SUGARCREEK - When La Vonne DeBois stopped the tour bus to pick up a man walking home, we knew we were in for a different sort of traveling experience.
As if that surprise wasn't enough, DeBois later pulled the mini bus onto a family's private driveway and took her entire entourage of tourists to meet the local folks unannounced.
Such is life in Amish country.
We had visited Holmes County and the surrounding area previously. We enjoyed the pleasant vistas and watched with wonder the Amish community carrying on with its simple lifestyle.
But on this visit, with considerable help from DeBois and others, the vistas went from pleasant to spectacular; the lifestyle went from simple to marvelously educational and personally friendly.
We began at the Carlisle Inn in Sugarcreek. Every room has a balcony or porch with a calming view of the rolling farmland and country roads that stretch beyond the horizon. Here, we got a taste of modern hotel conveniences - indoor pool, whirlpool, restaurant and shops. We gravitated to the large, elegant library off the lobby.
1357 Old Route 39
Sugarcreek, OH 44681
4949 Walnut Street
Walnut Creek, OH 44687
Dutch Valley Restaurant
1343 Old Route 39
Der Dutchman Restaurant
4967 Walnut Street
Walnut Creek, OH 44687
4962 Walnut Street
Walnut Creek, OH 44687
Dutch Valley Market
1411 Old Route 39
Sugarcreek, OH 44681
Dutch Valley Gifts
1367 Old Route 39
Amish Dinners and Backroad Tours
Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center
5798 CR 77, Berlin, OH 44610
4917 State Route 39, Walnut Creek, OH 44687
After dinner at Dutch Valley Restaurant, part of the Carlisle Inn complex, we boarded DeBois' Amish Heartland Tours shuttle bus for a sunset tour of Amish Country. This turned out to be a lot more than a tour.
DeBois, though not Amish herself, shared her incredible knowledge of the local residents' unique religious lifestyle free of many modern mechanizations. From learning how the Amish woo the opposite gender to how they pay for health care, the few hours with DeBois far surpassed what's expected on a tour.
The tour itself took us through roads we would never have found ourselves, roads we didn't find the other time we visited the area, for scenes that were truly unbelievable. It was August, and we tried to imagine the foliage that would erupt this time of the year.
But what really impressed us was when she stopped the shuttle and asked a local Amish man, who was pulling a wagon up the road, if he wanted a lift. We looked at each other and realized that doesn't happen when taking tours in the big cities.
Then came the real stunner on the tour. She asked her guests, about 12 of us, if we'd mind visiting one of the families. She navigated the shuttle into to the driveway of a family whom we soon learned made dinner for TV stars David Duchovny and Tea Leoni and their children. DeBois took the Duchovny-Leoni family on a tour about a week earlier. During our stop DeBois finally revealed to the woman of the Amish home that the folks she made dinner for the previous week were a famous Hollywood family. The woman covered her open mouth with both hands in amazement and said she's glad she didn't know at the time because she would've been too nervous to make a good meal.
Homemade dinners can be part of the backroads tour. In fact, the progressive meal tour runs from 7:15 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. and includes breakfast, dinner and dessert in three Amish homes.
Back at our home base, the Carlisle Inn, we relaxed in our room, uniquely appointed like all the others with hand-crafted Amish furniture. The rooms are large and include separate dressing areas. The executive rooms include a fireplace and Jacuzzi; two-bedroom suites are 1,500 square feet with a Jacuzzi in the bedrooms and a large sitting area with fireplace connecting them. We immediately started planning a return trip with the entire family and extended family.
In the evening fresh popcorn, cookies and beverages are provided to guests. We also had leftovers from our dinner. Eating Dutchman style means eating hearty, with portions too large for us to finish in one sitting. What surprised us about the Dutch Valley Amish kitchen cooking restaurant, though, were the non-country style menu selections like salmon, tilapia and the mandarin chicken salad.
Dutch Valley is set off with a long front porch lined with rocking chairs. Inside the restaurant you can order meals family style or make return trips to the extensive salad bar.
Breakfast at the Carlisle is all-you-can-eat - cinnamon rolls, sausage, waffles, hard-boiled eggs and the usual continental fare.
Little did we know our education into the history and culture of the Amish would take another fascinating turn at the nearby Behalt Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center. Our tour guide, born Roman Catholic and adopted into an Amish family, spoke far more articulately and informatively than his education would suggest. Like most Amish, he ended school after eighth grade.
The heritage center features a 10-foot-high by 265-foot-round cyclorama, a mural that circles the entire room, one of only four in North America. Named Behalt, which means to keep, hold or remember, the cyclorama uses colorful detail by late artist Heinz Gaugel to illustrate the history of the Reformation and the Anabaptist movement that concluded with the Amish journey across Europe, into Russia, over the Atlantic Ocean and into North America.
Many years ago an Amish blacksmith spoke to Gaugel about his frustration over tourists. He said, "I wish there was some place in the area that people could go and find out about why we live the way we do."
Thus began Gaugel's 14-year project to provide that information artistically. Early on in his odyssey, the local Mennonite community formed the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center to house Gaugel's work and provide tourists with accurate information about their lifestyles.
The candor in which our guide spoke about the troubles within the Amish community, which on the outside appears so peaceful, benevolent and pure, was a small part of our enlightenment.
The trip wasn't all educational. Holmes County has plenty of typical touristy stuff too, especially at the Carlisle. For shoppers, the campus includes Dutch Valley Gifts and Furniture, which showcases local artisans and cabinetmakers who have created home accessories, framed and matted art and furniture for any room in your home.
If food is your thing, Dutch Valley Market is a short walk away. It offers locally-raised chicken and sausage, sweet Amish peanut butter, an assortment of homemade breads and other specialty food items.
It's a short drive to the Carlisle's sister complex in nearby Walnut Creek. That Carlisle Inn also features rooms with locally crafted furniture and balconies or porches with exquisite views. On the premises here is Carlisle Gifts, which offers an eclectic variety of goods from fleece throws to beaded lampshades, quilted purses and hand-painted pottery. You'll also find Der Dutchman Bakery with buttermilk cookies, apple fritters, sugar-free pies and other Amish delicacies.
For dinner, the Walnut Creek location houses Der Dutchman Amish kitchen cooking with fare similar to its Sugar Creek counterpart. After dinner, you can walk to Coblentz Chocolate for dessert and take-home sweets. A hallway in the shop leads to a window where you can watch the chocolate being made.