Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Goggling great art in Reading, wrapped up at Hershey’s Cuban spa, and a couple of free beers along the way.

The wind blows like a train up on Mt. Penn. But it’s worth braving as we gawk at the 100-year Oriental Pagoda next to us and the red-brick city of Reading sprawling about 1000 feet below us.

We’re here to find great art in this old factoryville, the city that inspired the great “Rabbit” quartet by native novelist John Updike. First, the birds-eye view from the mountain top, where Reading quarryman William Abbot Whitman atoned for his sins of scarring the earth by building a Japanese-style pagoda in 1908. We figure it’s his idea of the yin of beauty against the yang of his industrial eyesores. Or vice versa. Whatever, it’s a good place to get a lay of the land below.

The road down Mt. Penn switchbacks into a green park full of statues and monuments and kids playing stickball. There’s a band shell where you can still hear Sousa marches oompah on summer nights. A short cruise past Coney Island parlors, neighborhood taps, barrio bodegas and mansion-sized row homes with Tiffany transoms and we park the ragtop outside the big old brick factory where they once made industrial safety goggles.

We’re at The Goggle Works, where they now make great art. Reading’s enlightened city fathers (and mothers) have come to understand the arts can have resuscitating powers in tired factory towns. With help from the generosity of a few noble sponsors, this old goggle plant has been transformed into a warren of artist’s studios, galleries, a movie theater and a fountainhead of creativity that is reenergizing the urban center.

We say hello to a horse made of bottle caps. We stroll past eye-popping modern paintings and portrait photography that make us want to talk with its subjects. We interrupt a glassblower to compliment his bubbling bottles. And we lose ourselves in a gallery full of “outsider art:” paintings on plywood, found-object sculptures and intimate portrait-peeks into the majesty of unheralded lives. We can’t take our eyes off the stuff.

But peel ‘em away, we must. And we’re off to Pottsville and America’s oldest brewery. An hour or so up Route 61, a lunch-bucket blacktop where heavy trucks ply their trade and diners proclaim the righteousness of “breakfast served all day.” And bingo, we’re inside a limestone cave hewn out of a mountain where the Yuengling family has put magic in a bottle for more than 175 years.

Our tour guide is named Ed. He’s a student over at Penn State and therefore claims to know a thing or two about beer. He leads our group with folks from all over – Alaska, Germany, even Center City Philadelphia – on a thirst-inducing stroll through the whirling dervish of bottles flying by on belts like something out of “Modern Times.” We spelunk through the damp cave stacked with kegs of amber goodness and finally plunk down at a bar seat for the hard-earned free samples. Ah, these Pennsylvania Germans sure know what to do with a bag of hops, some barley malt and a limestone cave.

We thank our lucky stars the limit on Yuengling freebies is two cups. We’re still on the road, where we’re lined up for a rest stop in the Spa at the Hotel Hershey. This is the place old Milton Hershey designed in the manner of the grandest of European hotels. It’s proud up on a hill, surrounded by rose gardens and the aroma of cocoa. And inside, a new spa with pleasures inspired by old man Hershey’s love of Cuba, where he first found the sugar to sweeten his chocolate empire.

Our masseuse, a lovely woman named Suzanne (do yourself a favor and ask for her by name), rubs the road-weary out of our bones with a jasmine-soaked massage followed by a limey-mint-slippery mojito wrap. We’re snug as a bug in a rug of warm towels and aromatic lotion inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s legendary favorite Cuban mojito cocktail. Suzanne pushes all the right muscle buttons and sends us into a naptime trance until we wake up drooling. Above us is a seven-headed shower arm – like something out of Dr. No or from the corner car wash – rinsing off the mojito goop with incredibly soothing warm water. Looks weird, feels good.

As we walk blinking and yawning out of the spa in thick terry robes, fresh from our Cuban cocktail body wrap, we head toward, of course, the hotel lounge. We’re ready for a real mojito and one more sensory experience on this eccentric roadtrip.

It sure feels good when we get off the highway. Until then, we’ll see you around the bends and backroads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. (For a map with photos of all these places and more, go to www.visitpa.com/shunpiker.)

The Pagoda

72 feet tall, 886 feet above the city of Reading and 100 years of history. Not to mention a smashing view way up on top of Mt. Penn. Get all the info and a great map at www.pagodaskyline.org. There’s a gift shop on the fourth floor. Best to call ahead, though. 610.375.6399.

Adrienne’s Inn at Centre Park

Adrienne Peridini can talk the birds out of the trees. Good gab is her gift, and it helped her win the essay contest created to sell this Victorian mansion to the one person who would maintain its splendor and make folks feel welcome. The splendor: Italian plaster cherubs, Tiffany transoms, happy fireplaces and old-world woodwork. The welcome: Adrienne’s French toast and genuine smile. We love the Blue Room with its 7’ claw foot tub. On the web at adriennesinnatcentrepark.com. Or call 610.374.8557 and ask her for her best rate.

The Ugly Oyster and Jimmy Kramer’s Peanut Bar

Two downtown Reading stalwarts. We slurp down a dozen blue points with a Guinness at the Ugly Oyster, and then do a polka up the block for chili-fried chicken at the Peanut Bar. Conversation with the locals is as good as the food and drink. The Ugly Oyster’s at 21 S. 5th Street. Toss the shells on the floor at The Peanut Bar at 332 Penn Street just around the block.

The Garfield Diner

A classic dining car right on Pottsville’s monument square. Scarf some homemade meatloaf across from the statue of the Spanish-American War soldier. Since 1953 at 402 W. Market Street. Find ‘em at visitpa.com.

The John O’Hara House

John O’Hara wrote great novels, screenplays and stories for The New Yorker. The surrounding coal country was his muse. 606 Mahantongo Street, across from the Yuengling Brewery.

The Yuengling Brewery

High up on Mahantongo Street, overlooking the architectural treasure that is Pottsville, is America’s oldest brewery. The Yuengling beer-making family knows what it’s doing, and with the fun free tour (and free samples) you can see (and taste) for yourself. We love sipping their beautiful dark porter. Visit on the web at www.yuengling.com.

The Spa at the Hotel Hershey

Yes, you can be dipped in chocolate and rubbed all over. Or go for one of the invigorating Cuban-themed treatments in this total oasis for mind, body and soul. It’s inside the majestic Hotel Hershey and a million miles from reality. (Our favorite masseuse is Suzanne.) You’ll find your way there, eventually, at www.hersheypa.com.

The Union Canal House

The tiny crossroads of Union Deposit, PA is literally around the corner from all the Hershey hubbub, yet in a very different aesthetic dimension.
Get one of the seven comfy rooms in this welcome tavern circa 1700’s. (The “deluxe” suite has a Jacuzzi and kitchenette.) And dig into the clams, crabs, steaks and reasonable wine list. Online at www.unioncanalhouse.com.

Mt. Gretna Hideaway

This may be a bit off the beaten path, but that's the point. A great beer-barrel roadhouse, the Hideaway is across from the firehouse, on the backroads to Hershey (just off Exit 266 of the ‘Pike) in the tiny lakeside burg of Mt. Gretna. It’s well worth the hunt, just for a crock of chili, a tavern cheesesteak and to buy a few bottles of amazing homemade hot sauce. The address: Boulevard, Mt. Gretna. And yes, online at www.mtgretnahideaway.com. Did we mention the amazing homemade hot sauce?

Ok, now it's your turn. Let us know what you find out there with an email to shunpiker@visitpa.com.

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