By: Nicole Pensiero, Special for SNJ Today
Only two weeks after a glorious late February weekend spent in the Pocono Mountains, relaxing at Lake Harmony’s Split Rock Resort, the world – and with it, the Poconos tourism industry – shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With summer 2020 now upon us, the four-county region that makes up the Poconos is reopening, with a focus on safety. This means that all is not lost for those seeking a little R&R in the mountains.
And why not? From its humble beginnings in the late 1800s as a destination for well-heeled New Yorkers looking for an easy escape from the city, to its current day appeal as a year-round, vacation spot, the Poconos has reinvented itself time and time again.
Ask any fan of this region what they love about it, and you’re likely to hear the same thing: nature’s beauty, countless outdoor activities, and charming little towns.
But if the word “Poconos” still brings to mind the image of a kitschy heart-shaped tub, you’re not alone. Dubbed the “Honeymoon Capital of the World” by Life Magazine in the early 1960s, an array of heavily-promoted couples-only resorts in the 1970s and ‘80s seemed to cement the image. While a few of these lovers-only resorts do remain, there’s been an overall shift in the Poconos’ image and in its appeal for vacationers of all ages.
Today’s Pocono Mountains – which take up 2,400 square miles of rolling land in northeast Pennsylvania – are considered an outdoor adventureland, with zip-lining and white-water rafting leading the way; along with more “sedate” outside adventures, like hiking and canoeing. And there’s more than that, too: casino gambling arrived more than a decade ago; NASCAR racing and world-class golf (with more than 30 courses to tee-off from) remain major draws, along with several massive indoor water-parks.
More than 25 million visitors – many from South Jersey – seek relaxation and fun in the Poconos each year. Miles of back roads make for great exploring on foot or by car, and dozens of pristine lakes offer watersports and memorable sunsets.
There are many small towns to choose from for a getaway; no matter which you choose, you can easily visit others in the Poconos region, which is gearing up to welcome visitors once more.
“After a challenging few months … our resorts, restaurants, shops and attractions are ready to get back to work serving guests once again,” said Chris Barrett, Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau President/CEO.
More than 265 businesses across the region have adopted the “Pocono Promise.” By signing the document, businesses voluntarily vow to follow specific safety guidelines to protect residents, employees, and customers as they begin the COVID-19 recovery period. As businesses across the region begin reopening, updates will be posted on PoconoMountains.com.
Here are some areas to consider for a getaway:
The lovely community of Lake Harmony, fronting the 2.5 mile long lake that bears it name, offers something for everyone: families, couples and singles. The iconic Split Rock Resort is the centerpiece of the town; it has a movie theatre and a vast water park, H20ooohh!, set to reopen in early July. There are plenty of accommodations to choose from at Split Rock, too, ranging from hotel to modern, spacious condominiums. There are also great food options, too, including the popular Lake View Tavern. The resort is now implementing social distancing and safety measures, including front desks with plexi-glass guards and temperature tracking upon entry.
“We’re very excited to welcome guests back,” said Split Rock Resort Director of Facilities Chuck Dickinson. “Our team has worked hard to install the necessary protocol measures to ensure the safety of our guests and employees.”
While there, if you’re interested in seeing the actual ice-age split rock (from which the resort gets its name), drive up nearby Split Rock Road to where it dead-ends, and just walk a few yards – you can’t miss it. It’s massive and impressive. There’s also a lookout point there that gives a sweeping view of the region from above.
The town of Lake Harmony has a handful of popular eateries, with Terra-Cotta Café & Gifts being an especially charming breakfast, lunch (and boutique shopping) spot. Along with a tasty and very reasonably priced menu, many of the gift shop items are on display in the three “shabby-chic” dining areas. Nearby Louie’s Prime Steakhouse, with its weekly specials (including Italian Night each Thursday) is a can’t-miss-choice for dinner.
Nature-lovers will want to visit the nearly 16,000-acre Hickory Run State Park in nearby White Haven. With 44 miles of walking trails, along with designated fishing and swimming areas, its star attraction is Boulder Field, a National Natural Landmark that’s exactly what the name says: a jaw-dropping, walkable field of fossilized boulders larger than eight football fields.
And if you’ve got a need for speed, Pocono Raceway in Long Pond is an action-packed diversion throughout the summer months, when it hosts multiple NASCAR and INDYCAR races. Dubbed the “Tricky Triangle” because of its unique configuration, Pocono Raceway is also the world’s largest solar-powered sports facility, as well as a popular camping destination.
For dinner, check out the fabulous Powerhouse Eatery, an award-winning, casual dining restaurant located in a former 1890’s power plant. Great food – much of it farm-to-table – and a great atmosphere.
The 67,000 acre Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area has three public beaches and more than 100 miles of hiking trails. The showcase of the park remains the actual Delaware Water Gap, a distinctive “notch” bordering Pennsylvania and New Jersey that’s a favorite photo stop. Touted as a scenic “Wonder of the World” in the 1800s, it remains breathtaking when viewed from any number of lookout points.
Nearby Bushkill Falls – dubbed the “Niagara of Pennsylvania” — has eight cascading waterfalls, including the 100-foot tall main falls. There are also four walking trails at Bushkill, along with a miniature golf course, a children’s maze and paddleboats available for rent.
