To say it’s been a trying year would be an understatement.
But as the weather warms and the pandemic eases, there appears to be a light at the end of the long tunnel, especially when it comes to travel.
Does that mean that everyone is ready to hop on a plane again this summer? Probably not, but, thankfully, we live in an area that has an abundance of things to see and do close by. And just when I thought I’d seen it all, I’m proven wrong. A recent trip to Berks County revealed to me that I’d been ignoring this area for far too long.
Those who aren’t quite up to mingling with crowds yet can take a scenic ride through rural Berks County on a self-guided Barn Star Art Tour, with a stop at Crystal Cave, before continuing on to Hawk Mountain.
Barn stars, also known as “hex signs,” are a type of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art.
According to Patrick Donmoyer, director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University, the designs are, first and foremost, artistic, but they also tell of the culture’s interest in the heavens and the cosmos. One of the artists featured on the tour is Milton Hill, who began painting at the age of 14 under the tutelage of his father and grandfather.
“He was extremely elaborate and created designs that were previously less complex,” said Donmoyer.
The Hex Barn Star Art Tour traverses about 40 miles and can be completed in just over an hour. You can find an online guide at the “Visit Pennsylvania’s Americana Region” website.
Three miles into the tour, guests will arrive at Crystal Cave, which attracts thousands of visitors every year. A 55-minute guided tour begins with an educational film, “Inside the Earth.” Afterwards, a guide leads guests through the cave, pointing out fascinating rock formations comprised of stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and more. Bring your comfy shoes for this one to climb several dozen steps leading to the cave.
A small detour along the Art Tour takes visitors to Hawk Sanctuary in Kempton, which features a visitor’s center, eight miles of trails and beautiful vistas. From Aug. 15 through Dec. 15, staff and volunteers are stationed at lookouts to help visitors spot falcons, eagles, hawks and vultures. Annual counts for this four-month period average 18,000 raptors.
Arts & Eats
The Reading Public Museum and Goggleworks are two must-see art destinations, and the good news is that they are both free of charge.
The museum features science, history and art displays, a planetarium with youth and adult programming and a 25-acre arboretum, open daily from sunrise to sunset. The fine art collection includes 700 oil paintings by American and foreign artists. Rodin, Picasso, Monet and Degas are among them, as are works by contemporary artists like Warhol, Chihuly and native son Keith Haring.
Another fascinating place is the Goggleworks Center for the Arts, which gets its name from a goggle factory that operated at the site from 1871 to 2002. Today, it is a 145,000-square-foot community art and cultural center that offers classes in various mediums like glass, metals, paint, ceramics and more. Visitors are welcome to tour the facility and view the work of the many talented artists who create there. When I visited, I took advantage of the opportunity, with the help of staff, to create a lovely glass flower in the glass-blowing area.
For a tasty detour, Folino Estate Vineyard near Kutztown is run by a family with decades of experience in the restaurant industry. Guests can sample award-winning wines in the tasting room Wednesday through Sunday, then enjoy pasta, pizza, salads and more in the adjacent La Cucina Café. Try their lasagna; you’ll thank me later.
To experience something a little more urban, there’s the Saucony Creek Craft Brewery + Pub, located in the restored Reading Railroad Franklin Street Station, which was built in the 1930s. Its soaring windows, ornate details and terrazzo floors make it something special to see and, if a train passes by, expect all the diners to stand up and clap; it’s a tradition. If you find yourself in Kutztown, visit their main brewery and gastropub.
Continuing with the railroad theme, the Colebrookdale Railroad takes visitors on a roundtrip ride from Boyertown to Pottstown. The railroad boasts some of the most beautiful railcars you’ll ever see, with stained-glass windows and a wealth of little details.
Guest Relations Manager Nathan Labb said that the nonprofit rescued some of the cars from Canada, and they underwent a series of restorations that took between 1,000 and 2,000 hours to complete. A particularly busy time for the railroad is on Mother’s Day, when families take mom out for brunch and dinner aboard opulent surroundings made even more special by white tablecloths and fresh flowers.
These suggestions should be enough to keep even the most ambitious traveler busy for a while, or at least for a long weekend, in a county a short drive away.
To learn more about what to do and see in the Berks County area, visit Pennsylvania’s Americana Region website at www.visitpaamericana.com.
Attractions mentioned in this story include:
Crystal Cave: www.crystalcave.com
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary: www.hawkmountain.org
Folino Estate Vineyard/La Cucina Café: www.folinoestate.com
Saucony Creek Craft Brewery + Pub: www.sauconybeer.com
Colebrookdale Railroad: www.colebrookdalerailroad.com
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