My knuckles are as white as the snow-covered road that stretches endlessly in front of me. It’s hour four of what was supposed to be an easy 2-hour drive from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. I’ve been driving since sunrise, northeast into the Pocono Mountains, and directly into a proper East Coast snow storm. Forced to take several detours due to sudden road closures, I’ve passed more multi-car accidents than I can count. I am increasingly uncertain as to how my small car has managed to stay on the icy roads; even if I wanted to, I’m not sure I could stop.
It’s a Thursday morning in mid-February and signs caution drivers to avoid any non-essential travel. In a reverse of the old adage, I try to remain focused on the destination instead of the journey. I have no choice but to press on: Tonight I have a non-refundable reservation for a Champagne Tower suite at the Pocono Palace Resort, one of three couples-only resorts in the Poconos. Pennsylvania Highway Patrol may not deem a sudsy soak in a 7-foot-tall whirlpool tub shaped like a champagne glass “essential,” but after months of doing laps around my studio apartment, I disagree.
I’m a single, childless, 35-year-old woman who has loved many people and places over the years—but the true love of my life might be roadside kitsch. It’s not that I don’t have any romantic prospects willing to accompany me on this trip, but I no longer think I should have to wait for a marriage proposal to have a honeymoon. So, three days after Valentine’s Day, I have booked consecutive stays in the honeymoon suites of three different hotels. This morning, day two of what I’ve been calling my “solo honeymoon,” I woke up at the Feather Nest Inn in New Jersey. The light filtered through the red curtains was meant to be sexy; considering the harrowing drive I had ahead of me, it seemed almost sinister.
Five and a half hours—and countless heart-stopping moments—later, the snow is still falling steadily when I turn off PA Route 209 onto Marquis Road. I’ve been too focused on navigating the storm to allow anticipation to interrupt my anxiety, but for the first time all morning, I have a compelling reason to test my car’s brakes. Like a cardinal infusing life into a barren backyard, a pop of red bursts out of the blizzard, announcing that I have finally arrived at my destination. A large wooden heart-shaped sign, hand-painted in swirling letters, welcomes me to an anachronistic slice of paradise in the Poconos: “You are entering the Land of Love.”
Honeymoon Capital of the World
Located within a few hours’ drive of major East Coast cities, the Catskill and Pocono Mountains have always attracted people looking to get away. Beginning in the 1920s, Jewish families flocked to the Catskills in the summer, designating the Upstate New York region as “The Borscht Belt.” Post-World War II and two hours southwest, the Poconos earned a nickname of its own, “The Honeymoon Capital of the World,” thanks to gas shortages and several resorts catering to couples no longer keen on driving as far as Niagara Falls to celebrate their nuptials.
But as travel budgets and wanderlust increased, low-tech resorts such as Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel—the inspiration for Dirty Dancing’s fictional Kellerman’s Mountain Resort—fell out of favor by the late ‘90s and have since been demolished. Poconos equivalents Penn Hills, The Buck Hill Inn, and The Summit Resort have all suffered similar fates; couples wishing to bring their “love of everything” to beautiful Mount Airy Lodge may still do so, but “America’s premier honeymoon hideaway,” which closed in 2001, has reinvented itself as a casino.
The honeymoon period may be long over, but both resort regions are far from dead—especially as the pandemic sent people searching for relief from crowded cities and border closures kept them closer to home. Anyone wishing to experience the glory days of the Borscht Belt may have to do so through a movie or TV screen, but there are still several places around the country where it’s possible to experience the Poconos’ iconic contribution to the lexicon of love: the heart-shaped tub.
I have no way of calculating how many people’s stories have begun—or ended—in a heart-shaped tub since their inception in the late ‘60s, but they can all thank one man: Morris Wilkins. In the late ‘50s, Wilkins and a friend purchased a hotel in Lakeville, Pennsylvania, and renamed it Cove Haven. According to his obituary, Wilkins either had a late night vision or was inspired by a circular tub that had been “accidentally bent into a heart shape as it was being squeezed past a corner.”
However it came to fruition, the heart-shaped tub was an instant hit and positioned the Poconos as the destination for newlyweds—or anyone looking to celebrate their love year round with activities such as snowshoeing and archery, and nightly shows. “There was no particular reason that the Poconos should have been established as a honeymoon destination,” Carl Wilgus, president of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau, told the New York Times. “It was a true testament that advertising works.”
