Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands
By Renée S. Gordon
"Live in what feeds your soul."
--F. L. Wright
Southwestern Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands is nestled within a 100-mile area in the Allegheny Mountains. It stretches from Bedford to Uniontown and is easily accessible via the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The region is notable for its stunning landscapes, undulating hills, streams and waterfalls, history and architecture. The 68-mile, clearly marked Laurel Highlands Scenic Byway winds its way to the various sites and provides ample opportunity to stop and enjoy breathtaking panoramas.
This is a year-round destination and each season has a special beauty. Visitors can opt for a romantic vacation or those in search of more activity will find this a perfect place to rock climb, white water raft, fish, bike, hike and ski. No matter whom you travel with or whatever is your pleasure you can fulfill your dreams in the Laurel Highlands. www.patrailsofhistory.com
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is as close to perfect as a family-oriented luxury destination can be. Originally a private game preserve, the property was purchased in 1987 by J. Hardy III and transformed into a 2,000 wooded acres, Four Star, Four Diamond, world-class resort rated by Conde Nast one of the "World's Best 700 Hotels."
The operative words at Nemacolin are hospitality, service, luxury and options. The resort offers six types of accommodations including Falling Rock, a 42-room boutique hotel with butler service, and the Chateau Lafayette, a 124-room European-style lodging with a $50 million art collection. The menu of activities is nearly limitless and in addition to standard outdoor activities there is an Activities Center, the Heritage Shopping Court, Mystic River Golf Course, Golf Academy and experiential activities such as the Wildlife Academy, winter dog sledding, Off-Road Driving Academy and TOMCAR Tactical Training Center. After a hard day's play you can luxuriate with any of more than 75 treatments in the Woodlands Spa. Mandatory experiences are Nemacolin's signature Dream Catcher Massage, an artful combination of Native American and ancient Hawaiian Lomi Lomi techniques, and dining in any of the resorts' 18 establishments.
Consider Nemacolin as a great choice for a family reunion, wedding, girl's weekend or romantic getaway. It is located within the heart of the Highlands and is within 10 miles of the majority of the sites and attractions I list here. General information and specials can be found at www.nemacolin.com
In the mid-19th century the government designated the first National Highway, a direct east-west route, based on a 1740 trail blazed by Chief Nemacolin of the Lenni Lenape tribe. Route 40 today provides access to a significant number of the sites in the area.
Fort Necessity National Battlefield was the scene of the first battle of the French & Indian War and George Washington's only surrender. The site features a center, a 1953 fort reconstruction and Mount Washington Tavern, a restored stagecoach inn. A part of the battlefield was a portion of nearly 60,000-acres of western land owned by Washington through purchase and military service. www.nps.gov/fone
A granite monument was placed near the fort to honor the fallen British Major General Edward Braddock who led forces to attack Fort Duquesne. He died in July of 1755, was buried in the road and the men marched over the site to obscure it. The marker was placed there in 1913 after his bones were discovered, moved and re-interred.
People love lists and one of my favorites is the Smithsonian's "28 Places to See Before You Die". It is no surprise that Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpiece, made the museum's bucket list. The house was completed in 1937 as a vacation home for department store magnet Edgar Kaufmann Sr. The tri-level house is cantilevered over a waterfall and is an outstanding example of organic architecture. Built of stone, steel, glass and reinforced concrete, is in total harmony with its natural setting.
Timed tours depart from a visitor's center that also features a café and gift shop. The house is a five minute downhill walk via a walkway. Visitors should note the art collection that includes works by Picasso and Diego Rivera. The tour ends in the carport, a Wright invention, with a 10-minute video. After the tour, visitors are encouraged to stroll the grounds and take photographs. www.fallingwater.org
I.N. and Bernardine Hagan purchased 80-acres of land for $9,000 in the Laurel Highlands in 1953 and, following the lead of their friends the Kaufmanns, they contracted 86-year old Frank Lloyd Wright to design their home. Area contractors constructed the Unsonian house and the Hagans moved into the residence in 1956. Thirty years later they sold the house to an English lord and in 1996 it opened for tours.
Kentuck Knob, seven miles from Falling Water, is situated on a 2,050-ft bluff with a commanding view of the Youghiogheny River Gorge. The house features 80-tons of stone, glass, cypress, a copper roof and built-in furniture. All windows face south, there is a wonderful view from every room and a pervasive aura of tranquility and serenity.
At the age of 86 Wright began "signing" his works with a signature red tile. Though rare, Kentuck Knob has one and it is displayed on the exterior near the front door. A piece of the Berlin Wall and 43 sculptures decorate the grounds.
Tours are by reservation and begin in a former greenhouse that is now a café and Visitors Center. Unique programs, "The Remains of the Day," and Sunday brunch are regularly scheduled and information is available on the web. Wright visited only once briefly during construction, but luckily we can visit as often as we like. www.kentuckknob.com
Somerset, Pa. was settled in 1773. The area was so beautiful that it inspired James Whitcomb Riley to pen the poem "Mongst the Hills of Somerset." It contains several parks, is the scene of a number of festivals and is the home of the 3213-ft. Mt. Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania.
The 150-acre Somerset Historical Center complex is a real gem. This museum relates the lifestyle of Southwestern Pennsylvania through eight interpretive sites, an orientation exhibit, "Patterns on the Land," and an audio-visual program. The grounds tour begins with a 1773 settler's farmhouse and proceeds through the Walter's Mill 1859 Covered Bridge and an 1860 Maple Sugar Camp. Mountain Craft Days are held in September and present history, heritage, artisans and craftsmen. A visit here is essential to really understand the area's history. www.somersethistoricalcenter.org
The Laurel Arts Center facilitates arts opportunities for residents of the Laurel Highlands. More than 40,000 people annually participate in the scheduled programs. Housed in a 1830s farmhouse, the center presents 10 indoor exhibits each year and outdoor programming. The Guild of American Papercutters Museum is located on the second floor. It is the only one of its kind in the country and you will not believe the level of creativity and intricacy of the designs. www.laurelarts.org
There is a special connection that Pennsylvania has to McDonalds. The Big Mac was introduced to the world in Pittsburgh in 1968 as an adult sandwich and the rest is history. Three years ago, the Big Mac Museum Restaurant opened in the Highlands. You can take a picture with the largest Big Mac replica in the world and see artifacts and videos that take you down Mac Memory Lane. www.bigmacmuseum.com
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art showcases art from the period 1750-1950. The first painting in the 4,000 piece permanent collection was a Peale portrait of Washington. The collection includes oils, sculpture, works on paper and decorative arts. Highlights of a tour are the handcrafted pickled pine gallery and a gorgeous Tiffany window of an area thatched roof cottage. There are a number of educational programs the most notable of which are their children's tours and art camps. www.wmuseumaa.org
No visit to the region would be complete without a visit to the temporary Flight 93 National Memorial. The permanent Sacred Ground Memorial Plaza will be dedicated in 2011 adjacent to the current site. A fenced in area has been designated to memorialize the event. All passengers are treated equally as heroes and benches on the site are inscribed with the names of all passengers. Granite markers dedicated by groups, organizations and states are arrayed around the perimeter and a wall is filled with articles left by individuals at the location.
An on-site ranger answers questions and recounts the events of that fateful day and the Cockpit Voice Recorder transcripts are available to visitors. The site remains open daily. www.nps.gov/flni
Laurel Highlands is an awesome destination made for meandering and exploring Pennsylvania's nooks and crannies. Here you will learn to expect the unexpected. Everything you need to plan a vacation can be found on the web. Get started. www.laurelhighlands.org
I wish you smooth and revelatory travels!
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