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A Place Called New Hope

As the sun goes down, twinkling lights welcome, and though the village is tiny, it's more hospitable than ever. It beckons visitors to walk and peruse. We check into the Wedgwood Inn and find ourselves assigned to the old carriage house of a Victorian that is now one of several prominent bed-and-breakfasts in town.

Upstairs, there is a queen-size bed and views of the woods; downstairs has a foldout queen-size Mitchell Gold sofa bed and a wood-burning stove. The kitchenette, with its 1950s-era enameled galley, adds a nice, if anachronistic, touch to the mix of antique furnishings in the 19th-century building.

A tour guide awaits the carriage trade in hippie-turned-trendy New Hope, Pa., near Philadelphia. (Jeff Gunton -- www.newhopepa.cpm)

We drop our bags and walk the quarter-mile down toward Main Street, and run smack into a barricade. A fire engine pulls slowly up the narrow lane and stops on a small stone bridge overlooking the canal that runs through town. Santa has arrived for a pre-holiday promotional appearance, and out of nowhere a gaggle of children gathers, squealing around the old elf.

Suddenly, New Hope has taken on the feel of a scene from the Hollywood chestnut "Holiday Inn." The only thing missing is the snow. This is a town -- full of merchants and decorators -- that loves this time of year. We find much of the rest of the town the same . . . but different.

Gone are the biker bars and head shops; in their place are galleries and jewelry stores. The air is filled with the scents of soaps and candles that waft from aromatherapy shops and the delicious scents from wood-burning brick ovens.

At Esca, an Italian restaurant, we are greeted by a staff that is cheery, if not downright punchy, after hosting a weekend-long run of tourists. As we settle on a table in the bar, a waiter lights a fire in the Mediterranean-style room while another brings our drinks.

The building is vintage 18th century, but it is transformed into a warm and cozy terrazzo-like space by the flickering fire. As it's Sunday night and things are slow, the chef comes out to chat. He's in a good mood, and so he disappears and then returns with an appetizer that he says is the house specialty: fried calamari that is perfectly al dente inside, lightly breaded outside and accompanied by three homemade sauces.

There are nearly 200 shops in New Hope and dozens of restaurants, ranging from soup-and-sandwiches to grills, and we choose one of the newest, Marsha Brown, for dinner. It's a church-turned-restaurant, and a popular spot around the region. Walking in, we run into a gay couple from a less hip part of the Keystone State who have driven two hours just to have dinner here. And not for the first time.

It's worth the trip, they assure us, before being led to a quiet corner in the second-floor loft dining room. We order wine and decide to keep it simple and are rewarded with a dozen plump, briny Chesapeake oysters for a starter.

For dinner, a 10-ounce fillet is cooked to perfection and accompanied by two side dishes -- silky mashed potatoes and green beans garnished with garlic/goat cheese/bacon -- that are substantial enough for two.

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