Things to Do in Downtown West Chester

September 21, 2012

With the opening of West Chester’s newest hotel this month, it seems like a good time to showcase some noteworthy places within the city’s business district. The 80-room Hotel Warner is on High Street and within walking distance of the County Courthouse and plenty of boutiques and restaurants. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Lincoln Room, 28 W. Market St. West Chester’s oldest building serves loose-leaf tea, cucumber sandwiches and lavender scones in the same building that published Abraham Lincoln’s first biography. The lace-curtained room is full of old photos and mementoes of the 16th U.S. president.

Kreutz Creek Vineyards. This just may be the only tasting room around that lets you bring your own food AND your dog. It helps that the venerable Carlino’s Gourmet Italian Market (pictured below) is just around the corner. Pick up a tomato pie, sandwiches like sausage with bell peppers and sharp provolone, or a baguette and cheeses and head to the attractive tasting room for some Chardonnay or Cabernet Franc produced right down the road in West Grove. There’s even live music (Spanish guitar, jazz) on Friday and Saturday nights to add to the relaxing stay-awhile vibe.

A Taste of Olive. This airy shop stocks all kinds of specialty olive oils and vinegars from Italy, California to Argentina. The mouth-watering flavors include Sicilian Lemon Balsamic vinegar, Dark Chocolate Balsamic vinegar and Smokey Chipotle Olive Oil. Like any good wine bar, tastings are allowed, even encouraged, before you buy.

Limoncello. Loud and friendly and serving huge portions of Italian classics like eggplant parmesan and fettuccine Alfredo, this hot spot is a favorite of Lori Zytkowicz, owner of nearby Faunbrook Bed & Breakfast. The $9.95 lunch buffet draws crowds.

Soft Pretzel Factory. Every town worth its salt has one. West Chester is no exception.

Apple picking time at Hopewell Furnace

September 14, 2012

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, about 15 miles east of Reading, was one of the country’s first iron producers, casting cannons for the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War and once responsible for 15 percent of the entire world’s iron supply. Gen. George Washington’s troops came within three miles of the furnace, and its workers rushed to bury several “great guns” on the property to save them from possible capture by the Redcoats.

Today, Hopewell Furnace is a preserved iron plantation run by the National Park Service and a very worthy stop on anyone’s Pennsylvania history tour. Besides the blast furnace, there’s a restored blacksmith’s shop, a company store, the ironmaster’s house, and several workers’ cottages — all nestled in a peaceful forested valley.

This month is my favorite time of year to visit. The property includes a four-acre apple orchard and the Park Service lets visitors pick as much as they want for $1 a pound (buckets and pole pickers provided). Though the original apple trees from the 1780s are gone, there are 35 different varieties, many with historical roots, including Spitzenburg’s, which may have been Thomas Jefferson’s favorite and Smokehouse, a variety traced to 1837 when it was grown next to a smokehouse in Lancaster County. By mid-October the fruit is gone, so get here soon. Hopewell Furnace is within French Creek State Park and links up with several trails within the park.

The Stoogeum: Laughter as Panacea

September 9, 2012

It’s the laughter that gets you the first time you visit the Stoogeum near Ambler. Giggles aren’t an everyday occurrence in your average museum, but they have them in spades at this office-park shrine to Larry, Curly, and Moe. It seems like every knucklehead…er, visitor…in the Stoogeum is chuckling over something, whether it’s the comedy sketches playing on TVs on every floor, the vintage pinball machine, or the wall of comic strips, from Nancy to Calvin and Hobbes, that make reference to TV’s eye-poking comic geniuses.

Whether you’re a fan of or not, this is museum-going at its finest and funniest. It’s way more than someone’s dusty collection of shot glasses and vanity license plates. Founder Gary Lassin, a lifelong Stooges fan, also happened to marry the granddaughter of Larry Fine’s brother (Local trivia: Larry was born Louis Feinberg near 3rd and South Streets and was the only Stooge from Philadelphia.) The amazing collection includes signed Columbia Pictures contracts (showing how their salaries rose from $200 to $1,500 a week in the 1930s); TV and movie props, like the flying submarine tank from The Three Stooges in Orbit; and a marketing empire as savvy as the Walt Disney Co. (cereal boxes, Colorforms, thimbles, toilet paper, and much more). There’s a state-of-the-art screening room playing Stooges shorts all day and interactive “Stoogeology 101” screens that urge you to “poke Curly in the eye” to get started.

You’ll probably come away with a better understanding of Shemp Howard (who replaced his brother Curly in the 1940s) and of the fact that the Stooges were men struggling with real issues when they weren’t throwing pies at each other.

But most likely of all, you’ll leave with a belly aching from laughing so much.

