This is New Jersey's West Coast; full of enough spirit, color and charm to satisfy the most inquisitive, adventurous and romantic of visitors.
The drive from Milford to Frenchtown to Stockton to Lambertville is about 30 minutes straight through. If you include all the likely weaves back and forth across the Delaware to places like Upper Black Eddy, Uhlerstown, Point Pleasant and New Hope -- and dozens of irresistible stops -- you're in for much more than an afternoon drive. The river towns, which retain the character of decades past, and in many cases the architectural lines of the last century, are developed to varying degrees with regard to tourism. Each village along the way offers a unique experience.The attractions across the river in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, enhance the appeal of the trip, as you can thread your way back and forth over several bridges spanning the border between the states, acquainting yourself with a wide array of shops, inns, restaurants and a thousand views of a beautiful and extraordinary waterway.
Or trade your car in for a two-wheeler. Biking is the ideal form of recreation in this idyllic place. The suitability of this part of the Delaware Valley for bicycling stems from sources both natural and historical. The picturesque hills rolling to the river are complemented by a series of trails left to us by the old Delaware & Raritan Canal. The canal bed and towpath on both sides of the river beckon bicyclers to a nearly faultless maze of paths which link to an abandoned railroad right-of-way north to Frenchtown.
By car, start on Route 519 in Milford on the Delaware. Milford is charming, with quaint shops and eateries on a very pleasant main street. A steady walk up one side and down the other wouldn't take long, but if you wanted to explore all the intricacies of the town, it would occupy your time for quite a while.
Stop at The Ship Inn Restaurant and Brewery, New Jersey's first brewpub. Once a speakeasy and ice cream parlor, The Ship bows to history. With tin ceiling, original brickwork, and bowling lane bar, the tables along the wall in the dining room overlook a peaceful creek, and the pub atmosphere is quite engaging. The Ship became New Jersey's first brew pub in 1993 and the copper and brick clad brewing equipment is reminiscent of a bygone era before Prohibition. Patrons sample fine, unfiltered cask conditioned ales, served fresh from the whole grain brewery in the time honoured British tradition. You can enjoy 15 British beer imports and 2 hard ciders on draught, and an extraordinary selection of bottled imported ales, single malt whiskeys, fine ports, sherries and wines. Whatever a traveler's taste, this country pub offers a tradition of extraordinary food and hospitality that began in Great Britain centuries ago. Lunch and dinner menus offer a wide range of choices: Cornish pasties, venison, cheese and onion pie are among the many British classics. Or, select from a sophisticated menu covering a good range from soups to desserts all made from scratch, and The Ship's own smoked meats and seafood. On weekends enjoy a parade of local folksingers and musicians.
Aldo Leopold, naturalist and author, once said that railroads are "the last great conservator of flora." In Milford, railroad tracks, ties and signals are still in place with a botanical jamboree for a nature enthusiast. Take a drive on Route 627 through "the narrows", a one-lane passage between the river and tracks and over-hanging cliffs that once sheltered the Delaware Indians.
Frenchtown is jammed with dozens of antique and collectible shops, some of the finest art galleries in the state, fine restaurants, a boutique hotel, biking trails and frontage on some of the prettiest stretches on the Delaware. Yet the town is still unspoiled, refreshingly unglitzy, downhome and friendly.
Besides a wide assortment of antique and collectible shops, Frenchtown is home to half a dozen fine art galleries. Ron Kobli moved his world famous Decoys and Wildlife Gallery to 55 Bridge Street from Pennsylvania eleven years ago and has watched the village's appeal blossom. "I came here for a larger shop, and because I thought Frenchtown's potential would mean more walk-in traffic. Over the years the quality and variety of the shops has steadily improved; now you can find a little bit of everything. They've fixed the streets and the sidewalks, and residents have fixed up their homes, so that Frenchtown looks and feels like the nice little river town that it is. We're still primarily a week-end town, and seem to be attracting a mature, up-scale visitor." Kobli's gallery, the largest decoy shop in the country, specializes in Delaware River style hunting decoys, old and new, among the hundreds of pieces in the gallery. Woodcarvings depicting all different subject matter in nature, distinguished by the prettiest of the gunning birds, jump from every corner of the floor-to-ceiling racks. The gallery walls are covered with hundreds of original paintings, predominately wildlife, by some of the top artists in the world. This work, and a wide choice of fine prints, comes custom framed.
The two main thoroughfares, Bridge and Race Streets, are separated by nothing more than a bend in the road, where several old wood frame buildings of various colors are tucked away in a nook, drawing the curious in to shop or dine. At the opposite end of Bridge Street the view is dominated by the Frenchtown Inn, and the bridge across the Delaware into Uhlerstown, Pennsylvania.
The National Hotel, with a colorful past recognized as an integral part of the Frenchtown's charm, has been recently renovated as a luxury boutique hotel where guests can enjoy comfort and casual elegance in stylish surroundings. Built in 1833, the original building once served as a stage coach stop and a brothel. Renamed "The National Hotel" when the railroad came to town in 1850, the expanded accommodations were frequented by historical figures, including Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley. Today's guest suites and rooms offer modern amenities, are generously scaled, and richly appointed with a focus on every attention to detail. A restaurant, bar and rathskeller offer fine cuisine and a busy schedule of entertainment.
Frenchtown took its name from a family who had been refugees from the French Revolution, according to the historic sign on the way into town. The old European flavor lingers here, with little evidence that 20th Century America has had a need to "improve" upon it. Walking around Frenchtown revealed that it has a captivating presence- a mixture of yesterday and today, and a charm that matches many of the little villages I have seen on Cape Cod. They are larger, and there are more people there to be sure, but like so many other places with uncommon appeal in our state, here is yet another untold secret.
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