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Luxury, history and reverence in Laurel Highlands

Petite, pleasant, and all of 90 years old, MaryLou Fisher sits nestled in a floral channel-back chair, awaiting customers in her equally diminutive antique shop. Hers has been a life of happenstance,
flexibility and entrepreneurship. Some of the details unfolded when my husband and I made a three-day trip to Laurel Highlands, a bounteous 250-square-mile region in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania.

Fred and I had stopped at the Bittersweet Café in Farmington to check out its highly touted chicken salad sandwich between tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpieces Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater. While waiting to order, I’d spotted an open doorway into the shop, then wandered in while Fred staked out a table nearby. In less than five minutes I learned that MaryLou had found the love of her life, Lew, when he walked into another shop where she worked some 70 years ago. He was from Canada and trying out for a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team but hurt his ankle, derailing one dream and launching another that included MaryLou. Twenty-eight years ago he suggested they buy the house in Farmington and open an antique store in part of it. Despite suffering two small strokes and losing her central vision, MaryLou is grateful for all her memories and happy to share them when customers strike up a conversation.

Luxury, history and reverence in Laurel Highlands | Buffalo Magazine

When Lew died six years ago, their daughter, Terri Krysak, suggested she turn part of the house into a café, and Bittersweet was born, with the family living upstairs and their pies living on the pages of The New York Times and other top publications. Fred and I shared a slice of Terri’s blackberry pie and learned why. Its flaky crust, the generous sandwich and marvelous orange pomegranate iced tea made it worth squeezing lunch into a jam-packed Saturday.

I’ve written about Pennsylvania a few times and visited it often, but each ride along its mountainous rollercoaster roadways, taking in the towering corridors of lush green or scarlet maples, oaks, and chestnuts, impresses me anew.

Early research into Laurel Highlands led me to its Visitors Bureau and Anna Weltz, who helped narrow my options to what would fit into our relatively short stay. The Wright homes and the Flight 93 Memorial were my priorities, so she set up tours and accommodations at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a destination unto itself.

Anna also provided a walking tour of the charming community of Ligonier, where we had lunch at The Kitchen on Main and I succumbed to impulse, trying octopus for the first time. It was grilled with a honey mustard glaze. Once I got beyond the visual of those suction-cup tentacles, I found them tender and the sauce tasty but not overly sweet. Honestly, octopus was the last thing I would have expected to find in an unassuming family restaurant.

The focal point of the community is the diamond in the middle of downtown and the bandstand at its center. “I’m guessing you’ve heard this a million times,” I said, “but this has the look and feel of Stars Hollow from ‘The Gilmore Girls.’” Yes, now a million and one. A major renovation project, financed by the Mellon Foundation and other funders, is to be completed this fall. Of all the places we stopped in the Laurel Highlands region, Ligonier had the most options for shopping and browsing, but we headed for Chateau Lafayette at Nemacolin after a tour of Fort Ligonier, eager to get off our feet for a few minutes.

Wherever you go in Laurel Highlands, it’s important to wear good walking shoes, and outdoor gear is a must to enjoy the more rigorous and plentiful opportunities to hike, bike, ski, kayak and more. Ohiopyle is the center of all things outdoorsy, and we drove through numerous other communities that left me wishing we’d had time to linger, as well.

Nemacolin

Luxury, history and reverence in Laurel Highlands | Buffalo Magazine

Given all that this 2,000-acre resort has to offer those with a taste for luxury, it’s surprising how unknown it is in Western New York. From the little amenities—champagne while waiting to register and a complimentary bottle of wine in your room—to the two golf courses, wood-paneled locker rooms, wildlife habitats, snow sports, casino, clay shooting, ziplining, fly-fishing, off-roading, shopping, a pet resort and spa, and myriad restaurant and accommodations options, this is a one-of-a-kind getaway.

Fort Ligonier

Luxury, history and reverence in Laurel Highlands | Buffalo Magazine

Yes, George Washington slept here. Really. It was during the French and Indian War, and history buffs should not pass up the chance for a tour. All ages enjoy walking among the full-scale buildings that were reconstructed and placed on the land where the fort was once home to more than 5,000. The artillery display, considered the best in North America, hints at what it was like to live here while the battle raged, especially after guide Matt Gault looks at a Twelve Pound Field Piece cannon that can hit a target a mile and a half away, then points to a house in the distance and says “This could take out that house on the hill.”

Items to look for in the museum: Hand-written remarks prepared by George Washington for his biographer (who ignored instructions to burn or return them when he was finished); a childhood photo of “Mr. Rogers” from a D.A.R. dedication at the fort; the only regimental redcoat known to still exist in North America, chain mail from India, elephant trunk armor, and HMS Invincible artifacts, all in the World Ablaze exhibit about the Seven Years’ War.

Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater

We got the sense that Kentuck Knob, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final designs, sometimes gets short shrift to the better-known Fallingwater, just seven miles away. But we enjoyed learning about both, and starting at Kentuck Knob helped inform our appreciation of Fallingwater. We arrived in the Laurel Highlands area knowing a bit about Wright’s life and his architectural efforts to unite man with nature. Tour guides at both sites provided interesting tidbits about the man who was 86 when he designed Kentuck Knob, while also working on the Guggenheim Museum and a dozen or so other projects.

Kentuck Knob’s sandstone and red cypress design is an example of Wright’s Usonian architecture: affordable for the average person, one-level, usually small, with no garage, because he believed that “once something is enclosed, clutter is encouraged.” Megan, our guide, pointed out various features, including the profusion of hexagons and triangles, dentil molding, piano hinged cupboard doors and a narrow hallway off the dining room, which suited Wright’s “compression and release” principle that leads people from a constricted space into one that feels even larger than it is after the brief confinement.

At Fallingwater, guide Dominick pointed out Bear Run’s spring-fed cold water that owners Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, of Kaufmann’s Department Store chain, plunged into each morning to start their day. The Kaufmanns were such outdoorspeople that they eschewed air conditioning so the house wouldn’t become so comfortable they’d be tempted to stay inside.
Fallingwater’s design is a stacked array of cantilevered “concrete trays” over waterfalls. Each is anchored to a central sandstone chimney. The multitude of terraces have a square footage almost equal to the home’s interior space.

Flight 93 National Memorial

No matter how much history I’ve read, visiting a site commemorating an event I watched play out is the most moving of travel experiences. So it was with the Flight 93 Memorial to the 40 passengers and crew who died Sept. 11, 2001, preventing the fourth hijacked plane from striking the U.S. Capitol.

Located on the western end of Laurel Highlands, at the Shanksville field where the plane went down, the Visitor Center Complex and Memorial Plaza below it feature 40 engraved marble panels in the Wall of Names that runs along the flight path, and an interpretive exhibit that provides a moving account of the passengers’ lives and that morning’s timeline.

It’s a place of whispers and respectful reverie, though rangers and volunteer ambassadors, including Anna Weltz, are available to answer questions. The memorial’s long-planned Tower of Voices with 40 chimes—sometimes called a 93-foot-tall musical instrument—was dedicated in September.

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