Taking a trip with your kids usually doesn't feel like a vacation. It feels more like lugging all your stuff (including your cranky children) to an unfamiliar place where you're forced to cook in a strange kitchen that lacks both sharp knives and common pantry items like salt and pepper. Or you have to deal with your kids in restaurants where they can't sit still and refuse the most basic of kiddie-menu items, which never look exactly like they do at home.
Thinking about taking your kids' grandparents along for the ride? Sure, it sounds circle-of-life-y, but as it turns out, your folks get just as cranky as your kids when they're taken out of their routine. In other words, you could wind up spending a ton of time, effort, and money on very little relaxation.
For more than 50 years, my parents have been vacationing in (often called "Amish Country") where they love poking around shops, buying fabric for my mom's many sewing projects, and loading up on fresh-picked vegetables. My mom rhapsodizes all year long about the bacon, the eggs, the bread. (Another theory: She's just really into breakfast.)
And so, despite everything I just said about the perils of multigenerational family vacations, I recently decided to take a trip with my folks and my kids (ages 3 and 6) so that the former could introduce the latter to a place they love so much. Along the way, I discovered that all it takes is a few road trip rules to ensure that your family vacation is high on enjoyment and low on stress.
Rule #1: Opt for a roomy ride.
Unfortunately, two days before we leave for Lancaster, my father says he isn't feeling up for travel and decides to stay home. Instead, we invite along my mother-in-law, since there is plenty of room in our rented. Piling in two grandmas, two kids, my husband, and me is no problem. It also comes with heated and cooled seats and individualized climate control, crucial since every person in the car has a different ideal ambient temperature.
On the drive up, my mother points out every horse, sheep, cow, and chicken we pass while exhorting my kids to enjoy the scenery. "Look, girls! It's the rolling hills of Pennsylvania," she says once a minute for an hour as my kids barely glance up from their tablets. It's really not much different from when my sister and I fought in the backseat, half-listening as my mother chattered from the front about … the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Only we didn't have electronic devices.
Rule #2: Food-related activities keep all ages entertained.
Everyone loves chocolate (and if you don’t love chocolate, that's fine, because it means there’s more for me). For as long as I can remember, my mom has returned home from her Amish Country trips with bags of Wilbur Buds — the smooth, creamy precursor to Hershey's Kisses — so we're all excited for our first stop: the . But when we arrive at the factory in downtown Lititz (which bills itself as the coolest small town in America), we are sad to see that Cargill sold the building and it's being turned into (sigh) luxury apartments. Luckily, there's a new Wilbur retail store across the street that does have free samples, so we still get to nibble away while deciding just how much chocolate to buy. By the way, Hershey's is headquartered about 40 minutes away and has , with concerts, amusement rides, and a hotel/spa. I feel like that's its own special undertaking and not one we can tackle on this trip.
There's also something for everyone at the flea market! About a half-hour away is the , open every Friday, year-round. There's a flea market, butcher stalls, candy shops, ice cream, fresh produce, arts and crafts sellers, and even a small animal auction — nearly anything you'd want to buy is available. The kids enjoy browsing tables of soaps and bath bombs. My mom buys some fresh vegetables and searches in vain for the perfect new socks. My husband snags a bird house. My mother-in-law gets a bag of apples and some light-up toys my kids don't need but make them deliriously happy. And I eat a brisket-stuffed pretzel made by a group of Mennonite bakers that is so good, my eyes roll back in my head.
And who could forget ice cream? I grew up on Turkey Hill ice cream. My parents always had a gallon in the freezer, and the (free for military and kids 3 and under; around $10 for everyone else) is definitely on our must-do list. It's not a factory tour. Rather, its purpose-built interactive exhibits take guests through the ice cream-making experience. We spend about 90 minutes exploring the various areas: playing a video game where we blast away bad bacteria, designing our own ice cream flavors (including packaging and creating a commercial for it), and playing in a ball pit that is supposed to represent something but I suspect is just a good excuse for the littles to expend some of the energy from consuming free iced tea and ice cream samples.
Then it's time for the Taste Lab, so we head downstairs. This $5.45-per-person add-on allows you to build your own flavor, so after designing our own ice cream flavors upstairs, it's time to see if they actually taste good in real life. Each person gets a pint of vanilla base, then adds flavoring, mix-ins, and a flavor swirl from the tons of available options. I create a lackluster combo of mint, chocolate cookies, a couple of gummy bears, and a caramel swirl, which I have no problem finishing but I doubt would ever be a commercial success.
Rule #3: Got boring adult stuff to do? Divide and conquer.
