We are just shy of Philadelphia when I realize I’ve forgotten the hammer. “No worries,” my cousin Steph says. “We can use a tire iron. It’s metal- it will work.”
Two hours later, after a lovely drive along the Delaware River from New Hope to Upper Black Eddy, Pa., I tap the tire iron against a boulder at Ringing Rocks Park, prepared for a resounding ringing. Instead, my effort yields a tinny sound exactly like what you’d expect to hear when applying metal to rock. “Does that sound like ringing to you?” I say. “It doesn’t to me.” Steph allows that it doesn’t, in fact, sound like ringing and urges me to try a different rock. When that doesn’t work, she suggests I tap harder.
During the next 20 minutes, I bang the tire iron against roughly 20 boulders, first determinedly, then half-heartedly, then suspiciously. Eventually I hand the tire iron to Steph and pull out my guide to Bucks and Hunterdon counties- the two counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, respectively, that border the Delaware River- and read aloud. Ringing Rocks Park, the guide says, is “a unique geological site comprised of an 8-acre bed of mineral- bearing rocks. The stones produce a ringing sound when struck with a metal object. They are an enigma to geologists but a delight to visitors and children with a musical ear.”
If you want to be delighted at Ringing Rocks Park, take my advice: When you pack for a weekend getaway on the Delaware River, don’t forget your hammer.
And while I’m at it, here’s a second piece of advice: Don’t spend all your time in New Hope, Pa., like many folks do when visiting the Delaware River Valley. Sure, it’s the “crown jewel” of Bucks County, a boomtown whose booming has, in large part, fueled the rebirth of the other river towns. And sure, there are great restaurants and shops, a thriving community playhouse and a wacky piano bar (more on that later). But if you want to get a sense of actual life along the river, in addition to relaxing and enjoying the scenery, plan to meander up and down the Delaware, crossing the bridges and exploring each state’s shore.
After Steph and I leave Ringing Rocks Park, we make the first of many river crossings, driving over the bridge into Milford, N.J., then turning south toward Frenchtown. Immediately we notice that River Road on the New Jersey side (Route 29) doesn’t hug the river’s contours like River Road does on the Pennsylvania side (Route 32). Given that the Delaware is prone to overflowing its banks- there was serious flooding in the area in April 2005 and again in September- the choice to route inland was probably wise. But wisdom doesn’t always equal beauty, and it must be said that Pennsylvania’s River Road is far more scenic than New Jersey’s, whether at the height of the fall foliage, in winter under a blanket of snow, or in spring and summer, when paddlers and tubers are on the river and hikers and bikers crowd the paths that line each shore.
Within a few miles, we enter the outskirts of Frenchtown and turn onto Bridge Street, the main drag through town. That “Bridge Street” occupies a place of honor tells you right away that for Frenchtown and its fellow river burgs, “location, location, location” boils down to the same thing George Washington famously achieved on Christmas Eve 1776: crossing the Delaware. In 1741, a ferry crossing known as Alexandria began at the site of modern- day Frenchtown. As the years passed, the boat landing grew and thrived thanks to the opening of the Delaware Canal in 1833, the completion of the bridge across the river to Erwinna, Pa., in 1844 and the advent of the Belvidere-Delaware railroad in the 1850s. By the mid-19th century, Frenchtown was a prosperous market town with citizens wealthy enough to build the Victorianstyle commercial buildings that line Bridge Street and the grand Victorian homes that line Frenchtown’s side streets, 500 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Frenchtown is tiny- four blocks and 1,500 people- so before we know it, we find ourselves on the other end of downtown at the doorstep of the Greek Revival-style National Hotel, where we’ve booked a room for the night. Erected in 1850 to house travelers and merchants, the hotel eventually fell into disrepair until the current owners bought it, gutted it and reopened it in 2004, along with the restaurant Lila, adjacent to the lobby. Decorated in British plantation style, the hotel is chic yet cozy- a great alternative to more typical bed and breakfasts. In the lobby, leather chairs are placed atop a cheetah-skin rug and bamboo paneling covers the walls, and Asianand African-inspired furnishings fill the 10 rooms and suites, some of which have balconies and hot tubs.
When I chat with hotel manager Patti Checchio, I ask her about the origin of the name Frenchtown. “Oh, it was kind of a mistake,” she says. “A Swiss banker bought 900 acres here and moved onto it after fleeing Paris during the French Revolution. The locals assumed he and his family were French, so the name Frenchtown stuck.”
Later that evening, when Steph and I set out from the hotel in search of a place for dinner, we see a cat rolling around in the middle of Bridge Street, totally unworried about traffic. “Pretty quiet,” I say.
