Hershey, Pa., bills itself as the “sweetest place on Earth,” and after spending a few days at The Hotel Hershey, you’re likely to agree. There are free Hershey bars at check-in, free Hershey Kisses at turndown and bowls of Hershey miniatures in the restaurants and spa (though nary a Snickers or bag of M & Ms, which are made by rival Mars Co., in sight).
And the people who run the hotel are nothing if not sweet. During a two-day visit, every staff member I encountered, from waitresses to gardeners to room attendants, greeted me with a hearty “Hello!” or “Have a good day!” then asked if there was anything I needed. Though at first startling in a “Truman Show” kind of way, the hospitality seemed genuine. As one staffer told me, “Mr. Hershey was such a good guy, and his story is such a great story. You feel good about working here.”
Despite the fact that my husband spent much of our visit trying to ferret out Milton S. Hershey’s “dirty little secret,” it appears that he was, indeed, a good guy. Born in 1857 on a farm in central Pennsylvania not far from the hotel’s beautiful 310-acre setting, Hershey struggled throughout his childhood and youth to make something of himself. He failed repeatedly until, in the late 1800s, he created the recipe for Hershey’s Crystal A, a “melt in your mouth” caramel candy made with fresh milk. That caramel earned him his first million and led him to the thing that would earn him many more: milk chocolate.
In 1894, Hershey concocted his signature bar and soon built the world’s largest chocolate factory in the Pennsylvania dairy country town of Derry Church— later renamed Hershey— to mass produce that bar (as well as Hershey cocoa and chocolate coating). By 1913, he’d also built homes for his workers and created a school for orphaned boys that’s still run today with funds from the Hershey Trust. When the Depression hit, Hershey, a devoted philanthropist as well as utopianist, kept his workers employed with a “Great Building Campaign,” which created a sports arena, community center and a grand hotel inspired by his travels in Europe. When it opened in 1933, The Hotel Hershey was described as “a palace that out-palaces the palaces of the maharajahs of India.”
To get the best first impression of the hotel’s grandeur, resist entering through the automobile entrance on the ground floor and instead climb the steps to the first-floor veranda and enter through the Fountain Lobby. A re-creation of an 18th-century Spanish courtyard complete with painted tiles, hanging lanterns, arched doorways and a sky-blue ceiling painted with clouds, the lobby is stunning. Walk out to the flower-filled front veranda to glimpse Hershey Park (and hear the screams of its coaster-riders) and the town of Hershey in the distance. As pretty as that view is, the one out back is even more lovely: in the foreground are formal gardens, including a reflecting pool with fountain, and in the background are the surrounding woodlands.
If the lobby and grounds represent the high points of the hotel’s elegance, the Circular Dining Room is a close second. The semi-circular design affords diners at most tables a view of the formal gardens framed by a series of 13 stained-glass windows. Dinner is an elegant affair, with jackets required for men, an extensive wine list and a fleet of servers to attend to every whim. Dieters, beware: the menu is heavy on grilled meats and cream-based sauces, and light on salads and vegetables— and you may not be able to resist spreading a bit of chocolate butter on your chocolate-cherry bread. The sweetest place on Earth? I’ll say, especially after sampling a cheesecake that was served warm, topped with a mix of crushed pistachios, Skor bars, Reese’s Cups and Hershey bars, and accompanied by a frosty malted milkshake. Other dining options at the hotel include the Fountain Café (which offers lighter fare and is kid-friendly) and the Iberian Lounge, which would be more in-line with the Old World feel of the Fountain Lobby if it didn’t have three TVs going at once.
There’s a lot to do in Hershey— visit Hersheypark, Chocolate World, Zooamerica or Hershey Gardens, or stroll chocolate-scented Chocolate Avenue under streetlights shaped like Hershey Kisses— but the hotel offers plenty of activities that don’t require leaving the property. During the warmer months, there’s an outdoor pool, 72 holes of golf, a playground for kids, tennis, boccie and shuffleboard courts, and six miles of nature trails. For rainy or cold days, there’s a well-appointed fitness center, a newly remodeled indoor pool and a game room for kids. And then there’s the renowned Spa at Hotel Hershey, the three-story, 17,000-square-foot pleasure dome that opened in January 2001.
To get to the spa, take the first-floor hallway from the main building, stopping along the way to view the historic photos of Hershey and his enterprises that line the walls. After changing into a robe and slippers, you can relax before your treatment in the spa’s Quiet Room, which is modeled on the library in Hershey’s own home, High Point Mansion, and offers a stunning view of the gardens. Eat a muffin, drink a cup of tea, page through a magazine or just stare out the window. There’s no talking— and, of course, no cell phones ringing.
Though the Spa at Hotel Hershey is a full-service European spa, it’s best-known for its “chocolatized treatments” like the Hershey Kiss, the Chocolate Dipped Strawberry and the Peppermint Pattie. I signed up for the Chocolate Immersion ($155), which involves being scrubbed with a cocoa-scented exfoliant, painted with a warm mud scented with the spa’s trademarked Essence of Cocoa Oil, then wrapped in a thermal blanket. According to the spa brochure, you’re supposed to feel like a big Hershey bar. I felt like a big chocolate burrito. After about 20 minutes, the attendant returns and sprays off the mud with water that streams from seven overhead jets. It’s heavenly: a hot shower without the inconvenience of standing upright. Then you’re rubbed with moisturizer— cocoa scented, of course— and sent back into the world with smooth, chocolaty smelling skin.
Milton S. Hershey died in 1945 at the age of 88, but his presence is very much a part of The Hotel Hershey today. He loved gardens and travel, and believed in treating people well. And no doubt he would have enjoyed a “chocolate immersion” as much as the next person.