By: Nicole Pensiero
Forget the overseas river cruise or the exotic island getaway. The COVID-19 pandemic has put the focus of travel this year squarely on tried-and-true “road trip” getaways — preferably ones relatively close to home that offer something different. Jim Thorpe, Pa. — often referred to as the “Gateway of the Poconos” or the “Switzerland of America” — fits the bill perfectly.
Nestled in a valley in Carbon County, Pa., Jim Thorpe is an utterly enchanting place; a mix of late 1800s/early 1900s history, with a solid amount of hipness thrown in. When a college friend expressed an interest in taking a two-night road trip, Jim Thorpe seemed the perfect destination — especially during fall foliage time.
A two-hour drive from South Jersey, Jim Thorpe — originally known as Mauch Chunk, Pa., before being renamed in honor of the acclaimed Olympian in 1953 — has long been considered a jewel of the Pocono Mountains region — and for good reason.
Arriving on a recent October Sunday, we were surprised by the massive crowds wandering along the main street. After all, the town’s annual Fall Festival — usually held over three consecutive October weekends — was put on hold this year because of the coronavirus. But that’s not to say the town had shut down, by any stretch. While the number of food vendors set up near the old train depot/visitors center was at a minimum, most of the town’s stores were open, and the popular train rides to enjoy fall foliage were running frequently.
Checking in to our beautiful accommodations, we were glad we’d decided to splurge a bit on our stay. The Dolon House itself was a genuine highlight of our trip. Not only is this gorgeous and historic B&B located right in the heart of town — across from the 1882 Mauch Chunk Opera House — it is a destination in its own right. Owned and operated by Michael Rivkin and Jeffri Coleman, who met more than 40 years ago at culinary school, the 7,000-plus square foot Dolon House is the second B&B the couple has owned and operated in Jim Thorpe. (Previously, Rivkin and Coleman had run the nearby Parsonage, which now operates under a new name, with new owners).
To say the Dolon House is stunning is a bit of an understatement. Built in 1888, this architect-designed, millionaire’s mansion retains its amazing historic details throughout — from jeweled stained glass to hand-carved woodwork. Rivkin and Coleman are avid art collectors from their various worldwide journeys, and there is plenty to keep the eye occupied, both in the private guest quarters and in the common areas, which are spacious and welcoming.
Anyone visiting the Dolon House during December will be in for a special treat as the home will be fully decorated for the holiday season, complete with a large, live tree in the turret of the main parlor. There will also be antique feather trees and more than 1,000 ornaments from around the world, dating to the early 20th century. The Dolon House also has a menorah and invites guests to share in the nightly lighting.
Coleman prepares breakfast; Rivkin stays “front of the house,” explaining each course of the meal while providing helpful sightseeing information. These morning meals are far beyond your typical B&B pancakes and bacon. They are full-fledged, European-style delicacies, prepared and presented with care and style. Each breakfast was made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients, often presented in unique and fun ways. We were especially wowed by the homemade pierogies, with a filling of potatoes and white cheddar. The dough is a bit thicker and softer than most, as Jeffri (the chef) likes them “pillowy” rather than crisp. They were served with a hash made of sweet potato, caramelized scallions, house-smoked bacon, and roasted fresh chestnuts — plus a touch of sour cream as per tradition in the coal regions (such as Jim Thorpe).
With two full days to enjoy Jim Thorpe and its surrounding communities, we spent our first day in town, checking out the various shops and eateries. We thoroughly enjoyed our lunch — a burger and pulled pork sandwich — at the Broadway Grille, where we were especially pleased to get a balcony seat so we could simultaneously enjoy the fresh air and people-watch. For shopping, we enjoyed the Country Cottage, with its array of dill pickles and jalapeno salsa; and the charming Bee Stung boutique, which promotes itself as being geared toward “old souls, gypsies, vagabonds, rebels and flower children.” The Everything Nice gift shop on Race Street offered everything from candles to pottery and personalized signs. And for those enamored of beauty products, check out Conjured, which sells luscious-scented, small-batch, private label soaps and lotions.
After shopping and relaxing, we headed out for our first dinner at the popular Moya Restaurant, the #1 TripAdvisor-rated restaurant in Jim Thorpe. Owner/chef Heriberto Yunda serves up unique, delicious meals in a relaxing environment decorated with his own colorful paintings. The plates are made for sharing; all veggies are offered à la carte. We savored our meal dishes of pork shank in a chipotle cream sauce and boneless beef short ribs in port wine.
Although I’d been to Jim Thorpe before — it’s a very popular spot for white-water rafting — my traveling companion had not, so I thought it a good idea to visit the seen the actual Jim Thorpe Memorial, where the late sports icon is buried. There’s an interesting array of placards and photographs that tell Thorpe’s life story, as well as two life-like statues at the memorial, which are located in a lush, wooded area outside of the town’s main commercial district.
Another worthwhile stop in Jim Thorpe is the impressive Asa Packer Mansion, home of philanthropist/railroad magnate/Lehigh University founder Asa Packer. Unfortunately, the mansion is currently closed because of COVID, but it’s still a nice photo stop.
On our second day, we enjoyed the popular, historic Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, which offers train rides daily through Sunday, November 8. This is a great way to see the beautiful Lehigh Gorge State Park and river by train — it is like stepping back in time and connecting with nature’s glory in the most relaxing possible way. We completely enjoyed our recent open-air train ride, even though the weather was crisp. Train tickets can be purchased on the day of the trip at the ticket window next to the visitors center. There are special excursions offered at times, as well as train rides geared for bicyclists from May to September. Check out the website for more information: www.lgsry.com.
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 is exactly what the name says: a jaw-dropping, walkable field of fossilized boulders larger than eight football fields. It made for some amazing photos. We also took a drive to Lake Harmony, Pa., to visit the actual Split Rock that the nearby resort is named for. Hidden at the end of Split Rock Road, this 300 million-year-old glacial rock monstrosity is worth a visit. There is also an observation tower, which gives a sweeping view of the Pocono Mountains.
The annual Olde Time Christmas in Jim Thorpe, traditionally held the first three weekends in December, is on hold this year, another casualty of COVID. However, holiday decorations will abound throughout the downtown, with more than 50 shops and boutiques open for holiday shopping. The popular horse-drawn carriage rides along Broadway will also be available.
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey resident and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA). You can follow her on Twitter @NicoleWrytr.
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