In the cozy lobby of the new luxury boutique River House at Odette’s in New Hope, in the heart of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a captivating painting hangs over the fireplace. It looks familiar, resembling Renoir’s famous “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” The background, however, is not the Seine—it’s the Delaware River! Some of the figures look more modern than those of the Impressionist’s personalities seated at the outdoor food-filled table.
The plaque beneath it states, “This painting depicts Odette Myrtil (second from left) and her companions celebrating Bastille Day, the national day of France.”
Odette Myrtil was a vivacious, fun-loving, French-American actress, singer and cabaret owner who started her career in Parisian vaudeville. She appeared in film and on Broadway, and she ended up in New Hope, where she brought her arts-focused sensitivities to an already arts-rich town. The sizable painting originally hung in Chez Odette between the 1960s and 1980s. It was “the-place-to-be” cabaret destination established by Myrtil on this spot, and it served French onion soup, escargot and plenty of music and fun.
Her raucous cabaret has long since shut down—the original building was moved nearby as a historic artifact. The River House at Odette’s now celebrates her style and encapsulates her history. Lamps made from wine bottles and other artifacts from the original cabaret adorn the space. While being totally modern, they complete the look of the bold, art-nouveau rooms with custom-made furniture.
History and modern comfort sum up Bucks County—a bucolic enclave of rolling hills and art-supporting communities north of Philadelphia—even in these COVID-restricted times. While we can’t enjoy all forms of art and entertainment now, including a play at the venerable Bucks County Playhouse and intimate restaurant dining, sites across the county have beautifully pivoted to ensure visitors have a healthy and safe stay. Little by little, there’s movement toward limited events, including limited shows at the playhouse, in the light of a better day.
Art of Food and Architecture
Restaurants throughout the county have social distancing guidelines in place and will for the foreseeable future. Even better, many have charming outdoor spaces. Vault Brewing Company in Yardley, for example, has a tented side patio in which to enjoy creative sandwiches, salads and pizzas alongside site-brewed ales. Solstice in Newtown has outdoor igloos in which to sip craft cocktails and sample seasonally focused modern American cuisine. Rocco’s at The Brick in Newtown serves seafood and meat-centric plates beneath a vast tent. New Hope also has a selection of restaurants, and most places offer takeout as well.
Bucks County is also serious about safety precautions at its most-visited sites, including the three Mercer wonders in Doylestown, the county’s second largest community about 10 miles south of New Hope.
Henry Chapman Mercer was an eccentric, Harvard-educated millionaire and archaeologist who built the six-story Mercer Museum, overflowing with relics of preindustrial times, including a gallows, Conestoga wagons, and cigar story figures. Mercer lived a mile away in Fonthill Castle, a blend of medieval, Gothic and Byzantine styles that he designed himself in poured-in-place concrete (without blueprints). Embedded everywhere are arts and crafts tiles, both from his global travels and those he made in his nearby Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. Tours are available at all three sites with mandatory wearing of masks, timed-ticket entries and limited tour sizes.
If you would rather stay completely within your quarantine bubble, the world-class Michener Art Museum across the street from the Mercer Museum offers a genius idea: Private Eyes. Businesses and families can rent the entire museum on Tuesdays and Wendesdays from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m. The fee is $600 for nonmembers and $500 for members.
The museum, championed by former Doylestown resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Michener, is a gem. The 40,000-square-foot space allows you to take in an enviable array of Pennsylvania impressionists, including Edward Willis Redfield, Daniel Garber and Fern Coppedge. A room designed by local furniture maker George Nakashima will make you want to close your eyes and meditate, and one room is dedicated to Michener.
Scenes of Libations and Nature
Wineries and breweries and their outdoor tasting spaces are idyllic anytime, but they are most definitely appealing during this COVID-challenging era. The Bucks County Wine Trail links seven wineries with an assemblage of tasting experiences and breathtaking settings. Among the highlights is Buckingham Valley Vineyards and Winery, the county’s only winery producing méthode champenoise sparkling wine. Rose Bank Winery occupies land once owned by William Penn. The Bucks County Ale Trail showcases more than 20 breweries, including Doylestown Brewing Company, whose flagship R5 Lager is based on a 19th-century Pennsylvania lager.
Perhaps Bucks County’s greatest attribute is its expanse of rolling hills and parks for hiking, biking and escaping into nature. Washington Crossing Historic Park, one of the best spots, interweaves fascinating history with its scenery. George Washington led his fabled 1776 Christmas night crossing across the Delaware River here. Delaware Canal State Park’s canal towpath runs for 60 miles between Easton and Bristol, past patches of woods, small towns and islands. The towpath is perfect for bikers and walkers to tackle all of it or part of it during their explorations. Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve has nearly 1,000 species of native plants.
Who knows what vivacious Odette would have thought about residing in Bucks County during COVID-19 times? As a performer, she certainly would want everyone to have fun. But as a business owner, she would also want her guests to be safe and healthy.
Bucks County delivers all that and more.
Bucks County is an easy-to-access destination for those of us shirking planes and staying closer to home. The county follows all proper protocols for a safe visit.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania put travel restrictions in place last November that requested anyone older than age 11 to provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test or place themselves in a travel quarantine for 14 days before entering the state. As of the date this article went to press, these travel restrictions have been relaxed. Visitors are still asked to abide by current mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines.
Bucks County Resources
Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve
Buckingham Valley Vineyards and Winery
Bucks County Ale Trail
Bucks County Playhouse
Bucks County Wine Trail
Delaware Canal State Park
Doylestown Brewing Company
Michener Art Museum
Moravian Pottery and Tile Works
River House at Odette’s
Rocco’s at The Brick
Rose Bank Winery
Vault Brewing Company
Washington Crossing Historic Park