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Not Madison County, but better...one of many beautiful covered bridges in rural Lancaster County, PA visited on the VBT PA Dutch tour

A week of blue skies, crisp weather, pastoral country cycling, and good food -- what more could a cyclist want? Throw in a couple of energetic tour leaders, great support, and beautiful, comfortable accommodations at quaint bed and breakfasts, and you have an autumn Vermont Bicycling Touring vacation.

My husband Robert and I recently enjoyed just such a trip with VBT in Lancaster County ("Pennsylvania Dutch") in late September. We joined our group in the town of Ephrata, about an hour west of Philadelphia, on a Sunday afternoon, and had a chance to adjust our rental bikes (Specialized hybrids) before dinner. The next day we fell into the pattern of the trip: breakfast at 8:00, dressed for cycling; a review of the day's possible routes and ideas for sightseeing; and then we were rolling!

The "true" Pennsylvania Dutch are of German origin (Dutch was originally "Deutsch") and in terms of religion, are mostly either Amish or Mennonite. The differences between the two sects are many and varied, but one rule of thumb was pretty simple: the Amish, we were told, completely shun the use of technology (including photography), while Mennonites will use technology to a certain extent. Armed with that little bit of knowledge, we cycled through the low-traffic, rolling farmlands, and except for the occasional (tourist) car, it was like going back in time. Many of the homes had no electricity; we were more likely to encounter simple black, steel-wheeled horse-drawn carriages on the road as we were cars; school children were dressed quaintly, girls in dark dresses and bonnets, boys in black overalls and black hats (although one boy was purported to have said "Cool bike, dude!" to our leader; guess his family was not altogether successful in keeping him from the influences of modern life!). On Monday, the traditional laundry day, dark clothing hung from clotheslines between homes and barns. Fields of corn were punctuated by white barns and grain silos, pumpkin patches, and the occasional covered bridge. And in many places the air was filled with the scent of drying tobacco, already harvested and hanging in barns whose sides were "opened" for maximum air flow.

We cycled the first two days around Ephrata, visiting the villages of Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand, going to quilt shops, and eating local specialties of Lebanon bologna and soft pretzels. Day three had us cycling to Mount Joy, about 35 miles northwest of Ephrata; there we stayed at the Cameron Estate Inn, a beautiful brick mansion built by Simon Cameron, Abraham Lincoln's first Secretary of War. Day four was our hilliest day -- eastern PA is all rolling hills, with some rolling more than others! -- while day five, our last cycling day, saw us personally on a speed run back to Ephrata..

Breakfast each day was at the B&B, and all other meals save for one lunch and one dinner were included in the tour price. Lunch was typically a large picnic in a public park or on one occasion, in a little valley next to a flowing creek. Dinners were at fine local restaurants where we ordered off limited menus (but the choices were always good!).

There were ten cyclists in our group, few enough that we were able to get to know them all a bit. Of our two leaders, one would drive the van -- doing resupplies and picking up purchases -- while the other would ride with us, generally with the slowest riders (which meant that we almost never saw the leader on the road, except at meal times!). Our longest ride was 48 miles, the shortest 29, and over the five days we rode 192 miles. Our maps were detailed and the route instructions clear and easy to follow; it's amazing to city folks how an instruction like "turn right at the white barn" really works. Best of all, our leaders had a genuine enthusiasm both for bicycle touring and for the area we were visiting.

VBT tours are not the least expensive cycling tours around, but the quality of the overall tour and personal level of service made it very worthwhile. We'll definitely cycle with them again.

By Liza Weissler, lyw@aves.org .
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