Unable to patent his invention—and thankfully ignoring the idea that you can’t improve upon perfection—Wilkins went one step further (and about 6 feet higher), patenting his next creation, the champagne glass-shaped tub, in 1988. He sold Cove Haven in 1969, opened other resorts in the area before he retired, and died in Las Vegas in 2015 at the age of 90. The heart-shaped tub became a staple in places all over the country hoping to siphon off some of that couples’ cash; like many relics of bygone eras, they now feel either sexy or sordid (or both), depending on the context.
Cove Haven Entertainment Resorts currently operates three properties in Pennsylvania: Cove Haven in Lakeville, Pocono Palace in East Stroudsburg, and Paradise Stream in Mount Pocono. Of the hundreds of suites available, most still come equipped with a whimsical whirlpool; for those who can’t choose, the Champagne Tower suite also includes a heated heart-shaped pool in addition to the coupe-shaped centerpiece.
I can’t be sure of when the indelible image of a heart-shaped tub became burned into my brain; maybe it was repeated viewings of Dumb and Dumber growing up in the ‘90s or the eerie photos of empty, broken hearts that began circulating in the early 2000s as urban explorers returned to the abandoned resorts. But it was love at first sight—although like most of the significant relationships I’ve had in my life, it would be years before I was ready to fully commit.
In January, 2016, I booked a Champagne Tower suite for my then-boyfriend’s birthday. I had found a good deal and was going to surprise him with a romantic weekend away from Brooklyn. But as the cancellation window dwindled, I got cold feet and backed out; it was too expensive, I worried that he wouldn’t want to go, and the logistics of getting from New York City to the Poconos without a car was too complicated.
Five years later—and after almost a year of pandemic-imposed isolation—I suddenly wondered what I was waiting for. If I was going to be a pandemic pod of one for the foreseeable future, I might as well do it in a honeymoon suite (or three). Taking myself on a solo honeymoon on Valentine’s Day weekend seemed both too sad and too expensive, so I booked my rooms for the following week.
Feather Nest Inn
First up is the Feather Nest Inn located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The website somewhat confusingly urges visitors to “come judge for yourself why we were voted ‘Best of Philly!’” and I take the bait. The hotel offers themed suites—including Natural Cave, Space Odyssey, and King Tut—and standard suites, but it’s romance I’m after. I arrive after dark, much like you get anywhere in eastern New Jersey: after passing countless auto body shops and liquor stores, and by making a series of disorienting loops. Jersey drivers deal with left turns the same way I’ve dealt with intimacy in my past relationships: complete and total avoidance.
It’s a Wednesday, but a sign on the office door informs me that the Feather Nest Inn is fully booked for the night. I’ve selected my suite—called the Manhattan—by the glossy images provided online, and I am promised a room so red it will scorch my retinas, with a round, king-sized bed, a fireplace, and a “roomy, heart-shaped, 2-person whirlpool.” My room is indeed red and the bed is round but my retinas are safe; maybe it’s the lighting but the color scheme is more maroon than candy-apple. What I can see perfectly, however, is what I am missing: I have a tub, but it’s not heart-shaped.
When I inquire at the front desk, I’m told that some of the rooms have been recently renovated, mine included. They aren’t able to move me because of high demand. When I ask about seeing the other rooms, I’m told they’ve suspended tours indefinitely due to COVID-19. I’ve been on my honeymoon for only a few hours before I feel defeated, but nevertheless, I persist.
Seeking out alternate thrills, I toggle a switch on the wall labeled “music,” and nothing happens. Two hours later I’m lying on the bed, staring at my reflection in the mirror above me, and warming my cold feet by the fire, when the radio turns on at full volume. I’m kept awake well after midnight by my noisy neighbors, who are presumably enjoying one of the remaining heart-shaped tubs. My own may be rectangular, but I find a hair in it that’s not mine. Happy that at least one of my expectations has finally been met, I eat two mints and discover the first joy of staying solo in suites designed for couples: I get two of everything.
I’ve dabbled in online dating before so I shouldn’t be shocked that I’ve been catfished by a 2-star love hotel off of a New Jersey jug handle, located in between a cemetery and a blood donation center; I literally have no one to blame but myself. Nervous about the impending winter storm, I leave shortly after sunrise. My car is already covered in snow and the roads are barely plowed.
