EVEN a chocolate fancier can get too much of a good thing. In my case, it happened at breakfast in Hershey, Pa.--Chocolate Town U.S.A.
Hershey, America's undisputed capital of chocolate, is home of the Hershey Food Corporation's main chocolate-making plant, the largest of its kind in the world, where main street is named Chocolate Avenue, street lamps are shaped like Hershey Kisses and the air tantalizes with sweet whiffs of cocoa.
Eighty years ago, a middle-aged confectioner named Milton S. Hershey founded the factory in the verdant Pennsylvania farm country where he was born. It was immediately successful and made his name synonymous with chocolate. Hershey bars became at least as American as apple pie.
In the eyes of a child, a chocolate factory can be a never-never land of delights that ranks right up there with Santa Claus' workshop at the North Pole and the Land of Oz. How wonderful, the youngster imagines, to be able to eat all you want anytime you want it. Many of us adults feel that way, too.
In Roald Dahl's charming book, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Charlie and his grandpa win a tour of Willy Wonka's fantastic secret chocolate world. "And oh," writes Dahl, "what an amazing sight it was that now met their eyes." Charlie saw rivers of hot melted chocolate of the finest quality spilling over waterfalls, enough to fill every bathtub in America. And the grass and the trees and the buttercups, when sampled, turned out to be "all made of something different and delicious," like soft, minty sugar.
So like Charlie, dazzled by the idea of an endless flow of chocolate, my visit to Hershey became an ideosyncratic mix of wish fulfillments, homage to the founding father of a candy empire and a (forget the calories) chocolate revel. And if chocolate weren't a sufficient lure, Hershey offers a large amusement park, a zoo, a lovely rose garden, a resort hotel, a campground, big-name entertainment and acres of woods and grassy fields laced with walking, horseback riding and bicycling trails.
Now no one should expect a real-life chocolate factory to match a storybook tale, though there's no harm in dreaming, but the Hershey people have created an atmosphere for chocolate-loving visitors that can work a Willy Wonka spell. It begins as soon as you check into the elegant old Hotel Hershey, perched high on a slope overlooking the expansive Hershey domain. Before you head for your room, the clerk hands you a Hershey milk chocolate bar.
You know right away, you are going to like the place.
From that moment on, there is chocolate at hand (for a price) in every imaginable form at practically every moment of the day.
Stacks of Krackel bars. Buckets of Kisses. Gallons of chocolate syrup. Cartons of cocoa powder. Zillions of Reese's Pieces. Chocolate milk and chocolate-covered fruit bars sold from ice carts. The Hotel Hershey's $7.50 chocolate cream pie in a take-home box. Fudge by the pound. Chocolate bars by the case, "10 percent off."
On a tour, your nose is soon drawn to the bakery counter, where they are turning out sheets of saucer-sized chocolate-chip cookies, regular chips or the irresitible peanut-butter-flavored ones for 40 cents each.
And over there is the Dessert Cafe (an apt name), offering up a Chocolate Cake Sundae, a yummy delight that begins with a thick slice of dark chocolate cake covered with milk-chocolate frosting, builds with a generous scoop of chocolate ice cream dripping in chocolate sauce and is topped by a cloud of whipped cream sprinkled with chocolate chips. Only a buck twenty-five.
Where do you begin? How do you stop?
Shake hands with a walking, talking giant-sized Krackel bar, dressed in candy-wrapper red and tripping over his pointy-toed boots, and you have a semblance of Willy Wonka's wonderful factory. Nobody leaves without a chocolate smudge on hands, face or clothing.
First stop on a visit to Hershey is "Chocolate World." It is the official visitors center located in the shadow of the Hershey plant, which is no longer open to public tours. The factory had to close its doors a decade ago when the crowds of sightseers became overwhelming.
Chocolate World, which now attracts about 1.5 million visitors a year, is an acceptable substitute, given the obviously keen interest in the fragrant chocolate-making process. It is educational (before you eat, you must learn), promotional (discreetly so) and free. On entering, I enounter what I fear will be a tedious line, but it moves swiftly and soon I am boarding a moving tour car.
One after the other, the cars disappear into a darkened chamber like a tunnel of love, and for the next several minutes, they glide past animated tableaus that illustrate the Hershey bar story, beginning with the harvesting of the essential cacao beans in the tropics to the wrapping and final packaging for shipment.