The Stoogeum is open the following Saturdays in 2012: Oct. 6, Nov. 17 and Dec. 22. It’s free, it’s about a 30-minute drive from Philadelphia, and kids are welcome (my 7-year-old loved it).

A Closer Look at Skippack Village

August 31, 2012

Once a stop on an early 20th century trolley route, Skippack added village to its name in the 1990s, opened some antiques shops and restaurants, and waited for the people to come. They did, and 20 years later it has managed to keep its quaint look without letting the chain stores take over. I have always treated Skippack as an ideal half-way point to meet friends from Bucks County and Collegeville. The Skippack Roadhouse and Mal’s Diner are pleasant places to get a drink or have a relaxing meal, and the Hotel Fiesole (formerly the Trolley Stop) is as sleek and sophisticated as any big-city restaurant.

Until recently, I tended to ignore the dozens of little shops and art galleries tucked into buildings dating to the 1700s. But they are truly the heart of Skippack and what give the village its character and staying power. My advice: park for free near Hotel Fiesole and just start wandering. Here are some of things you’ll find: a covered bridge built by Amish carpenters, a tiny woodcarver and cabinet-maker’s house, a doll hospital, a 1920s-era fire station, and shops selling dreamcatchers, cupcakes, Wilbur chocolates, Vera Bradley bags, furniture made from reclaimed barn wood, organic strawberry wine, and cheese soaked in Yuengling.

Peeking in windows or pausing on all those inviting front porches is OK, even encouraged.

Piece of advice: Avoid Mondays because just about everything is closed, save for a handful of restaurants and the Village Irish Shop.

Mini-golf at Franklin Square

August 24, 2012

When the kids are about to wig out from Birthplace of our Nation overload, Franklin Square is where you want to go. An easy walk from Independence Hall and Constitution Center, it was transformed in 2006 from a neglected open lot into a kid-friendly oasis with a carousel, playground, hamburger kiosk and vintage marble fountain. Best of all, it has the most interesting miniature golf course around — one whose designer obviously knew how to showcase the city’s best features. All 18 holes are Philly-themed: there’s Old City, the Museum of Art, the Liberty Bell, Ben Franklin bridge, and even the LOVE statue. At $9 a game for adults ($7 for seniors and kids), it’s no bargain, but it’s a fun break amid all the heavy history lessons swirling around it. Mini-golf and carousel are open daily through September, then they scale back to Friday through Sunday in October.

Best festival name ever: Roasting Ears of Corn

August 18, 2012

Allentown’s Museum of Indian Culture hosts the Roasting Ears of Corn Festival this weekend (Aug. 18 and 19). The name alone makes me want to go, but check out all the neat activities they have lined up: tomahawk throwing, drumming demonstrations, fire dancing, quill making and culinary booths serving up all kinds of things you won’t find in your local food court: fry bread, buffalo stew, Indian tacos and corn soup. A kid’s activity area features Navajo sand art, dream catchers, cornhusk dolls and other Native American arts and crafts. The event, Pennsylvania’s oldest American Indian Pow-wow, is in its 32nd year, so its organizers must know what they are doing. The museum itself is closed during th festival, but the event just might intrigue you enough to come back and learn more about the Lenape and other American Indian tribes. Admission is $5-$7; kids 7 and under are free.

As summer nears: 5 life-changing Pennsylvania ice cream parlors

July 30, 2012

 

 

Ice cream is fun to eat all year round, but is there no better time to enjoy it than in June, July and August? As summer nears, here is my subjective short list of the best ice cream parlors in eastern Pennsylvania.

Owow Cow Creamery, Bucks County, Ottsville. O wow, indeed. Amaretto Fudge Ripple, Sweet Honey Cream, Chocolate Covered Lemon Peel. The flavors alone make this growing local ice cream business a winner. Add to that its local sourcing of organic milk, honey, eggs and other ingredients and an owner with a real appreciation for the beauty of rural Bucks County’s. There are also branches in Wrightstown, Easton, Chalfont, and Lambertville, NJ.

Bassett’s, Philadelphia. Reading Terminal Market. Even ice cream in Philadelphia involves a historic first. Bassett’s is America’s oldest existing ice cream company, established in 1861 when L.D. Bassett began selling ice cream he made via mule-driven churn at his South Jersey farm.  The flavors tend toward the familiar — cinnamon, rum raisin, cherry vanilla — but the ice cream stands out for its creaminess, thanks to an impressively high butterfat content of 16.4%. It’s available in stores all over the place, but the best place to enjoy it is by bellying up to the marble counter at Reading Terminal Market, where it has been a fixture since 1892.

