Nestled in the Coachella Valley, 110 miles east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs has been a favorite spot for winter living for at least 500 years. Sheltered by the San Bernardino Mountains (11,500′ elevation) to the north, the Santa Rosa Mountains to the south (8,700′ elevation), the Little San Bernardino Mountains (3,700′ elevation) to the east and the San Jacinto Mountains to the West (10,800′ elevation), the Coachella Valley sits on top of, for the time being, a still sustainable aquifer. Winter daytime temperatures (October through March) average 80 (F)/25 (C).
It’s true that day time temperatures April through September average over 100 (F)/33 (C), and I know it does little to mention that the humidity is near zero. Yet, like lizards in a desert, why would anyone want to go out in the mid-day sun? There are other hours of the day – the cool of a summer evening when a dry 80 (F) does feel wonderful, or the equally pleasant morning hours, and then there are always the mountains and lakes within 30 minutes to an hour drive where temperatures average 20 to 30 (F) lower !
Village Fest is any street fair anywhere – musicians, horse rides for the kids, activities such as the rock wall climb, street performers, shops open until 10:00 pm and food!! Naturally, the restaurants along Palm Canyon Drive are open, but remember this is a street fair in an agricultural region that has abundant access to farms using natural methods (organic, chemical-free). Available at stalls is a wide variety of produce, flowers, grains, fruits (fresh and dried) along with fresh-baked products, arts and crafts. Being a street fair, you’ll also find cotton candy, Philly cheese steaks (no, I didn’t have one…diet…), grilled brats and fresh caramel popcorn prepared in an improvised gas cooker made with a Hobart commercial dough mixer bowl ( resourceful). The fair stretches for blocks.
Unlike many street fairs, Village Fest is always in the evening which adds to the festive air as twilight colors the sky, the mountains darken in shadow and the lights of Palm Canyon Drive and Village Fest sparkle. Palm Springs may be the land of the Bentley (more per capita than Saudi Arabia) but it’s home to many average cars as well. All their owners seem to enjoy the timeless pleasure of a simple village fair.
No, the frog has not become the mascot of Reading, Pennsylvania. They are two of four outdoor sculptures from the annual June Arts of the Avenue Festival. They grace the grounds of the four businesses on Penn Avenue in West Reading that commissioned them for the 2009 festival.
Once a coal choked industrial city in the hills of Berks County, Reading is reinventing itself as a center for arts, education, restaurants and natural food. On the subject of food, it helps that Berks County farms are part of the Pennsylvania Dutch agriculture region famous for their all-natural farming methods.
Founded in the 1740’s, along the Schuylkill River, by two of William Penn’s sons, Reading quickly became an important link for access into Pennsylvania’s interior and a center for the growing iron industry during the Revolution. Reading boomed until the 1930s, when its population reached nearly 120,000. Coal from Pennsylvania’s mountains flowed through Reading like a black river fueling the city and the nation’s industrial might. The city not only was a center for heavy manufacturing but its proximity to New York and Philadelphia retail markets created a vibrant textile and clothing manufacturing sector. The Reading Glove and Mitten Manufacturing Company founded in 1899 changed its name to Vanity Fair in 1911 and is now the major clothing manufacturer VF Corp. In the early 1970s, the original factories were developed to create the VF Outlet Village, the first outlet mall in the United States. The mall is so successful that it draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Reading every year.
From the 1940s to the 1990s, however, the city saw a sharp downturn in prosperity and population (80,000 in 2008) largely owing to the decline of heavy industry and railroads on whose wealth Reading had been built. Yet even as the city struggled with urban blight and a deteriorating downtown, by the 1990’s a certain stability had been reached. The revitalizing Penn Avenue commercial center – from Mount Penn to tony Wyomissing – played heavily in the December 2007 NBC’s Today show featuring Reading as one of the top four “Up and Coming Neighborhoods” in the United States.
A great example of adaptive reuse is the Goggle Works. Founded in 1871, the Wilson Co. manufactured industrial goggles and glasses until 2002. The idea of the 145,000 square-foot brick complex deteriorating just blocks from Penn Avenue stirred strong interest in local leaders. Extensive restoration to the factory resulted in the 2005 opening of the Goggle Works Center for the Arts. Included in the Center are performing arts spaces, galleries, studios and workshops encompassing a wide selection of the arts.
Just across the bridge from the Goggle Works is West Reading where walking along plant bedecked Penn Avenue is a nice shopping stroll past locally owned small shops, restaurants and cafes. I did not see a single national chain store among the lot. The profusion of plants exist, according to the post-office women I stopped to ask, due to the persistance and persuasion of one businessman – the owner of Curious Antiques and Secret Garden, 605 Penn Ave, which is well worth a visit. A branch of the Young Chef’s Academy, 703 Penn Avenue, is in an attractive space. It was filled with eager kids taking cooking classes. The shop carries a line of kid-friendly kitchen tools and uniforms for the budding chef. Visit the West Reading Main Street site for a list of special events, festivals and shops.