You may never forget your first, but second relationships are often more fulfilling. I’m cautiously optimistic about the Pocono Palace, but by the time Marquis Road turns into Fantasy Lane, I’ve already fallen head over heels for the Land of Love.
Leather and stone
Located along a lake and surrounded by pine trees, I’m sure that Pocono Palace is picturesque in any season; maybe it’s the snow—or the thrill of surviving the drive—but when I arrive after noon, it’s a sparkling wonderland. The crosswalk leading to the entrance has signs designating it as a “Wacky Walk Zone” with the following instructions: “From here to the next sign, you’ve got to put all your love into your legs and show us your hottest trot. Don’t be shy, give it a try!” I’m not shy, but I decline to participate; the sidewalk is still icy despite a bucket of salt sitting by the door with a sticker featuring cascading hearts, urging guests to “Sprinkle Love, while we sprinkle salt.”
The lobby is decorated like a ski lodge: dripping in dark wood and stone, with patterned carpets, geometric wooden light fixtures, and a fireplace festooned with snowshoes, skis, and a pair of leather ice skates. Remnants of Valentine’s Day remain, including an empty kissing booth and several slightly deflated helium-filled heart balloons. From behind a plexiglass partition—and beneath a sign reminding guests to “practice safe six” (as in feet apart)—Cheryl begins the check-in process.
When it comes time to make reservations for the dinner and breakfast included with my suite, she asks, “Would you like to consult your partner?” And then I discover the second best thing about staying solo in a couples-only resort: informing well-meaning staff members that I am—cue the sad violins—alone. Cheryl handles this bombshell like a true professional, writing a “1” on my dinner reservation card so “no one gets confused.”
When she asks if I’d like to purchase anything additional for my room—chocolate covered strawberries, fireplace logs, or bubble bath—I decline the offer, and remind her again that “it’s just me.” What I don’t tell Cheryl is that I’m not exactly traveling alone: I have a stowaway in my bag, and his name is Mister Bubble.
Pocono Palace has hundreds of suite options, including Fantasy Apples, Roman Towers, and Lakeside Chalets. There are 20 Champagne Towers, and mine is located in between Lovers’ Lane and Romance Road. If I was underwhelmed by the Feather Nest Inn (I was), my room at the Pocono Palace is nothing short of overwhelming. Immediately upon entering the two-level suite, I’m confronted by the coupe—and it’s better than I imagined it would be.
To my right is a heated, private heart-shaped pool. Upstairs is a bathroom with a regular shower and two sinks; I flop onto my second round bed in as many days, and as my feet hang off the edge I wonder how this circular design came to be associated with romance (forced closeness?). There are mirrors everywhere; I count 36 light switches and at least as many mirrors before I give up and write “dozens” in my notes.
I’ve made my dinner reservation for 5:30 p.m. in an attempt to avoid as many other people as possible. I’m content to eat solo under normal circumstances but this will be my first time dining indoors in almost a year. The restaurant is spacious and there is adequate space between tables, but I’m still nervous. Thankfully, both the hostess and my waitress do get confused and I get to tell them that no, I am not waiting for a partner, and yes, I am indeed dining alone. By the time I’m offered a glass (a coupe, of course) of complimentary champagne, I decide I’ve never been happier. I assume the offer is out of pity until the dining room begins to fill up with couples and similar glasses are marched out like animals into the ark: two by two.
Back in my room, I step into the warm pool and do a backstroke directly into the pointy part of the heart—like their real life counterparts, heart-shaped pools can be dangerous, especially if it’s your first time using one. Children may not be allowed at Cove Haven resorts, but I try not to imagine how many of them have been conceived in the pool, in the sauna, on the massage table, in the tub, on the bed, or somewhere in between.
The champagne glass tub, which you enter from the bathroom on the second level, takes at least 45 minutes to fill up. When it becomes clear that “one or two capfuls” of bubble bath is inadequate for a tub big enough for two (or more), I dump in the entire bottle. Later, as the tub slowly drains, I find the switch for the second “celestial ceiling,” pull the blackout curtains closed, sink into a mountain of pillows almost as high as the Poconos, and fall into a blissfully undisturbed sleep.
I’m reluctant to give up day two so I make the latest breakfast reservation I can—the same time as checkout, 11 a.m.—and another new waitress asks, “Oh, do you know what your partner wants to drink?” I’m hoping by now that my relationship status has become a topic of conversation in the break room and I wonder if they suspect I’ve been left at the altar but decided to take the trip anyway.
