After a week that included turning 35 and losing my job, a weekend of healing was in order. We chose placid and historic Bucks County, Pennsylvania, along the Delaware River an hour north of Philadelphia.
In summer the Bucks County Playhouse and a lively arts colony are a heavy draw; in winter the pace is slower but the quiet country inns still are solidly booked every weekend. We found scenic drives, pleasant accommodations, charming shops and sophisticated restaurants.
We arrived on a Friday evening, with a heavy fog off the river obliterating all signs of civilization and making perilous driving on the dips and curves. Our last-minute decision sent us to the relatively new HOTEL DU VILLAGE (215/862-9911), halfway between New Hope and Lumberville.
We dropped off our luggage and sallied forth in search of dinner. We stopped first at THE INN AT PHILLIPS MILL, a handsome old stone house with small rooms, formal table settings, waiters in black tie, and matching prices (215/862-9919).
Our second stop, the CENTRE BRIDGE INN (215/862-2048), had the informal atmosphere we were seeking. The Inn is a charming fake, rebuilt on the site of the fire-gutted original in 1966, and furnished extravagantly with fine antiques. In the dining room, a huge stone fireplace is flanked by old cooking implements and a cast-iron stand supporting an immense white mass of candlewax. A corner cupboard is filled with burnished brass and copper serving pieces. The bar runs the length of one wall, and windows overlook the river. On one end of the bar stands a curious lamp, its shade depicting the original Inn, with light shining through holes carefully cut to represent each windowpane. The restaurant's menu, though not lengthy, is adventuresome. We ordered duck, unusually prepared with a mustard sauce, and a small rack of lamb with mushroom stuffing. The service was easygoing but efficient, the food delicious. Dinner for two, with a glass of wine and only one dessert (an excellent poire belle Helene), came to $45.
Next morning, over complimentary juice, coffee and sweet rolls from a local bakery, we learned that the Hotel du Village has such an odd configuration because it originally was a stable, converted in 1917 to the private Holmquist School for young ladies.
The gabled stucco building housing the restaurant and the owners is called White Oaks, and was also part of the school. Omar and Barbara Armani purchased the campus in 1976, added a pool and tennis court, and opened the lodgings in 1978. The building is a bit severe in design, as befits its origins, but the rooms are pleasantly furnished with chintz curtains and bedspreads, and Oriental-design rugs on the wood floors. Unlike some inns in the area, each guest bedroom has its own modern bathroom. Those in front face rolling land sloping down toward the river; our rear room faced a bare field with power pylons marching across it. Ask for a front room.
We had a sunny, mild day for exploring, following Route 32 north along the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. The road curves gently through pretty little towns and quiet countryside, passing orchards and cornfields and cliffs with tiny waterfalls. The occasional quarries still are worked for the gray and brown stone of the houses and bridges. Markers note the locations of locks and aqueducts along the Pennsylvania Canal. Its twin, the Delaware & Raritan, parallels the river on the New Jersey side. Narrow footbridges span the river and afford a closer look at the ducks.
From May to October POINT PLEASANT CANOE OUTFITTERS (215/297-8949) runs raft and canoe trips geared to senior citizens, neophytes and unashamed cowards. Bolder customers can tube the little rapids. If you turn away from the river and cross the broad valley a tiny muddy road leads to the crest of the hills, where there are terrific views and even covered bridges.
Art galleries and sculpture studios are heavily concentrated in the town of New Hope, and both sides of the river are flanked by antique shops. They range from pristine and tasteful displays, say of a single magnificent quilt or primitive hutch at astronomical prices, to jumbles of delightful junk, at only slightly less astronomical prices. Since our taste runs more to junk, I can't report on the merits of the finer shops, except to note that the LAHASKA ANTIQUE COURTE on Route 202 is located in several beautifully restored old buildings and appears to be an upscale collector's dream.
We were most intrigued by the number and variety of lovely inns, and spent much of our time scouting out bars, restaurants, and guest rooms. Most inns have limited accommodations, usually five to 15 guest rooms, most without baths. Costs average around $45 night for two.
Perhaps the best known is the 1740 HOUSE in Lumberville, featured in Country Inns and Back Roads, among other publications. It is also the largest, with 24 rooms in a long, multisectioned wooden building that stretches along the river. Its brick-floored terraces and breakfast room jut out over the canal, with expansive views. The rooms themselves are charmingly asymmetrical, with lots of dormers and crannies. 1740 House is justifiably difficult to get into on weekends, when prices rise to $52 a night with breakfast.
A most unusual inn is the BLACK BASS HOTEL (215/297-5815) with wrought-iron balconies looking for all the world as though they had paused on the banks of the Delaware on the way to New Orleans. In fact the building has stood since the 1740s, and its current owner has filled it with a vast and amusing collection of British popular souvenirs of the royal camily past and present, including some remarkable variations on the Charles-and- Diana rage. These are displayed in glass cases on the veranda overlooking the river.
The "stone room" has a large fireplace and imposing portraits of obscure British peers in elaborate wigs. The lounge has cupboards filled with whole battalions of colorful toy soldiers, and a pewter bar they say came from Maxim's in Paris. The Black Bass also serves full dinners in its airy restaurant, with the ambitious menu and high prices we had come to expect.
The last inn we visited, and my favorite, was the GOLDEN PHEASANT, (215/294-9595), a bit farther up the road in Erwinna. A relative upstart, the Inn dates to 1857. The upstairs has half a dozen plain but pleasant rooms; the downstairs is extraordinary. On the right as you enter is a handsome dining room with a polished wooden bar, a fireplace and windows overlooking a creek that runs behind the building. On the left is a dark and intimate room with white tablecloths, sparkling crystal, candles and flowers. The deep windowsills house a few carefully arranged examples of local crafts and antiques. Beyond lies a bright glass-roofed solarium bursting with greenery, its tables set with yellow napkins and daffodils. The contrast is startling and pleasing. Each room has a distinctive personality; they share the same Continental menu and service.
On the way home we strolled through New Hope. Main Street was crowded with people windowshopping touristy shops full of T-shirts and gimcracks. Mother's Restaurant, which had been recommended to us, has a menu and prices similar to those of the inns, but none of their beauty or atmosphere. It does have a carryout deli, with food and prices reminiscent of Georgetown.
We stopped at Washington's Crossing, where General Washington's troops stole across the Delaware in 1776 to ambush the British and their Hessian mercenaries near Trenton. A little museum on the New Jersey side houses the famous painting commemorating the first American victory of the Revolutionary War.
GETTING THERE: I-95 to Route 32 north. BY TRAIN: Amtrak to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, with connections to Yardley.