5 Things You Didn't Know About Amish Country

Amish family and covered bridge, Lancaster. Terry Ross
By Carrie Havranek

You probably think rolling countryside, Amish buggies, rivers and valleys, and agriculture when you think of the Amish Country, along with hex signs, and tons and tons of B&Bs -- in fact, it's home to the second-largest network of them on the East Coast. It's also home to a thriving downtown community in Lancaster, with art museums and a nationally recognized independent shopping scene. And if you become completely captivated with the bucolic charm of the region, in the summer you can stay at Amish Camp, a cultural immersion experience at the Inn at Hershey Farm (www.hersheyfarm.com)

Photo Caption: Amish family and covered bridge, Lancaster.
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Guest room at Cork Factory Hotel, Lancaster. Cork Factory Hotel
The Cork Factory Hotel opened in early 2010 in downtown Lancaster and is tucked away among a complex of old rehabbed factories called Urban Place; its also part of a larger renaissance in the downtown, complete with a buzzing arts and indie shopping scene. The hotel's design hews closely to its previous incarnation as the Lancaster Cork Works, dating to 1865. Its industrial past is salvaged: there's at least one brick wall in every guest wall and most of the original window openings and building footprint have been preserved. Cork and Cap, the onsite restaurant, specializes in regional favorites with a twist, such as chicken and waffles soup or the PA Dutch Smokestacks -- roulades of pot pie dough, chicken, potatoes, and a rich chicken stew, plated to resemble the building's original (and intact) smokestack. Standard rooms range $89-$149; Suites (there are six) $109-$189.

Where: 408 New Holland Ave., Lancaster, PA 17602. tel. 717/735-2075; www.corkfactoryhotel.com.

Photo Caption: Guest room at Cork Factory Hotel, Lancaster.
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The pretzel twisting table at Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery
Chalk it up to the Germans who settled here: southeastern Pennsylvania is a pretzel lover's wonderland and chockablock with the twisted treats -- and, for good measure, breweries: beer and pretzels do go hand-in-hand, after all. But the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz, is the nation's oldest, and shows visitors how it's made the salty snack-food favorite since 1861. Get a hands-on (literally) lesson in pretzel twisting, tour the original bakery (it's on the National Register of Historic Places), and scarf down a pretzel or two. Don't forget the bakery store on the way out to bring back a bag of your favorite: Dutch, hard, or thin pretzels, or one of the flavored inventions, such as cinnamon and sugar, or honey mustard and onion. So intertwined with the region's culinary history are pretzels that April 26 is pretzel day in Lancaster County, which also spawned Herr's, Intercourse Pretzel Factory, Hammond Pretzel Bakery and Auntie Anne's Pretzels.

Where: 219 East Main Street (Route 772), Lititz, PA; tel. 717/626-4354; www.juliussturgis.com Admission: $3 for adults and $2 for children; open Monday-Saturday, March 16-December 31, 9:30am-4:30pm for tours (bakery store is open 9am-5pm); Martin Luther King Holiday-March 15, 10:30am-3:30pm for tours (bakery store is open 10am-4pm)

Photo Caption: The pretzel twisting table at Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Photo by Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery
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Strasburg Railroad at night, Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Strasburg Railroad
Pennsylvania has its place in rail history, that's for sure, and Strasburg, about a half hour southeast of Lancaster, is an epicenter for train enthusiasts: the Strasburg Railroad (www.strasburgrailroad.com); the Railroad Museum of PA (www.rrmuseumpa.org); the National Toy Train Museum (www.nttmuseum.org); the Red Caboose Motel and Restaurant (www.redcaboosemotel.com); and the Choo Choo Barn (www.choochoobarn.com). Climb aboard the working coal-burning locomotive for a 45-minute ride through working farms and rolling hills on the Strasburg Railroad, or take one of its wine and cheese trips or other special event excursions (i.e. "A Day Out With Thomas.") Five track layouts, all in different gauges, are on display at the National Toy Train Museum -- and the collection itself, dating to the mid-1800s. If that's not enough, the 1,700 square-foot model train layout, set in a faux Amish country landscape, will blow your mind at the Choo Choo Barn. Cap off the adventure at the Red Caboose Motel and Restaurant where yes, you can sleep in a real caboose.

Photo Caption: Strasburg Railroad at night, Strasburg, Pennsylvania. Photo by Strasburg Railroad
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Zook's Mill Covered Bridge, Pennsylvania. Coy Butler
The Keystone state is the birthplace of the covered bridge -- some 1,500 of them were built between 1820s and 1900. Although two of them are in need of repair after the rains of September and Hurricane Irene, 27 of them are still standing and functional, and Lancaster County still boasts the most in Pennsylvania. You can still drive (slowly, please!) through most of these beauties, whose presence calls to mind a charming, simpler day, with horses and buggies and a slower pace and romantic strolls under the narrow, wooden bridges (hence the "kissing bridge" moniker.) Not sure where to start? The Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau recommends several different driving tours (www.padutchcountry.com/activities/covered-bridges-driving-tours.asp) organized by geography: parks and preserves, the northern Amish countryside, the southern Amish countryside (including Strasburg), Lititz (where you can stop and eat some pretzels), and its historic river towns and western villages.

Photo Caption: Zook's Mill Covered Bridge, Pennsylvania.
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Auctioneer at an Amish mud sale, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. www.discoverlancasterpa.com
No, they're not actually selling mud. The name reflects what's happening -- the ground's thawing out from winter -- at these early spring sales in communities dotted throughout the countryside, prior to the growing season. There's typically at least one per weekend at from late February through mid-April, although sometimes you may find a few on the weekends in May, June, August and October. Mud sales are conducted similarly to auctions, where English (that's the rest of us) and Amish mix -- sometimes there are six auctions happening simultaneously. You're likely to encounter authentic wares crafts, furniture and quilts and yard sale staples such as antiques, toys, and collectibles, but essentials of agrarian life, too: buggies, farm equipment, and horses. Honestly, though, you never know what you'll encounter: donkeys, kitchen sinks, and weather vanes have all been spotted for sale. Not sure where to find them? Look for a local firehouse, as mud sales are their main fundraising event. These events start early in the morning, and you can expect to spend the better portion of a day taking in the scene's offerings. Bring your appetite, too, as you won't want to miss homemade root beer, sugary funnel cake, and steaming cups chicken corn soup that are typical of these affairs, too. For more information and schedules, visit www.padutchcountry.com.

Photo Caption: Auctioneer at an Amish mud sale, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Photo by Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau
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