center and includes 16 stops.  It is recommended that you allow 3 hours to complete this tour, but we didn't have any three hours, so we really just did stops 8 through 12 and the Virginia Memorial (stop 5).  This included the majestic Pennsylvania Memorial, which commemorates individually all Pennsylvanians involved in the battle.  There are similar memorials throughout the National Park, some dedicated to soldiers of certain states, others to specific companies and battalions.

Gettysburg was a highlight of my time in Pennsylvania.  I enjoy history anyway, and the whole experience was a good lesson for our entire family about what young men and families of years gone by suffered and sacrificed willingly and dutifully to preserve our nation and our freedom today.  Now for a few more pictures....

Just a small portion of the Cyclorama

The Virginia Memorial
Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveller

The obligatory picture of your children hanging on cannons
I think my parents have this same picture of my sister and I at Gettysburg


Thank you for reading this post!  I'm still cranking them out!  Hopefully next week I will take you to the PA Dutch country for a little Amish buggy ride and some Shoo-Fly pie!


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Pennsylvania the Beautiful: Part 2 McKeesport, PA July 23-July 28 and August 8- August 11,2013

 So we are still in McKeesport, PA--staying at the home of Mom T., spending time sitting around the table talking and eating cabbage rolls and home made bread and snickerdoodles and pumpkin whoopee pies, and drinking the white zinfandel and the beer that has been sitting around since my father in law's funeral.
My powerhouse mother in law moved out of her room and into the rumpus room downstairs, leaving us free reign of the entire second floor.  My son decided he was scared the first night we arrived, ousting me from my position in the queen size bed and relegating me to the top bunk in the room my husband used to share with his brother. Despite my fear of the whole business crashing down onto my 11 year old daughter in the bottom bunk, I was quite comfy and happy up there. Though my daughter tried to convince me otherwise, I left strict orders that the ceiling fan be kept off, lest I wake up in the morning with the bruises and concussion I inadvertently suffered while trying to get up to go to the bathroom.
The nights were cool and still and through the open windows were heard trains, crickets, and rain.
By the weekend my brother in law showed up and shared the second floor with us, and the walking around in our underwear had to stop.
Anyway, when we got there nothing really had been planned, so it was up to us to figure out what to do with five or so days.  We got out the Ipad and turned our attentions to a family favorite--BASEBALL.

The Washington Wild Things

The Pirates were out of town the entire time we were in PA, so we were going to have to look at minor league....or something.  The Washington Wild Things were in town so we decided we were going to make the 55 minute drive to the 3200-seat Consol Energy (?) Park in Washington, PA and see them play.
The Wild Things belong to the Eastern Division of the "Frontier League" (again ?), an independent baseball league not affiliated with Major League Baseball, where they occupy the prestigious position of 6th out of 7 places. Most probably will say, "why waste your money?" but we say, "because general admission is $5 and we have nothing better to do!"
The stadium is quite nice, new, and clean--and on a Wednesday morning, the choice of general
admission seat was yours. One very odd feature of this ball field is that it is completely turf, even the base path, so that when a player slides he comes up with his uniform clean and no dust in his wake.
All the food is your usual fare, and there is the obligatory gift store and wheel of fortune.  As long as there's beer, it's all good.  Who cares that it's 11 in the morning?
They had a lot of fun in between inning distractions. I wrote some of them down and then left the paper somewhere.  The scariest thing I saw was a poor girl dressed like a cow doing the Cha Cha Slide on the top of the dugout.  I think there was a cookie dancing at the same time on the other dugout.  This was the precursor to the milk and cookies they sold for a dollar somewhere midway through the game; that was a nice touch!  Anyway, my favorite gimmick was when the license plate of the dirtiest car in the parking lot was announced and someone won a car wash.
Anyway, did I mention the Wild Things won?  I can't tell you the score or the name of even one player or if anyone hit a homerun, but I do know what the mascot looks like....

My kids and the Washington Wild Thing!