Alternately known as the “Switzerland of America” because of its mountainous beauty and the “Gateway to the Poconos” – because it actually is – the little town of Jim Thorpe, Pa., manages to be both hip and quaint at the same time. Nestled in the foot of a valley, and an easy 30-minute jaunt from Lake Harmony, Jim Thorpe offers an interesting array of eclectic shops, restaurants, historical sights and outdoor activities.
One especially unique option is the Scenic Bike Train: participants take a 25-mile train ride from Jim Thorpe up the Lehigh Gorge to the village of White Haven, and bike back down. (You can bring your own bicycle or rent one). There are several white water rafting options, too: Jim Thorpe River Adventures offers an array of options from tame to semi-treacherous rafting trips.
Many of the impressive homes here were built when coal mining made the town, formerly known as Mauch Chunk, a haven for industrialists like philanthropist/railroad magnate Asa Packer (1805-1879), founder of Lehigh University. His 1861-era home, open for tours, is considered one of the country’s best-preserved Italianate Village homes, while his son’s house, the nearby Harry Packer Mansion, is a popular setting for Murder-Mystery events. The 1881 Mauch Chunk Opera House hosts folk-pop concerts year-round, and is just starting up again in July. And in case you were wondering, famed Olympian Jim Thorpe is indeed interred in the town that has held his name since 1953 (though he’s not believed to have ever visited during his lifetime).
The county seat of Pike County, Milford is a goldmine for American history buffs. Check out Grey Towers National Historic Site, the ancestral home of conservationist Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), two-time Pennsylvania Governor and first head of the U.S. Forest Service. The dramatic, French château-style home overlooks the Delaware River and is open for tours and hiking on its many trails.
Milford is also home to a somewhat macabre reminder of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln: the blood-stained American flag used to cradle the head of dying president is housed at the Pike County Historical Society’s Columns Museum. (The flag, which originally hung over the balustrade at Ford Theater’s Presidential Box, was given to a Milford resident who had performed at Ford’s Theatre the night of the assassination).
While Milford has many impressive dining options, a true standout is the elegant Delmonico Room at the 1850s-era Hotel Fauchère, serving breakfast, dinner and a weekend brunch with house specialties that include Louis’ Lobster Omelette and a Cheddar & Scallion Scramble.
Shawnee-on-Delaware, in the foothills of Monroe County, has several cultural diversions that make it a stand-out. One is the popular Shawnee Playhouse, which provides entertainment for audiences of all ages. Rebuilt in 1985 after a fire destroyed the original 1904 structure – where musician Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians broadcast their radio shows in the 1940s – the Playhouse plans to begin hosting shows again in the fall (in the meantime, there are several online acting classes offered).
Interestingly, the same New York gentleman who founded the original Playhouse at the start of the 1900s was also responsible for building the iconic Shawnee Inn, where the late Arnold Palmer met his future wife back in 1954 after a day on the links. Its golf course is open to the public, along with several popular restaurants that include the River Room Gastro Pub (featuring its own crafted beer). Only two miles away, Shawnee River Trips offers all-day, half-day and even brief trips along the Delaware River via canoes, kayaks or rafts.
A charming mix of rustic and refined, Hawley is also the perfect place to visit if you want to spend any time at the “Big Lake,” as 13-mile long freshwater Lake Wallenpaupack, is known. Built in 1926 for hydroelectric us, as well as flood control, the state’s third largest lake is today year-round hub of recreational activity: swimming, boating, hiking, biking, jet-skiing, you name it – this place has it.
There’s even a three-day-long “Lake Wally” festival every August that features everything from live music and a boat parade to an ice cream social. The festival website says it is still happening this year, with details yet-to-be announced.
Dining options are plentiful in Hawley, from down-home pub and pizza joints, to more upscale options. The authentic 1920s Art & Crafts Settlers Inn houses a popular farm-to-table restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It also has a very nice bar with munchies available.
The town of Mount Pocono is home to the region’s only casino resort, the $412 million Mount Airy Casino & Resort, which opened in 2007 – and reopened in June 2020, a few months after the COVID crisis took hold. Its website has detailed information on how the resort is maintaining high safety and cleanliness standards.
It’s located on the grounds of the famed Mount Airy Lodge, which had been the Poconos biggest (and glitziest) resort for decades, before falling on hard times and closing shortly after 9/11. This ultra-popular casino offers 1,800 slot machines and table games, a spa, a golf course and four restaurants, including Guy Fieri’s comfort food-themed Mt. Pocono Kitchen.
There’s a different kind of “casino” in Mount Pocono, too: the Casino Theatre Entertainment Center, a combination two-screen movie house and old-fashioned ice cream parlor that’s been around for more than 40 years. And nearby Desaki Japanese Restaurant is part dining experience, part entertainment as hibachi chefs prepare everything from filet mignon to jumbo strip in front of diners; there’s also an Xbox gaming station and free rides in an authentic rickshaw.
If you’re hankering for some retail therapy, check out the Crossings Premium Outlets in nearby Tannersville, with more than 100 premium name stores to choose from.
For more information about the Poconos, visit: www.poconomountains.com.
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey resident and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA).
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