I’m one of those people who travels the world but hasn’t seen enough of his own country, especially places near home. I’ve been to Antarctica, but not the Grand Canyon and I can’t honestly tell you why. So about a year ago I decided to try to take more local trips; to discover areas within an easy drive that might be interesting. But when my partner suggested a long weekend in Hershey, Pennsylvania I wasn’t so sure. I was 7 years old the last time I visited and I couldn’t believe that much had changed. Hershey has a great reputation as a family friendly destination, but how would two gay guys who like the finer things in life fare in the Sweetest Place on Earth? Well what we experienced truly and honestly shocked me to the point where I feel I must share our experiences and try to convince as many people as possible to spend a weekend in Hershey.
When I travel it’s usually as comfortably as possible, by that I mean luxury or at least comfortable hotels. However, when I did a quick online search for hotels in the Hershey area I was a little disappointed. The caliber of properties just wasn’t there. But then my partner suggested the Hotel Hershey and I was immediately intrigued.
(Note: Hershey Park was closed the weekend we visited, which is why it is not mentioned in this piece)
Surprise #1 – The Hotel Hershey
The Hotel Hershey is a classic hotel; built in the 1930s the hotel has pampered guests to the Sweetest Place on Earth with style and flair for decades. My worry was that it would be dated, overly stuffy and not at all luxurious. Still, even with those misgivings I booked us for a weekend stay and hoped for the best.
From the moment we pulled up in front of the hotel I knew that I had been wrong, very wrong. Yes, the hotel was built in 1932, but instead of looking dated, the Hotel Hershey exudes the luxury and pomp of that era. Not much has changed as far as decor and look go, but they didn’t need to either. The elaborate stained glass ceiling welcomes people with a permanent cheeriness that sets the tone for the entire stay. The Hotel was the peak of end-end living in the 1930s and that has been maintained throughout the years. It has never declined, it has never gone through years of confusion as it tried to rebrand itself. Instead the great minds at Hershey have maintained the same level of elegance through the years, adroitly understanding that good taste never goes out of style.
It’s hard not to think of oneself as a character from The Great Gatsby walking around the grounds. The wood interiors of both the lobby and the guest rooms are luxury at its best, but it’s the entire hotel itself that is a testament to a grand era gone by. Little finishings found everywhere contribute, as do the broad-brush strokes like the hotel’s extensive gardens. Walking through them I half expected a character from Downton Abbey to round the next corner, or at the very least a butler asking me my preference in cordials. Yes, the hotel is undeniably elegant and luxurious but it’s not done in a way that alienates.
Throughout our stay I felt comfortable, very comfortable and the staff welcomed us at every opportunity. I felt as if I belonged there and that means a lot; in fact I think that level of service is the true mark of a great luxury hotel, more than the silver or stained glass.
Surprise #2 – Hershey is great for couples
Yes, many families with kids visit Hershey and with good reason. It’s the unofficial chocolate capital of the country and perhaps the world and they have a world-class amusement park. All you need are free puppies and Christmas every day to make it even more of a haven for children. But as I discovered, the town offers a lot for couples, those visiting without kids in tow.
What helped us perhaps the most was purchasing the Chocolate Adventure package through the Hotel. For an extra nightly fee we received a lot of benefits including:
- Chocolate welcome basket
- Free daily breakfast
- Admission to the Hershey Story Museum
- Free chocolate tasting
- Free make-your-own candy bar
- And a lot more
This turned out to be the perfect package for a couple visiting Hershey. One of my favorite experiences though was one that may surprise you.
Located in downtown Hershey, the Hershey Story is a museum dedicated to sharing the history of Milton Hershey and his legacy over time. It’s well done and interesting, using state of the art curation and story telling. But that’s not what I liked most about visiting the building where the museum lives, no it was a unique tasting experience found in the museum’s cafe – Café Zooka.
For $10 (or free with the hotel package) you can participate in a unique full flight, Countries of Origin Chocolate tasting at the cafe. Imagine a wine tasting, but with chocolate and a lot more fun. The staff prepares a series of melted chocolate drinks, each from a different country and lead you through the tasting experience as you learn about the nuances and differences cocoa beans exhibit based on where they are grown. Unexpectedly, I think this was my favorite experience of the weekend. Tasting first hand how much chocolate can differ was truly fascinating, and (mostly) tasted great too. Not every chocolate was good though and I quickly learned from where my favorite chocolate originates. (Java in case you were wondering) This is a fun, low cost way to really immerse yourself in the chocolate experience.
To relax as a couple though head back to the Hotel Hershey for a treatment at their world famous spa. The old world elegance follows through to the quiet chambers of the spa where you can enjoy traditional treatments, or the more iconic cocoa massage. Using cocoa essential oils, the hour long massage is both relaxing and therapeutic. Plus walking away literally smelling like chocolate isn’t a bad thing either.
Just because you don’t have kids with you though doesn’t mean you should ignore your inner child. Hershey is meant to foster good, wholesome fun and to shy away from the more popular areas in town is a mistake. Hershey’s Chocolate World is the central hub of the chocolate experience in Hershey. There you can go on a 10-minute simulated factory tour to learn about how Hershey chocolate is made, shop at the massive factory store where candy in every size, shape and flavor is available and you can even make your own chocolate bar.
For $14.95 (or free with the hotel package we purchased) guests get the opportunity to create their very own chocolate bar. Dressed in an apron and hairnet, would-be chocolatiers first select the kind of chocolate they want and then any add-ins they think will taste good. I selected pretzel bits and crisped rice as the ingredients for the perfect bar of chocolate. Then guests walk through the line following their bar of chocolate at every stage of production, from initial casting to the final packaging. Nothing is left to chance and you can even design the wrapping for your specialized bar, which is delivered to you in a special Hershey tin at the end. The entire experience takes about 45 minutes and is a lot of fun, even for those of us who are simply kids at heart.
Surprise #3 – The food
I didn’t even consider where we would eat before visiting Hershey, which is good I guess since everything came as a very pleasant surprise. Once again I have to laud the Hotel Hershey, this time for their dining options. From a decadent but luxurious breakfast buffet in the iconic Circular room to the more modern farm-to-table cuisine at the Harvest Restaurant, the food is truly excellent. But it’s the little touches that impressed me too. I love the fact that the room service menu features cookies and milk, delivered in an old-fashioned milk bottle. I love the fact that the coffee shop serves what may be the best cup of hot cocoa in the world and I love the fact that every where you turn someone is trying to ply you with chocolate. I don’t know why, but it just put a smile on my face.
But the hotel isn’t the only place for great food in town as we discovered our first night there when we dined at the Italian restaurant Fenicci’s of Hershey. Like almost everything else in Hershey, this locally famous restaurant opened its doors in the 1930s and has been keeping locals and visitors alike happy for generations. My partner is from northern New Jersey and is very picky when it comes to great Italian food and even he wasn’t disappointed. The menu is expansive and offers something for every budget, from simple hoagies to steaks. The true hallmark of a great Italian restaurant is how they prepare their meatballs and after I tasted the one placed delicately in my baked penne dish I knew we had picked the right restaurant.
More than the food, the ambiance of sitting out on the restaurant’s veranda, enjoying a perfectly crisp autumn evening was pure perfection, a kind that can’t be planned or crafted.
Even though I knew the chocolate alone would keep us happy during our weekend in Hershey, everything else that we found there truly surprised me and together they helped give us a wonderful weekend away from home. I also learned that I don’t have to trek to the capitals of Europe or down to Antarctica to have a great travel experience. Sometimes they’re right there in my own backyard.
What local getaways have you discovered?