Despite the “wifey” and “husband” mugs in the gift shop, I appreciate what seems to be a strict adherence to the use of gender-neutral pronouns whenever anyone inquires about my missing “partner.” Time may have stopped at the Pocono Palace in the late ‘70s, but a rainbow pride shirt in the gift shop at least suggests that in 2021, any and all couples are welcome to spend their money in the Land of Love.
Cheryl is behind the front desk once again as I check out. She asks how I enjoyed my stay and when I request a printed receipt she smiles and asks, “Are you a writer?” I wonder if she’s been tasked with rooting out the real reason behind my stay, and I reward her with an affirmative answer. “Good luck with your book,” she says, and I decide that if I ever do write a book, I have no choice but to dedicate it to Cheryl at the Pocono Palace. I’ve known her for less than a day, but she’s already been more encouraging of my career ambitions than several of my ex-boyfriends.
Land of No Lefts
After a night spent soaking in a champagne glass 7 feet off the ground, there’s nowhere to go but down. In this case, that means back to the Land of No Lefts: New Jersey. For my grand finale, I’ve booked a room in the Loop Inn Motel, located in Avenel off of—and I suspect named after—another infuriatingly complicated Jersey jug handle. Since 1988, the Loop Inn has, according to its website, “become well known among couples wishing to break away from the chaos of every-day life.”
I am not in a couple, nor do I wish to break away from anything (at least not yet), but this is my last chance to score a fabled heart-shaped tub. I’ve blindly booked the only honeymoon suite I could for Friday night, hoping for either a heart-shaped bed or tub, but I once again receive neither. Rooms at the Loop Inn—which include Crystal Chalice Suites with champagne glass tubs and Scenic Saunas complete with steam rooms—can be rented for the night or in 4-hour increments. When I inquire at the front desk, I’m told that they are fully booked, but a heart-shaped tub will become available after midnight; I decline the offer.
Anyone who has seen a horrible ex find new love understands that one person’s “secluded castle nestled in a scenic hideaway” might be another’s “strangely-lit dungeon squeezed next to a train track and a junkyard.” I am not wholly unprepared: Guests have to be buzzed into the gated parking lot and those wishing to have a TV remote are required to leave a $10 deposit at the front desk. But even with these red flags, I am still both disappointed and deeply confused by my “honeymoon suite.”
This is not some pearl-clutching, one-star review left by someone naive to the ways of the world. I may be currently single, but I’m not chaste; I understand and fully support the existence of motels that cater to couples in search of afternoon (and after-midnight) delights. But if someone took me to the Loop Inn in hopes of seducing me—or worse, on an actual honeymoon—I would dump them before they returned from the ice machine. Around 3 a.m., once again kept awake by ambient noise and wafting smoke—and knowing I have no one to blame but myself, a rare con of traveling solo—I wonder, “Can I divorce myself?”
Alone again, naturally
My room comes with two heart-shaped balloons and two towels twisted into swans; their bent necks also form a heart and the room appears to be clean—the positives end there. There is too much space and not enough of anything else. There are no bedside lamps, no luggage rack, no instructions on how to dial the front desk (dialing zero doesn’t work), and only one pair of outlets (located across from the bed and 4 feet off the ground).
I rent my room for the whole night but clearly they don’t want me to stay too long—I’d enjoyed both packets of instant coffee in my room at the Pocono Palace, but the Loop Inn provides only a plastic ice bucket, three disposable cups, and a small, mysterious foil dish. It isn’t until I return home—with the unused foil cup as a sad souvenir—that I realize it must have been intended as an ashtray. Smoking indoors hasn’t been legal in New Jersey since 2006, but like with many things that happen behind closed doors in the secluded castle off the 1 and 9 loop in Avenel, I suspect no one is there to judge.
I set my alarm for sunrise and take a few more Jersey lefts in an attempt to make the trip right again. I stop at McDonald’s for breakfast, take a detour to the Atlantic City Boardwalk, and end my honeymoon like I’ve ended almost every night since the pandemic began: in my own bed, alone. My solo honeymoon has been surprising, thrilling, and exceeded all of my expectations. It has also been frustrating, confusing, and, at times, deeply disappointing. But much like love itself, if given the chance, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat—and next time, I won’t give up until I get a heart-shaped tub.