Looking for a timeless glimpse of bucolic Bucks County? You don't have to stray far from Route 32 (aka the River Road), the curvy strip of Pennsylvania highway that hugs the Delaware River through this genteel countryside about a three hours' drive from Baltimore. We were rumbling up the River Road on a dazzling morning last October when our tour guide-driver-raconteur announced an auspicious course correction. "We're taking a little detour," explained Dee Keller, as he pointed our chartered trolley bus onto what might charitably be called a two-lane road. The narrow lane twisted through a dark canyon of trees, here and there interrupted by a stone house or a small stream. The foliage was stunning, brilliant yellow and orange leaves set against emerald-hued evergreens.
We eventually coasted to a stop at a grassy clearing, and I reached for the camera. Spread before us was an Impressionist's landscape come to life. On a wooded slope rose a handsome fieldstone farmhouse, its gardens, terrace, and yard neatly edged by low stone fences.
Keller bounded out of the trolley and soon returned with Bromley Lowe Sr., owner of historic Cuttalossa Farm and, as coincidence would have it, father of retired longtime Baltimore Orioles mascot Bromley Lowe Jr., who had the good fortune to grow up here.
Around Bucks, Cuttalossa Farm is best known as the former residence of Impressionist painter Daniel Garber, whose romantic depictions (along with those of fellow painters comprising the "New Hope Group") helped introduce these rustic vistas to a wider audience a century ago. Garber bought the property in 1907, naming it after nearby Cuttalossa Creek, and it remained his beloved home and studio for the remainder of his life.
Visiting Bucks County feels like coming home to many of us. Even its founder, William Penn, was moved to name this formative Pennsylvania county for his ancestral British stomping grounds in Buckinghamshire. In the last century, a host of prominent artists, writers, and musicians—from members of the Arts & Crafts and Pennsylvania Impressionist movements to New York and Hollywood luminaries such as Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein II—discovered that the county's 608 square miles of scenic land and Quaker-like serenity was so conducive to creativity that they bought houses and established fruitful retreats here.
A handful of these homes are preserved as public attractions. But many, like Cuttalossa (where the Lowes raise miniature babydoll sheep and fancy-plumed poultry), remain privately owned and zealously preserved. Bucks may no longer boast the per-capita production of Pulitzer, Oscar, and Tony awards it did in the last century, but it's still Brigadoon for artists, bohemians, and visiting romantics.
When my husband and I lived across the river in New Jersey, Bucks County became our favorite destination in the fall when weekend crowds were thinner, the air crisper, and the scenery unsurpassed. On a sentimental return trip, we got reacquainted.
Our trolley tour took us through northern Bucks County, a land of twisty roads, covered bridges, numerous parks, and tiny hamlets that time has quietly sidestepped. Route 32 parallels not only the Delaware through Bucks, but also the river's companion waterway, the Delaware Canal.
Still intact along its original 60 miles, the canal and towpath (Delaware Canal State Park, 11 Lodi Hill Rd., Upper Black Eddy, 610-982-5560) represent one of the best-preserved examples of man's 19th-century zeal for engineering waterways. We passed through skinny riverside villages squeezed between hillside and shoreline. I could practically reach out and touch the tidy front porches and rambling roadside inns, some of which have stood since the 1700s.
Three devastating floods in as many years, the last in June 2006, washed away parts of the towpath and River Road, keeping hikers away and crippling businesses cut off from customers while the byways were being repaired.
We stopped at one venerable inn, the 260-year-old Black Bass Hotel in Lumberville (3774 River Rd., 215-297-9260, blackbasshotel.com), which had been stripped to its timber framework for a major restoration. The foreman gave us a tour. Through the open walls of an unfinished suite, I took in a sweeping view of the river and an elegant pedestrian suspension bridge leading to the New Jersey shore.
"The Bass" reopened this June with eight new suites—six with river views and one named for former guest and frequent Delaware angler President Grover Cleveland. To the delight of loyal customers, two hotel traditions have been retained: Sunday brunch and the antique pewter-topped bar from Paris that anchors the upstairs tavern.