But I soon discover I spoke too soon. While it’s pretty placid on the streets of Frenchtown, the restaurants are bustling, full of weekenders and locals alike. Strolling through town, we stumble upon both a Thai and a Mexican restaurant, an Italian pizza joint and two fine dining establishments- a pretty amazing selection to find in a blink of a burg. We choose the Race Street Cafe, which is tucked into an alley off Bridge Street. With just nine tables on the first floor- all but one full- it’s warm and inviting. After the debacle at Ringing Rocks, I’m ready for a glass of wine.
“We’re BYOB,” the waiter says, after he deposits a basket of bread and some excellent spiced olive oil for dipping on our table. “But I can call the liquor store up on Route 12 and they’ll send a porter over with a bottle.”
The prospect of a porter delivering a bottle of wine to our table delights us, so we take him up on the offer. Ten minutes later, just as we are digging into our dinner-sized salads, the wine arrives. We eat and drink and soon we are the only people left in the restaurant. The waiter is friendly, so we chat with him about how Frenchtown has changed in the years he’s lived there. “There used to be nothing here,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief, as if the town were metamorphosing right before his eyes like a scenery change in theater. “You could buy a house in town cheap. Now the prices are all going up, people coming in from the outside. They’re building a new condo development down there by the river.”
Debriefing later, Steph and I peg the waiter as a bit of a doomsdayer, and more than a little melodramatic. But nearly everyone we chat with in Frenchtown weighs in about its recent transformation from a depressed industrial town (we’d seen an abandoned paper mill driving in on Route 29) to charming tourist destination. We eventually conclude that basically most people want Frenchtown to grow, but they want it to grow slowly and carefully, and not at the cost of the town’s authentic small-town character. “We don’t want to go the way of New Hope,” one storeowner tells us.
“Hmm,” I say to Steph. “Seems like there’s a bit of friendly competition between these river towns.”
The next morning, Steph and I spend a couple hours ducking in and out of the shops along Bridge Street. We chat with Susan Mayer, who makes all the lotions and potions on sale at Moonlight Botanicals. She characterizes Frenchtown’s vibe as “subtle hippie,” and tells us that if it were sunny, instead of drizzling and cold, the town would be packed with cyclists traveling the upper portion of the 70-mile Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, a twin to the Delaware Canal towpath on the Pennsylvania side, which runs in the old Belvidere-Delaware railroad bed. We check out the town’s several fine antique stores and art galleries, and linger in The Studio, an 1863 Italianate gem whose three floors are chock-full of framed prints, furniture and collectibles. Across the street is the future home of the condo development- dubbed Vue du Riviere in homage to the town’s (not quite) French ancestry- our waiter had mentioned the night before. Even though we’ve eaten a light breakfast at the National Hotel, we eat again at Frenchtown CafŽ. It’s a must for creative egg concoctions that include The Bliss (eggs scrambled with cream cheese, bacon and chives), Swiss Eggs (hard-boiled eggs with ham and mushrooms, baked in a cream sauce with Swiss cheese on top) and The English Breakfast (poached eggs topped with melted cheese on an English muffin, served with sausage links, grilled tomatoes and home fries). “There’s always a line on the weekends,” says owner Rosella Caloiero. “But everyone is willing to wait.”
Afterward, it’s still raining- not ideal weather for strolling along the canal, as we’d planned- so we drive south to Lambertville. The largest town in Hunterdon County, Lambertville- which sits right across a short bridge from New Hope, Pa.- boasts charming vintage clothing shops, an excellent handcrafted furniture store called “The Painted Critter” and an unending parade of nifty antique and home design stores. We stop for a breather at Lambertville Station, a beautifully restored 19th-century train station located between the banks of the Delaware River and the canal towpath, now home to a restaurant and pub. So far, we’d experienced two New Jersey river towns, and both were winners. Now it’s time to cross back into Pennsylvania.
Since we’d stayed “intown” on Friday night, we decide to go country for Saturday night at the 1740 House, a rustic but luxurious B&B in the village of Lumberville, six miles north of New Hope. The 1740 House was actually built in the 1860s as a slaughterhouse, but the inn’s first owner claimed the earlier date because he wanted his inn to be the oldest on the Delaware. Barges traveling the Delaware Canal would stop, drop off pigs and pick up pork.
What was a good location for the slaughterhouse is now a great location for tourists; only the canal towpath separates the inn from the river. It’s still raining when we arrive, so we sit in the glass-walled breakfast room, sipping hot cider and watching the water race by. Our suite, like each of the inn’s 24 guestrooms, boasts a great view of the river, which makes it hard to tear ourselves away to drive into New Hope for dinner. (The 1740 House has a cozy honor bar, but no restaurant.) But we’re curious about Marsha Brown, a restaurant located in a 125-year-old Methodist church, so we push on.
