Country inns and other charms of Pennsylvania's Bucks County

All too often familiarity breeds indifference to the place where one lives. We have all heard tales of Parisians who yawn at the Eiffel Tower and Athenians who shrug their shoulders at the Parthenon. Culture always seems richer on the other side of the fence partly because it is exotic in relation to one's surroundings which, however exciting theym may be, assume with the passage of time the patina of the humdrum.

Bearing in mind the pitfall of the jaundiced eye, I decided it was time I looked at Bucks County, Pa., the place where I had lived more or less obliviously for the past four years, with the fresh gaze of a tourist. I had come to realize, in fact, that I knew less about the county than the average tourist, perhaps because there was always tomorrow to take that excursion I had been meaning to take. . . .

In the course of our wanderings, which took my husband and me no more than 35 miles from home, I learned that while Bucks County is not Paris or Athens, it does possess its own multifaceted radiance. Bucolic Bucks is situated in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania about 80 miles from New York and 35 miles from Philadelphia. The county, only 40 miles in length and 15 miles wide on the average, contains some of America's richest farmland and teems with verdant forests and gardens. On its eastern border the county is separated from New Jersey by the surging Delaware River, which is as much a source of history as of beauty.

The Bucks County Historical Tourist Commission in Langhorne publishes a "Highways of History" brochure extensive enough to keep a historiophile driving in circles for weeks. But being water lovers my husband and I decided to gather at the river, so to speak, and confine our travels to River Road, also called Route 32.

We began our journey in Yardley, a small village in Lower Bucks County across the river from Trenton, where an Amtrak Conrail train station provides easy access to the county. River Road with its panoramic views of the river, silhouettes of ancient trees, and sprinkle of stone farmhouses, is alluring enough in itself to make the inviting stops along the way seem almost unnecessary. And the clarity of the light reflected off the river is dazzling. It is little wonder that Bucks County attracted its own school of artists during the early part of this century with scenery only a little less sublime than that which beguiled the Hudson River School.

The artists centered around New Hope, about 20 minutes up the road from Yardley, once the major manufacturing center of the county and now a picturesque tourist trap. It is a heterogeneous blend of Colonial charm, chic boutiques, antique and crafts shops, foreign restaurants, and the well-reputed Bucks County Playhouse, all of which make for the ambiance of an ersatz Greenwich Village, especially on weekends.

Bucks County is a mecca for antique lovers, by the way, but anyone seriously interested would do well to steer clear of New Hope and Peddler's Village, a simulated 18th-century shopping village a few miles inland in Lahaska, and head for the back roads where the prospect of reasonable prices and a real "find" is a good deal more realistic.

For the art lover, however, New Hope's Golden Door Gallery does offer the best continuing exhibition of work by contemporary Bucks County artists, while the Richard Stuart Gallery in Pipersville a few miles north is the best repository of the earlier school. Another plus in Pipersville is Miryam's Farm, where one can observe resident artisans fashion custom crafts in their workshops.

The crafts tradition is strong in Bucks County, and a worthwhile side trip is to Doylestown, the county seat 12 miles southwest of New Hope, where the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works produces Mercer tiles using the original methods. Doylestown's Mercer Museum houses a collection of 40,000 artifacts and folk art objects, which constitute a visual history not only of Bucks County but Colonial America.

New Hope does possess one unique attraction which is well nigh irresistible. The mule barges that transported coal and lumber along the Delaware Canal during the 19th century now convey tourists during the summer and early fall. The canal runs parallel to the river and is often no more than a few feet from it. The entire length of the towpath is a jogger's and hiker's paradise, with the churning river on one side and the primeval forest on the other. In New Hope the mules tread in the tracks of history and pull the barges on a lazy journey back into time at the stupefying rate of two miles per hour.

The mules are trained at a local farm and praised by the barge owners as "very efficient," but as we suspected, a mule is a mule is a mule. One of ours, a snowy white specimen called Blanca, was startled by some noisy children playing under a bridge and balked when she reached it. In a classic display of stubbornness Blanca refused to budge despite the cajoling and prodding of her human "leader," and when she finally did deign to move, it was only to snarl her rope around a telephone pole. The barge in the meantime drifted listlessly in the canal like a becalmed sailboat, and the amused passengers sat back to enjoy the nonride highlight of the "ride," which lasted considerably longer than the usual one hour.