Farther up the river, in Erwinna, my husband and I dined at the very romantic Golden Pheasant Inn (763 River Rd., 610-294-9595,goldenpheasant.com). Chef Michel Faure and his family have transformed the 1857 site, once a hostelry for bargemen, into a country inn worthy of Provence in France. Overnight guests enjoy river and canal views from six antiques-filled rooms (think canopy beds and French lace) and a cottage suite. Diners savor entrees such as cedar-planked salmon, roasted duck, sautéed venison medallions, roasted rack of lamb, and, yes, roasted pheasant. We ate beside a snapping fire in the cozy Tavern Room, where shiny copper pots hang from rugged stone walls.
The Golden Pheasant has a new neighbor since we last visited—Sand Castle Winery (755 River Rd., Erwinna, 800-722-9463, sandcastlewinery.com), one of eight vineyards represented on the Bucks County Wine Trail (buckscountywinetrail.com). Brothers Joseph and Paul Maxian, natives of Czechoslovakia, transplanted the family's winemaking vision to a now 72-acre hillside estate overlooking the Delaware and erected a massive mauve-colored castle to house their operation. Several tasting tours are offered, but perhaps the most instructive and aromatic is of the underground cellar, filled with wooden barrels and stainless-steel vats of fragrant fermenting wine.
Tip: Some flood-damaged sections of the Delaware Canal are still under repair this summer. If you're hiking or biking the towpath, call the park for up-to-date information.
If one wanted to sink roots in some creatively fertile soil, this would be the place. Once home to prolific author James Michener and prolific lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, the seat of Bucks County government boasts an even busier cultural presence.
Lifelong resident Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) was a noted archaeologist, antiquarian, anthropologist, author, architect, ceramist, scholar, and pack rat whose Renaissance ways fortunately survive in a trio of museums known as "the Mercer Mile." All designed by Mercer, the fanciful concrete buildings include his mansion, a 44-room castle called Fonthill (525 E. Court St., 215-348-9461); his factory, the still operating Moravian Pottery and Tile Works (130 Swamp Rd., 215-345-6722), and a six-story castle that houses his 50,000-item collection of preindustrial Americana (Mercer Museum,84 S. Pine St., 215-345-0210, mercermuseum.org).
A fourth top-notch cultural attraction, the James A. Michener Art Museum (138 S. Pine St., 215-340-9800, michenermuseum.org) showcases regional artworks in its saved-from-the-wrecking-ball quarters, the old county prison. Among the works on exhibit is a large collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings, including works by Garber, Edward Redfield, William L. Lathrop, and others.
Located in central Bucks, about 12 miles west of the Delaware River, Doylestown has a more traditional small-town feel than the linear communities adjacent to the river. Its brick-paver sidewalks are lined with specialty shops, galleries, and restaurants in restored 18th- and 19th-century buildings. (A Colonial-era tavern on Main Street masks the presence of a Starbucks on the ground floor.) Seven municipal parks provide green space and walking trails.
The architecture alone offers reason to visit. In addition to Mercer's monolithic creations, visitors can enjoy downtown's turreted Victorian houses; the red-brick Intelligencer building with its Queen Anne detailing, which once housed the Bucks County newspaper; and Doylestown's restored Art Deco movie theater.
It's a place made for ambling. We strolled State Street, browsed in a used bookstore, and admired the lobby of the Doylestown Inn (18 W. State St., 215-345-6610, doylestowninn.com), an elegantly restored 19th-century inn with contemporary sophistication. We quieted our grumbling stomachs at the Knight House (96 W. State St., 215-489-9900, theknighthouse.com), whose modest façade belies a sophisticated nouvelle American restaurant (barbecued duck sandwiches with smoked Gouda, thick Black Angus burgers on buttery brioche buns).
While in Doylestown, consider sleeping over at Oscar's, as we did. For two decades, Hammerstein II and his wife Dorothy lived at Highland Farm, a country retreat where the lyricist penned many well-known works. Their three-story hilltop house, now Highland Farm Bed & Breakfast (70 East Rd., 215-345-6767, highlandfarmbb.com), has a welcoming wraparound porch/balcony and accommodations that reflect its most illustrious owners.
Innkeeper Christine Cole has named and decorated rooms for the musicals conceived here: South Pacific, the Hammersteins' master suite with its woven sea-grass furnishings; King & I, the former library, whose queen bed is crowned with an Oriental screen; Carousel, a family space that includes a trundle bed; and the Western-themed Oklahoma Suite, where there's "plen'y of air and plen'y of room."
