An action-oriented family doesn't need to go all the way to Africa to spot lions and tigers, or to Alaska to find wilderness landscapes, or to Colorado for trail riding. All these things are available to the adventuresome who explore Pennsylvania's Route 104.
This fun but largely forgotten area of central Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley also offers a retreat for work-weary, always-connected overachievers. Here, being out of cell-phone range is a given, and computer hookups are about as common as skyscrapers.
In the pecking order of interesting byways, Route 104 is too short -- just 22.9 miles -- to ever achieve the notoriety of U.S. 1 on its run from Maine to Florida or the fame of scenic U.S. 6 en route from coast to coast.
Instead, this humble country road connecting Mifflinburg, Union County, at its northern end to U.S. 11 and U.S. 15 near Liverpool, Perry County, at its southern end is a gateway to some grandly eclectic getaways.
The route and surrounding countryside are "centrally isolated," crow the innkeepers at the Inn at New Berlin, one of the area's prime lodging establishments. It's four hours or less from Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
It's centrally insulated, too, from the destination inflation that pushes prices up at the seashore and other tourist hot spots. Escaping here provides a welcome break without breaking the bank.
Route 104 leads to Cruiser's Cafe, a funky 1950s-style restaurant housed in a 1940s vintage Texaco gas station, and also to the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum, which tells the fascinating story of the town that put America on wheels before Detroit began building horseless carriages. In the newly restored factory building, the industry comes back to life as a blacksmith's anvil once again rings on the hearth and sawdust litters the floor from when buggy parts were fashioned from wood.
Route wanderers can test their mettle with wilderness survival training or stage a sophisticated picnic, including locally produced wines and deliciously old-fashioned fresh-fruit pies, on the picnic table that's nestled inside the Aline Covered Bridge.
The road passes Jack's Mountain, where visitors can tour the forest home of T&D; Cats of the World Wild Animal Refuge and learn more about the ways they can help a big-hearted family and volunteers who care for abused, mistreated or unwanted exotic animals, including lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and other felines plus bears, parrots, monkeys and wolf-dogs.
Route 104 travels near the grandeur and silent beauty of an old-growth forest in the Snyder-Middleswarth Tall Timbers Nature Area. Hike here to discover how the land looked before settlers began felling the trees for buildings, ships and fuel. The road also crosses scenic Penn's Creek, one of the East Coast's premiere trout streams.
The road is also a launching point for travelers seeking back-country adventures, from camping, horseback riding and kayaking to survival training at Appalachia Spring Ranch, as well as concentrated fly-fishing experiences, courtesy of Rough & Rustic School of Practical Fly Fishing. Both are along even smaller back roads branching off Route 104.
Admittedly, some scenery along the road is worthy of inclusion only in the redneckyard.com contest. However, it's kept in balance by prettier views on the way north, including a Mennonite family's horse and buggy traveling along the road's patchwork of bordering fields and forests, workers fanning out to trim the grapevines at Shade Mountain Winery and the sun setting over a restored gristmill along Penn's Creek.
Meiserville Inn, a thriving restaurant that's four miles from the road's southern end, dishes up the first of the roadside hospitality that's characteristic here. The staff will offer directions and advice about other popular attractions along the road as well as take lunch or dinner orders and point out the inn's own historic curiosity -- the Prohibition peephole still visible in one of the doors.
Drivers need to stay alert to dodge game and road kill (wildlife in these parts is not used to tourist traffic).
Passengers should keep watch for hand-lettered signs that pop up like dandelions along the road. They announce the area's biggest and best social gatherings, like church potpie suppers and firefighters' carnivals, and smaller pleasures, like little roadside stands selling homegrown produce, jellies and crafts.
If being able to shop is vital to a getaway, Route 104 affords the opportunities for heavy-duty buying without entering a standard shopping mall.
At Colonial Furniture's outlet in Freeburg, Route 104's explorers can buy enough handmade Pennsylvania furniture, built from Pennsylvania cherry wood, to fill the house. Explore the fancy retail showroom to see just how beautiful it will look in your home, but don't miss shopping the outlet where minor flaws cut showroom prices by half or even more.
Irvin's Country Tinware, near Mount Pleasant Mills, offers hand-punched tin chandeliers and Revere lanterns as well as sconces and switchplates just one building away from where they're made by area craftsmen. To see them at work, call ahead. Factory tours generally are available 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
At Penns Creek Pottery, in a former grist mill, each hand-fashioned piece is different. Shop for a coffee mug that "feels right" in your hand. Skilled potter Bill Lynch fashions plates and bowls for kitchen use as well as decorative pieces for the rest of the house.
Stop for a sampling inside Shade Mountain Winery's tasting center, in a restored barn; its rustic, open beams and ladders bring back memories of rainy days and childhood play.