We then revived ourselves with an ice cream cone at Gerenser's, where about 50 flavors of ice cream are available, each more exotic than the next. Sample, for example, English mincemeat, African violet, and Ceylon passion fruit along with the original, American pumpkin.

Also in the transportation vein another point of interest is the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad which runs summer steam trips to Buckingham Valley in its colorful old trains -- history for the adults, ecstasy for the children.

Half of the fun of a vacation is not what you see, but where you stay, and Bucks County offers a full range of accommodations, from myriad campsites to ultramodern motels. The most appealing choice to this traveler at least is the country inn.

Along a short stretch of River Road between New Hope and Erwinna in Upper Bucks there are six inns that combine in varying proportions that ideal, elusive blend of rusticity and elegance. The original structures of five date back to the 18th century, and the inns are redolent with historical atmosphere and charm. Antique-filled rooms, river views, and continental or French country cuisine are typical. In view of their vintage few of the inns have private baths and the rooms tend to be cramped, but the opportunity to sleep in a carved canopied mahogany bed under a handmade quilt and overlook the river or canal should give pause to even the most hardened motel inhabitant.

These inns are intended for travelers and honeymooners who truly want to get away from it all, including the telephone and the television, and who don't mind putting up with minor inconveniences such as climbing stairs. In a sense they are more retreats than lodgings, and their rewards are quiet and subtle. Prices are muted, too, ranging from $40-$50 for two people sharing a double, with complete dinners averaging around $20-25 per person.

Two caveats, however: All the inns but one (the Logan Inn) prohibit children and are only slightly more hospitable to pets; secondly, a weekend reservation must include both Friday and Saturday nights and should be made far in advance, especially during the peak season, late spring to early fall.

Heading north, the first inn one encounters is the Logan Inn, the oldest building in New Hope dating back to 1722 when it was known as the Ferry Tavern. The co-owner of the inn, Carl Lutz, is also the town mayor and a walking oral history of the area. Highlights of the Logan Inn are an impressive collection of old clocks in the tavern and the solarium dining room which Mr. Lutz has filled with plants and hothouse orchids. The inn has long been popular with theater people and entertainers because the Bucks County Playhouse is across the street, and has the most cosmopolitan atmosphere of all the inns we visited.

Upstairs are 10 rooms with opulent brass and Victorian beds, eight with private baths. The rooms are painted in lurid colors, however, and somewhat shabby in their general appearance, which makes them rather uninviting despite their fancy furnishings.

One of the most unusual of the inns is the Inn at the Phillips Mill just outside New Hope. While it does not face the canal or the river, its quaint architecture and grounds are uniquely charming. The inn and two other stone buildings that were part of a pre-Revolutionary War estate built in 1750 resemble a tiny Tudor hamlet, ivy-covered with robust greenery growing wildly in the gardens all about. The owners live next door to the inn in the former piggery, and an iron pig over the door of the inn marks its entrance.

Inside, the Phillips Mill is the most French provincial of the inns, with cozy, unpretentious dining rooms, lots of natural wood and stone, and wildflowers everywhere. There is also an understated elegance here in both the decor and the cuisine, which is superb -- very French and very fresh. Upstairs are five jewellike rooms decorated with the delicacy and tender whimsy of a doll house -- lots of flowers and frills. Luxurious touches are Roger Gallet soaps in the private baths, Godiva chocolates by the bedside, and le petit dejeuner (breakfast) in wicker baskets outside the door.

About two miles north is the Center Bridge Inn where the Stockton Bridge crosses the Delaware. The original structure dates from 1705, but the inn has fallen victim to several fires. The current owner, airline pilot Bob Cobun, rebuilt the inn after it burned to the ground in 1960 and has created a masterpiece of trompe l'oeil.

The inn looks for all the world like an 18th-century white Colonial manor, and inside Mr. Coburn has spared no effort to use traditional materials. Planked floors, beamed ceilings, stone fireplace, and columns provide an imposing background for Mr. Cobun's country Federal antiques and objects d'art, which he has collected around the world.

Of all the inns the atmosphere here is the homiest. Guests may breakfast in the cheerful sun-drenched morning room and sup downstairs in front of the huge hearth fireplace and a molten wax sculpture of votive candles. Dining alternatives are the screened-in porch where light flickers on French stained glass or an alfresco terrace with splashing fountain and ducks, which stop by for a few crumbs, an arm's length away in the canal.

