Twenty years ago, this little town was the antidote to the sameness of Philadelphia's suburbs.
Around the architectural bones of an 18th century shipping village, it had evolved in the 1960s and '70s into a small artists colony with a countercultural feel. Tie-dyed clothes and suede-fringed moccasins were popular fashion among the locals, and commerce tended toward diners, biker bars and shops that sold homemade candles, hand-woven textiles, used books and locally done oil paintings.
The town had the musk of sandalwood, patchouli and the Delaware River.
Because I hadn't really been back since high school, I persuaded a friend recently to come along and play tourist, so that I could see the old place through new eyes.
New Hope is probably one of the most popular destinations for antiques fondlers and gallery browsers along the Delaware. In winter, it's good to begin a visit to New Hope with a stop nearby at Washington Crossing, where George Washington's renowned trip across the Delaware River turned the tide of the Revolutionary War.
It was on the riverbank that we found caretaker Casey Jones, who was using a long wooden oar to try to reposition three large boats sitting on the muddy riverbank.
The boats are replicas of the kind that Washington commandeered on Christmas night 1776 and rowed across the river for the battle at Trenton, N.J. On Christmas morning, costumed re-enactors pile into the heavy wooden cargo boats to make their way across the river.
In years when rainfall leaves enough water for them to actually make the crossing, it's interesting to watch the actors struggle with the several-ton boats.
Jones has been the caretaker of the replica boats for 10 years, and it's clear he's a junkie for Washington Crossing history. But since we caught him in the boathouse and not on official guide duty, he told the stories the way he likes to, which is like an old hippie history buff.
He ends up relating the tale of the extraordinary artistic license taken by German-born painter Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze when he created Washington Crossing the Delaware 75 years after the fact. (Washington probably hadn't been standing in the boat, lest he fall out; there were no women aboard; and the ice-clogged river was mostly based on his homeland's Rhine River.)
Going home again
The trip to New Hope is 10 minutes upriver, along a road lined with Federal-style homes and country cottages.
New Hope is small, just a mile square, but it's elbow-to-elbow with small, foursquare homes and houses made of river rock and shale from local quarries.
As the sun goes down, twinkling lights welcome, and though the village is tiny, it's more hospitable than ever. It beckons visitors to walk and peruse. We check into the Wedgwood Inn and are assigned to the old carriage house of a Victorian home that is now one of several prominent bed-and-breakfasts in town.
Upstairs in the carriage house, there is a queen-sized bed and views of the woods; downstairs there is a foldout queen-sized sofa bed and a wood-burning stove. The kitchenette, with its 1950s-era enameled galley, adds a nice, if anachronistic, touch to the mix of antique furnishings in the 19th century building.
We drop our bags and walk the quarter-mile down toward Main Street. I find much of the town the same . . . but different.
Gone are the biker bars and head shops; in their place are galleries and jewelry stores. The air is filled with the scents of soaps and candles that waft from aromatherapy shops and the delicious scents from wood-burning brick ovens.
At Esca, an Italian restaurant, we are greeted by a staff that is cheery, if not downright punchy, after hosting a weekendlong run of tourists. As we settle at a table in the bar area, one waiter lights a fire in the Mediterranean-style room while another brings our drinks.
The building is vintage 18th century, but it is transformed into a warm and cozy space by the flickering fire. Since it is Sunday night and things are slow, the chef comes out to chat.
He's in a good mood, and so he disappears and then returns with an appetizer that he says is the house specialty: fried calamari that is perfectly al dente inside, lightly breaded outside and accompanied by three homemade sauces.
A church supper? Nope
There are nearly 200 shops in New Hope and dozens of restaurants, ranging from soup-and-sandwiches to grills, and we choose one of the newest, Marsha Brown, for dinner. It's a church-turned-restaurant and a popular spot around the region.
We are led to a quiet corner in the second floor loft dining room. We order wine and a dozen plump, briny Chesapeake oysters for a starter.
For dinner, a 10-ounce filet is cooked to perfection and accompanied by two side dishes _ silky mashed potatoes and green beans garnished with garlic-goat cheese-bacon _ that are substantial enough for two.
In the morning, the sun is bright, the air is cold and we head for the shops. They range from the unusual _ high-end vintage, with displays showing off molded glass purses, faux leopard throws and platform shoes with heels carved like Polynesian gods _ to classics such as mission-style antique furniture and stained glass windows.
There is still a little bit of an edge to the place: The naughty-naughty leather and latex store on Mechanic Street advertises a "spanking New Year party."
But by and large, the town has gotten quieter. It has become a popular weekend spot for gay couples, the former biker bar is now a sports bar, and much of the art displayed in galleries features pricey and up-and-coming impressionists of Pennsylvania.
New Hope, nevertheless, has found a way to meld its many histories in a welcoming place.
If you go
GETTING THERE: New Hope, Pa., is about 45 minutes north of Philadelphia, which has direct air service from Tampa Bay.
STAYING THERE: The Wedgwood Inn is a two-minute walk from Main Street. In summer months when crowds grow, that walk can offer a little more quiet. Rooms are appointed with an eclectic mix of Victorian furnishings, and some rooms have Jacuzzis, fireplaces and balconies. Prices range from $120 to $250 a night; a two-night stay is required on weekends. 111 W Bridge St. Call (215) 862-2570; www.wedgwoodinn.com.
The Mansion Inn is a striking 1865 Victorian gingerbread manor with whirlpool tubs and fireplaces. Breakfast is included in the Champagne Room restaurant, which is also open for cocktails and dinner. Rates start at $155 per weekday night, $195 on weekends (two-night stay required). 9 S Main St. Call (215) 862-1231; www.themansioninn.com.
WHAT TO DO: Explore the shops on New Hope's four main arteries (Main, Bridge, Ferry and Mechanic streets). Highlights within less than a square mile include Cockamamie's, for art deco and 1950s furniture and accessories; Love Saves the Day, for vintage clothing and accessories; Farley's Bookshop; A Mano Galleries, for crafts, jewelry and furniture; and A Stage in Time, for mission furniture.
For worthwhile art and history exhibits, the Michener Museum-New Hope is a satellite of the James A. Michener Art Museum in nearby Doylestown, Pa. At the Union Square complex on Bridge Street. Call (215) 862-7633; www.michenermuseum.org.
Take the kids for a ride with Santa on the New Hope-Ivyland Railroad and see the countryside from a steam train. 32 W Bridge St. Call (215) 862-2332; www.newhoperailroad.com.
The re-enactment of Washington's crossing of the Delaware is usually held at 11 a.m. on Christmas Day at Washington Crossing Historic Park, on Route 32 south of New Hope. Call (215) 493-4076 or visit www.phmc.state.pa.us/bhsm/toh/ washington/washingtoncrossing.asp.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: New Hope Chamber of Commerce, (215) 862-5880 or www.newhopepa.com.