So we headed for the Lehigh Valley. I'm from Pennsylvania so I know the Lehigh Valley is where ice cream comes from. And each year our family made a pilgrimage to Allentown's Dorney Park, where a beaming statue of Alfonzo the Clown welcomed us. In mid-May, we bisected New Jersey on I-78, then Route 22 to see what's currently on offer in eastern PA, basing ourselves in Bethlehem, with excursions to Easton, Nazareth, Allentown and environs. It took us about as long to get out of New York City as it did to get across New Jersey (just over an hour), and we were there.
The towns of the Lehigh Valley are once again reinventing themselves as they've done a time or two before: adjusting to the end of canal transport in the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution, and most recently, the migration of much industry overseas. If you've traveled in Eastern Pennsylvania in the last decade or so, along with magnificent forests, rivers and mountains, you may have seen abandoned steel mills, boarded up downtowns centered around old railroad stations, grand hotels with plywood over the windows. The steel is mostly produced overseas now, and the textile factories no longer spin thousands of bolts of silk and cotton.
What's left? Well, there are the schools. The Lehigh Valley has about a dozen colleges and universities, which import the raw material of freshmen each fall, and export the finished product of graduates each spring. The colleges offer scads of top-quality visual and performing arts, music, theater; some of it underwritten by the manufacturers who stayed: Binney & Smith (the crayon people) who sponsor many museums and galleries. Some factories have no intention of leaving, like the C.F. Martin & Co (est. 1833), which makes some of the world's finest guitars, and Just Born, who make over a billion Marshmallow Peeps each year.
Warehouses have become arts centers, old buildings (some dating back to the mid-18th century settlement of the Valley) have been restored and landmarked, sharp-eyed entrepreneurs are setting up boutique businesses and restaurants, and out-of-towners are scanning the real estate ads for weekend homes just over an hour away from New York or Philadelphia.
Take a guitar player with you on the C.F. Martin & Co. tour (Beil Ave. & Sycamore St., Nazareth, PA, 800/633-2060; www.martinguitar.com) for the squeals of excitement; if you are that musician, take a civilian with you to keep you from rushing across the yellow lines to embrace the instruments. Workers who aren't gluing or buffing that day lead groups of up to 12 to see various steps in the 6-month long process of hand-building the guitars. The smell of wood, glue, and finish permeates the complex, as the 500-plus workers (some third and fourth generation Martin employees) use techniques that haven't radically changed in over 150 years. While lasers inscribe the serial numbers, tools still in use are chisels, files, clothespins, Exacto knives and lots of Elmer's glue. The musicians on our tour got to touch two of Stephen Stills' guitars, sent back for detailing, and got to look at (but not touch) one of the high end ($50,000 models) as it was prepared for shipping. At the end of the tour, which lasts a bit over an hour, several guitars are available for playing. There's a gift shop selling souvenirs ranging from t-shirts to mounted headstocks, to customized picks to the only guitar actually on sale on the premises, the Martin Backpacker. Tours are offered Mon-Fri at 1 pm, and are free.
The Crayola Factory (Two Rivers Landing, Easton; 610/515-8000; www.crayola.com) isn't actually a factory, but is a far better bet for children (and anyone who likes to mess around with clay, paint and crayons) than an industrial workplace. The company developed the Easton/Two Rivers Landing site, which opened in 1996, and also contains the National Canal Museum and National Heritage Corridor Visitors Center for both an investment in Easton's downtown, and to take the place of the in-demand (and off limits for the under-6 crowd) actual factory tours. You can still see crayons and markers made from start to finish, (you can "buy" the crayons with gold tokens). The recreated Factory Floor is only a part of the attraction, with a large portion of the space devoted to hands-on activities ranging from printmaking, graffiti (on clear walls with washable markers), sculpture, hot wax art with melted crayons (mmmmmmmm...the smell), and a Color Garden where toddlers can play with outsized plastic fruit (though the ones we saw where happily spinning around with buckets on their heads). A themed Crayola Store is adjacent to the Factory. The Crayola Factory is open daily year-round (closed Mondays from Sept-May), call or check the Web site for hours, which vary seasonally. Admission is $8 for adults and children, $7.50 for seniors, and free for children 2 and under, and includes admission to the Canal Museum.
