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Postcards: The Kingdom of Chocolate

Welcome to Candyland

There's a little bit of Oz in Hershey, Pennsylvania—a surreal place where the streetlights are shaped like chocolate kisses, the roads are named Cocoa Avenue and East Chocolate, and the air smells like melted candy bars. Giant Hershey's kisses spout water at the town's gardens, walking Krackel bars roam around Hersheypark, and there's free candy for everyone at Chocolate World, a shrine to the cocoa bean. If the people of Hershey could pave the street with chocolate bars, they would—and in a way, they have.

Milton Hershey built this town and turned this sleepy corner of southeastern Pennsylvania into a major tourist attraction. Clustered around the yellow-and-brown Hershey's factory are a world-class amusement park, a zoo, a museum, beautiful gardens, a sports and concert arena, luxury hotels, and a visitors center bursting with candy facts.

"It's a just an overall nice place," said Tim Karges, a local air ambulance pilot. "There are lots of family-oriented things to do, and a good feeling about being Hershey's town. There are other towns that have a single benefactor, and it can get tense. But there's a lot of love and respect for what Hershey did."

Getting there

Best of all, Hershey is just a few miles from two great airports: Reigle Field, a tiny, family-owned airstrip, and Capital City Airport near Harrisburg, a sprawling, towered airport that is friendly to general aviation.

Flying toward the city from the east, the first landmark you'll see is Founders Hall, the largest unsupported rotunda in the Western Hemisphere. The dome sits at the center of the Milton Hershey School for disadvantaged children. Take a good look because this school is the seat of the Hershey empire.

In effect, Hershey Foods Corp. exists for the school, which was originally founded by Hershey as a home for orphaned boys. The school's trust controls 76 percent of Hershey Foods' voting shares and 31.4 percent of its stock, along with all of Hershey's entertainment and resort businesses. The school has only 1,300 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, but it has a whopping $5 billion endowment—more than Columbia University or the University of California!

Reigle Field lies about one mile from the dome, wedged diagonally into a cornfield outside the town of Palmyra. The runway is 40 by 1,950 feet with a 300-foot displaced threshold and an approach that skims over Forge Road. The runway lights are spaced much wider than the runway (left over from when it was a turf field), so good luck finding the asphalt in the dark. There's no shame in executing a go-around here.

"It's a challenge," said Merrill Shaffer, a local Piper Cherokee 140 pilot. "You've gotta watch your altitude, or you'll kiss the bumper of a truck. And you've gotta watch your airspeed, or you'll be picking corn real fast."

The airport has been run by the Reigle family since 1942. Airplane models hang from the ceiling of the airport's main building, and the bookshelves are stuffed with aviation novels. While you're waiting for a taxi, grab a soda from the Coke machine outside—during the summer, an empty can will usually get you a discounted ticket at Hersheypark.

Taxi service is slow, so call the airport before you leave to arrange for a pickup. The airport's busiest season is October, when gearheads from around the world gather for the Hershey Auto Show, one of the largest gatherings of antique cars in the world.

If you're staying in Hershey for a few days, consider flying into Harrisburg instead. Capital City Airport, located on the banks of the Susquehanna River, is more GA-friendly than Harrisburg International Airport, and it's close to plenty of hotels. Capital City Airport has two runways (5,001 feet and 3,925 feet long) and is adjacent to a golf course.

The art-deco main hangar is occupied by Harrisburg Jet Center, a friendly and well-equipped FBO with a kitchen, three weather computers, a pilot shop, a lounge with satellite TV, three snooze rooms, showers, bicycles, car rentals, courtesy vans, and free wireless Internet. Have the FBO book a hotel room for you—it can get big discounts.

The best airport, however, is the one you can't land on—Hershey Airpark, a 3,000-by-75-foot paved runway right across the road from Hersheypark and just down the hill from the lavish Hotel Hershey. It was closed in 1981 but remains in good condition.

"People used to land right there and walk over to the park," said Duane Reigle, co-owner of Reigle Field and an Airbus 319 captain for Frontier Airlines. "It's sad to see. They use it for flea markets now."

Places to stay

There are plenty of chain hotels in Hershey, but the mom-and-pop establishments are just as comfortable and cheaper. Most are within walking distance of the big attractions. Try the cozy Simmons Motel.

Campsites at the Hershey Highmeadow Campground are $33.50 a night during the summer and include free admission to the Hershey Gardens and Hershey Museum, shuttle service to Hersheypark, and access to all public and private golf courses.

The best digs in town are at The Hotel Hershey, a spectacular chateau on a hill overlooking the town. Rooms there go for a cool $350 a night during the summer.

