As tourist guides go, our Amish  horse-drawn buggy driver was brilliantly rude, writes Steve Zacharanda.

He was as uninterested in our tales of travelling as he was about opening up about his Pennsylvanian community, which fascinates the outside world. A misunderstanding about who had organised our mini-ride led to him asking me the same question every fifty yards about a woman, I guessed it was about money.

Enoch, Ali, Nathaniel, or whatever his name was, would say: "That's rhubarb, we grow it, so will it be you or her be paying?"

Sitting in the back of his horse drawn buggy I smiled, this bearded pensioner perfectly perpetuated the belief the Amish don't have much time for us lot who can't live without our wifi and rock and roll.

But as impatient drivers, biting their lips and beeping their horns, lined up behind our buggy as our guide's trusted steed trotted through farmland unchanged in generations it was hard not to respect the belligerence and bloody mindedness of him and his community.

Like any group of people who don't subscribe to society's norms and rules the Amish are victims of lazy stereotypes and generalisations. But, like the rest of us, and there are good, bad, stupid, grumpy and hilarious Amish.

Lancaster County in Pennsylvania has the greatest concentration of Amish in America and is only a few hours from Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Baltimore. I had no idea they were so near the big cities so I jumped at the chance of seeing a way of American life so totally different to the rest of the continent.

The Amish are descended from mostly Dutch, German and French Christians who still adhere to strict religious rules set down 300 years ago. They were attracted to the religious freedom of America after been brutally persecuted in Europe, but needless to say they got got their fair share of trouble in the New World.

Due to their distinctive farmer style dress and strong beard game decades before everyone sported them, as well as eschewing cars and the domestic benefits of electricity, the Amish have also been the target of Hollywood. Harrison Ford's thriller Witness and then Randy Quaid's moral corruption in Kingpin skewered perceptions of the Amish in the minds of millions across the world.

And as for the reality show The Amish Mafia, that deserves the disapproving shake of the head that elders must save for the worst of the modernity that surrounds them.

Thankfully, there are now plenty of ways for tourists to get a taste of how the Amish live without treating them like freaks in their hometown. There are cringe-worthy examples of tourists offering money for selfies, to touch them or generally treating them like performing seals.

Kitchen Kettle Village is one of the county's top tourist destinations, since opening 60 years ago it has grown from one outlet to an entire village. Amish women work in Canning Kitchen making delicious jams, jellies, sauces and other delicacies which are sold in their hundreds of thousands. The village has handmade craft shops and its own brewery and winery.

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But more importantly the village is ground zero for the annual Rhubarb Festival, which sadly I missed. Imagine a land festooned with rhubarb where locals fix wheels to rhubarb and race them in the Rhubarb Derby. Well that place exists. For the last 30 years they have celebrated the pink and green plant, and if I could be anywhere in the world on May 19 and 20 I'd be at Kitchen Kettle Village. 

We ate at the Kling House Restaurant which was doing a brisk trade at lunchtime, and finally at 41-years-old I understood the attraction of meatloaf. A loaf of meat never has sounded appetising to me but at Kling House I was introduced to it Amish style, and the apple pie and cream custard was something that the world's greatest nan would produce.

The Amish Experience at Plain and Fancy farm, between the wonderfully named towns of Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse, started as a Dutch-style home-cooking restaurant in 1959 and has grown to be a one-stop destination for those interested in the Amish.  With the help of Amish families who have embraced tourism there are tours of farmland, buggy rides and a fascinating farmhouse and school to educate visitors. There is also a hotel, restaurant and a cinema like no-other I've been in. Built to look like a barn but with lights, wind machines and water to compliment the on screen goings of a specially made feature Jacob's Choice.

The film is shown daily and depicts the historic struggles of the Amish with the story of teenage Jacob's Rumspringa - the rights of passage boys go through when they experience the allure of food blenders, karaoke and modern tomfoolery before deciding to commit to the religion.

The schoolchildren who surrounded me were not riveted to Jacob's Choice. This emotional roller-coaster of a film stars actors, whose career peaked when they opened a Central Perk door for Pheobe's brother in Friends or played a waiter in The Colby's, with epic 1990s hair wrestle with the meaning of life. However, the combination of the acting, live special effects and a plot thicker than mamma's pie by the end of the film the schoolchildren sat in confounded silence before excitedly discussing with their friends. And there can be no better compliment to Jacob's Choice than that.