Laurel Hill State Park

About one hour out of McKeesport, in Somerset County, lies Laurel Hill State Park.  The park itself
is 3935 acres and features, at varying times of the year, outdoor recreation such as hunting, cross country skiing and snowmobiling.  My husband camped here with his family as a boy.  His family would stay for a week at a time.  The camping is the kind I like--with showers, flushing toilets, and running water.  There are 262 camping sites available and 8 cottages.
Anyway, we weren't here to camp.  Our destination was the Laurel Hill Lake--a 63 acre man made lake constructed during the Depression by the CCC.  The area is green and pretty but the lake and beach here at least on the day we came were far from impressive.  The water was very unappealing, and in fact, because of water clarity issues I guess because of recent rainfall, the day we came you weren't even allowed to swim.  Pa, August, no swimming--go figure...
You can rent a paddleboat here for $8 per hour (an exercise in frustration) and canoes are also available.  There is also a concession stand which we did not check out.
Yeah, it's not Lake Tahoe, but the beauty of this place is getting outdoors with your family and being on vacation.  While we were there Mom T. whipped out a camping stove and prepared us some sloppy joes for lunch.  After some fresh strawberries and cantaloupe came the homemade chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, and boy we were set.

The Church Picnic

Well, it's not really just the church picnic, though we did attend the church picnic while we were there.  "The Church Picnic" represents the best thing we did while in McKeesport, which was spend time with family. 
My mother in law was the oldest of seven children born to Mark and Anna Gasparovic, who in turn produced 24 children over about a span of 25 years, so my husband has 21 first cousins on his mother's side (and three more on his father's side).  Four of the seven Gasparovic siblings still live in the McKeesport area, as do four of the first cousins, two of which have children of their own.  Mom T.'s cousin lives there too.  There is always someone to get together with and they do everything together--International Village, Greek Festivals, Balalaika Concerts, Music in the Park, or just Pizza Hut after church on Sunday, which they all do together as well.  Company is just a phone call away.
The family genuinely enjoys each other's company, and everyone is able to get together on a moments notice.  Thirteen of us went to dinner at Luciano's Italian restaurant on a random Wednesday night and everyone was related.  My kids re-met family members they hadn't seen in seven years, including meeting for the first time second cousins they didn't even know they had.
Twelve of us went to Pizza Hut after church on Sunday and again everyone was related! Ten of us went to Music in the Park (it's not called that there, but you get the point) and everyone was related!
Family is important and your family are your best friends.

The Church Picnic itself was held the day before we left.  Everyone is so warm and pleasant that it was almost like being with our own church family.  They grill, drink bad beer, have a bounce house (called a moonwalk in PA) for the kids, play baseball, play Bingo (which I won twice to the tune of a whole $8, which I gave back to my mother in law, since I was playing with her change bag), play baseball, folk dance (thank God not this time), and just generally sit around and visit and eat. 

I counted 19 members of our family there.

If you don't belong to our family, chances are you belong to the Ermakov family.  Father Dimitri Ermakov, the current priest at the absolutely divine Holy Dormition Church in not so divine downtown McKeesport, was the only son and youngest child of Father (yes, dad was a priest too) Dimitri (yes, his name was also Dimitri) Ermakov of eternal memory and his wife, Martha.  Four sisters arrived before the only son.  Father D the younger also produced five children, four girls first and then finally a boy--yes, his name is Dimitri, too.  So you get the point--this family also produced a wild number of cousins, many of which were at the church picnic.  The three oldest Ermakov girls were flower girls in our wedding.  Now they are 25, 23, and 20--sigh.

I counted 12 Ermakov family members at the picnic.

My kids knew no one at the picnic really--but they had a blast.  All the cousins from all the families came together into one happy group like they had known each other forever, just like my husband's cousins would do back in their day.  After this trip I realized how important it was for my kids to have these folks in their lives.

I said before that the only reason to come to McKeesport is to see family, which for us turns out to be a pretty darn good reason.

And now for some pictures!!

My kids and their second cousins, Natalie and Nicholas
One of our impromptu dinners
Wherever you go there are cousins and friends!
The absolutely gorgeous Holy Virgin Dormition Church in McKeesport, PA
(That's my little altar server on the right!!)

My kids and the Ermakov kids

Thank you for reading this post!  I am still hoping in the very near future to crank out some posts about Hershey, Philadelphia, PA Dutch Country and the Pocono Mountains!
This is my favorite picture of me, Mom T., and Craig

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