Owners Karl and Carolyn Zimmerman create old-fashioned wines grandma enjoyed, like Concord, Niagara and elderberry, as well as Chambourcin, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and both a semi-dry and a semi-sweet riesling. All their grapes are grown in their own vineyards and most fruit for the fruit wines is grown locally, too. For an unusual experience, taste the Six Dwarfs mint wine.
Time for a rest
After a day on the road, the area's unusual bed and breakfasts offer appropriate resting places for Route 104's eclectic getaways.
Buffalo silhouetted in the moonlight or grazing at sunrise are common sights, not evidence of consuming too much mint wine, for guests staying at Bison II Bed and Breakfast, in Richfield. The magnificent animals are pastured on three sides of the modern hillside home.
Buckwheat Valley, a three-bedroom guest house, can be a romantic getaway for two or home base for a family vacation. It overlooks the pastoral valley for which it is named and comes with such pleasures as a gas fireplace, Jacuzzi and plucky red rooster who crows at the dawning of each new day. An extraordinary extra that can be scheduled is a helicopter tour that begins in the front yard.
The Inn at New Berlin, the most sophisticated of the hostelries in the Route 104 neighborhood, is in the center of a sleepy but beautiful village that's ideal for relaxing evening strolls after a day on the road.
The inn offers such luxuries as couples massages and customized yoga sessions, fine dining accompanied by an award-winning wine list and antiques-filled guest rooms in two magnificently restored Victorian homes.
But the lodgings at Mountain Dale Farm, about 30 minutes off Route 104, offer the most eclectic choices for travelers. Auctioneer Ken Hassinger and his family have created their own country village of quaint cottages that have been constructed from salvaged buildings. A few of the options for guests who want to stretch out for the night are a log house, a former car salesman's office, a one-time pigpen and a Victorian funeral parlor.
The Allentown Morning Call is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Where to stop and shop
Prepare the shoppers in the family for withdrawal symptoms if they can't find happiness anywhere but in a fancy mall crammed with mass-produced goods.
However, there are some unusual and fascinating places to spend time and money on handmade products in the Pennsylvania 104 neighborhood.
Depending on where you are along the road, you can buy handmade furniture for the whole house, beautiful pottery for utilitarian and decorative uses, handcrafted tinware and good wines as well as shop Mennonite-owned grocery stores for fresh-baked pies and other treats.
Colonial Furniture Showroom and Outlet, Pennsylvania 35, Freeburg
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Irvin's Country Tinware, Heister Valley Road, Mount Pleasant Mills
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. Closed Sundays.
Penns Creek Pottery, 30 Pottery Lane, Penns Creek (Mifflinburg)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; closed Sundays and Mondays.
Shade Mountain Vineyards & Winery, Middleburg
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Green Ridge Market, 811 Forest Hill Road, Mifflinburg
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday. Closed Sundays.
Whispering Pines Market, Martin Bros. Road, north of Meiserville
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
- Diane Stoneback
Places to stretch your legs
If spending time outdoors is the prime reason for a getaway, the Pennsylvania 104 neighborhood offers options ranging from basic sightseeing, hiking and biking to organized and wide-ranging outdoor experiences like those offered by the Appalachia Spring Ranch Wilderness Adventure School and Rough & Rustic School of Practical Fly Fishing.
The Snyder-Middleswarth National Natural Landmark contains the Tall Timbers Natural Area, forested mostly with hemlock trees. Gazing at these trees, some more than 150 feet tall, is an inspirational experience and a quiet pleasure for hikers of all abilities.
It's not nearly as peaceful in the forest on the south side of Jack's Mountain, where lions, tigers, bobcats, cougars and leopards prowl wooded compounds at T&D;'s Cats of the World Wild Animal Refuge, a refuge for exotic felines and other wildlife.
On weekends, when visitors can walk the paths among the compounds, they can get close enough to the wild cats to count whiskers and teeth.
Although two levels of fences separate man from beast, there are ways in which people can help care for these rescued animals that have been mistreated or abused, or simply became too old to jump through circus hoops.
Basic cash donations of any amount help buy food and pay for medicines, but it's also possible to sponsor an individual animal for $30 to $100 a year. Donations of goods like paper towels, pine chips (not cedar), disposable latex gloves and towels are always needed, as are building materials such as lumber, plywood and Plexiglass, screws and nails.
At Appalachia Spring Ranch, owners Sue and Tim Weller offer outdoor adventures that can last a day, a weekend, a week or more. It's possible to schedule overnight trail rides, complete with camping and campfire experiences. Other sessions cover the skills required to handle a kayak with practical paddling done in nearby Walter Lake.
But schooling can go well beyond the basics of handling a horse and canoeing skills to include first aid, campfire cooking, survival skills, orienteering and camp setup and management. They even offer a guide and packers' school program and internships for those who plan wilderness careers.