The chocolate empire

The story of Hershey begins with Milton Hershey, a confectioner who settled in nearby Lancaster in 1886 after failing at candy businesses in Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, and New York City. His fifth business, the Lancaster Caramel Co., was a success.

While visiting the Chicago International Exposition of 1893, Hershey was fascinated by the latest German chocolate-making machinery. He bought his own machine and was soon producing chocolate coatings for his caramels. In 1900 he sold the caramel company for $1 million to concentrate on chocolate.

At the time, the sweet, creamy blend known as milk chocolate was a luxury product made in Switzerland. Hershey's grand idea was to produce milk chocolate for the masses.

In 1903, Hershey began building a factory in his hometown of Derry Church, close to the dairies needed to supply milk. Chocolate beans were shipped in from around the world. The town was renamed for Hershey and became a model among the industrial company towns popping up around the United States.

During the 1930s, Hershey started a building campaign to create jobs. Soon the town boasted a sports arena, a stadium, theaters, and the Hotel Hershey. For a good tour of the city, take one of the Hershey trolleys, which feature singing conductors (717/533-3000).

"It's a lovely town," said Barbara George, chief pilot at the Harrisburg Jet Center. "We get pilots coming in all the time to see the sights."

But a word of warning: Milton Hershey is a god here, and the locals are fiercely protective of his company. Don't even think about unwrapping a Nestle Crunch bar within the city limits.

When the Hershey school trust put the company up for sale in 2002, the townsfolk practically tarred and feathered the board members. The school's alumni association revolted, the Pennsylvania attorney general stepped in, and the board eventually walked away from fat offers by Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., Nestle, and Cadbury. Ten of the 17 board members left in disgrace.

Things to do

Hershey has enough sights, concerts, plays, and other events to keep you busy for days, so you'll need to do a little planning. Check out the Web site for a list of things to see and a calendar of events.

For the inside story of chocolate, don't miss Chocolate World. A free 3-D movie theater and a theme-park-style ride take visitors through the entire process, from the cocoa farms of Africa to the machines that wrap the kisses—and there are free samples at the end. Shops sell ice cream, souvenirs, and every Hershey's product imaginable—including "experimental" candies that you may never see again. Unfortunately, you can't tour the real factory.

Hersheypark is a beautiful, well-kept theme park with 50 rides and attractions, including 11 roller coasters, spread across 90 acres. For a taste of what it feels to be launched from an aircraft carrier, try the Stormrunner coaster, which starts its run by going from 0 to 72 mph in two seconds. There are nightly laser light shows (make sure you check the notams before any night flying).

Hersheypark Stadium and Giant Center get big-name pop concerts. For more highbrow entertainment, there's the breathtaking Hershey Theatre, with its Byzantine-style auditorium. The theater hosts visiting companies such as the St. Petersburg Ballet and touring Broadway productions such as Chicago and Rent. There are classic films and organ concerts, too.

With so many concert venues, Hershey has become a huge attraction for music and theater lovers from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

"It is sort of surprising that a town of 25,000 gets David Bowie," Reigle said. "It's great for those of us who live here—we don't have to leave to get these big cultural events."

Giant Center is also the home of the Hershey Bears minor league hockey team (Hershey bars, Hershey bears, get it?). They play from October through May.

ZooAmerica has more than 200 North American animals on display, everything from bobcats to bison, wolves to crocodiles. The nearby Hershey Museum is a delightful hodgepodge of Indian artifacts, exhibits about the area's German immigrants—and yes, more about chocolate. And there's Hershey Gardens, which explodes into color every spring. It features 275 varieties of roses, a new Butterfly House, and a "Children's Garden" aimed at teaching kids about plants.

If you're not sick of hearing the Hershey name by then, Founders Hall features yet more exhibits on Milton Hershey and his wife. And if you can't stand to look at another candy bar, check out the small Derry Township Museum (717/520-0748).

As every self-respecting car fan knows, Hershey is also the headquarters of the 60,000-member-strong Antique Automobile Club of America, the largest organization of its kind in the world. Its new museum features more than 100 painstakingly restored cars.

There are simply more things to do in Hershey than any town its size has a right to have, and it all started a century ago with one dreamer and a chocolate-making machine.

The business has turned this Pennsylvania backwater into a tourism powerhouse. And if the locals seem a little obsessed with Hershey (hey, is that a package of M&Ms in your hand?), you'll have to forgive them. When you live in Candyland, there's no place sweeter than home.

Chris Hawley is a pilot and freelance writer living in Mexico City.


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