“Stay on track, Mom,” my eleven-year-old son, Ross said, as we crossed the parking lot of the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. I looked down and saw a painted railroad track on the asphalt and considered the metaphorical meaning of Ross’ remark.
We weren’t on a pilgrimage to anywhere in particular. We’d just spent an hour or so in this cozy museum watching toy trains careen among tiny Alpine villages and scaled-down cityscapes. Now Ross and I were wandering outside in the fresh air. It was a fine day in late summer. A bluebell sky stretched overhead, and lacy clouds drifted by. All around us tidy Amish farms blanketed the rolling hills, their white houses and barns gleaming in the brilliant sunshine.
Ahead a playground loomed with old-fashioned swings: the kind with rubbery seat bottoms that hug you tight and thick chains that feel cool in your hands. Without even speaking, Ross and I climbed on the swings and began pumping hard, our feet pointing straight up to heaven. It felt wonderful—the wind blowing through my hair, my son’s laughter pealing across the fields. It’s been too long since I’ve been on a swing, I decided. It’s the ultimate cheap thrill—and good for the soul as well.
Just then we heard the clip-clopping of a horse and buggy coming along the narrow road beside us. As the buggy neared, an Amish man dressed in a black suit and white shirt with a neat gray beard but no moustache said hello and smiled a welcome. Beside him his wife nodded, and suddenly a warm feeling spread through me. I could tell they appreciated that my son and I played together on this pleasant afternoon.
Ross and I would learn after a few days in Amish country that family values are the glue that holds the Amish together. In fact, their religion, their rules, their eschewal of all things modern—these serve to bind them together in a way that ensures their simple traditions and unique culture stay the same. Somehow the Amish have figured out how to keep life from spinning out of control.
I looked at Ross beside me swinging higher and higher and realized there was a lesson for me in this place about what matters and how certain modern conveniences serve only to separate us from the people we love. Ross’ words came back to me. “Stay on track, Mom,” he’d said. Maybe I needed to find my way back to the right track.
ALL THINGS CHOCOLATE
Taking this late-summer vacation with Ross to Lancaster County was a chance to stave off some of the guilt I’d been feeling for being busy lately—too busy to spend time with Ross, my youngest son. When I saw a few days free in my calendar before school started, I knew we had to plan something fun.
But the question was where? I didn’t want to go too far, and I wanted some place new and different. My husband and I had visited Lancaster County before Ross was born with our two older sons, and I had fond memories of the bucolic countryside, the rural culture, and the family values the Amish people exemplify.
Then I remembered Hershey, Pennsylvania, which for some reason we’d missed when we explored that region before. Chocolate! A theme park! Family values! And only a half-day’s drive away from Virginia Beach. It would be the perfect destination for old-fashioned fun and quality time with my youngest son—and a chance to enjoy the waning days of his childhood.
I’ve spent most of my life eating Hershey bars. They’re synonymous with chocolate, a ubiquitous part of America culture. Who knew that the man behind this famous brand—Milton Hershey—was such an interesting character? When you visit Hershey, you’re sure to learn what a wonderful guy “Milt” was. After all, before he came along, the city of Hershey didn’t even exist. Now it’s a thriving town with spotless neighborhoods, a busy factory, a darling downtown, a world-renowned school, and unique tourist attractions.
Ross and I learned all about Milton and the town of Hershey during a trolley tour we joined at Hershey’s Chocolate World, an attraction that enlightens visitors on all things chocolate. After the trolley tour, we learned how chocolate is made during the Hershey’s Chocolate Tour, a free ride that simulates a factory tour. At the end, you exit into the largest chocolate store I’ve ever seen, and—trust me—you’ll be in the mood to buy some chocolate. Other activities include creating your own candy bar, solving a 4D chocolate mystery, cooking up chocolate desserts, and tasting myriad chocolates.
After our Chocolate World visit, Ross and I headed over to the Hotel Hershey, a world-class hotel, which Mr. Hershey built in the 1930s. A gorgeous property with a stone façade, the Hotel Hershey is known for its stellar amenities, including two full-service restaurants, a lounge, indoor and outdoor pools, 36 holes of golf, seasonal children’s activities, and a spa.
