In the hills of western Pennsylvania, a skeptical New Yorker gives glamping a try
By Sylvie Bigar,
Jim Sota The Barn at Maple Falls
The West beckoned. Perhaps not the imaginary Wild West of my European childhood, with its covered wagons and cowboy hats, but from New York City where I stood, western Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, the state promised dazzling fall colors, mild breeze and a change of scenery I’d been craving for months. I was determined to stay away from big cities, traffic and crowds — anything that would remind me of my urban home or what my urban home used to exude.
So I was thrilled to discover that Pittsburgh hospitality industry veterans — among them Anna Baird, an alumna of that city’s Ace Hotel — were launching Hideaway Co. this month. The “mobile” glamping experience (meaning that the company will set up in different sites during different seasons) is located on the site of the Barn at Maple Falls, in the Laurel Highlands near Rockwood, Pa. You may have heard of Rockwood, as Mile 43 on the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile hiking and biking trail that links Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md.
Glamping — that trendy portmanteau of “glamour” and “camping” — may be a contemporary phenomenon, but the concept of sturdy, comfortable tents has been around for centuries, just ask Genghis Khan! Glamour appealed to me. Camping didn’t. Truth be told, ever the city gal, I had never gone camping, let alone glamping, but in this period where anything outdoorsy feels safer than the alternative, I took a deep breath, exhaled and made reservations.
Since I’d never visited the region, I was also curious to see Fallingwater, the iconic vacation home designed in the 1930s by architect Frank Lloyd Wright for the Edgar J. Kaufman family. The house, one of eight Wright buildings in the United States added to the UNESCO World Heritage List last year, is about half an hour from Rockwood.
Like many fellow New Yorkers, I don’t own a car, so simply driving my rental through the 316 miles from Manhattan to Rockwood in one day felt like an adventure. On the way back, however, I would break the trip up and spend the night in Easton, the quaint, historic town where the Delaware and Lehigh rivers meet.
The Barn at Maple Falls
The Barn at Maple Falls and Paul Bunyan’s Sugar Camp sit on 370 acres in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands Mountains.
As soon as I left the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Somerset, I found myself surrounded by gently rolling farmland. In the crisp air, blurry figures rode fuming tractors along the fields. “Drink Milk” signs appeared here and there, and as if to underscore the message, herds of black and white cows seem to watch me drive along the meadows. Further along, clusters of maple trees lined the road, and I wondered if I would taste their syrup that night.
I’d just parked the car below the Barn at Maple Falls when I was greeted by 8-year-old Charlotte Baird, the perfect host.
“Welcome! Let me put your bag on the cart!” she announced, as she bravely picked up my heavy carry-on.
The red-roofed wooden structure and adjoining tent, often used as a wedding venue, stood halfway up a gentle, impeccably mowed hill, a human-made clearing within the forest. The building accommodates hundreds, but when the first glampers trickled in for a very welcome hot cider and rum concoction, it felt totally appropriate for a small, socially distanced group. Yoga classes and individual massages would take place in the morning, I learned, in the more intimate lower level of the barn.
Who remembers that Pennsylvania means Penn’s woodlands in Latin? On one side of the building, oak trees in autumn robes stretched their golden limbs toward a pale sunset. On the other, a forest of thick evergreen pine trees reminded guests that the wilderness hung close. Were there bears, I wondered, anxious.
Inside an Under Canvas tent at Hideaway Co. in western Pennsylvania, where the author spent a night earlier this month.
Later on, I stepped into my elegant safari-themed tent, one of 20 set up at various locations around the barn, channeling my inner Karen Blixen — the celebrated Danish author of the 1937 memoir, “Out of Africa.” Two sturdy wooden beds fitted with comfortable mattresses and soft sheets bookended the “room,” which also contained matching rustic/chic nightstands and lanterns, a cowhide on the carpeted floor and two folding butterfly leather chairs. I placed my bag on the foldable luggage rack and hung my jacket on the coat hanger, feeling very sophisticated, and very cold.
During happy hour, when a mixologist prepared creative cocktails in the barn to the sound of lounge music, I learned that 2021 would bring a full season of glamping weekends, from May to October, and that several new locations in the same region were being evaluated.
“In 2021, we will partner with chefs, sommeliers and excursions outfitters to expand our offerings,” Anna Baird said.
Dinner under the massive tent brought delicious lamb shoulder from nearby pastures, but I was exhausted from the drive, and after I used one of the shared bathrooms conveniently tucked inside white teepee tents, I retreated to my own abode — which is when I realized I had packed for summer weather. I had zero training in restarting the fire in the potbelly stove, so I piled on every single piece of clothing I’d brought and slid under the sheets trying not to think about the falling temperature or the bears in the surrounding forest.
Sylvie Bigar for The Washington Post
At Fallingwater, the summer home Frank Lloyd Wright designed in the 1930s, visitors can tour the grounds and peek inside, but the house is closed because of the pandemic.
I woke up frozen the next day. Neither camping nor glamping was my cup of tea, I realized. As a teenager, I’d slept on a sailboat and in a hammock on a beach but all these years later, sturdy walls and most important, a door I could shut, had become necessary to my well-being. It may have behooved me to join the socially distanced yogis the next day — there was not one Zen particle in me as I fought with my GPS, attempting to map out the 25 miles to Fallingwater. You’ve probably already guessed that I got completely lost and that the West (or the rural countryside) sometimes means being beyond Internet service. Feeling desperate, I asked a postal worker for directions, but he could only point me to the area where service would be reestablished.