I’ve had numerous reasons to visit Reading over the decades but not for interesting restaurants. The good German stock of Berks County consume high quality meats, vegetables and baked goods from the local farms but there was never much variation in preparation – generous portions of simple hardy food. Yet change has come to Reading and great ingredients are being imaginatively prepared by a new generation of chefs and restaurant owners. Once more, Penn Avenue in West Reading seems to dominate the cafe scene for five blocks from the classic West Reading Diner, 411 Penn Avenue, where you can still get that hardy food, to Go Fishi Seafood Market & Sushi Bar, 622 Penn Avenue. At Go Fishi you can dine in an attractive front room, or purchase an extensive selection of fresh fish, seafood and salads from the market in back.
Breakfast at Good Eatz Green Cafe, 701 Penn Avenue, is not only imaginative and healthy but good for the environment.
The 30 month-old cafe (almost at the magic 3-year survival mark) serves meticulous, mostly vegetarian/vegan dishes but wisely offer items for carnivorous. Besides being green and natural, an atmosphere of “old town cafe” pervades as a couple of low-key business conversations are carried out over coffee, a few people at single tables read the paper, backgammon games and books are in a bookshelf and customers walk-in for take-out (natural beverages, prepared sandwiches & salads).
My wife had Green Eggs and Ham, an omelet with prosciutto, tomato, basil pesto and provolone served with three perfect corn cakes – crisp exterior, soft fresh corn interior ($9.00). I enjoyed Eggs Sardou, a variation of Eggs Benedict with spinach and artichoke hearts (no Canadian Bacon) topped with two perfectly poached eggs and real homemade Hollandaise Sauce. They were accompanied by Yukon Gold hash browns ($8.00). The presentations were attractive and the dishes carefully prepared. The Good Eatz Green Cafe is not for customers looking for a quick sitdown breakfast but, as mentioned, talk-out is available.
Even that once venerable bastion of old-school dining, Stokesay Castle, 141 Stokesay Castle Lane, has changed ownership after many decades and entered the world of modern fine dining, sensible portions and artistic presentations. Set in a sprawling 1920’s English stone manor just outside Reading on Mount Penn, the view from the covered bar patio is bucolic and the interior dining space understated, elegant and spacious. The Tuesday and Thursday four-course prix fixe dinner menu is an excellent choice.
Many of the once well crafted urban row-house neighborhoods are in bad need of repair, as in many cities. Yet there is evidence of slow progress in renovating these blighted areas. Very positive is the determination of residents around Penn Avenue, Albright College, Berks County Park (spotless, safe restrooms) and the still beautiful 1920/30’s hill-side neighborhood of Hampden Heights to maintain the original architecture and landscape.
Driving into Reading, especially at night, a visitor can’t miss a large, brightly lite red Japanese Pagoda looming over the city 900 feet up Mount Penn. Built in 1908 by a Reading quarry millionaire, plans to open it as a hotel/club/restaurant quickly fell through. It was purchased in 1910 by another Reading millionaire who promptly gave it to the city. Like all “white elephants” it’s useless and beloved. Having gone through a number of restorations over the years, the Pagoda is in beautiful condition, and the city has recently constructed nature walks in that area of Mount Penn. It seems only open on the weekends, contains a small gallery and an oriental themed cafe. There is talk that perhaps the city will restore the Pagoda to its original purpose as a hotel and fine-dining restaurant. Perhaps it will reinvent itself yet again. In which case, the Pagoda is a fitting mascot for the city it oversees.
The great organ surges with power. The behemoth American-made 1908 Robert Hope-Jones pipe organ easily fills the 100-year-old, 6,000 seat Great Auditorium with body vibrating sound waves. The National Anthem plays and at the last chorus, the large wooden American flag over the broad stage lights up in a carnival display of patriotism. The show commences: Michael Feinstein and Linda Eder enter the stage and enthrall the audience of the sold-out concert for the next 2 1/2 hours.
The Reverend William B. Osborn may not have approved even this mainstream entertainment when he founded the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting of the United Methodist Church in 1867. The Rev. Osborn was following a well established tradition along the Jersey Shore, starting in the late 18th century, of creating havens of calm in the barrens along the ocean, far from the bustle and temptations of urban life in Camden and Philadelphia. Although Cape May, Ocean City, Vineland and many other shore towns that started as Protestant camp meetings morphed into resorts, Ocean Grove remained true to its original mission.
