As if the sprawling beauty of farmlands, old world charm of horse drawn carriages and the amicable Amish aren’t charming enough, the lip smacking sticky buns and shoo-fly pies massage your taste buds and make it the perfect holiday.

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This was our first vacation as a family after the arrival of our son, so we wanted to drive somewhere that was both cozy and relaxing. Lancaster County nestled in Pennsylvania was a perfect weekend getaway, strategically situated as it is, a short drive from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City.

Lancaster is one of the largest settlements of Amish and Mennonite communities in the United States. The Amish are devout Christians originating from Switzerland and Germany. Their migration to Pennsylvania dates back to the 18th century when they were persecuted around Europe for promoting adult baptism and expressing reluctance to attend Catholic mass. The Amish church was formed when the Mennonite community split in 1693 and organized under their leader Jacob Ammann. The Amish are often referred to as Mennonites or Anabaptists. When William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, promised freedom of religion for its inhabitants, the Amish migrated to Lancaster in droves.

We found the Amish a friendly, warm community with cheerful dispositions. Besides, in this i-age of iPads, iPods and iPhones, their shunning of modern necessities like electricity and photography piqued our curiosity.

Lancaster offers two attractive options when it comes to accommodations—the cozy bed and breakfast or the authentic Amish farm stay. We opted for the bed and breakfast option since we did not want our six-month-old to get turned off by farm fragrances. Plus the idea of homemade breakfasts greatly appealed to my quick fix meal palate.

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The New Beginning Bed and Breakfast on King Street was a prize find. The gracious hospitality of the hosts coupled with their delicious breakfast spreads made our stay immensely pleasurable. While Denise made sure there was piping hot coffee accompanied by freshly baked muffins and cupcakes, Al was quick to chime in with his recommendations on restaurants, souvenir shops and driving routes. They graciously offered us their grandchildren’s toys and even had a high chair for our tot. It felt like a true vacation as we set off to explore the region with a full stomach and without the nagging worry of piled up dirty dishes.

Our first stop was the Central Market. What began as open-air stalls in 1742 was housed under the impressive Romanesque building in 1889. Central Market is where the locals shop for produce and meat, so the scene is always bustling with pretty flowers, decadent treats, freshly baked pastries, ethnic foods and crafts. A number of Amish families have stalls with their pickled relish, preserves, canned beans, smoked bologna and various other goods. Their good natured service enhances your experience and is also a perfect way to learn about their culture.

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One particular stall manned by two Amish girls had dals, beans and rice. After a brief conversation, we realized that we Indian-Americans cook the same ingredients in totally different ways and quickly exchanged recipes. The Amish style baked beans, pot roast, meat loaf and different varieties of potato casseroles are definitely worth a try. For the slightly more curious there is a recipe book called The Central Market Cookbook that features authentic Amish meal menus. What better way to learn about a culture than to eat their food?

The Lancaster Cultural History Museum and Heritage Center of Lancaster County that encompass the Central Market offer special exhibitions to explore and understand the Amish culture. But a history lesson in a museum ruins a vacation for my spouse so we headed to the Amish Farm and House for a guided tour with brief bites of history.  We found this to be a great way to learn about their congregation, religion and beliefs. Although the Amish want to keep electricity out of their lives, they own refrigerators, stoves, heaters and various other appliances manned by gas. Their simple belief that letting electricity in would pave way for other modern marvels to conquer their family time found many believers in our group.

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Quilting, a treasured American craft has been elevated to an antique status by the Amish. For quilting aficionados the Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum houses exhibits from the late 19th century and is a treasure trove for patterns. The museum also offers quick demonstrations on lace making, rug hooking and quilting over the weekend.

Based on the recommendations from our host we headed to Sylvia’s Quilting Shop located in the village of Bird-in-Hand. The shop is located in the basement of a house and was an excellent way to learn the nuances of quilting. With intricate yet simple patterns, traditional styles and superior fabric, quilts serve as prized possessions. The Amish started the quilting tradition to commemorate a birth or a wedding but with a steep increase in demand it has exploded into a large scale labor intensive production. But supply has not diminished their value and we found even a twin size quilt to be very expensive. To quench my retail hunger, we bought several throws as souvenirs before heading for the buggy rides.

 

The best way to take in the beauty of the countryside is to bike or hop on these buggy rides. We boarded a buggy ride from Aaron & Jessica’s in the Kitchen Kettle village. Steve, the driver, offered us cookies and root beer and chimed in about his family. It seems as though the locals are keenly aware of our curiosity and indulge us with their personal stories.

Steve was baptized at the age of 21 and he strongly believes that adult baptism is the most sensible path, since the believer is old enough to choose the religion and hence the baptised tend to stay within the confines of the Amish belief. Those who are excommunicated are welcomed back if they repent and complete shunning of members who violate their doctrines is done only as a last resort. Mass is held on alternating Sunday’s on neighboring homes and is a very elaborate affair with communion service lasting up to three hours.

Although the Amish don’t possess health insurance, they have church aid, a community system of risk sharing. They are weary of politics but voter turnout has been gradually increasing within their regions. Since most Amish do not drive they don’t possess government issued licenses and have a unique form of voter ID which is approved by the local bishop and the state. The Amish in America have their own newspapers like the Amish Heartland, which gives details abuot community events and local news. Be careful before you use your camera, since the Amish are not eager to have their pictures taken.

In spite of the heavy breakfast we found our stomachs rumbling at the end of the buggy ride and headed to the Kitchen Kettle Village for lunch. The village itself is quaint and houses numerous shops focusing on local crafts and foods. Lunch at the Kling House was delicious with impeccable service. Another restaurant to be mentioned here is the Stoltzfus Farm and Restaurant, which offers homemade delicacies and is a perfect pit stop for dessert.

We stopped by the Peaceful Valley Furniture store. Amish are excellent wood craftsman so the wooden trains and bikes make excellent keepsakes.

Lancaster offers something for everybody. For those who are interested in trains and railways, there is the Railroad Museum and the Strasburg Railroad which offers a scenic 45 minute ride around the Amish countryside. In addition to the shows that fascinate audiences, The Fulton Theater Opera House organizes backstage tours for theater buffs. From sneaking into dressing rooms to standing center-stage this would be one memorable experience of your Lancaster trip. Hershey’s Chocolate Factory is a short drive from Lancaster country and is a perfect spot to indulge your sweet tooth for kids and adults alike.

This Dutch country also boasts excellent world cuisine. From authentic Thai in SalaThai to South American ceviche in El Serrano, the choices are endless.

A trip to Lancaster reminded us of the undisputable worth of manual labor and the poetic lure of simple rural living. Travel always opens our mind to new cultures and Lancaster appeals to both the mind and the stomach. We drove back determined to focus on life’s intrinsic pleasures instead of the glaring materialistic ones.

Meera Ramanathan is a columnist focusing on her dual passions—food and travel. A voracious reader, she also writes about immigration melodramas, cinema and parenting woes. She tweets at @meeraramanathan and blogs at Lost in Thought.(http://dreamzwild.wordpress.com)

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