The rooms here are comfortable, clean, and elegantly appointed mostly with antiques, Schumacher wallpaper, and beds (one with a Japanese headboard) covered with lace canopies filtering the light overhead. Every room is different and spacious and about half face the river; the other half the comparatively noisy road. Another feature here: All the rooms have private modern baths. Combining Colonial charm and modern conveniences the Center Bridge is the best compromise of all the inns.

As we continued north on River Road we entered Upper Bucks, where the character of the landscape becomes more rural and unspoiled. While driving to Lumberville, the closest village, we contemplated the vistas of river and trees and coveted the occasional period home perched along the canal.

Lumberville is the most authentic village one can imagine --handful of Colonial houses hugging the road. and oh yes, two inns of considerable repute.

The first is the 1740 House. Though it is constructed around the core of an 18th-century farmhouse and stable, the inn is the most contemporary of all we visited. The 24 units are stacked in motel fashion on top of each other, but covered with cedar shingles that harmonize nicely with the attractive wooded setting along the canal. Amenities abound here --private modern baths, central air conditioning, a mini swimming pool -- and the views are magnificient with each room overlooking the canal and the river. But atmosphere is a weak point with furnishings distinctly unperiod and verging on motel-modern.

Up the road apiece no more than a few hundred yards is Lumberville's other major establishment, the Black Bass Hotel. The Black Bass was built as a fortified haven for river travelers during the 1740s. It is so close to the canal it is practically in it, with the river a stone's throw away. Major attractions here are the stunning river views from the main dining room and from the balconied bedrooms. The dining rooms are rustically furnished with dark wooden farm tables and Singer sewing machine tables, and the atmosphere here is overwhelmingly that of an English country tavern. Reinforcing this impression is the owner's collection of monarchal (especially British) memorabilia, which are on display throughout the downstairs.

All the rooms upstairs have shared baths except the river suite, but the antiques are particularly fine and indubitably authentic, with gorgeous Federal and Victorian beds and commissioned quilts. One senses that owner Herbert Ward wouldn't let a reproduction up the stairs. The rooms are not very clean, however, and there is a faint aura of scruffiness. As Mr. Ward aptly put it, "Anyone who likes the Holiday Inn shouldn't stay here."

As you may have surmised "things to do" in Lumberville are not plentiful, but one can rent a bike at the bookstore, stroll along the towpath, or take a picnic lunch across the footbridge to Bulls Island Park on the other side of the river. A couple of miles to the north canoes are available for rent in Point Pleasant.

Enchanted by the countryside, my husband and I continued our journey up Route 32 and stayed at the northernmost of the inns we visited, the Golden Pheasant in Erwinna, an almost imperceptible town. The Golden Pheasant is situated between the canal and the river and is a ramshackle 1857 family mansion that looks like a set from "Gone With the Wind." Directly inside are three dining rooms, each so alluring that it's almost impossible to decide where to eat. Two are furnished in Victorian antiques with cozy velvet settees and voluptuous flowers. The third is a glass-covered solarium inundated with plants and illuminated by tiny candles that reflect in the glass roof overhead and twinkle with the stars in the canal. The inn's specialities are pheasant and venison along with delectable continental entrees, and the desserts are as ambrosial as the atmosphere.

Upstairs are six rooms tastefully decorated with wall-to-wall carpeting, Priscilla curtains and fleur-de-lis wallpaper. Five rooms have river views and feather beds. The garret on the topmost floor is the quietest and largest with a bird's-eye view of the river -- that is, one has to crouch down on the floor to see it, but it's well worth the effort.

Down the road about a quarter of a mile is the historic 1810 Stover House, across the road from the Stover Mill where art exhibitions are on view. Innkeepers Reid Perry and Ralph Schneider have converted the mansion into an elegant annex complete with a parlor, dining room, and private kitchen available to the guests. It is quieter here than in the main house and no less attractive.

Bathrooms are shared at the Golden Pheasant too, but here it hardly matters. They are enormous and so thoughtfully packed with lotions, towels, and velour robes, that one would probably stay there all weekend if someone else weren't waiting.

All in all the Golden Pheasant was a fitting culmination to the search for the perfect inn, Bucks County style.

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