“Then you can Waze it!” he said.
Improbably enough, I finally made it. Though the main building was closed because of the pandemic, I was able to walk around the house and throughout the extensive grounds of the former summer camp. I admired the incredible modernity of the ocher concrete and steel structure built in 1936-38, the clever and imaginative way the house hangs over but blends within its rocky surroundings, and the waterfall gushing as if coming from under the building — what experts deem is one of the best examples of organic architecture. I peeked inside at the rock walls, the full bookshelves framing the doors, and wished I could learn from Wright’s sense of peace and style. I left determined to look up other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings around the country.
Miraculously, the staff at Fallingwater had prepared small cards that detailed the way out, so I was soon on the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading east. I’d heard that Easton, site of Lafayette College and the Crayola Experience, was attracting young families in search of a small-town feel within easy reach of New York or Philadelphia.
Sylvie Bigar for The Washington Post
On the so-called Millionaire Row in downtown Easton, Quadrant Book Mart and Coffee House occupies a brick building dating back to 1848.
By the time I arrived, it was too late to check out the storied farmers market — established in 1752, it claims to be the longest continuing open market in the United States — but what a relief to find a bathtub and a warm bed!
Sylvie Bigar for The Washington Post
Easton’s Sweet Girlz Bakery has received many accolades for its cupcakes.
I was happy to leave the car in the lot the next day and walk around Easton’s historic district as the town was waking up. Several restaurants were setting up for outdoor dining and students were lining up, six feet apart, at coffeehouses. The vibe was Brooklyn circa 1990. Seeing a sign for a public market, I walked in and found myself in a cool food court populated by interesting culinary artisans. A few delicious tacos later, I met a Belgian chocolatier named Jean-Paul Hepp.
“One hundred percent cocoa, really?” he said, eying the pouch of chocolate discs I’d chosen. “Taste one first to make sure you like it.”
Intense of course, but also floral and sensuous, his chocolates served as the perfect fuel for the three floors of the Sigal Museum across the street. There, I learned about local Native American settlements, regional history and immigration currents. Photographs of the Center Square firefighter parades taken at various times during the 20th century brought the early days of the town to life. Thankfully, there was no need to call the fire department for the creative heaters under the tent at Three Oak Steakhouse, and after a perfectly charred steak, I lingered at a few antique and vintage shops.
The next day, refreshed, I set up for the easy 90-minute drive to my Wild East.
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If you go
Where to stay Hideaway Co. The Barn at Maple Falls & Paul Bunyan’s Sugar Camp
793 Gebhart Rd., Rockwood
412-596-7423 hideawayco.com This fall, the mobile glamping concept imagined by a group of hoteliers from Pittsburgh has set up in the rural area near Rockwood. Expect safari-themed tents, delicious food and morning yoga classes. Plans for spring will be firmed up later this year. Single-occupancy tent packages from $1,800 for two nights. The Grand Eastonian Hotel & Suites 140 Northampton St., Easton
610-258-6350 grandeastoniansuiteshotel.com This historic hotel originally built in 1926 in the center of downtown Easton provides a welcome respite. Rooms and suites may feel a bit passe, but they are large and perfect for families. Rooms from $127 per night. Where to eat The Bayou Southern Kitchen & Bar 64 Centre Sq., Easton
610-829-1700 datbayoulv.com/Easton A happy buzz emanates from this corner Southern eatery where fried chicken and authentic jambalaya mingle with generous cocktails. Leave space for the cornbread. Open noon to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday and until 10 p.m. Friday; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Entrees from $15. Chocodiem 325 Northampton St., Easton
973-518-2789 chocodiem-us.com Belgian chocolatier Jean-Paul Hepp, a recipient of many national accolades, offers addictive truffles, homemade macarons and other bonbons in this shop tucked in toward the back of the Easton Public Market. Relax, he also ships nationwide. Closed Monday and Tuesday; open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Confections from $5.50. Taylor Taco 325 Northampton St., Easton
484-373-4477 taylortaco.com Named for Eastonian George Taylor, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, this simple shop in the Easton Public Market delivers clean taste and impeccable quality. Closed Monday and Tuesday; open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and until 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tacos from $3.50. Three Oak Steakhouse 323 Northampton St., Easton
610-559-5510 threeoaksteakhouse.com A classic steakhouse with a large menu including options for non-meat eaters. The side dishes serve two or more. Closed Monday; open 5 p.m. to 9:30 Tuesday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 Friday and Saturday and 4 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Entrees from $22. What to do Fallingwater 1491 Mill Run Rd., Mill Run
724-329-8501 fallingwater.org Built between 1936 and 1938, the house, which seems to hang over a rocky waterfall and features ocher concrete, steel and glass, blends nature and architecture. Large glass windows allow the visitor to peek inside but also to see the landscape across the way. Exterior open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Wednesday; indoor currently closed. Tours run until end of December. Reservations required. Exterior tour tickets from $18 per person, free for children 5 and younger. Sigal Museum 342 Northampton St., Easton
610-253-1222 sigalmuseum.org A visit to the Sigal Museum yields interesting data and artifacts relating to the history of the area and of Easton, which has been shaped by waves of immigration that have added to the culture of the area. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. General admission $7 adults, $5 seniors and active military, and children 6-12; free for children 5 and younger
. Information visitpa.com — S.B.
For the author’s full list of recommendations for the Laurel Highlands, visit wapo.st/travel.