Unadorned. Simple. Plain. These words all describe the Amish and their way of life. This 324-year-old subculture thrives today in many pockets of the United States and Canada, clinging to the traditions and customs that have set apart their people for centuries.
Have you ever read an Amish novel and wished you could somehow take away a piece of peace from the pages? The next best thing is a trip to Shipshewana, Indiana, the third largest Amish settlement in the U.S. and a portal to all things Amish.
Drive down the main roads of this town and you’ll share the road with Amish horse-and-buggy rigs clip-clopping to the bulk foods store. Check in at an area eatery, such as The Blue Gate Restaurant and Bakery, or the 5 and 20 Country Kitchen, and chances are good your waitress or hostess is Amish. Meander through pretty backroads and you’ll be stopping along the way at small, family-owned shops selling cheese, honey, quilts, and baked goods. In the words of my pre-teen girl, Shipshewana is legit, as real and genuine as an “Englisher” can get to the everyday lives of the Plain People.
I’ve made two trips in recent weeks, enjoying the local culture and food as I compiled articles by Amish and conservative Mennonite groups for a forthcoming anthology. The first time I came with my twelve-year-old daughter, my girlfriend and her daughter, and the second time it was just a girlfriends’ getaway with another pal. Both arrangements worked like a charm, as the preteens loved the horses everywhere and the buggy ride, while the grown-up getaway allowed for more time delving into the history of the Amish and Mennonites.
As a travel writer with a passion for capturing the best and most fascinating elements of the places I visit, I loved pulling together this list of Shipshewana Musts for your visit:
• Amish Carriage Rides: With or without kids, this experience is essential and so much fun. For $25 each, we trotted along for about 15 minutes to an Amish farm, where the girls ran around petting baby goats and even a very young colt. Unfortunately, we didn’t have our phones at the ready when the Amish farmer ran into the goat pen, yelling and waving his arms and causing a bunch of goats to keel over in a dead faint! The whole experience took about an hour, and was well worth the ticket price.
• The Menno Hof Amish-Mennonite Visitors Center: Orient yourself to the history of this fascinating subculture with a tour of the Menno-Hof. You’ll learn why the Amish split off from the Mennonites in 1693 (over the matter of buttons!), sit in a spine-chilling replica of a dungeon used to torture the first Mennonites in 1536 over the issue of infant baptism, and gain a good understanding of where the three original groups—Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites are today. $7 per person.
• Amish Back Roads: Get off the beaten path (which, in Shipshe, isn’t terribly “beaten” in the first place) and wander down some tranquil country roads. Local maps guide you to the cheese shop, the honey store, and the superb Rise and Shine Bakery, where you can fortify yourself with some locally-sourced Amish edibles. As opposed to some of the mega-touristy places in town, here you’ll find a gentler way to shop til you drop. And if you do drop, there’s sure to be a place to do so near good eating.
• Amish Food: After tucking into the “family style” meal at the Blue Gate Restaurant and Bakery, my friend and I vowed to never eat again. We were offered a choice of two meats, (only in Amish country is an entrée incomplete with just one meat). Then a sweet waitress came bearing a huge tray laden with side-dishes: beans, Amish noodles, the most succulent stuffing ever, and more.
Stuffed beyond all reason, we couldn’t imagine lifting even a forkful of dessert, so our savvy waitress suggested we take our desserts to go. Good plan. Later in our hotel we enjoyed peach pie and raspberry cream pie with decaf coffee (obviously, we did eat again, much to our surprise!)
Other local eateries such as Das Essenhaus also offer Amish style feasts, which are also key for a successful visit. The Amish are world-famous for their cooking, after all.
• Entertainment at the Blue Gate Theater: We bundled our meal with tickets to an afternoon performance at the Blue Gate Theater in the same building. (Entertainment abounds, including plays based on Amish novels such as The Confession and Branson-style artists such as Tony Orlando and various Gospel artists.) We opted for the breezy 90-minute musical comedy Mennonite Girls Can Cook, based on the bestselling cookbook by the same name. (Yes, some theater masterminds turned a cookbook into a musical!)
Lots of appealing hotel and Bed and Breakfast options abound—and most are very affordable—but I recommend the highly rated Blue Gate Garden Inn. My friend and I were blown away by the ample, pristine rooms and terrific, huge breakfast the next morning. Prices range from $70-$140 per night. Once again, we doubted we would ever be able to eat again, and drove out of town full—literally—of the knowledge that no one leaves Shipshewana, Indiana, on an empty stomach.
Lorilee Craker is the author of fourteen books, including Money Secrets of the Amish, for which she was nominated for a 2012 Audie Award for best audio book, personal development (Jane Fonda won in her category!); Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me, a memoir braiding her and her daughter’s adoption with Anne’s story, and the New York Times bestseller Through the Storm with Lynne Spears. She lives in a 1924 house in Michigan with her husband, three children, a dog, two cats and a neurotic little hedgehog named Spike. She blogs about books, teenagers, Gilbert Blythe, books, TV recaps, and well, more books at www.Lorileecraker.com, posts about all of the above on Facebook, and loves to take dreamy photos of books, succulents (she’s a little bit obsessed), and teacups at her Instagram account @thebooksellersdaughter.