Purple Cow Creamery, Easton. You can’t go to the Crayola Factory without stopping at this cheery family-owned ice cream parlor. The flavors are as colorful as the crayons next door: Chocolate Covered Bacon, Toasted Coconut, Birthday Cake Batter with Rainbow Sprinkles, and the marquee Purple Cow (black raspberry with fudge swirl and chocolate truffle cups). They also make their own waffle cones.

 

Freddy Hill Farms, Lansdale. Pretzel cones, low prices, plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and two goats and a kid named Frosty, Dip and Scoop. This may not be the finest ice cream one ever tasted, but it’s one of my favorite places to take the kids when I’m looking for an easy and fun dessert option. We get our ice cream, visit the animals and sometimes play a round of mini-golf. They also carry butter brickle, a hard-to-find flavor made of small, crunchy pieces of golden-browned toffee.

Perrydell Farm, York. Dolcezzo, the acclaimed gelataria in Washington, D.C., sources its dairy products from Perrydell and calls the three Perry brothers “some of the nicest folks around.” On their farm outside York, you can witness the milking of cows and feeding of calves (if you time it right), then indulge in a hand-dipped cone or shake. Their chocolate milk is pretty fabulous, too.

Finally, a eulogy of sorts:

R.I.P. Rosenberger’s Dairy Wagon, Hatfield. Whenever my dad is forced to pay more than $3 for a dish of ice cream, he grumbles that he would get double the amount for about half the price at the little cafe attached to Rosenberger’s Dairies. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but we can vouch for the tasty ice cream and all-around friendliness of the place. Sadly, Rosenberger’s was sold and closed its doors forever in 2014.

Rodin Museum Returns to Its Original Grandeur

July 17, 2012

The Barnes Museum’s new location may be getting all the attention this summer, but it’s worth noting that another superb museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has quietly reopened. The Rodin Museum, home to the largest collection of Auguste Rodin sculptures outside of France, underwent a three-year $9 million makeover that spiffed up all the sculptures, including “The Thinker” and “Gates of Hell,” and restored the French gardens, fountain and reflecting pool. As curator Joseph Rischl describes it, the refurbished building is “as sophisticated as a Parisian dress of 1929.” Wow. Plus, it now has air-conditioning.

Unliked the Barnes, timed tickets are not required. Even the pricing is easy: “pay what you wish” (suggested donation: $8) and the gardens are always free.

Sunday Stroll at Pearl S. Buck’s House

July 12, 2012

It’s not every day that you can view a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize under the same roof. But that’s just what you will find at the Pearl S. Buck House in Bucks County, along with a collection of books, sculptures, and other world artifacts that tell the story of Mrs. Buck’s fascinating life and travels. She was the first American woman to win both the Pulitzer (for The Good Earth) and the Nobel prizes, and it was here in Perkasie that she wrote many of her books, short stories, and articles.

Aspiring artists can take inspiration from Mrs. Buck’s success this Sunday, July 16, when her organization, Pearl S. Buck International, hosts an afternoon of music, art and photography displays on its landscaped grounds. Among the featured artists are Chris Mills, a local photographer specializing in nature and underwater shots; Jamie Seeger, a blind pianist; and a group of artists called “Push, Pull, Print” who convert oil, pastel and watercolor paintings into screen prints in an attempt to push artists beyond their normal training.

It’s $8 to enter the grounds, and visitors are encouraged to bring easels, sketchpads, and other tools to let their creativity flourish in the spirit of Pearl S. Buck. Docents will lead tours of the home at 1 and 2 p.m. for an additional fee.

Keeping cool at the Turkey Hill Experience

July 9, 2012

If you can’t be near the ocean or floating in a pool during this insanely hot summer, air-conditioned indoor entertainment is the next best thing. The Turkey Hill Experience near Lancaster does a decent job of keeping all ages happy, whatever the temperature hits outside. Located in a huge former silk mill just off Route 30 in Columbia, PA, it’s part indoor playground and part window into the world of ice cream-making. Kids can milk mechanical cows and free dive into a rainbow ball pit. Teens can learn about homogenization and pasteurization, create their own ice cream flavor, then make a commercial about it. And grown-ups can help themselves to plentiful samples of ice cream and iced tea and sneak off to the blast freezer when noise levels get too high. When I was there, Eagles Touchdown Sundae was one of eight showcase flavors; more recently, they were serving up Chocolate Whoopie Pie ice cream. I dare you not to try it.

There has been some griping about the $11.50 entrance fee, but discount coupons can usually be found at local grocery stores or via two-for-one Internet deals. If I lived within an hour’s drive of Columbia, I would consider buying a year’s pass for $30. My 3- and 7-year-old visited last summer and they still talk about the experience. Highlights: the old-time milk truck, the indoor slide, and that big rainbow ball pit. This summer, I’m sure the blast freezer would also make the list.