It’s “ up, up and away,” sailing in a hot air balloon over the verdant countryside of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This exciting experience was ours, starting out at 6 a.m. on a warm Monday morning in July. What a thrill this unusually delightful ride was for the two of us, and if it’s not list on your list of fifty things to do before you die, think about placing it there.
Some congenial members of the United States Hot Air Balloon Team helped the two of us, along with the six other passengers that morning, into the sturdy woven and comfortably lined basket of the craft. Lucas, our licensed pilot, jokingly emphasized to the passengers that he doesn’t “blow up” the balloon; he inflates it. Also, he reminded us that the balloon doesn’t “go down”; it descends. For the reassurance of some folks, these can be important semantics. Also, we learned that the balloon is controlled by the direction of the wind and that the direction can be manipulated only slightly by the pilot.
Lucas and his crew deftly inflated the immense and colorful balloon and, within seconds we were off, ascending to a height of over a mile. We thrilled to the sights of a 10-mile, 365-degree view below us of hundreds of picturesque Amish and Mennonite farms spreading out in neat, quilted patch-work patterns. Flights in the fall can have a visibility of up to 50 miles plus seeing the beautiful autumn foliage.
In between the noisy, intermittent blasts of the balloon’s propane burner, there is a supreme quietness, along with the feeling of wonderful weightlessness – a peaceful, easy feeling that make us think of the Eagles’ classic song, “There’s a peaceful, easy feeling, and you know I won’t let you down – ‘cause I’m already standing on the ground” – which we, of course, eventually did after our hour-long ride.
Descending, as we did through the calm skies, we could see Amish and Mennonite families waving at us and also hear the farm dogs barking, their ears affected by loud bursts of sounds from the burner. Along the country roads, we could also see the truck, with its attached trailer, belonging to the chase team that was to meet us and return us to our base.
Once on the ground, the team helped each of the passengers out of the basket; then quickly went through the routine process of deflating the huge balloon, shoving it into its storage container, and then loading the container into the trailer, along with the basket itself.
After the loading, it was a ten-mile van ride for the passengers back to our take-off point where the team served champagne, no less, to celebrate the ride, along with orange juice and Danish rolls. Interestingly enough, tho’ both of us were born and raised in the Pittsburgh area, we had never explored the colorful Amish country less than a day’s drive away, and awesome it is.
As well as our exciting balloon riding experience, we took the well-known Aaron and Jessica’s horse drawn Buggy Ride at Plain and Fancy Farm and also saw the film on site,“Jacob’s Choice,” both of which we highly recommend. The center is the only one owned and operated by a family of the Plain People who run their business in the tiny town of Bird-in-Hand. How’s that for a quaint town name, common in Pennsylvania, along with those of Intercourse and Paradise (located close to each other and thus appropriately named — for most happily married couples, we trust).
Fans of the movie, “Witness,” meanwhile, will remember the infamous telephone booth where Harrison Ford called to learn of the murder of his friend and partner. The phone booth is on the main street of Intercourse, and, we of course — like all the tourists had to take a photo – minus John Book.
For detailed information on the Amish, be sure to stop in at the delightful Mennonite Information Center located in Lancaster. The helpful staff, books, and video presentations are all designed to interpret and explain both the Amish and Mennonite faith and lifestyle.
A splendid afternoon activity we thoroughly enjoyed was the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster with its acclaimed productions. The buffet dinner and musical, The King and I, which we saw was a highlight of our trip. We also enjoyed the musical, Joseph, at the huge Sight and Sound Theater where well over 800,000 people annually attend many lavish productions of Biblical stories.
Another gastronomical delight we “suffered through – not” during our stay was the popular and award-winning Miller’s Smorgasbord located in the town of Ronks and a Lancaster County landmark since 1929.
We spent a wonderful night at Joyce and Mel Eby’s B&B in Gordonville. The Ebys are Mennonites, and Mel took us on a tour of their neat, clean, seventh generation dairy farm, and, yes, we even got to milk a cow, as well as bottle-feed some calves. Talk about fun! Joyce, meanwhile, serves up a tasty breakfast, and both she and Mel are great conversationalists, making for an extra pleasant stay at their beautiful home.
Another overnighter where we stayed and highly recommend is the Country Living Inn, located near Bird in Hand, PA. The slogan of this delightful motel is that it’s almost like being at home, and that’s ever so true. There are lovely, handmade quilts on the beds and bouquets of flowers in each impeccably clean room. Adjacent to the hotel and with the same owners is D.J.’s Taste of the Fifties, a popular place for burgers, fries and luscious shakes, as well as delicious breakfast fare.
We also suggest a ride on the Strasburg Rail Road, America’s oldest short-line railroad, located in the village of Strasburg and built circa 1832 — as well as an informative visit to the impressive Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, located just across the road. Here you’ll walk in and around more than 100 historically significant locomotives and railcars — from mammoth steam engines to quaint Victorian coaches, as well as numerous videos chronicling the history of rail travel.
Plan on a few hours, if possible, at Central Market in downtown Lancaster — America’s oldest public farmer’s market, continuously operating since the early 1730s. The crowded aisles are filled with an international selection of food and other items. We found it especially fun to see the prim and colorful Amish families selling everything from delicious apple butter to handmade Amish dolls.
Nearby the market is a great place for lunch or dinner, the Pressroom, where delicious and elegantly presented delights make headlines. For our lunch, we especially enjoyed the delicious crab salad. Mmm, mmm!
If you’re heading East about 40 miles toward Philadelphia, as we did, be sure to include a stop at the magnificent Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, which incorporates over 1000 acres of gorgeous flowers and trees. Four hundred fifty acres are walkable and include a well-manicured topiary, as well as a magnificent conservatory that features everything from orchids to exotic palms to giant, floating lily pads.
For another stop, just twenty minutes from Longwood is the worldwide broadcast center for QVC, well worth the hour-long tour to see how the 24/7 program is produced. On site is a store where all the products advertised on TV may be purchased.
When going to Lancaster County, plan on at least several days to see all that this pristine part of Pennsylvania has to offer. For our money, it’s a blast!