We got up close (but not too close) to a number of raptors at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (Hawk Mountain Road, Kempton; 610/756-4468; www.hawkmountain.org), straddling the top of a mountain in the Kittatiny Ridge, a 2,400-acre refuge that has been conserving and educating people about birds of prey since 1934. The birds shown are definitely wild animals, but no longer able to survive on their own because of accident or injury. The rough-legged hawk we were told, had been shot, and can't fly. "Why would someone shoot a hawk?" one spectator asked. "You're asking the wrong person," said its handler with a grimace. There are miles of trails on the mountain and lookout points to spot migrating birds and other wildlife (the tally sheet in the information center showed there'd been a black bear sighting the day before). Dozens of programs that change with the season, ranging from "Birding by Ear," to "Mushroom Foray," fill the calendar. The gift shop and bookstore are packed with birding paraphernalia, and there's a wall-sized picture window slightly obscured with netting so spectators can observe birds and small animals feeding. The trails are open dawn to dusk every day, with the visitor center open daily 9-5, from 8-5 from September to November. Trail fees are $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for children 6-12, and free for children under six. Fees are higher on fall weekends and holidays.
It was pouring rain outside, but quiet and cool (52?F year-round) inside when we toured the Lost River Caverns (726 Durham St., Hellertown; 610/838-8767; www.lostcave.com), a maze of underground chambers discovered in the 1880s, and since used as an underground dancehall, storage facility for bootleggers, and a wedding chapel (80-plus couples married to date). The Gilman family has operated it as a museum/attraction since the 1930s. A young guide gave a fairly informative talk on the caverns' origins, the formations and structures inside it, throwing in a few corny "rock" jokes. The dim, narrow paths proved a bit much for the youngest members, who became convinced there were bats in the cave (there aren't). After paying their admission fees at the end of the tour ($8 for adults, $6 for children), visitors can browse a gift shop with items kitschy and cute, as well as extensive jewelry making, and rock tumbling. The upper level is the Gilman Museum, an endearing assemblage of antique weaponry, rock and crystal specimens, fossils, a huge snakeskin, and a two-story diorama of a stuffed bear facing off against a large T-Rex, backed by a waterfall. The Lost River Caverns also have a Picnic Grove open in the summer. They are open daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, from 9am-6pm in summer, and 9am-5pm in winter.
A return trip to Dorney Park (3830 Dorney Park Road, Allentown; 610/395-3724; www.dorneypark.com) showed how the 118-year-old amusement park had adapted to the times, adding "and Wildwater Kingdom" to its name in 1985. Roller coasters are also the attraction, as the park has added seven of them to its original 1923 wooden ThunderHawk. There are about 100 rides and attractions on the park's 200 acres, including live shows in the high season. In mid-May, some of the rides were closed, but the lines were blissfully absent, and it was easy to go from ride entrance to actual ride in well under five minutes. The park has a devoted local/regional following, and it's obviously the number one spot for pre-teens and young teens in the Lehigh Valley to congregate on a Friday night. The hormones are thick in the air as adolescents roam the park flirting and eating too much sugar. At the end of the evening, hundreds of parents stand outside to pick up their progeny. There's an entire section of rides for the very young (the height stick wielded by a park attendant that denies the shorter folk the faster attractions admits only them to the smallest ones). There's a complicated admission schedule for one- and two-day passes, as well as late admission and season passes available (check the Web site). Wildwater Kingdom opens Memorial Day weekend and stays open through Labor Day. The classic park itself has an early season in May and bonus weekends in September and October.
Museums and Galleries
The National Canal Museum (Easton, 610/515-8000; www.canals.org) is in the same building as the Crayola Factory (see above) and is also quite kid-friendly (hands-on activities teaching about the silk mills, and how a canal lock works, a reconstructed canal boat deck). Adults, particularly history buffs, will enjoy the detailed exhibits and maps showing how canal networks shaped the first westward expansion of the U.S., as well as the recorded oral histories of canal workers. The museum is associated with the Hugh Moore Park, where visitors can ride the canal boat Josiah White II for fairly short rides during the day, and longer dinner cruises in the evening. Admission to the National Canal Museum ($8 Adults & children, $7.50 seniors, 2 and under free) also includes admission to the Crayola Factory. Hours are Tues.-Sat. 9:30 am-5pm, and 12-5pm on Sundays, with extended hours in July and August.
The Banana Factory (25 W. Third St., Bethlehem; 610-332-1300; www.bananafactory.org) didn't make bananas, but stored them until they ripened. In South Bethlehem, where the shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant still winds along the side of the road for several miles, reinvention is in full swing with this arts center that features a light-filled gallery, currently hosting a photo exhibit of historic Beth Steel-related projects, from The World Trade Centers to Madison Square Garden in various stages of completion, and portraits and oral histories of Bethlehem steelworkers. The center also hosts a number of visual artists in residence, who can be visited in their studios.