The film sets up the other attractions at The Amish Experience perfectly, whether touring the fertile farmland which attracted settlers centuries ago and kept them there, enjoying Aaron and Jessica's buggy rides or a tour around a farmhouse and school.

Our guide around the farmhouse and school was author Brad Igou whose enthusiastic passion for explaining the Amish to their fellow Americans was infectious. The farmhouse was a illuminating glimpse into Amish life, no electricity, but cupboards full of brand names (why wouldn't they?), their distinctive clothes hanging up and handmade toys Amish children have enjoyed for generations.

The one room schoolhouse was just as interesting, sitting behind the wooden desks we learnt how education put the Amish on a collision course with the American state, a battle which would lead to several elders jailed as recently as the 1970s.

The Amish Experience also has one of the few working magic lanterns in America. Before moving pictures there were magic lanterns. In the 1800s entire villages would turn out to see magic lantern shows, using photographs, glass slides, music and narration to be entertained or informed about the latest events. Brand new this year is a magic lantern Underground Railroad show which depicts the horrors of slavery and how the escape route was created from the plantations to the freedom of the North.

I've spent a lot of time visiting civil rights and African-American historic sites, the last place I thought I would find a hotspot was the whitest place I'd been - Lancaster. But the city was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and is also a key part of Pennsylvania’s Quest for Freedom trail.

My hotel, the Lancaster Marriott, was another surprise, as there was a treasure trove of history, and it had all been woven into the building. 

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During the construction of the conference centre and hotel ten years ago there was an excavation led by the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County which unearthed artifacts and remains of the home of congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens - a great American if there ever was one.

As I gazed into the preserved history it was not hard to imagine the bravery of those hiding and helping escaping slaves who, if found, could mean prison or death. There are plans for a 20,000-square-foot, $20-million interactive museum - the Stevens and Smith Historic Site.

As the Amish only make up around one tenth of Lancaster County's population it stands to reason the city has everything anywhere else has to offer - outdoor sports, culture, shopping and a night-time economy I was looking forward to sampling. Lancaster has the oldest continuously operating theatre in America - The Fulton. And there is a thriving arts scene with plenty of established and new art galleries and plenty of artisan and independent retailers on North Queen Street.

Like everywhere you go in America the food scene is flourishing in Lancaster and there are plenty of places to drink the ever-increasing amount of local craft beers. We ate at Carr's Restaurant, where I got involved in the greatest crab dip on the planet and a huge steak.

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I also ate my first whoopie pie. The chocolate and cream Amish creation which is on sale everywhere, from shops, cafes to upscale places like Carr's.

But, and this is a big but, the sharp-elbowed types of the state of Maine, not content in cornering the market in lobster-related titles and records, have started claiming the whoopie pie as their own. Now, this is important, in America there are thousands of towns, and a lot of them cling onto being the home of the first, biggest, smallest something or another.

I've been to three towns with the oldest bar in America, held my nose as I drove through the New York town with the biggest onion field in the world, been to the Missouri town with the world's biggest banjo and then in the same day saw the world's longest pencil in St Louis. So for Maine to claim whoopie pie is akin to using electrical equipment to steal the food out of  mouths of Amish babes.

So I thought I would settle the issue with this video.


What I loved the most about my time in Lancaster is that it totally confounded expectations on an almost hourly basis.

The city itself is great fun for a night out. The best dinner I had last year, let alone three weeks gorging myself in America was at Carr's.

I was warned by city slickers in Philly and New York that Id have to watch my mouth and be prepared to see Trump's Conservative America in all it's intolerance, they even called the part of the state between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as Pentucky, claiming it was full of rednecks. 

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But I had a great time, and even ended up having an incredible night with militant Bernie Sanders supporters in an epic dive bar called Brendees, where we were free to smoke, which was more fun than any tourist trap in Manhattan.

I've traveled my fair share of America, had fun-filled nights with all manner of people in all types of places but my brief stay in Lancaster County will live long in the memory. It is a totally unique place, with unique people, and if you are planning a trip to any of the East Coast's big cities then remember just two hours away is Lancaster County.

And the best thing about America is Americans, even the fella in buggy who started off so rudely ended up cracking jokes like a comedian by the end of the ride. Because when culture's clash, just give it a while and what unites us will soon outshine our differences.