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Weekending with the Kids: Hershey, Pennsylvania

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Hershey, Pennsylvania calls itself "The Sweetest Place on Earth" and it's easy to see why.  Milton Hershey's fourth, maybe fifth, attempt at launching a successful candy company led to the formation of the Lancaster Caramel Company, which he sold for a cool million in 1900.  Cash in hand, Milton returned to his roots in Derry Township, Pennsylvania and started making chocolates -- make that milk chocolates, a twist that made the morsels melt in your mouth.  Focusing on simple, affordable milk chocolate bars, Milton soon sold a boatload and purchased the machinery necessary for mass production of his Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar.  Ever resourceful and increasingly successful, Milton housed his production facilities close by the dairy cows that provided him milk and even produced his own sugar in Cuba.  It wasn't long before the grateful townsfolk, most of them Hershey employees, voted to rename Derry Township "Hershey," an abbreviated version of their first choice, "Hersheykoko."  Milton used most of his considerable fortune to endow a school for orphan boys, The Milton Hershey School, nestled among the rolling hills of Hershey, Pennsylvania.  Now that's sweet.

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Hershey's Chocolate World is just  that -- an ode to the cocoa bean.  Or is that cacao?  You get lots of answers here, all of them good.  Lunch at the Courtyard Cafe yields an excellent pulled pork sandwich, though our son, Steven, opts for the more familiar pizza.  The cafe is under something of a big top and the open plan seating is interspersed with various points-of-purchase.  You can buy Hershey's bars, Hershey's Kisses, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Kit Kats, York Peppermint Patties, magnets, key chains, cups...  We miraculously resist the temptation to shop and continue on to the Chocolate Tour, a free ride that chronicles the chocolate-making process.  Steven thinks he's at the chocolate factory and we're happy to let him think just that. 

At Hershey's Kiss Works, Steven dons a "factory worker" hat and practices the art of packing Hershey's Kisses as they fall off the assembly line.  He deposits his haphazard box in a wall slot and -- voila! -- it emerges as a beautifully-boxed box of chocolates available for purchase.  We again fail to do our part as consumers and proceed to "Chocolate The Experience," an hour-long chocolate tasting class.  There are maybe a dozen folks in our afternoon class, nearly all of them adults and every single one of them sporting a child-like grin.  We learn that cacao trees often grow near orchids or banana trees, thereby gracing them with fruity or flowery notes.  The 100% cacao nibs we are offered taste awfully bland, making it easy to see why Milton added both sugar and milk to his raw material.  The tasting continues with a lightly-sweetened version of Hershey's hot chocolate topped off with a charming tidbit:  Christopher Columbus used cocoa beans as currency for trading!  We continue our sampling with an assortment of small chocolate bars, starting with the classic milk chocolate bar and proceeding to deeper and darker chocolates.  I scribble quick notes on my scorecard while Fen and Steven are happy to taste away.  I pronounce the Hershey's Extra Dark Chocolate my favorite, with the Dagoba Organic Chocolate a close second.  Our master of ceremonies ends the experience with yet another priceless tidbit: the amount of anti-oxidants in a bar of dark chocolate is equal to that of two to three glasses of red wine!  As a parting gift, he bestows upon us an assortment of light and dark chocolate bars.

We exit the snug surroundings of Chocolate World for the Trolley Tour that departs right outside.  As we are here during the Christmas season, our tour has a decided holiday sheen to it and we are soon caroling our way down Chocolate and Cocoa Avenues.  While the town no longer smells like chocolate, the street lights are, in fact, made to look like Hershey's Kisses and the Factory can crank out tens of millions of kisses a day if market conditions warrant it.  A drive past Mr. and Mrs. Hershey's home, High Point, has everyone oohing and aahing, though Steven reserves his biggest smile for the Santa that hops on board near the end of our ride.  Amazingly, Santa knows the name of every child on the trolley and hands each one a pretty gold ornament with "Hershey" emblazoned on it.  As we step off the coach, we are each handed two Hershey's Kisses.

Our last stop in Chocolate World is "Hershey's Really Big 3-D Show," a Disney-esque extravaganza with sprays of water, flying kisses, sailing bubbles and a "spider" nipping at our heels.  Steven loves it and giggles all the way through.  On the way out, we are given our choice of chocolate treats.

"Mommy, wherever you go in Hershey, chocolate follows," says Steven.