Tip: Visitors can buy a discounted ticket package, the Mercer Experience, for admission to both the Mercer and Fonthill museums.
NEW HOPE & LAMBERTVILLE
No one's scrounging for coal in New Hope these days, but a proudly bohemian atmosphere still pervades this thriving art colony-turned-tourist bastion. Weekenders from New York and Philly stroll streets lined with upscale galleries, boutiques, and more than 30 restaurants, yet the vibe is relaxed—a little bit Woodstock, a little bit Harley Nation.
Tie-dye and batik are big in clothing shops. ("Jerry Garcia Art Show Today," one gallery advertised when we visited.) Black-leather bike wear is fashionable at sidewalk cafes like Havana's ornate patio bar (Havana, 105 S. Main St., 215-862-9897, havananewhope.com). Meanwhile, foodies worship over plates of eggplant Ophelia at Marsha Brown (15 S. Main St., 215-862-7044, marshabrownrestaurant.com), the old stone church-turned-Creole kitchen.
Located 11 miles due east of Doylestown, downtown New Hope stretches like a finger between canal and river and houses the historic 70-year-old Bucks County Playhouse (70 S. Main St., 215-862-2041). Directly across the Delaware in New Jersey lies Lambertville, New Hope's equally artsy if somewhat quieter sister city. It, too, has a canal—the 22-mile Delaware and Raritan Feeder Canal (Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, 2185 Daniel Bray Hwy., Stockton, 609-397-2949)—along with antiques stores, lovely Victorian houses, riverside inns, and distinctive bars.
Lambertville hasn't lost its small-town feel, just modernized and adapted it. The former Five & Dime, for example, survives as a contemporary crafts gallery (A Mano Galleries, 42 N. Union St., 609-397-0063). Tucked down an alleyway near the canal, the Porkyard (8 Coryell St.), the site of a former sausage factory, now houses a respected art gallery (Coryell Gallery, 609-397-0804), a highly touted restaurant (Hamilton's Grill Room, 609-397-4343), and an idiosyncratic tavern adored by locals (Boat House, 609-397-2244).
Dining options on either shore are so numerous you can pick by inclination. Feel like fusion? Try the Franco-Asian-Latin fare at Zoubi (5-7 W. Mechanic St., New Hope, 215-862-5851). A creative lunch? Locals swear by Lily's on the Canal (2 Canal St., Lambertville, 609-397-6242). An alfresco meal with your pooch? The riverside terrace at The Landing (22 N. Main St., New Hope, 215-862-5711) welcomes well-behaved canines.
In New Hope, we enjoyed sipping martinis and eavesdropping on the chatter at Martine's RiverHouse (14 E. Ferry St., 215-862-2966). Once a tollhouse for the ferry landing, the pale yellow cottage with the wraparound dining deck now collects devoted customers who savor dishes such as Thai steamed mussels.
You'll find in-town hotels and B & Bs in both locales, but the nearby countryside yields gems, too. Take the Inn at Bowman's Hill (518 Lurgan Rd., New Hope, 215-862-8090, theinnatbowmanshill.com), the gated Select Registry inn where we felt like guests of the Earl of Buckinghamshire himself. Its six luxurious rooms and suites feature king-sized feather beds, marble baths, gorgeous views, and include a savory, made-to-order English breakfast worth lingering over. (Take time to chat with innkeeper Mike Amery, an invaluable resource for local dining advice.)
The inn's dreamy seclusion makes the drive north to New Hope (about 10 minutes) and the subsequent parking search worth it. And, honestly, how cool is it to return after dark and watch those big metal gates swing open at your command?
The promontory known as Bowman's Hill is noted for a 125-foot-tall stone observation tower (Bowman's Hill Tower, Lurgan Road, New Hope, 215-493-4076) and a large native plant preserve (Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, 1635 River Rd., New Hope, 215-862-2924, bhwp.org). River and countryside views from the tower are especially breathtaking in October when the sugar maples on the 134-acre preserve turn fiery red.
Tip: Some New Hope and Lambertville restaurants don't serve alcohol but welcome BYOB. Inquire when making reservations.