For more than 150 years, Mid-Atlantic city dwellers have escaped the press of urban life by heading north - out of the concrete jungle and into the sun-dappled forests of the Pocono and Catskill mountains. One of the most pristine areas lies between the two ranges, along the upper Delaware River, where the pine-scented air is filled with the sounds of birdsong and waterfalls.
My husband and daughter and I reserved a cottage at Sylvania Tree Farm, a 1,200-acre estate with a mile of river frontage near Lackawaxen, Pa., run by John and Jane McKay. John is the great-great-grandson of James Selden, who founded the village of Mast Hope on this spot in 1840. He, too, welcomed travelers, with a grand 40-room hotel built near the station of the brand-new Erie Railroad.
By the time John was born, more than a hundred years later, the village of Mast Hope was a ruin; the property was a summer vacation spot for his family. After he and Jane married, they returned to the land to figure out how they might make a living there.
They moved into the main house and registered with the American Tree Farm System, an organization devoted to forest management and conservation. Eventually, John got around to renovating an old hunting cabin in the woods from the 1930s. Not long after, he fixed up one of the 19th-century homes still standing in the old village. By then, to their surprise, John and Jane were in the lodging business.
"It's funny," Jane says. "I think I was one of the few people who didn't dream of owning a B&B or a country inn."
Today, she and John have six secluded cabins with stone fireplaces, spacious decks and sparkling kitchens to offer a small number of fortunate guests, along with the free range of this unspoiled piece of land.
The great outdoors
For those interested in history, Jane shows off her treasures: hand-drawn plans for the village of Mast Hope, yellowed newspapers with the front-page news of a train wreck there, hand-tinted postcards, family letters and portraits.
From an earlier period, she has a Lenape Indian stone pestle carved with the head of a snake, found in the woods by a friend of the family.
"We've given most of the stuff to museums - there are pieces from here in the Smithsonian - but we wanted to keep a few things for ourselves," she explains, as I run my fingers over the subtly carved mandible.
In the wintertime, Sylvania attracts cross-country skiers and bald-eagle watchers. In the warmer months, anglers arrive for the fishing described by 19th-century novelist Zane Grey, who lived up the road in Lackawaxen (today, his house is a museum):
"Of the myriad of streams that Cedar, Reddy and I have fished in," Grey wrote in one of his wry fishing stories, "Mast Hope Brook is beyond compare. It is a joy, the substance of which are the low tinkle and gurgle of unseen current beneath green banks; glancing sheets of hemlock-brown water shining in the sun, rushing soft and swift around the stones; and in the distance, dreamy hum of waterfall now deepening to mellow boom."
For those who just want to poke around the property, there are a half-dozen well-marked hiking trails. With our 3-year old daughter, Jane, we took a morning constitutional from our cabin, the Hermitage, over a swingy wooden footbridge, into the fern-and-moss-floored forest, to the banks of the Delaware. There lounge chairs, a sandbox and the McKays' canoe awaited. Afterward, we soaked in the hot tub on our deck.
At lunchtime, we crossed the river to Narrowsburg, N.Y. - "the Eagle Capital of New York State" - a tiny town bursting with art galleries, antiques shops, and breathtaking views of the Delaware.
We had sandwiches and cappuccino at Dave's Big Eddy Diner, a friendly spot with a deck above the river so picturesque it alone repays the drive from Baltimore. But so did the perfect navy-blue '40s frock I bought next door at Marlena Russell's Once Upon a Shadow.
On the way back to Sylvania, we drove down Route 97, passing many kayakers and a lovely, multi-tiered waterfall. We crossed back into Pennsylvania on the Roebling Bridge, a one-lane wooden structure that was the model for the Brooklyn Bridge, with an elevated pedestrian walkway popular for river watching (and, I hear, necking).
In the afternoon, Jane McKay showed our little Jane her horses while my husband and I hiked to an old family cemetery in the woods where we found the graves of the ancestors we'd seen pictures of back at the house. We also made the half-hour ascent to the estate's highest point, where a stone bench provides a peaceful spot to take in the vista of winding river and rolling foothills.
As we were leaving Sylvania Tree Farm, I recalled the moment we first turned into the gravel drive. "This is never going to be long enough," I thought, momentarily awash in regret. I was right.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Driving from Baltimore, take I-83 north to I-81 north. In Scranton, take I-84 east toward Milford, Pa. From I-84, detailed directions to Sylvania Tree Farm are available from owners Jane and John McKay.