The black suits. The modest, formal dresses. The large families walking on the side of the road, while cars whiz past on a Saturday.
If you are a New Yorker, a visit to the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pa., might inevitably remind you of chasidic Brooklyn. But close-knit, very traditional religious communities are exotic for most Americans — so exotic that a vast industry has evolved to market the Lancaster Amish lifestyle for visitors.
Of all the contrasts between Borough Park and whimsically named Lancaster towns like Bird-in-Hand, tourism is probably the most striking. While attitudes toward tourists vary, Brooklyn’s chasidic communities don’t, by and large, promote themselves as an attraction for outsiders. Whereas throughout Lancaster, warehouse-sized visitor centers welcome tourists with traditional Amish cooking, gift shops full of memorabilia, hay rides and petting zoos.
You can visit a working farm and ride in a traditional buggy or in a half-dozen varieties of trains. Or tour pretzel factories, eat kosher fresh-churned ice cream, chase your family through a corn maze and browse endlessly for antiques.
Of course it’s tourist-laden. I’m always a little perplexed at the debates over whether a Lancaster visit can be “authentic.” Short of joining a Mennonite Church, you’re not going to live like an Amish local, but you can savor the gentle sights, tastes and experiences that make this region distinctive — and it’s all more enjoyable if you don’t overthink it.
Which is why Oggi and I figured it would be an ideal destination for Zelda, who at age 3 does not overthink corn mazes, ice cream or cows. She’s simply delighted by all of them. Over a series of days in Lancaster, the only thing Zelda found boring was the part I liked most — driving around spectacularly beautiful countryside — which she resolved by napping through the scenery.
A car is all but essential here. Yes, Amtrak can whisk you straight to the city of Lancaster via its Keystone line, but to appreciate both the loveliness of this place and its vastness, country roads are required. (We followed a series of Google-guided driving tours listed on the Lancaster website: http://www.discoverlancaster.com/activities/pa-covered-bridges.asp).
Lancaster County is rural in a way you rarely find on the East Coast anymore — a nearly unbroken agricultural landscape of fields and forests, punctuated by covered bridges, tidy farmhouses and endless grain silos. Most of the roads are single-lane in each direction, and horse-drawn buggies are common.
One way to take in the scenery without driving is by rail. Trains rival horse-drawn buggies as Lancaster’s most popular conveyance, at least for tourists in the town of Strasburg.
Catch a 45-minute scenic ride on the Strasburg Rail Road, founded in 1832 and still operating. Cross the street to ogle 100 vintage locomotives at the National Railroad Museum. Nearby, kids of all ages love the Choo Choo Barn, a midcentury homage to the pastime of miniature model trains, and collectors make a beeline for the National Toy Train Museum.
Less nostalgic, but more thorough, is a guided bus tour of the kind offered by the Amish Farm and House, an 1805 ivy-covered landmark which has shown visitors around Lancaster since the 1950s. The narrated 90-minute tour offers a thoughtful sojourn through this bucolic landscape.
The farmhouse tour answers the things you always wanted to know about Amish religion, clothes, schooling, views on machinery and so forth, but didn’t know whom to ask. Out back, there’s a 15-acre farm you can wander, along with a blacksmith’s workshop and tobacco shed, farm workers milking cows and buggy rides.
While the Amish Farm is particularly comprehensive, dozens of Amish attractions operate as essentially one-stop tourism shopping, as we discovered. At many farm restaurants, patrons can take the kids to pet the animals on the farm out back, or blow off steam on a playground; jump on a hayride, or pick pumpkins in season; and shop for souvenir books, quilts and artisan tchotchkes.
It’s all very, very wholesome … so we headed out of the cornfields to the city of Lancaster. Like so much of Pennsylvania, this small-scale city has an organically historic quality, in that tree-lined streets of tidy stone rowhouses and downtown boulevards appear unchanged over the decades, but not by the studious design of conservationists.
There were pumpkins on the stoops and young couples strolling to brunch as we arrived on a weekend morning. In the heart of downtown is Lancaster’s Central Market — the urbanite’s way to harvest Amish bounty.
An 1800s red-brick structure, Central Market is a destination for the most authentic of Lancaster souvenirs: Pennsylvania Dutch whoopie pies, wildflower bouquets, and crisp tangy apples picked just hours before.