That mission in the 1860’s included open support for racial and women’s civil rights, education reform and prohibition. Ocean Grove is still a dry town (Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are right next door) but its relaxed fundamentalism encouraged non-camp followers to settle. Today the Rainbow Flag flies from nearly as many houses as the United Methodist Church banner.
The houses of Ocean Grove are stunning. The one square mile has national historic designation with the largest concentration of original late 19th and early 20th century architecture in the country. Rarely will anyone find real estate that exemplifies the ultimate in wood craftsmanship, and this exuberance for decoration keeps many 21st century craftsmen employed by the demands of constant maintenance.
Ocean Grove, a mere 90 minute drive from Philadelphia, is still a glimpse of what the Jersey Shore used to be like. The boardwalk is a walkway – no food vendors, no video arcades. Pedestrians rule and with most streets narrow, driving faster than 25 mph is difficult.
On summer weekends parking is impossible. Most people arriving Thursday or Friday for a weekend never move their cars until leaving. Ocean Grove is a perfect walking town where Main Avenue is never farther than a ten-minute walk from your B & B, and kids are safe riding bikes and skateboards.
An evening’s biggest treat is catching a concert in either the Great auditorium, Wednesdays and Saturdays, or the boardwalk’s pavilion and always having ice cream at Nagles or Day’s – very partisan as to which one is the best!
The center of Ocean Grove is the Great Auditorium with its magnificent pipe organ. This all wood, barrel-vaulted 6,000 seat structure is an engineering marvel with acclaimed acoustics making it a sought after summer concert venue by A-list performers. Besides concerts, the auditorium is the focal point for the Camp Meeting’s summer religious activities including an active youth program. All are invited to participate in Camp Meeting activities.
Surrounding the Great Auditorium is an oddity to all new visitors. Dozens of white tented structures in close formation are what remain of the original tent city that was the camp meeting. As affluence allowed for the building of the Victorian houses, the number of tents diminished. The remaining 142 half tent/half wood cottages are on long-term lease to Camp members and frequently passed down to the generations.
Spreading majestically for at least a 1/4 mile from the Great Auditorium to the beach is the wide, landscaped Great Lawn. Closer to the building itself, numerous antique and craft markets are held from July through October.
The commercial district is small, occupying the better part of six blocks along Main Avenue and a few blocks off Main. Being northern New Jersey, Ocean Grove is not a winter ghost town. With direct train links to New York, half the population is permanent, providing a base for shops and restaurants that are not all post cards and cotton candy.
Dozens of bed & breakfast and hotels, all historic structures, are either on the beach or within three blocks. Some of the best, such as the Laingdon Hotel, 8 Ocean Ave, remain open year-round with a glassed-in porch. The Shawmont Hotel, 17 Ocean Ave, provides well-appointed rooms with private bath, a continental breakfast, a beautiful porch with rocking chairs and a full view of the ocean. Bath Avenue House, 37 Bath Ave, a beautifully restored 80-year-old prior rooming house. The 30 rooms are on the small side but individually decorated, air-conditioned and with a sink. All rooms but one (on the first floor) share bathrooms located on each of the three floors. There are so many repeat guests, that sharing a bath seems no more odd than having house guests for the weekend. A full breakfast is included, and filling. The Carriage House B & B, 18 Heck Avenue, an elegant eight room inn, provides an equally elegant breakfast making it an excellent choice for food lovers.
Ocean Grove is a dry town, but Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are within walking distance along the boardwalk. Many Ocean Grove restaurants are discretely byob, but inquire first. I would not say that the restaurants are outstanding but neither will a customer feel they have had a bad meal in any establishment. In summer, all seem to take advantage of New Jersey’s abundant summer produce.
Among my recommendations are:Bia at the Majestic Hotel, 19 Main Ave., for imaginative presentations and an eating porch with an ocean view.
Sea Grass, 68 Main Ave, serves generous salads and sandwiches including a killer BLT – but this is bacon, lobster and tomato – on a large toasted soft bun with sweet potato fries. Nagles Apothecary Cafe, 43 Main Ave, complete with soda fountain, has been an Ocean Grove institution for over a century – first as an apothecary and now a popular restaurant serving generous portions of classics for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The outside walk-up ice cream window dishes up dozens of rich creations and along with Day’s Ice Cream, 48 Pittman Ave, have loyal partisans who line up every day. On weekend evenings, the lines at both places can be blocks long. The Starving Artist at Day’stries to focus on healthier ingredients and serves a good breakfast with interesting omelet fillings and pancakes.
The charm of Ocean Grove: a place where all you want to do is wait patiently and let calm take over.