Suddenly, the car scoots inside a room where lamps glow red and the air feels warm. It's a chocolate-maker's joke. A voice informs the passengers that they have just been roasted like the cacao beans that are stored not a block away in mammoth concrete silos, capable of holding enough beans for 5.5 billion chocolate bars.
Now from your moving seat you actually do see miniature rivers of a chocolate-like liquid pouring from mixing cauldrons into molds, where the individual bars are given their familiar rectangular shape. In the real factory, the molds are shaken to eliminate bubbles (customers want solid chocolate) and a vacuum (no hands) inhales the hardened bar from the mold for packaging. The Hershey plant, which keeps its candy bar production a trade secret, also has the capacity to turn out 20 to 25 million Kisses in a day.
At tour's end, the cars deposit the passengers at a large indoor emporium devoted entirely to the glory of Hershey chocolate. Here's where you find the Dessert Cafe and the bakery. But a dozen other specialty shops sell not only edible treats but Hershey-ornamented mugs, T-shirts, notebooks, tote bags, softball bats, toys, Christmas decorations and even a beach chair, its canvas seat patterned to look like a Hershey Milk Chocolate Bar ($50).
Is it only my imagination or do the crowds swarming through this place look chubbier by the minute? Even dieters who resist sampling can take zany pleasure in surveying the heaps of chocolate goodies. But outside there is a amusement park and other attractions beckoning, and I need respite from the cookie counter.
Hershey is actually a community, an everyday town (population about 18,000) of white frame houses and quiet shaded streets set in the rolling farm and pastureland of south central Pennsylvania, about 125 miles north of Washington. (The pastures are an essential since the factory's milk-chocolate production requires the cooperation of 50,000 cows.) Two towering brick smokestacks, the Hershey name boldly painted down one side, command the view.
The town has grown up around the factory, which sprawls almost from town center. There's a Hershey Bank, a Hershey Drugstore, a Hershey Post Office. When you drive by, though, you can't take them seriously. It's the name. You suspect they are constructed of chocolate like the edible toys for sale in Chocolate World.
Snuggled between the factory and the town center is Hersheypark, a large and famous playland that features three roller coasters. The most popular one, judging from the afternoon's nearly 60-minute waiting line, is the "sooperdooperLooper," which makes one of those stomach-rattling 360-degree loops, captive passengers screaming their lungs out while head and arms dangle in empty space.
My favorite ride is the "Coal Cracker," which has its own kind of thrill. Aboard a water-borne coal "boat," we bounce along an elevated flume, anticipation building for the final 35-mile-an-hour plunge down a water slide. I yelp in surprise at the steepness as we tip over the edge. But we splash safely to a halt, a bit dampened from the spray but our bodies intact.
On the park's edge is ZooAmerica tucked attractively along the rocky slopes of a narrow creek canyon. It is an imaginative zoo, compact for easy observing, featuring North American birds and animals in natural landscapes. In "Big Sky Country," the buffalos roam the Montana plains. When the Hershey factory clock tower strikes noon, three timber wolves send up an echoing howl from their lair in the "North Woods."
A sudden afternoon rain squall sends me back to Chocolate World for another cookie, and one last stop, the nearby Hershey Museum of American Life to see the exhibit on Mr. Hershey himself, "The Man Behind the Chocolate Bar," who died in 1945 at the age of 88. His is the 19th-century American fable: a man of humble birth, apprenticed at 15 as a candymaker, who through perseverance and a good idea achieves fame and fortune.
Milton Hershey met his wife Catherine, appropriately, in a candy shop where she worked. They had no children of their own, but they founded the Milton Hershey School for orphaned boys, now sheltering 1,300 boys and girls in Hershey. After his wife's death, Hershey donated a large chunk of his wealth to finance the school. Currently, the school and its trust fund own slightly over 50 percent of the Hershey Food Corporation's stock, the controlling interest.
You expect a candymaker to be friendly and generous, and Milton Hershey seems to have been both.
My chocolate revel is beginning to wind down. But the Hotel Hershey breakfast menu offers one more temptation. Down at the bottom of the page, after the eggs and the cereal, I find "A Taste of Chocolate Town." It is chocolate pancakes, with sausage links and hot cocoa on the side. Why not?
The plate arrives with a stack of three cakes, the batter liberally mixed with chocolate chips. I spread the butter and spoon on the maple syrup. They taste, well, unusual. Halfway through, I finally admit, I've had enough of chocolate. On the way out of the hotel, I even abandon those free Hersheys the clerk had welcomed us with the day before.
I wish I had them now.