Upscale Amish Country?” my husband, Scott, says with a laugh. “An oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.” He was definitely underwhelmed at the prospect of driving to Lancaster County to seek out the crop of hip new places I’d been hearing about.

We’d rented “Witness” in preparation for our weekend trip, and I tell Scott that I’d heard Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis enjoyed the area so much while filming that they each bought homes. He nods skeptically.

Despite his reticence, Scott takes a leap of faith and joins me on the 90-minute drive through some of the prettiest farmland on the East Coast. The major road into Lancaster County, Route 222, winds over gentle hills, offering wide vistas of whitewashed farmhouses with a smattering of cows surrounded by acres of winter wheat. Occasionally a gray (Amish) or black (Mennonite) horse-drawn buggy trots in front of us.

This is still very much the Lancaster County of my 1970s childhood with family- style restaurants with overly salted food, tacky roadside shops selling T-shirts and fudge, touristy theatrical experiences with gaudy light displays and third-rate music. But a more sophisticated Lancaster is emerging- if you know where to look. The heart of Lancaster County remains Lancaster the city. Here, revitalization is very much under way with new buildings sprouting up at its edges and historic storefronts being reincarnated as pubs and galleries and boutiques. We browse a few galleries and then, at the very center of downtown, pop our heads into the Fulton Opera House, which languished for years before being rediscovered. A national historic landmark, it was built in 1852 and underwent a $9.5 million renovation in the mid-‘90s. A performance of “Seussical,” a musical based on the stories of Dr. Seuss, is under way, and though we can’t see the 687-seat theater, the golden gilt lobby is a show unto itself. We bump into the opera house’s gregarious manager and he shows us around. “Many of our performers are Equity,” he crows. “Things are a-changing in Lancaster!”

Next stop is the small Victorian town of Ephrata, home to the Ephrata Cloister, one of America’s earliest religious communities, founded in 1732 by German settlers and which thrived until the early 20th century. The town, on the northern fringes of the county, was a backwater even for Lancaster County until a local family by the name of Donecker opened a popular furniture and dry goods store there in the 1950s. Today the Doneckers’ empire, scattered throughout the town, boasts highend shops, a fancy restaurant and inn.

We visit the 6-year-old Doneckers Fine Furniture Galleries, which sells extravagant furnishings like a $60,000 four-poster bed and the very same $12,000 brand of mattress that Queen Elizabeth rests her royalness upon. But there are more affordable finds here as well- big names in furniture from Henkel-Harris to Baker to Hancock & Moore fill 52,000 square feet of a former shoe factory.

At The Restaurant at Doneckers, Greg Gable, former chef de cuisine at Philly’s legendary Le Bec-Fin, turns out gourmet lunches and dinners like crab galette in shrimp mousse with a mustard emulsion and osso buco of ostrich on crispy polenta- a far cry from the corncobs drenched in butter I remember of typical Lancaster fare.

There’s also a high-end men’s and women’s clothing store with brands like Misook, St. John Collection, Theory and a shoe department with Bruno Magli, Taryn Rose and Mephisto, as well as shops for jewelry, linens, flowers and a Christopher Radko Christmas shop, where glass ornaments sell for several hundred dollars each. For weary shoppers, Doneckers boasts boutique accommodations in three historic houses, including the restored home- and original shop- of C. Paul Donecker and his wife, Violet.

“A lot of people who grew up in the Lancaster area are returning home and they’re bringing the cultured good life back to this beautiful spot,” explains Cathy Kornfield, who gave up her New York City pad for the full-time country life in the tiny town of Leola when her husband, a “Today Show” producer, retired.

Kornfield tells me that many retired ratracers from all over the East Coast have moved to Lancaster County, as have thirty and forty-somethings who commute to Philadelphia and Baltimore so they can raise their families in the country. Last year, 28-year-old David Saylor, executive chef at the Bistro in Strasburg, about a half-hour south of Ephrata, returned to rural Pennsylvania after working at the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo. What would draw him to Lancaster County from one of the nation’s most exclusive resorts? “I wanted my family to live in a small community, so when I had the opportunity to work at a great restaurant I jumped at the chance to get back,” he explains.

For dinner, I order Saylor’s signature pan-seared crusted cod with fall squash succotash and Scott has the filet of beef with garlic-sautŽed crab and mashed potatoes. The portions are enormous- and delicious. The pastry chef, who came to the Bistro from Spago in L.A., creates a light tiramisu and a decadent peanut butter chocolate cake. I’m starting to wonder: What are all these world-class chefs doing in Lancaster County? Nissley Vineyards That night we stay at the Netherlands Inn, which a Dutch firm has been transforming from the frumpy faux-colonial Historic Strasburg Inn into a country chic atmosphere with rooms painted in soft earth tones and fluffy goose down comforters on every bed. We have high hopes for the hotel’s new Spa Orange, which offers hydrotherapy, facials and massages, but it’s hosting an open house the day we visit, so we, unfortunately, can’t partake. Several decent wineries have cropped up in the Lancaster Valley, which has rich, limestone-based soil. The next day I set out to try one while Scott putters around the hotel. Tucked on 300 acres beside a winding creek outside the tiny town on Bainbridge is the oldest, Nissley Vineyards.