Frank Angelo hooks both beginning and skilled fly fishermen for his training programs at the Rough & Rustic School of Practical Fly Fishing. Anglers stay in a restored log house and share some simple meals with him while they hone skills in everything from tying flies to casting.
A pond and stream in Angelo's back yard are his outdoor classrooms, before he guides fishermen to some of the best spots in Penn's Creek, a nationally known, limestone-based trout stream where some fish, he says, can measure 25 inches or more.
For more information about T&D; Cats of the World Wild Animal Refuge: 570-837-3377; www.tdscats.com.
To contact Appalachia Spring Ranch Wilderness Adventure School: 570-658-3840; www.appalachiaspring.com.
-- Diane Stoneback
From shakes to steaks: Where to dine
Cruiser's Cafe, in a vintage Texaco station along Pennsylvania Route 104, invites guests to fill up on burgers, hand-cut french fries and milkshakes while getting a taste of the 1950s, too.
Have a long draw on the straw of your milk shake and look around. It's a place Wally and Beaver Cleaver would have enjoyed.
Anyone old enough to have watched them do the malt shop "thing" on television will feel at home and be glad to have dragged the family inside Cruisers.
The little roadside restaurant in Mount Pleasant Mills seats a mere 26 people, with four bar stools at the counter, a couple of booths and a few more ice-cream parlor-style tables and chairs. There's more seating outside in the summertime, right by the old Texaco gas pumps and the Texaco star sign.
Inside, the place is packed with Coke collectibles. When children order a kid's dinner, they even get to help themselves to an old-fashioned glass-bottle style Coke from a vintage vending machine that still advertises the soda for 10 cents.
Cruiser's isn't the only place that provides entertainment along with the food. Meiserville Inn, close to the south end of Route 104, packs in a crowd every night with hearty Reubens and pub fare as well as hefty steaks, prime rib and country cooking that's usually accompanied by live country / western entertainment.
Because Meiserville Inn is so popular with the locals, call ahead for a reservation.
The Inn at New Berlin offers the most elegant dining and lodging experience in the Route 104 neighborhood. Innkeepers John and Nancy Showers and their staff offer a menu of contemporary American cuisine accompanied by excellent wines. The inn's two elegant and intimate Victorian-style dining rooms are open to the inn's overnight guests and the public for brunch (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and dinner (4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.) Wednesday through Sunday.
It's possible to start the day there with anything from fresh strawberry blintzes and a breakfast chili wrap to a Canadian bacon and brie omelet. Dinners, in the $20 range for an entree, are as diverse as filet mignon with horseradish cream and cranberry port wine sauces to pan-seared sesame-crusted sea bass with hints of orange and hoisin sauces.
Pick up breads and fresh-baked desserts plus sandwich makings and salads for picnics at the Green Ridge Market, Mifflinburg, or Whispering Pines Market, near Meiserville.
In addition, consider stopping at Green Ridge Market on Fridays and Saturdays when clouds of smoke rise from Monty Smith's Barnyard Barbecue on the market grounds. He serves fresh barbecued chicken, ribs or shrimp to go every weekend of the year.
Where can you go with it? R.B. Winter State Park isn't far away, or you can head for the scenic picnic table inside the western end of the Aline Covered Bridge. Pick up the main courses from Monty and then make a quick stop at Green Ridge or Whispering Pines for some awesome fruit pies or a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty like lemon sponge pie.
For great road food, pick up bags of pretzel nuggets in assorted flavors at D&L; Soft Pretzels, Mifflinburg, as well as some pretzel rolls for sandwiches and some ooey-gooey sticky buns for an early morning splurge.
Finally, if you're driving Pennsylvania 45 west from Lewisburg to Mifflinburg, consider stopping at the Purple Cow for some awesome soft ice cream. Peanut butter is a favorite flavor, and when it is "twisted" into a cone with soft chocolate ice cream, it's heavenly.
Cruiser's Cafe, Pennsylvania routes 35 and 104, Mount Pleasant Mills: 570-539-0043.
D&L; Soft Pretzels, 4 Mabel St., Mifflinburg: 570-966-8892.
Green Ridge Market, 811 Forest Hill Road, Mifflinburg: 570-966-4650.
Inn at New Berlin, 321 Market St., New Berlin: 800-797-2350.
Meiserville Inn, Route 104, Meiserville: 570-539-8526.
Monty Smith's Barnyard Barbecue, on the grounds of Green Ridge Market: 570-966-4650.
The Purple Cow, 4716 Old Turnpike Road (Pennsylvania 45), about 5 miles east of Mifflinburg: 570-524-6195.
Whispering Pines Market, Martin Bros. Road, north of Meiserville: 570-539-2757. -- Diane Stoneback