If you’re suffering from a nagging bout of cabin fever, you might want to bundle up and venture out into the land of fire and ice. I’m not talking about Iceland (which goes by that moniker) or Westeros, the mythical realm in Game of Thrones. I’m referring to the many small towns, mostly north of Washington, D.C., that welcome winter visitors to their annual “fire and ice” festivals. You’ll find beautifully carved ice sculptures and various opportunities to eat, drink and play with fire—including chili contests, fire dancers, bonfires and marshmallow roasts.
This past February, I headed to Lititz, Pennsylvania (about 120 miles north of Bethesda, near Lancaster), to meet my friend Carol and check out the town’s 13th annual Fire and Ice Festival. (The 2019 festival will take place Feb. 15-18.) Founded in 1742 by Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who was seeking religious freedom for his Moravian community, Lititz—population just over 9,000—was named “America’s Coolest Small Town” by Budget Travel in 2013.
It’s a picturesque place, tucked into rolling countryside with an attractive mix of historic Federal-style and gray limestone buildings, along with a few towering steeples defining its skyline. Walking down Main Street, we come across a thigh-high ice pretzel outside the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery. Local businesses hoping to capitalize on the estimated 40,000 festival visitors, we’re told, sponsor their own ice sculptures, usually with a theme related to their specialty.
In our case it works. We pop inside the bakery and, for a small fee, take a tour and learn how to twist pretzels correctly at what was reportedly the first commercial pretzel bakery in the U.S., where workers once made 10 cents an hour, working 10 hours a day, six days a week. Our salty carb indulgence is to be the first of many.
To kick off the official festivities, Lititz shuts down its central streets and has a block party on Friday night. The biggest spectacles are more than 50 ice sculptures, ranging from a massive throne (yes, you can sit on it) to delightful smaller pieces depicting food, animals (both real and fantastical) and symbols. Many are backlit with colored lights.
As darkness falls, I am reminded of the German tradition of the volksmarch (“people’s march”), which compels townspeople of all ages to get outside for a brisk walk. Everyone seems to be out and about, admiring the glimmering sculptures while filling their bellies with a smorgasbord of street food. Some 20 food trucks are lined up, hawking everything from strudel and burgers to batter-fried cheese curds. Families roast marshmallows over fire pits in the middle of the street, and the local restaurants and watering holes are hopping, the sounds of live music emanating from several corners into the night air.
Outside of the Lititz Mutual Insurance building, with its lovely limestone clock tower, we stop to watch one of the artists from DiMartino Ice Co. at work on a Pegasus sculpture. Many of the sculptures are pre-carved at the company’s office near Pittsburgh and hauled to the site, owner Ernie DiMartino explains, but the team always saves a few larger pieces to carve on location with a variety of power tools—chainsaws, chisels, sanders, and finally, a blowtorch to add that finishing shine.
DiMartino credits social media with the growing popularity of ice festivals. “Everybody’s got a camera now,” he says, “and something about ice makes it popular in pictures.” Indeed.
Continuing our stroll, we stop at Olio and sample a dozen or so of the 104 olive oils and vinegars in shiny vats. (Pro tip: The bittersweet-chocolate-orange balsamic vinegar is irresistible, as is the apricot in white balsamic.) The store feels like Willy Wonka’s factory for those whose taste buds lean sweet-sour and savory. It offers handy 2-ounce bottles for sale, along with an attractive array of Italian pottery.
The next morning we walk back into town, making note of ice sculptures we missed in the dark the night before. Every other storefront, it seems, offers some sort of culinary treat, while those in between showcase stylish and warm home furnishings or clothing.
After some window (and real) shopping, we walk the few blocks to the official “fire” part of the festival. Inside the high school, a chili cook-off is raising funds for area nonprofits. For $10, we can taste more than 20 types of chili—everything from a white chicken stew to a Philly-cheesesteak-style chili, complete with a dollop of Cheez Whiz on top. We surrender after about six samples and go in search of water bottles, passing an eclectic mix of local vendors and a children’s carnival.
Back outside, the midday temperature has peaked at a sunny 40 degrees, causing the ice sculptures to glisten and drip a bit. It’s short-lived. Soon, the mercury drops once again, and to our delight, fluffy snowflakes begin to fall, gracefully frosting the town. Grateful for our hats and gloves, we revisit our favorite ice sculptures one last time, basking, like kids, in the joy of fresh snow.
Arlington travel writer Amy Brecount White (amybrecountwhite.com) enjoys any excuse to connect with old friends and explore new towns.