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Princeton is a handsome and archetypal college town, just 36 miles from Newark and home to Princeton University. Visitors to the historic hamlet and its prestigious campus often feel like they have stepped back in time and worlds away from the fast pace of the big city. Even tech-focused teens will gladly put down their devices to take in the history and happenings in front of them.
Here’s how you can rediscover ‘Joisey’ like I did with two teens in tow: my daughter Bella and her travel sidekick, Sophia.
Explore the Princeton University Art Museum. With a history that extends back to the 1750s, the museum currently has100,000 works of art on display, spanning ancient times to the present. This world-class American treasure is the oldest continually used academic building in the nation. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, museum is currently closed to the public, however, the collections and exhibitions are available online now if you want to check them out.
Take a stroll down Palmer Square. Across the street from the enchanting campus entrance is Palmer Square. This pedestrian-friendly commercial area is home to the legendary Nassau Inn where Paul Revere and Thomas Paine hung out. The cozy, partially modernized, multi-tiered hotel first opened in 1769 after it was occupied by the British during the American Revolution. The hotel’s inviting restaurant and old-fashioned pub, the Yankee Doodle Tap Room, serves classic Americana comfort food. On the wall behind the square-shaped bar is a large Norman Rockwell mural depicting the famous Yankee Doodle song. The saloon-like vibe is accentuated by gigantic old-style booths, open-seating areas, a fireplace, and a wall of fame featuring graduate pictures of Princeton alums, including Jeff Bezos, Michelle Obama, and Ralph Nader, all providing a ‘something-for-everyone’ community center atmosphere.
The next morning, I met the young ladies for breakfast in the Yankee Doodle Tap Room. Before they left to enjoy the seasonal outdoor skating rink in Palmer Square Bella looked at me and said, “You don’t look like you’re well rested.” Honesty is, well, you know.
Experience the amazing dining scene. During our stay, we visited the Agricola Eatery (Latin for farm), a comfy and artsy restaurant inspired by farmers, fisherman, and artisan food producers. It offers a farm-to-table menu that includes a delicious carrot & ginger soup made with pickled ginger, coconut milk, and spiced almonds. This five-room gem also features a guest-friendly a wine cellar.
On the edge of town, there is Trattoria Procaccini featuring a rustic Italian ambiance. This all-natural Italian kitchen sources its old-world recipes from family cookbooks. The superb and reliable spaghetti & meatballs, for example, are made from a delicious combination of beef, veal, and pork. PJ’s Pancake House, has been a “legendary eatery” since the 1960s. It is the ultimate breakfast joint with a new expanded menu that includes pastas, sandwiches and saladas. They even allow you to carve your initials into the tabletops. In the evening, I snuck out to the Mistral Bar for a cold brew. This is yet another square-bar community gathering spot offering a full menu, craft beer, wines, and more.
Discover more attractions just a short distance away. In Hamilton, New Jersey (a 15-minute drive from Princeton) we found pastoral Rat’s Restaurant with its French countryside style backdrop and menu. The award-winning romantic setting has no shortage of ambiance. The French onion soup with gruyere cheese was a terrific setup for the Trout Amandine (haricots verts, potatoes, brown butter, almonds). This pondside delight overlooks Grounds for Sculpture, a 42-acre park that has 270 sculptures (mostly bronze), 100 tree species, and 1,000 plant species. The collection includes a PG version of a woman showering, realistic period sculptures pulled from Monet and Renoir paintings giving them a 3-D perspective, and everyday people, including some wearing 70s fashions like bell bottoms. Many of the sculptures were created by founder Seward Johnson (born 1930, of Johnson & Johnson fame). The wondrous and thought-provoking campus includes an on-site foundry where visiting artists come to commune and create.
Also a few miles outside Princeton is the Updike Farmstead, aka Princeton’s Historical Society. Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Princeton University lecturer Albert Einstein did not want a museum in his honor, but the former Princeton resident got one anyway. The Einstein Salon and Innovators Gallery includes a year-round display of Einstein’s home furnishings and pipe, and rotating displays of other Princeton stars. Outside is a campus of early American barns and historic plaques.
Head for the mountains. As the plains of central Jersey give way to the state’s northwest mountains and forests, a different kind of adventure awaits. Sussex County is New Jersey’s version of New York’s Catskill Mountains. The four-season Mountain Creek Resort has 170 skiable acres across four interconnected peaks and a tubing run. State-of-the-art snowmaking means no threat to the diversion. In warmer weather, there are 50 mountain biking trails, 10 ropes courses at Treescape Aerial Adventure Park, and 27-holes of golf at Great Gorge. Until 1997, this getaway destination was called Vernon Valley.
The Appalachian At Mountain Creek is a huge inn at the foot of the mountain, right next to the ski lifts. The slope-side digs range from spacious studios to one- and two-bedroom apartments, complete with full kitchen, living room fireplace, and mountainside views. My traveling companions enjoyed night skiing with a segue into the steaming outdoor Jacuzzi (there’s also a heated outdoor pool). The inn also offers ski/board storage lockers, a family game room, and state-of-the-art fitness center. Next door, the ski lodge offers hearty dining and drinking options.
Pamper yourself. Nearby, the sprawling Crystal Springs Resort also has dozens of year-round activities. Surrounded by fire pits and mountains is the indoor Biosphere Pool Complex. The domed otherworld has a waterslide, sauna, steam room, several Jacuzzis, real plants and trees, and a heated outdoor pool. There’s also a “foot golf” course (where players hit soccer balls into large holes), an outdoor chef’s garden, Reflections Spa, six golf courses, and an incredible multi-room wine cellar that ranks as one of the finest in this hemisphere. One room in the wine cellar can accommodate 26 dinner guests. This underground, castle-like maze recalls the window-shopping odyssey you can enjoy walking along Fifth Ave at Christmastime—except you’re beholding famous wines and an Erte collection.
You will certainly not go hungry at Crystal Springs. Spring Bistro, within the Grand Cascades Lodge, is a basic but bountiful Italian restaurant that is a big hit with families and couples alike. The menu includes Cioppino Fra Diavolo (shellfish, swordfish, fregola, tomato broth) and fantastic charcuterie options. The Crystal Tavern is where classy meets festive. The chunky leather-bound menu speaks for this singular place where swing jazz and a cozy fireplace round out the inviting atmosphere. They serve five-star burgers (lamb burgers, too), grilled octopus (chorizo, kale, garbanzo stew) and a superb Bavarian Sausage Board (sauerkraut, grain mustard, pretzel). Kites—An American Grille (in the Minerals Hotel at Crystal Springs) serves all-day breakfast, as well as an appetizing lunch and dinner menu. This ‘ski-lodge-esk’ eatery also (no surprise) has a fireplace. Be sure to go for the trio of fries (parmesan garlic, truffle oil, cinnamon sugar).
Yes, there is plenty more to New Jersey than Interstate 95. And you can find this variety of adventure less than an hour from New York City.
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