Back in Lititz, my husband and mother-in-law head over to the , where they learn how to twist pretzels and get a free soft pretzel for their $3.75 entrance fee (kids 4-12 $2.75; under 4 is free). My mother-in-law also picks up a bag of -shaped pretzels that are downright adorable. Meanwhile, my mom and I pop down the street to the . "For years, we'd walk past it, thinking it was a high-end boutique!" she says. Once she realized that it was actually filled with beautiful displays of clothing and household goods at amazing prices, she makes it a point to return whenever she's in the area. And it's the same as it ever was. I snap up a linen dress for $6 and my mom buys a few pairs of jeans because the only ones she owns date back to the '70s.
My husband and I plan to use the grannies for a bit of babysitting while we shop for a sorely needed dining room set because even uttering the words "furniture shopping" turns the kids into whiny, floppy messes. We drop the grandmas and kids off at the lovely and well-maintained , which features walking trails, pavilions and a little fish-filled pond.
We are hoping the many antique markets in the area will have something for us (and if they do, we plan to rent a U-Haul to bring it home) since we would like a dining set made of solid wood that will last us a lifetime. Sadly, the , the , the , and are all brimming with amazing stuff, but nothing we want to live with forever.
We pop into , which features items built by Amish craftspeople. At the Strasburg location (all of the locations have slightly different stock from different builders), we spy the perfect hutch, which we custom-order along with a table and chairs for significantly less than we'd pay in any antique or chain store. It'll take up to 14 weeks for a woodworker to build it, but it will be exactly what we want in color and style, and I cannot be more thrilled. It was a unique shopping experience, because the salesman was honest and didn't try to upsell us — in fact, he actually downsold us by pointing out that we were getting equal quality at a cheaper price by going with the builder whose style we preferred. I also snag a large, high-quality drying rack for our laundry room that easily fits into the Tahoe (plenty of cargo space!).
Rule #4: Eat dinner at 4:30 p.m. (Grandparents and kids agree on this wholeheartedly).
For an area known for its Amish and Mennonite populations, breweries are cropping up all over Lancaster. Over the course of three days, we hit one brewery a day (hubby's choice). The , with outposts around Pennsylvania, is the most kid-friendly, with a wide-ranging menu and free cheese and crackers appetizers to prevent hanger-related meltdowns. Genius. has a Strawberry Wheat beer I love and a shandy I didn't. The food was very good (although strangely worded; there is never a reason to call pork ribs "pig wings" ... ever.) In my husband's opinion, our third stop, , has the best beer but lacks a kid-friendly atmosphere. (While he sampled their brews, the grandmas and I picnicked with the kids in the park; see Rule #3.)
Rule #5: Ditch the chain hotel for a unique, memorable, and kid-friendly place to stay.
As we check into we are greeted by a lively front desk clerk who punctuates her sentences with a "woo-woo" (like a train whistle) every time she agrees with you. I can think of no better way to start our stay. The property is made up of multiple train cabooses that have been retrofitted with beds and bathrooms, and a 3-room farmhouse, with rates starting at $116 per night. My husband, kids, and I were assigned to Caboose #33, while the grannies make their way over to the farmhouse. Their room, Efficiency Suite #1, includes two separate sleeping spaces with queen beds, a set of bunk beds, and a full kitchen. The first night of our trip, I drive past all of the chain hotels to get to an Aldi where I pick up bargain-priced oatmeal, bread, and other breakfast supplies so we could all eat breakfast together every morning.
The Red Caboose has been undergoing a ton of renovations under the new owners, the Prickett Family. As I chatted with one of the owners, Tyler Prickett, he excitedly told me about how they plan to decorate each caboose with décor from the train line it came from. Meanwhile, the Red Caboose also boasts a petting zoo, a playground, an on-site restaurant, and a former grain silo that's now an observation tower. On top of that, it's located in the middle of farmland, with gorgeous views of the rolling hills of Pennsylvania all around. There's definitely nothing generic about this place, and it's something we'll remember forever.
Rule #6: Save a few things for next time.
One of the best ways to make vacation memories that last a lifetime is to find a destination everyone looks forward to returning to year after year. With so much left to explore in Lancaster after our brief stay, that won't be a problem for us. There is so much more we wanted to do, like the distillery, the , the , the (aren't you intrigued that they can fill a whole museum with something so specific?), and the regular . (Why would one's husband fail to mention that he loved trains as a kid if his wife was planning a trip that involved staying in a train caboose? Because she would have built in time for other train-related activities had she known. Asking for a friend.) Oh, and you cannot get within a 50-mile radius of the area without someone giddily telling you about the Broadway-quality, Biblically-focused .
And we definitely want to go back to , which was a warehouse full of beautiful, well-priced fabrics. When we asked for outdoor fabric, they pointed to three different areas of the store, all filled to the brim with bolts in every color of the rainbow. As we drive back home, we all reflect on our favorite parts of the weekend, while my mother waves goodbye to the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Until we meet again, Lancaster!