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The Hotel Hershey was built during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Milton Hershey was an optimistic and benevolent man and keen on keeping his workers busy during those difficult years.  The design of the hotel was influenced by Milton's many visits to Europe and North Africa and is regal outside and vaguely Spanish-Moorish inside.  The Fountain Lobby, a floor above the main lobby, is a stunning and airy courtyard-like space that puts you smack in the middle of Casablanca.  We spend much of our time here, with an occasional stop in the Iberian Lounge across the way.  Kids are welcome in the lounge till 9 p.m. and will spend much of their time sitting in front of the mammoth fireplace, with parents repairing to the chocolate-colored leather couch.  Light bites are served as well as lightly-sweetened Hershey's hot chocolate.  Hungrier sorts will scoot across the the hall to the Fountain Cafe, a bright and cheerful space with good food and great desserts, which is exactly how it should be in Hershey.

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I send my men down to the indoor swimming pool and instruct them to take their time -- Mama will be busy all morning at the hotel's Chocolate Spa.  My treatment, a Chocolate Bean Polish, is scheduled for 9:45 a.m. but I make a point of being there for the spa's 8:30 a.m. opening, the better to lounge around in that spa sort of way.  A perky and pretty spa attendant shows me around and points out three distinct lounges.  The Aromatherapy Lounge is a glass-walled room where the day's scent isn't lavender or jasmine, it's...candy cane!  The Quiet Room is modeled after Mr. Hershey's billiards room at High Point and is a festival of dark woods and fat leather chairs.  Tall glass windows bring the outdoors in and a buffet is set up with assorted muffins and warm beverages.  The Silent Room across the hall is a cozy, womb-like space.  I opt for the Quiet Room and help myself to some decaf and a small chocolate muffin.  A few leather chairs are still available so I quickly settle in with the day's USA Today.  My name is called sooner than I wished and I am whisked to a treatment room by a friendly and engaging esthetician who starts things off with a vigorous scrub using the Spa's signature Cocoa Bean Polish.  The whiffs of chocolate wafting through the air almost lull me to sleep but powerful jets of water bring me back and hose me down, after which I'm rubbed down with the most delightful cocoa bean moisturizer, also part of the Spa's product line.  The esthetician's smooth, even strokes seal my skin beautifully.  This is as close as I'll ever get to being a Hershey's Kiss.

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Milton Hershey's beloved wife, Kitty, died in 1915, leaving Mr. Hershey many years as a widower.  On his travels, he noticed that solo diners were often relegated to a far corner of the dining room, oftentimes the worst table in the house.  He vowed that that would never be the case in his dining room, which is how, and why, the Hotel Hershey's Circular Dining Room was born.  A curved wall of glass is the focal point of a room where every seat is a good one and diners are treated to a view of landscaped gardens and lush countryside.  Our breakfast buffet on this late December morning is remarkable in both variety and quality.  The fresh melon and berries are as sweet as the chocolates we've been eating and the numerous serving stations put forth a bounty of meats, breads and made-to-order eggs.  The staff is caring and attentive and we are in no way rushed out of our comfortable seats.  We all sport self-satisfied grins in this, the Sweetest Place on Earth.

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A quick 30-minute drive from Hershey brings us to Lancaster County, heart of the Amish Country.  We're in search of Amish baked goods, as if we haven't had enough sweets already.  Our warm-up is a horse-drawn carriage ride courtesy of Aaron and Jessica's Buggy Rides.  The driver, Menno, takes us along quiet country lanes dotted with pastoral farms and regales us with tales of his simple Amish life.  Ride over, he kindly points us toward The Family Cupboard, where we indulge in a baseball-sized, syrup-laden apple dumpling paired with an equally-ample scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Ah, the sweet life...

Additional information on attractions and accommodations in Hershey, Pennsylvania can be found online at hersheypa.com or by calling 1-800-HERSHEY.  Both The Hotel Hershey and Hershey Lodge offer online specials and package rates.  The Hershey Museum will be reborn as The Hershey Story in late 2008.  Hersheypark, an amusement park which celebrated its centennial in 2007, is open April-October and is reimagined as "Hersheypark Christmas Candylane" in November and December.  Aaron and Jessica's Buggy Rides (amishbuggyrides.com) and The Family Cupboard are located in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania.


Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA . When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and six-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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