travel - pennsylvania - america old & new

no state in america embodies both old & new living better than pennsylvania. jonathan crouch drives through lancaster county & on to philadelphia

We don't live in America, US citizens like to tell you, America lives in us.If that's true, then Americans must be extremely complex people. Take Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a couple of hours to the North of Washington and home to the Amish, a people who have chosen to ignore the march of time. For more than 200 years, they have dressed, lived and farmed the same way, ignoring every pressure to conform to modernity.

Fly into Baltimore, Washington or Philadelphia as we did, get yourself a rental car and explore. We decided to try a Lincoln LS, a car Ford nearly sold in the UK, developed as it was alongside Jaguar's S-TYPE. Ours was the 4.0-litre V8 version which provided glorious performance, excellent refinement and an average of around 17mpg throughout our trip: but then who cares about that in a land where petrol is a pound a gallon?

Not that the Amish, who rely exclusively on horse-drawn transport, care much about fuel prices. Theirs is a curious mixture of beliefs. They can (if absolutely necessary) travel in motorised transport, though since no Amish person is allowed to drive, they rarely do. They can have modern items like welders and powersaws for the adults and rollerblades for the kids but they aren't allowed tractors or combines to harvest their crops. They can grow tobacco for the cigarette makers but they refuse to go to war in case they might hurt someone. Then there's the problem of inter-marriage up to the level of second cousins within families, which has produced some unpleasant, if predictable, side-effects in their huge families. Plus there's the fact that children aren't allowed to complete more than half their education before being seconded back to work on the family farms.

Yet for all that, it's hard not to like the Amish. They're kindly, God-fearing Christian people who travel far and wide, often right across America, voluntarily helping out when disaster strikes. Their little black horse-drawn carriages are everywhere across Lancaster County and their pretty white farms speckle the landscape. Their slower approach to life somehow rubs off on you as you visit, particularly if, as we did, you take the trouble to get someone who knows them to drive round the country roads with you (easy enough to arrange from the local Mennonite Information Centre).

There's no point in staying in Lancaster itself: try for somewhere actually out in the farming country. We tried the Harvest Drive Family Inn, not especially plush but clean, cheap and friendly. There are all kinds of tourist-orientated 'glimpses' into Amish life dotted around the area but nothing beats a personalised guided tour in your own car. If, as we were, you're travelling with kids who don't grasp the whole 'back-to-basics' theme, then the nearby Dutch Wonderland childrens' amusement park will provide a welcome relief for them. Ironically, in what is supposedly a place of simplicity, there are also plenty of outlet malls. A steam railroad (the Strasburg Railroad) is in keeping with the whole historic theme: there's even a museum (The National Christmas Centre) devoted to the origins of a festival the Amish won't celebrate.

In contrast to old-style Pennsylvannia, the state capital Philadelphia is as modern a city as you could wish for - though it too has its share of history. This, after all, is supposedly 'America's birthplace', home to two of the country's most famous monuments to freedom. These include the Liberty Bell, ironically manufactured for the New World by her previous rulers, the imperialists from London. It sits next to Independence Hall, where a group of dissatisfied colonists adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776.

Of more importance to modenday Philadelphians is the performance of their beloved baseball team, the Phillies [info on 215.463.6000]. If you can't catch a game in Baltimore, then you should take the time to see one here. Indeed, if you're into sports, there's everything from lacrosse to women's soccer and of course, American football. Driving around Philadelphia is a nightmare, due largely to traffic lights that seem to stop you every 50 yards. Better to leave daytime city tours to tour buses like Trolley Works or, if there are kids in tow, ignore the city centre entirely and indulge them. There's a great zoo and a Sesame Street theme park to name but two options.

We could have carried on an hour North and done New York but time had defeated us. In a small time, just two weeks, we'd seen a big slice of America, travelling to two very different places. Our Lincoln LS was predictably perfect for the trip, as you would expect given its Jaguar development background. To be honest, we ended up rather preferring it to the Jag: surely UK Ford showrooms could sell this car given sharp pricing and some smart carpet tiles in the corner. But then, America doesn't have a great track record in selling premium luxury saloons here.

Much of this is down to ill-informed prejudice. The kind of prejudice that says the only places worth visiting in the States are Disneyworld, Hollywood and Las Vegas. You need to ignore it all and check out the truth for yourself. In the case Pennsylvania, you won't be disappointed.


Lancaster County - / Accommodation Suggestion - Harvest Drive Family Inn - [717.768.7186]

Philadelphia - / Accommodation Suggestion - Crown Plaza Hotel [215.561.7500]

Attractions - Lancaster County

National Christmas Center [717.442.9304]

Dutch Wonderland [717.393.3679]

Kitchen Kettle Village [717.768.8261]

Choo Choo Barn [800.450.2920]

Strasburg Rail Road [717.687.8628]

Attractions - Philadelphia

Phillies Baseball [215.463.6000]

Philadelphia Trolley Works [bus tours] [215.923.8522]

Philadelphia Zoo [215.243.1100]

Sesame Place [kids park] [215.741.5349]