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Something old in the Mid-Atlantic

Courtesy Pennsylvania Dutch CVB

Whether it’s the charming coastal cottages of Cape May, a Delaware garden estate or the timeless Amish heritage of central Pennsylvania, the Middle Atlantic States offer no shortage of historic cultural attractions.

Although there’s no shortage of buzz about new attractions throughout the Mid-Atlantic, many old favorites still merit a spot on group tour itineraries. Those sites give visitors a glimpse into the character and flavor of the region that few up-and-comers can match.

Some of the oldest sites in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey still remain among the most popular places for groups to visit. Generations of tourists have enjoyed the Atlantic City boardwalk, and the Shawnee Inn in the Poconos celebrates a century of golf and nature vacations this year.

On your next tour through this tristate area, be sure to include some of these time-tested travelers’ favorites.

Pennsylvania Dutch
Lancaster, Pa.
Although they are often referred to as the Pennsylvania Dutch, the original Amish and Mennonite settlers in Lancaster County came from Germany and Switzerland in the 1720s and 1730s. Today, the Amish communities continue to thrive in the area, and groups visiting Lancaster have a variety of options for learning about their history and traditions.

“Lancaster County is the largest Amish population in the United States — a little over 30,000 people,” said Joel Cliff, media relations manager for the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s the oldest and original Amish settlement in the U.S. We’ve been known for it in half a century of tourism marketing.”

Groups can learn about Amish heritage at three main attractions in the area. The Amish Experience has an Amish family homestead that shows how today’s Amish families live and work in the area.

A second property, the Amish Farm and House, is a 1905 farmhouse that shows how the Amish lived at the beginning of the 20th century. Another attraction, the Amish Village, features a re-created farm and historic farmhouse, a blacksmith’s shop and stores selling authentic Amish handicrafts.

Many groups also enjoy an experience called An Evening With the Amish, which is offered by local receptive operator All in One Tours.

“That takes place on an Amish family farm,” Cliff said. “That’s an opportunity to come out, spend a little bit of time with them, see the farm and then sit down to the table with an Amish family.
“As they share dinner, visitors can converse with them and learn about their faith and communities.”

Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library

Wilmington, Del.
Originally constructed as a private home for a member of the wealthy du Pont family, the Winterthur estate has grown into a world-class historic museum, garden and library.

“It was founded by Henry Francis du Pont and opened to the public 60 years ago,” said Ellen Hughes, manager of museum, gallery and estate tours. “This was his childhood home. Since 1951, people have been able to come in and see his collection of 85,000 objects made and used in America between 1640 and 1860.”

Those pieces of furniture, artwork and other items are displayed in some of the mansion’s 175 rooms. Many of the items are grouped according to themes and exhibited in displays backed with historic architecture from the 13 original Colonies. Among highlights are a set of six silver tankards made by Paul Revere, as well as a Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington.

Most groups that visit Winterthur also take a tram tour through the estate’s 1,000-acre garden.

“The garden includes a 60-acre naturalistic garden, which is touted as one of America’s best,” Hughes said. “One of the most exciting times to visit is in late April and May, when there’s a huge display of azaleas. Many people take the guided tram tour through the garden and then go back and walk through at their own leisure.”

Groups often make time to have lunch in one of the two on-site restaurants at the estate.

Cape May, N.J.
Travelers touring the coastal areas of southern New Jersey may make their way through some of the 16 beach communities of Cape May County. And although each has its own draw, from quaint fishing village to exclusive neighborhoods and boisterous boardwalks, none rivals the historic ambiance of Cape May itself.

“Everybody knows Cape May,” said Diane Wieland, director of tourism for the Southern Shores Regional Tourism Council. “The whole city is on the National Register of Historic Places. They have over 600 restored Victorian structures that are private homes, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and stores.”

Unlike many destinations on the Jersey Shore that had made names for themselves in tourism, Cape May was largely a residential area until the 1960s, and locals lived in the historic homes that had been built in town in the 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1970s, local innkeepers, retailers and restaurateurs began purchasing and renovating these structures, creating a shopping and dining destination with historical flair.

Groups can arrange overnight stays in the bed-and-breakfasts of Cape May or simply visit for a historical tour, or a lunch or dinner. For an overview of the town, visitors can take candlelight tours, ghost tours or trolley tours throughout the year.

Nature-lovers will enjoy bird-watching in the area.

“Birding is huge here,” Wieland said. “People can be in the rural areas in the morning and then be in a spa in the afternoon.”

Shawnee Inn
Shawnee on the Delaware, Pa.
One hundred years ago, an engineer named C.C. Worthington built the Buckwood Inn to be a nature-lovers’ retreat in the Pocono Mountains. In the century that followed, the resort went through various iterations and eventually came to be known as the Shawnee Inn. After thriving in the latter part of the 1900s as a golf resort, the property has come full circle in recent years.

“In about 2006, we made the decision to focus on nature, history and golf and the opportunity for people to have an authentic experience,” said general manager Rob Howell. “We encourage people to canoe, hike and raft, and we also hearken back to some of the things from when Worthington first built the place.

“We grow our own produce, have an apiary with bees for honey, and we tap our own maple trees now.”

Group travelers have a wealth of ways to experience the resort, either as a group or as individuals. Guests can take lessons at the golf academy or play on one of several golf courses, including a course that is lit for night play. The resort activities staff offers daily hikes, hayrides and history walks.

Visitors with a taste for the arts can enjoy several other offerings at the Shawnee Inn.

“We have an art gallery with changing shows,” Howell said. “We also have classes for journal-making, beading and a clay studio for doing pottery work.

“And we have a playhouse, which runs musicals, plays and special events year round.”

Lewes, Del.
From Cape May, groups can take a ferry across the Delaware Bay to Lewes, another historic small town on the seaside.

“Lewes is known as the first town in the first state,” said Betsy Reamer, executive director of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. “It was the first town in Delaware, going back to 1631, and it’s known for its historic preservation.”

Visitors learn about the history of the area at the Zwaanendael Museum, which was built in 1931 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the state’s first European settlement, a Dutch whaling colony called Swanendael. The building is a replica of the city hall in Hoorn, Holland, and features exhibits and artifacts from the original founding, the War of 1812 and other periods.

During the War of 1812, Lewes was bombarded by British naval ships, and a cannonball struck the home that would become the Cannonball House Maritime Museum. The small museum features nautical exhibits and a landscaped garden.

Many other buildings in town have been preserved by the Lewes Historical Society.

“They have a complex of buildings that are open for tours, and it’s quite an extensive collection,” said Reamer. “One is an 18th-century farmhouse, another is an old country store, and another is a doctor’s office.

“The visitors center and gift shop is in one of the oldest buildings in the state that is still standing in its present site. It dates back to 1682.”

More on the Mid-Atlantic:

Something new
Something old
Lights of Liberty
Aboard Atlantic City’s boardwalk

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.