As we negotiate the traffic and search for a parking spot in New Hope, I recall what the storeowner in Frenchtown had said- “We don’t want to go the way of New Hope.” But, to be fair, New Hope is crowded because it’s a Saturday night in the thick of the autumn high season. And, too, there’s another reason: It has a lot to offer. Larger and more densely developed than either Frenchtown or Lambertville, New Hope boasts a multitude of shops, galleries, restaurants and inns on its two main streets and several side streets. It’s home to a satellite location of the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown that offers a great exhibit on the many artists, writers and composers who’ve sought escape and inspiration in the Bucks County countryside. It boasts the Bucks County Playhouse, a fabled theater that has hosted stars like Merv Griffin, Bob Fosse, Liza Minnelli and the inestimable Bea Arthur since its beginning in 1939. (The next morning at the 1740 House we eat break- fast next to soap opera star Colleen Zenk Pinter, who plays Barbara Ryan on “As The World Turns” and is starring in the playhouse’s upcoming production of “Hello Dolly.”)
Thanks to a recent renovation, you can now take a one-hour mule-drawn canal boat ride from the New Hope landing to Rabbit Run upriver. And, since New Hope has been a hot spot for bikers for decades, you’re sure to be treated to the sight of a row of 20 or so hogs parked in front of a Colonial-era storefront, which in itself is worth the price of admission. We find Marsha Brown Creole Kitchen in the heart of town, between Bridge and Ferry streets (there’s that “location, location, location” river town thing again). The snazzy entrance that’s been added onto the unassuming stone church signals that you’re in for something different, and walking inside doesn’t disappoint. From the intimate foyer, you climb to the second floor and find yourself in a grand open dining room with clerestory windows, stained glass and a giant wall canvas depicting “St. George Slaying the Dragon,” painted by a New Hope artist. Pews line the edges of the room, and in the rear is a small bar area- almost a confessional booth, if Methodists did such things- where smokers can get their fix (the dining room is non-smoking). Truly, it’s a spectacular space.
But in terms of an eating experience, the restaurant is loud- church acoustics are not designed for intimate dinners- and the dining room is so vast you feel exposed and crowded at the same time. And, as unique as the space is, the food feels, well, corporate. (The owner of Marsha Brown also owns three Ruth’s Chris restaurants.) Have a drink at Marsha Brown’s, but if you want to splurge for a nice dinner, consider The Logan Inn next door, a charming old haunt built around New Hope’s first building, the Ferry Tavern, circa 1727. Or try the Mansion Inn on the other side of Marsha Brown, where you can dine on the garden patio. After leaving the restaurant, we stop for a nightcap at Odette’s, built in 1794 as a tavern, and famous since the 1960s for its piano bar and cabaret. When we arrive at 10 p.m., the joint is jumping, with a crowd of middle-aged folks bellied up to the piano, nursing highballs and belting out show tunes.
“I hate show tunes,” Steph tells me as we find seats away from the piano. It’s not exactly my genre of choice, either. But the people are having so much fun singing that it’s fun to be there. One after another, they step up to the mike to solo. Yikes, those high notes are painful, but the crowd is supportive, and the piano player is positively god-like in his abilities to salvage a song. Just before we leave, a young man begins singing- and he’s really good! Turns out it is Randy Roberts, the female impersonator who’d starred in Odette’s cabaret show earlier that evening.
The next morning, it doesn’t take us long to walk through the village of Lumberville, which, in addition to the 1740 House, consists of two rows of quaint stone and frame houses, the Lumberville Store (which also serves as the post office), a lumber yard and the Black Bass Hotel. Delicious smells are emanating from the hotel, so we step in for a look and discover a brunch buffet fit for a king. We are too stuffed to partake, so we chat with the hotel manager, who tells us that the original owner of the place was a British sympathizer who didn’t allow George Washington to rest his weary head there during the Revolutionary War. That act of treason had apparently become water under the bridge by the time of the presidency of Grover Cleveland, who stayed at the hotel when he came to the area to fish for shad.
Just north of the Black Bass is the lone pedestrian bridge across the Delaware in the area. As we stand there taking in the beauty of the river, cyclists whiz by on their way to Bull’s Island, a New Jersey state park between Frenchtown and Stockton that offers great birding, as well as camping and picnicking.
Driving along Pennsylvania’s River Road later that afternoon on our way back to the highway, we spot a man leading a mule along the towpath. He and his beast of burden are returning from a day of transporting tourists along the canal- not from pulling a barge heavy with coal (or pigs). But still, it’s a great parting shot for our weekend along the Delaware, a reminder of the days when the river was a different kind of lifeline for the towns that line its shores.