Touring the beautiful Amish communities in northern Indiana offers a multitude of opportunities to escape to a pastoral culture of old while enjoying lots of modern fun.
Amish and Mennonite families use horses and buggies to travel roads that Life magazine named among America’s most scenic drives, and groups enjoy visiting craftspeople who readily share a simple philosophy of life.
With America’s third-largest Amish settlement living in Elkhart County and nearby towns, the region has long served as a magnet for groups seeking its unusual antidotes to modern life: a slower pace, scenic tours and a variety of Amish crafts, from basket weaving to quilting. It’s a place that offers everything from wineries to dinner theaters to concerts from international stars like singer Daniel O’Donnell.
Four communities — Shipshewana, Nappanee, Wakarusa and Middlebury — offer many attractions, both Amish and non-Amish, that allow groups to tailor itineraries to their interests. Teachers can visit schools with grades one to eight in one room. Quilters pack exhibitions, and local families provide visitors tips like how to make smooth mashed potatoes — use warm milk — and Amish peanut butter spread — add marshmallows. Women enjoy the Giggles and Gifts Getaway with girlfriends in urban hotels and shopping along beautiful backroads.
Guests love the peaceful way of life because it offers a cultural experience that makes northern Indiana one of America’s top destinations.
“These are people who live very simply and welcome visitors and groups into their homes and businesses,” said Sonya Nash, director of group and experiential sales and marketing at the Elkhart Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a higher and different belief, and it’s very appealing to groups because these folks have figured out a way to be healthy and happy. Escaping the modern world briefly can be fabulous.”
Whether your group is faith based, seniors or friends that want to have fun, here are four great places to de-stress and refill the spirit.
In a community filled with bakeries, cafes and other attractions, Shipshewana provides some of the best options to learn about local culture.
Because of strong interest in the origins and traditions of the Amish, hundreds of craftspersons built the barn for the Menno-Hof Visitors Center. Visitors learn the history of a people that searched hundreds of years for a place to practice their faith in freedom and peace.
Across from the Menno-Hof, the Shipshewana Trading Place boasts a flea market the size of 30 football fields and the distinction of being the largest flea market in the Midwest.
One of the best ways to enjoy the culture is on a backroads tour like those provided at Blue Gate, an entertainment and dining complex that includes a restaurant, a bakery, a theater, an inn, a furniture store and a gift shop, along with carriage rides.
Other entertainment is available at the Michiana Events Center, which has spring events that include an RV show, a truck and tractor pull, an Easter Passion play and horse shows, along with an exciting trapeze show during Christmas season.
Finally, there are many Shipshewana vendors like Ben’s Soft Pretzels, where guests sample giant pretzels and can sign up for a pretzel-making class.
On the west side of town sits the Barns at Nappanee. Its Round Barn Theater is the main draw, with a spring lineup that features “Beauty and the Beast” and tours of Amish homes and farms, along with horse and buggy rides.
Another favorite is a center of boutiques housed in the renovated building of the famous Hoosier Cabinet. Called Coppes Commons, its stores sell everything from antiques to gourmet popcorn. The Coppes Napanee touts itself as the oldest continuously operating cabinetmaker in the nation.
The selection of vendors ranges from bakeries to candy stores to restaurants, including non-Amish treasures like Hunter’s Hideaway. If a group wants to catch up on sports, Hunter’s has a bar and grill with 23 TVs, a heated patio and selection of delicious burgers.
Just north of Nappanee live people from the Old Order Mennonite community of Wakarusa.
Visitors can step back in time and enjoy Wakarusa Pro Hardware, with its original hardwood floors and merchandise stored in more than 1,000 wood drawers reaching from floor to ceiling. Employees use a ladder that rolls along the wall to access goods.
To satisfy a sweet tooth, the Wakarusa Dimestore sells jelly beans from jumbo chocolate-covered cherry to assorted fruit, along with many fine candies.
Near the Michigan border lies the town of Middlebury.
At Das Dutchman Essenhaus, guests dine on time-tested Amish recipes; they can also book a room, hold a conference or sample products made on-site. Essenhaus Foods makes Amish egg noodles, soups, salad dressings and more and delivers them to grocery stores across the U.S.
In addition to the good food and relaxation at Essenhaus, visitors can also find beautiful gardens, classic car shows, home and fashion shows, miniature golf and bike rentals to enjoy the community.
If spirits are of interest, the Wedgewood Brewing Company offers craft beers and cocktails, food and live music.
For groups wanting to learn more about an unforgettable escape to northern Indiana, the Elkhart County Visitor Center helps to plan itineraries and hosts visits to check out the wide range of attractions.
“We have individual tours for planners,” said Nash, the center director. “Seeing is believing.”