Although self-guided tours are encouraged, I meet up with Judith Nissley, who lives in an 18th-century stone miller’s cottage at the winery. Judith moved back to Lancaster County after living in Chicago for several years. “This place has a hold on me,” she says explaining her return, as she walks us across a broad expanse of lawn to the stone distillery at her family’s vineyard. Wine sampling is encouraged and Nissley makes several dozen varieties, including a spicy red and a crisp white. But the winery has culled a loyal following and created a niche by producing sweet fruit wines made from cherries, apples and raspberries. “Most people don’t like sweet wines, but those that do, really do,” she says. “Fewer and fewer wineries were making them, so we decided we’d do it. Next thing you know, those are our best selling wines.”

Later that day, Scott and I head to Columbia, an industrial river town that’s still in the throes of a stubborn recession, where- believe it or not- Louisiana super- chef Paul Prudhomme’s nephew David and his wife, Sharon Prudhomme, have opened the Lost Cajun Kitchen in a restored speakeasy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely spot for authentic Cajun cooking. “We took a wrong turn and here we landed,” cackles Sharon, explaining how the restaurant got its name.

The Lost Cajun Kitchen is charmingly cluttered with Creole kitsch like alligator skulls, stuffed blow frogs playing instruments and offbeat gifts presented to the Prudhommes by appreciative customers. Pictures of David with his famous uncle and the rest of his family are propped up alongside Paul Prudhomme cookbooks and shot glasses with the restaurant’s colorful alligator logo designed by Sharon. At the waitress’ suggestion I order Shrimp Sunny, a bayou sampler, with catfish over crab topped with crawfish etouffee and surrounded by blackened shrimp. Scott digs into his blackened catfish and hush puppies and doesn’t look up until his plate is clean.

After a couple of Dixie beers, Scott and I start bragging about our adventurous palates. David, a whippet-thin chain-smoker who doesn’t remotely resemble his rotund uncle, smiles wickedly. “Ever taste boudin balls?”

He has us. “Uh, no …”

David dashes into the kitchen, emerging with a platter of fat white sausages. “Grab one,” he drawls. We hesitate. A not so appealing shade of grayish tan, the boudin balls are less ball-like and more shaped like fat fingers. David plucks one and pushes the platter toward us. “Y’all go head,” he urges. We do as he says and are rewarded with a rich meaty filling that bursts out of its thin casing. David passes the platter down the bar, where a local in a leather jacket pops the last one in his mouth. “I don’t even want to know what’s in your balls, David,” he says, sending Sharon into riotous laughter. We learn that rice, pork and chicken liver are part of the mix, but I have the feeling there are ingredients the Prudhommes will never reveal.

Later we drive to Intercourse, the Amish town that launched a thousand jokes. We stay at the Intercourse Village Bed & Break- fast Suites, the only accommodation in Lancaster County to receive a four-diamond rating from AAA. We skip the Victoriana-heavy main house and opt for the Harness Shed with its Jacuzzi and fireplace. As we settle into our room, we both pause to listen to the steady clip-clop of horse-drawn buggies, thankful both for comfortable accommodations and that some things in this charming area haven’t changed at all.


Lancaster County Visitors Bureau, 800- PA-DUTCH, http://www.padutchcountry.com


Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen boasts the best Cajun food north of the Mason-Dixon line. Dinner for two runs about $40. Check the Web site for live entertainment. (50 Lancaster Ave., Columbia, 717-684-1706, http://www.lostcajunkitchen.com) The Bistro at Netherlands Inn & Spa is a good bet for fine, continental cuisine in a contemporary setting. 717- 687-7691. The Restaurant at Doneckers sates hungry shoppers with gourmet sandwiches and wraps for lunch or lamb shank and roasted cod for dinner. 717- 738-9501.


Netherlands Inn & Spa has big, comfy rooms and a full-service spa surrounded by acres of Amish farmland. Rooms start at $100. (1 Historic Drive, Strasburg, 800-872-0201, http://www.netherlandsinn.com) Beautifully appointed suites at the Mennonite-owned Intercourse Village Bed & Breakfast Suites, in the heart of Amish country, start at $139. Packages including hot air ballooning, wine tours, antiquing and dinner run $648. (Route 340, Intercourse, 800-664-0949, http://www.amishcountryinns.com) For room rates and reservations at one of Doneckers’ inns, call 717- 738-9502.


Wander store to store over many blocks at Doneckers. This uber-luxe shopping emporium has everything from Donna Karan jackets to Ralph Lauren nightstands to bouquets of roses. 100-409 State St., Ephrata, http://www.doneckers.com


To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the premiere of “Witness,” Lancaster County is sponsoring The Witness Movie Experience Tour from April 1 through Nov. 21, which includes the Amish barn where the movie was filmed. Adults, $29.95; children, $19.95. 800-PA-DUTCH, http://www.padutchcountry.com. Catch “Carousel” or a Brahms concert at the Fulton Opera House, a confection of a theater that’s been pulling in audiences for the past century and a half. Tickets start at $16. (12 N. Prince St., Lancaster, 717-394-7133, http://www.fultontheatre.org.) Spend an afternoon exploring hundreds of acres of rural Lancaster County and tasting fruity wines at the Nissley Vineyards & Winery Estate. Wine, starting at $10 a bottle, is available for purchase. Tastings are free. (140 Vintage Drive, Bainbridge, 717-426-3514, http://www.nissleywine.com.)

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