By Danielle Taylor

Shopping for the holidays is a lot more fun when you can mix up the searching and buying with snack samples, wine tastings, great deals, and more. If this sounds like your idea of a shopping jaunt, make your plans now to take the Gingerbread Tour! This popular annual event started in 1971 at the home of Pat MacBeth, a Cook Forest area matriarch, and by the early 2000s, it had expanded into a driving tour with lots of interesting stops for dining and holiday shopping.

From November 2-4, find 20 miles of stores and restaurants between Brookville and Leeper all decked out for Christmas and offering open house specials, door prizes, product samples, refreshments, a variety of interesting treasures by local artists and crafters, and all the joy of the season. Fifteen shops and seven restaurants are participating this year, and with the wide variety of products available, you’re sure to find something for everyone on your list. To best enjoy the experience, book a cabin or vacation rental in Cook Forest or a room at one of the B&Bs, hotels, or motels along the route, and dedicate the full weekend to the event.

Start your tour with breakfast at Plyler’s Buffet & Family Restaurant, located just off I-80 on Allegheny Boulevard in Brookville. Enjoy a hearty, home-cooked meal that will stick to your ribs and warm your bones before starting your shopping adventure, and consider picking up one of Plyler’s famous pies to take home.

From there, head north on Allegheny Boulevard to the Open House Shop, an antique store specializing in authentic primitive and country home furnishings, custom-made farm tables and fire rings, Jack Daniel’s barrels, barn wood, rustic beams, restored furniture, gifts, and a wide range of unique displays and decorating ideas designed to inspire. Find early-bird specials from 8-10 a.m. all three days of the tour!

Afterward, pop on over to Blackbird Distillery just around the corner and enjoy samples of Pennsylvania’s only fully handmade moonshine. This fun destination plays on moonshine’s hillbilly roots and offers 25 specialty flavors for you to choose from. Stop in for Shine On Saturday during the Gingerbread Tour and taste some of the smoked meats and cheeses, homemade specialty canned pepper mixes, BBQ sauces, wing sauces, and more also available for purchase.

As you continue north to Cook Forest, take time for a visit to Heirloom Quilting and Antiques, a quilter’s heaven with more than 9,000 bolts of 100-percent cotton fabric, including flannels and homespuns, as well as the latest quilting and stitching machines and innovations. During the Gingerbread Tour, take advantage of 20 percent off Christmas fabric! The shop will be open for a rare Sunday during this event as well as its regular hours on Friday and Saturday, so be sure to stop in.

Fans of the simple life won’t want to miss a visit to Quiet Creek Herb Farm and School of Country Living, an organic family farm promoting healthy, sustainable living. Sign up early for Friday’s herbal soap-making class and come back on Saturday for Claire’s famous whole foods luncheon. The gift shop sells a range of homemade soaps, salves, and herb and tea mixes as well as cultivated mushrooms, books on a variety of organic farming topics, and lots more.

Another great lunch option on your way into the Forest is the Iron Mountain Grill, which will have two quick, delicious lunch specials so you can get in, fill up, and get back out on your way, in addition to their regular menu. Try the open-faced hot roast beef sandwich with gravy or the chicken parmesan sandwich on pretzel bun, both with fresh-cut fries, and finish off your meal with a double chocolate peanut butter pie.

On Saturday and Sunday, Evergreen Cabins and Mercantile will host an Open House event featuring gifts, a candle sale, holiday items for sale, door prizes, holiday decor, and Christmas cookies and refreshments. While you’re there, browse the rest of the shop for clothing, souvenirs, and basic groceries and sundries for your weekend in the woods.

Just down the road, Cooksburg Dry Goods will also hold a Christmas Open House in their quaint log cabin gift shop in the heart of Cook Forest. Find your favorite collectibles as well as one-of-a-kind artisan-crafted home goods, and enter to win daily door prizes!

From there, cross the river into Cook Forest State Park and go right at the fork up to the Sawmill Center for the Arts. In addition to the 55 or so artists showcased at the craft market, the center will also host another 18 vendors for the Gingerbread Tour, selling everything from handmade soaps to primitive crafts to LuLaRoe clothing. The event will also feature a student art show and highlight young talent from area high schools and Clarion University.

Whether you’re looking for furniture or a wine tasting, stop in to Briar Hill Rustic Furniture in Leeper, which will have some great sales on bedroom furniture during the Gingerbread Tour as well as mulled wine and finger foods for sampling.

Finally, wrap up your long days of shopping with dinner at Trails End Restaurant or the Sawmill Restaurant. The Sawmill offers a comfort-food menu featuring burgers, fries, sandwiches, and ice cream as well as beer to go, while Trails End features a more extensive menu with popular entrees like steaks, seafood, pasta, and more as well as wine, beer, and cocktails.

Look for the four-foot-tall gingerbread man marking participating businesses as you explore the Tour! Learn more and find other interesting places to visit in the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region by going to VisitPAGO.com or calling (814) 849-5197.

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