By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
The question begins as we pedal past a half-mile of gold forsythia and follow a low stone bridge over Carnegie Lake, then gains force at the sight of undergraduates grooving to house party music outside a dining club that resembles stately Wayne Manor: Why didn't we go to Princeton?
My high school guidance counselor could easily supply the answer. But I take consolation in the fact that now, a few decades later, I can go to Princeton, at least for the weekend. No term papers, no deadlines. The only pressure is tire, since my husband, Jim, and I are touring the town by bike.
Princeton has more 250 years of history, impressive architecture, youthful energy and a spectacular natural setting, discreetly accented with black and orange. And it's perfectly flat. So exploring the university campus and two-square-mile borough by bike is the way to roll. Hey, Einstein did it. It's a no-brainer.
After hauling our bikes out of the family minivan (yes, it's come to that), we roll onto campus, heading toward Nassau Hall. Already two decades old before the first Independence Day, the university's original building was occupied by both sides of the Revolution and still sports a scar from the one-day battle in 1777.
Princeton's compact grounds don't include a huge commons; instead, its colleges and halls create a series of landscaped outdoor rooms. We quickly find a couple of favorites, starting with the plaza by the cathedral-size university chapel. Bypassing the grand Firestone Library, we glide toward the Chancellor Green Library, a Victorian Gothic masterwork. From its parquet floor to intricate ironwork, rising to a stained-glass rotunda, it repeats a joyous series of fans, circles, stars and octagons along its balconies and bookshelves -- a study in geometry.
We stop to admire Prospect Gardens, designed by Woodrow Wilson's first wife, Ellen. At ground level, it's carpeted with tulips; from a distance, its pathways echo the outlines of the university shield. Making our way past 20 headless bronze figures, an installation by Magdalena Abakanowicz, we find the university art museum. The holdings here beat many big-city collections. Its 68,000 works include pieces by two Stellas: Frank (in an exhibit celebrating his 50th reunion with the Class of 1958) and Jacques, represented by his 16th-century "Rape of the Sabines." Admission is free, but if we drop a donation into the box, Jim says, maybe they'll name the place for us.
Tucked into the central campus is serene Whitman College, the university's newest addition. Open only a year, it already looks as ancient as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with tall trees and cloisters. The students skateboarding around a stone courtyard are probably real wizards.
Winding toward "the Street," where old dining clubs line Prospect Avenue, we pass a glittering new building, its stainless-steel roof curving like the leaves of a book. When we see the name on the Frank Gehry design, we get it: the Lewis Science Library.
We leave campus through the FitzRandolph Gates. Superstition keeps undergraduates from walking through to Nassau Street until graduation, but since that's not an issue for us, we cycle carefully across Nassau Street.
In front of a half-timbered Tudor storefront, Mimi Omiecinski is parking her bike. The blond Southern transplant, who lives upstairs, is launching a bike tour business this summer and happily suggests a few favorite destinations in town.
"I'm not a granola type," she laughs. "But around here, I get everywhere I need to go without a car. To me, life is just lovelier on a bike." Can't disagree with that.
For the rest of the afternoon, we tool along luxurious Hodge Road and envy decidedly non-student digs: great turreted mansions with broad lawns and verandas where such locals as Wilson, a former Princeton president, and Grover Cleveland received admirers. We coast through a blizzard of cherry blossoms to Princeton Cemetery and follow a free map to celebrity graves, including that of Aaron Burr; his father, also Aaron Burr; and grandfather, Jonathan Edwards. (The latter two were early university presidents.)
We had hoped to fit in an evening canoe trip, but the rain changes our plans. We pedal hard back to the Nassau Inn, dry out and drive to Harrison Street for dinner. Main Street Bistro delivers the goods, and we turn in, hoping for a brighter morning.
When a chilly gray dawn gives way to a brilliant noon, we glide down Alexander Road to Turning Basin Park and Carnegie Lake.
The man-made lake, donated by Andrew Carnegie, is a 3 1/2 -mile moat for Princeton, creating a buffer from the bustle and strip malls of nearby Route 1.
Along its eastern shore runs the Delaware and Raritan Canal, where we find Princeton Canoe and Kayak Rental. Tugging the canoe over a short portage between the canal and the lake exercises another set of muscles. The payoff is a shore lined with white egrets and blue herons, as geese, ducks and loons honk overhead.
After turning in our oars, we hop back in our bike saddle and spend an hour pedaling the canal towpath, catching the postcard-perfect Princeton view of lake, trees, spires and students. Just in time we find the antidote to aesthetic overload. It's Hoagie Haven, a noisy greasy spoon with sweaty countermen, long lines and specials such as the Phat Lady (a cheese steak with built-in french fries, mozzarella sticks and hot sauce).
With hot sauce on our mouths and bike grease on our ankles, we finally get to wear the orange and black.