I’d heard about the menu of chocolate treatments at the Hotel Hershey’s spa, so after dropping Ross off at the Kids’ Night Out program, I indulged in a Cocoa Massage. An hour later, I emerged from the spa fully “chocolatized,” my skin smelling sweet and coated in a buttery sheen.
Hersheypark is a great little theme park, but don’t let its diminutive size fool you. It offers more hair-raising roller coasters on its 110 acres—13!—than you’ll find in theme parks five times as big. For old-fashioned thrills, you’ll want to try the park’s three wooden coasters: Wildcat, Comet, and Lightning Racer. Other coasters include Storm Runner, Great Bear, Sooperdooperlooper, Sidewinder, Trailblazer, and Wild Mouse.
Storm Runner was Ross’ favorite. It’s a one-of-a-kind coaster that takes you from 0 to 72 mph in two seconds flat. Then your car rises 18 stories up—and zooms right back down again, leaving your stomach dangling somewhere in mid-air. I rode with Ross at least once on each of the coasters, but then I let him go by himself and watched from below with that scary feeling all parents share when they send their children off into the unknown.
Park admission includes entry to ZooAmerica, a wildlife park that started out as Milton Hershey’s private animal collection. Ross and I enjoyed viewing the animals: bison, gray wolves, prairie dogs, black bears, and countless other species. Ross’ favorites were the bats and the tarantula, but I liked the river otters best.
Back in Hersheypark, the Ferris wheel spinning gaily overhead lured us in its direction. A throwback to the days of traveling carnivals, Ferris wheels have always been one of my favorite rides—though they aren’t very common anymore. After waiting in line for a few minutes, we climbed into our own little gondola and sailed up into the sky—until we stopped to let the next group climb into their gondola. Start, stop, start, stop…finally we got to go round and round a few rotations—just enough to feel the wind in our hair and butterflies in our tummies as the ground rose up and fell away again.
The best of part of taking this vacation with Ross, I decided, as we looped around one last time was the chance to be a kid again. Life’s so serious with all its rules and responsibilities. It sure felt fine to forget all those things for a while and spin around in a Ferris wheel without a care in the world.
GET LOST IN A MAZE
A short drive from Hershey is Strasburg, Pennsylvania, a cozy town with an old-fashioned ice cream and sandwich shop, antique stores, and a cozy ambience. Ross and I lodged at the Hershey Farm Inn, which offers comfortable accommodations in a farm setting. In fact, Ross and I took a stroll our first day there and met the inn’s resident animals: goats, bunnies, chickens, turkeys, and even a donkey.
The Hershey Farm Restaurant is known for its Pennsylvania Dutch smorgasbord, a luscious array of over 100 items, including a tasty dessert bar. Ross and I weren’t in the mood for a huge dinner, so we ordered off the menu: a grilled cheese and fries for him and homemade cole slaw and an ear of corn for me. Simple, but delicious.
Besides the National Toy Train Museum, Strasburg is also home to the Strasburg Railroad, where you can ride a historic steam train and view life-sized locomotives on display. Ross and I met a family from Great Britain on our train ride and enjoyed hearing about their travels in the U.S.
Our favorite attraction in Strasburg was Cherry Crest Adventure Farm, which is open to the public from July through October and has one of the most amazing corn mazes you’re likely to encounter. Called the world’s largest interactive game, this maze covers five acres and has 2 1/2 miles of walking paths. Visitors are given a flag to carry in the maze so that if you require help, you can wave the flag and someone will come to your rescue.
Clues and puzzle pieces in mailboxes scattered throughout are designed to help you find your way out—and solve a riddle in the process. Traversing the entire maze takes a couple of hours, but Ross and I decided we were done wandering after an hour and found our way out. Lots of other activities are available at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm, so make sure you allow a few hours for your visit.
As Ross and I drove back to Virginia Beach after our mini-vacation, I felt lighthearted and carefree. I vowed to embrace some of the lessons I learned on this trip. Lessons like slowing down and remembering the simple pleasures of life—riding a Ferris wheel round and round, visiting farm animals, and most importantly, taking a break from television and the computer for a few days.
Now every time I eat a Hershey’s Kiss, my mind will drift back to this tranquil destination in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, and for a moment, I’ll close my eyes and picture Ross and me swinging in the sunshine. I’ll hear his laughter, and all will be well in my world.
For more information, visit www.discoverlancaster.com.