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Amish guest houses of Lancaster County offer a brief 'digital detox'

| Monday, June 25, 2018, 2:06 p.m.
A brief disconnection from technology is a big appeal for people who vacation at guest houses run by the Amish of Lancaster County, Pa.
discoverlancaster.com
A brief disconnection from technology is a big appeal for people who vacation at guest houses run by the Amish of Lancaster County, Pa.

Children are welcome at Iron Stone Acres, the bed-and-breakfast that Sharon Zimmerman has been running for nearly 30 years in rural Narvon, Pa., but they'll need to entertain themselves.

The Mennonite-owned dairy farm has no internet connection and no TVs, and you'll have to head into town to find a newspaper.

The severed connection to technology in favor of the farm's peace and quiet is exactly what draws many of Zimmerman's visitors.

"The first day, the kids will beg for the phones or the iPad," Zimmerman said. "But pretty quickly, they start wanting to be out in the pasture or feeding the calves or playing in the creek instead."

Unplugged travel is a fast-growing trend, with start-ups and luxury resorts alike marketing "digital detox" packages.

Put down the smart phone

Hotels such as North Carolina's Sanderling Resort and the Four Seasons Costa Rica offer gifts and discounts to those willing to relinquish their phones at the front desk. In February, group travel company Off The Grid announced "tech-free" trips to Portugal, Croatia, Peru and other destinations. Travelers are issued social-media-free flip phones and disposable cameras to use for the duration of their trip.

The offerings sold out almost immediately.

The 2018 Alamo Rent A Car Family Vacation Survey found that 43 percent of respondents would prefer to be unable to use social media while on vacation. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said that they had seen technology ruin a family vacation.

When travelers do disconnect, their reward may be a more authentic experience — something market research suggests is particularly important to millennials. Of Americans surveyed for the Expedia Millennial Traveller Report, 62 percent said the most important part of a vacation is experiencing "the authentic culture of a place."

An authentic experience

An authentic cultural experience is one of the biggest drivers of tourism in Lancaster County, Pa., which had an influx of nearly $2 billion from visitors in 2017. The region is home to the country's second-largest Amish population, a community known for rejection of modern conveniences such as cars and electricity, as well as a modest style of dress. Tourists interested in the "plain people" visit stores and farmers markets full of Amish-made furniture and quilts, and pay a premium to ride in horse-drawn buggies.

Dave Hanson, who lives in a nearby suburb of Philadelphia, felt that the average visitor experience was still less than authentic.

"So many people come to Lancaster because they're interested in the Amish," he said. "But they end up running into the kitschy stuff, and people go away disappointed."

About three years ago, Hanson was working as a developer, building websites for traditional bed-and-breakfast operations around the country.

"I approached an Amish farmer one day who didn't have a website, but who I knew ran a guesthouse on his farm," Hanson said. He created a website that offered bookings at the farmer's guesthouse.

Total lifestyle immersion

Most Amish families don't have computers, and very few use email, so Hanson fielded the responses.

"I ended up getting so many emails that I started looking around for other Amish farms that would welcome visitors," he said.

Today, Hanson has six Amish guest houses listed on his site, amishfarmstay.com. None of the homes has electricity — one doesn't have a single outlet, so forget even charging your phone — but most use solar energy to power lights and propane or natural gas to run refrigerators.

Hanson provides a personalized booking service, connecting people looking for an authentic rural experience with lodging options that offer total immersion into this lifestyle.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Kate and Alex Flaxman of Swedesboro, N.J., stayed at Pleasant View Farm Guesthouse, operated by Lena Stoltzfus and her husband, Dave.

During the day, Flaxman said, she was able to relax with her husband and their daughter, 7-month-old Piper, without feeling pressure to answer work emails or the temptation to switch on the TV. The Flaxmans also took advantage of an add-on that Hanson organizes for guests at all the properties he partners with.

"We got to go have dinner at another Amish home," Flaxman said. "It was us and three other groups who were staying at guesthouses. We got to eat the amazing food this woman prepared, and chat with her and her family. We asked them about church, dairy farming, school, areas where there are obviously a lot of differences in the way we do things."

A peaceful getaway

Lena Stoltzfus said she loves providing her guests with a peaceful getaway, and she hopes they leave with a better understanding of her way of life.

"I like to sit and chat with everybody who comes, get to know them and let them get to know me," she said. "I hope they see we have more in common than they might expect. The Amish choose to do things a certain way, but we share the same joy in sitting on a quiet porch and having a nice long talk."

The Stoltzfuses have been welcoming guests since March, and there have been few days when the guesthouse hasn't been booked.

Hanson said the demand was so great for the Amish farms that he began to look to the nearby Mennonite community. Although their religious practices and conservative style of dress are similar to that of the Amish, modern Mennonite families usually drive cars and have electricity and phones (but no TV or internet) in their homes.

Hanson built a second website, lancasterfarmbnb.com, which lists 11 primarily Mennonite-owned bed-and-breakfasts, among them Zimmerman's Iron Stone Acres.

"Since Dave put us on the web, he's pretty much tripled our guests," Zimmerman said.

"We have people who come back every year, and a lot of them are young families with children. At first, parents can be a little sensitive," she said. "They come from places where it's not normal to tell your kid to go play, and then not see them until dinnertime. But it's amazing how quickly a person can relax and be comfortable letting their kids roam. We've got 80 acres, so there's plenty to explore. We'll bring our grandkids over too, so they can show our guests' children around and keep them out of trouble."

First dibs on the pond

"This is a working dairy farm with more than 100 cows," Zimmerman continued. "When we have teenagers here, they can come out and help us hay the fields. They get sweaty and dirty, and then they can go down to the pond and have a nice swim."

Guests at the bed-and-breakfast have first dibs on the pond and its grills and picnic table, but local families may also stop by for a swim. A list of rules posted nearby reminds visitors that the Zimmermans and their neighbors appreciate a modest choice of clothing; bikinis are not allowed, and they prefer that gentlemen swim with a shirt on.

Lancaster County offers plenty to do off the farm: Dutch Wonderland, a 48-acre amusement park geared toward younger children, features more than 30 rides and a water-play area. Farmers markets and shopping outlets abound, and dining options range from upscale gourmet to down-home barbecue.

But after a busy day, there are few things more welcome than the quiet of the farm.

"The area has a lot you can do," Flaxman said, "and you can definitely stay busy, but it's also the perfect place to get a change of pace. Somehow being away from all our technology was even more peaceful than I anticipated."

Kate Morgan is a Washington Post contributing writer.

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