A centrally located place in the Lehigh Valley is the Radisson Hotel Bethlehem (437 Main Street, Bethlehem; 610/625-5000; www.radisson.com/bethlehempa). There's been a hostelry on this site since the 1740s, and the current occupant is a 1922 building on the crest of a hill. Rates range from $89-159 per night for a double (with the usual discounts for AAA, AARP and some packages available). Don't look for bargains toward the end of May, when graduations put hotel rooms in the area at a premium. What you'll get are well-kept rooms in a lovely old building with rather small bathrooms (ours didn't have a tub, but a marble-clad two-headed shower), and a friendly, well-informed staff. Modern additions include a fitness facility, and a free shuttle to and from the Lehigh Valley International Airport. There are two on-site restaurants, the high-end Colonnade Steakhouse, and lobby Tap Room. The Sunday Brunch is popular with the locals.
There are representatives of all the chains from budget to high-end throughout the Lehigh Valley, as well as small independent motels in the $40-50/night range. There are about 20 B&Bs, and a dozen campgrounds. Several Allentown hotels, including the Comfort Suites (3712 Hamilton Blvd., 610/437-9100) located directly across from Dorney Park, offer package deals that include passes to the park.
We had a memorably wonderful meal at Starfish Brasserie (51 W. Broad Street, Bethlehem, 610/332-8888, www.starfishbrasserie.com), whose chef/owners Dick and Sue Barrows have shaped a seafood-heavy seasonal menu as the star of a beautiful space populated with attentive, informed waitstaff and folks celebrating special occasions. Entrees like a local trout stuffed with bacon, swiss chard, tomato confit and pinenuts, served with Port wine and sage sauce run $18-20, and the desserts are gorgeous and homemade. There's also a cigar-friendly bar and live entertainment some weekends.
We wished we had more time to explore the shops and boutiques, particularly on Bethlehem's Main Street. We did stop in the Moravian Bookstore, (428 Main Street, Bethlehem; 610/866-5471; www.moravianbookshop.com) which claims to be the world's oldest (in operation since 1745). It's a delightful place, offering an eclectic selection of books and gifts (including many representations of the city's emblem The Star of Bethlehem). There are also performances, readings, and a deli. At Cigars International Outlet (535 Main Street, Bethlehem; 610/419-2076; www.cigarsinternational.com), we ran into an enjoyable hardcore cult of tobacconists, who were anxious to explain, debate, describe, contemplate and smoke the cigars products of many lands. While only one of us is a smoker, it's always fun to find people obsessed with and informed in great detail on a topic they so clearly love. The catalog is a great read.
If you're heading to the Lehigh Valley, keep in mind some of these activities:
Nazareth Arts & Crafts Festival, Whitefield House, 214 E. Center St., Nazareth; 610/759-5070 (www.moravianhistoricalsociety.org). June 8
Kutztown Festival. Pennsylvania Dutch folk life festival. Features quilting, traditional crafts demonstrations, dancing, fiddling, antiques, country auction. Kutztown Fairgrounds, Kutztown; 888/674-6136; www.kutztownfestival.com. June 29-July 7
Easton Heritage Day. Historical reenactments, including a reading of the Declaration of Independence on the anniversary of its original reading in Easton. July 7.
Das Awkscht Fescht. One of the largest antique car shows in the country; fireworks, music, food. Macungie Memorial Park, Macungie; 610/967-2317; www.awkscht.com. Aug. 2-4.
Musikfest. More than 1,000 live music performances by more than 2,000 local, regional and national musicians and performers on indoor and outdoor stages throughout the city's historic district. Bethlehem. 610/861-0678; www.fest.org. Aug. 2-11
Celtic Classic Highland Games and Festival. Celebrates the culture of Ireland, Scotland and Wales with games, food, crafts, music, and dance. Bethlehem; 610/868-9599; www.celticfest.org. Sept. 27-29.
Christkindlemarkt Bethlehem. Old world holiday craft market, with 75 craftspeople and 200 artisans; live music, activities, rides. November-December. 610/861-0678; www.fest.org.
Other regular performances/events:
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem. 102-year-old choir performs throughout the year, culminating in the annual Bach Festival held annually in May. 888/743-3100; www.bach.org.
Indy Racing and NASCAR racing at Nazareth Speedway, usually held in April and May. 888/629-7223; www.nazarethspeedway.com.
For more information about the Lehigh Valley:Lehigh Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau
PO Box 20785
Lehigh Valley, PA 18002-0785