Travel: Quick Weekend Getaways: Princeton, NJ

“Look over there—that guy must be a professor!”

It’s happy hour on a rainy Friday in January, and my husband and I have been in Princeton for mere minutes when we spot our first obvious Ivy League scholar: French accent, beige wool turtleneck, houndstooth blazer, with a beautiful woman who clearly loves him for his mind. It seems that my weekend-long quest to absorb some of Princeton’s academic greatness—and perhaps store it in my much-removed-from-academics brain—may prove fruitful. My husband has another goal for the weekend: used-record-hunting at the famous Princeton Record Exchange. Hopefully, we can work them both in.

Just over an hour from Center City, Princeton feels much farther away, less a part of Jersey than of some universe of smart sophistication. No one we met was especially friendly—they were charming, but it was almost as though folks had too many lofty things on their minds to worry about how visitors were faring. Which was fine with us, especially once we passed through the gates of ­Princeton’s campus on Saturday and walked in the footsteps of Einstein and Fitzgerald. Founded in 1746, tied with Harvard in U.S. News & World Report as the top-ranked school in the country, Princeton consists of Gothic, Victorian and modern stone buildings that swoop up from grassy paths; the grounds instantly evoke a sense of grand academe. It was humbling, even for two Penn grads. Tours of the campus start from the Frist Campus Center four times a day, offering a history of both campus life and architecture. We finished our spin on campus at the Princeton University Art Museum, which surprised us with a small but remarkably comprehensive overview, from antique Eastern artifacts through Christian portraiture to modern gems—an Edward Hopper sketch, a Donald Judd sculpture, one of Andy Warhol’s blue Marilyns.

My search for Einstein next took us across Nassau Street from campus to Landau’s wool shop, with its makeshift Einstein “museum” in back—really a collection of ­photocopied articles and letters, like the one from a six-year-old chiding the Princeton prof to “get a haircut.” Next door at Micawber’s Books, we spent nearly an hour in the used stacks, eavesdropping on the aged proprietress trading world travel stories with her regulars: “Really, I think Stockholm is the finest city in Scandinavia, don’t you?” I kept peeking over, hoping I’d find Joyce Carol Oates offering her opinion.

My husband was starting to get antsy for his record hunt, so we headed for the Record Exchange, one of the East Coast’s best used-records stores, where he scored a six-inch-high stack of $3 LPs. Meanwhile, I hit Palmer Square, an outdoor mall akin to
Ardmore’s Suburban Square, with J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Origins, and every variety of Talbots. Even more enticing, though, were Princeton’s three blocks of eclectic boutiques, where I browsed for kettles at the Graves Design Collection Store, smart yoga gear at Rouge, and earrings at Village Silver. We met an hour later at the Bent Spoon, Princeton’s famous ice-cream parlor, for cups of rich, semi-
bitter hot chocolate and scoops of cinnamon ice cream—made in the store, from local dairy products, by a young New Jersey couple who were the happiest folks we met in town.

That whet our palates for our real culinary treat of the weekend: dinner at the Ferry House, the acclaimed seafood BYOB that moved from Lambertville several years ago. (We picked up a bordeaux at carefully curated Corkscrew Wine Shop.) The menu has a whole section devoted to mushrooms (soup, risotto, salad) and incorporates king crab in many of the dishes. (What’s not to love about that?) I adored my rare tuna special, served on a crab-stuffed portabella mushroom and mashed potatoes.

By now, we were more than ready to call it a night. Next time, we’ll book a room at the historic Nassau Inn in Palmer Square, with its huge, bright guest rooms and cool, dark taproom. Instead, though, we drove a few miles outside town to stay at the secluded Doral Forrestal Conference Center and Spa, where our simple room overlooked a grassy, woods-lined courtyard, and our only real regret was not getting there early enough to take in a body scrub before bed. We made up for thatthe next morning at the Doral’s tiny, luxe spa.

Before heading home on Sunday, we both wanted one more glimpse of the Princeton we’d hoped to find. First, we stopped in for buttermilk pancakes at family-friendly PJs, where I literally knocked elbows at the counter with a handsome, corduroy blazer-clad young man who I swear was F. Scott Fitzgerald resurrected. There he was, the most Princetonian Princetonian I’d seen yet. Satisfied, we headed once more to the Record Exchange, from which my husband emerged ecstatically exclaiming “Moods for Mallards!”—an obscure pop band for which he’d been searching five years. He too, had found what he was looking for.

Doral Forrestal Conference Center and Spa, 100 College Road East, 609-452-7800; Rooms from $99 to $249.

Nassau Inn, 10 Palmer Square, 609-921-7500; Rooms from $159 to $555.

The Ferry House, 32 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-2488; Dinner for two, about $120. BYOB.

Mediterra, woodsy Italian restaurant and bar, 29 Hulfish Street, Princeton, 609-252-9680; Dinner for two, about $160 with wine.

PJs Pancake House, 154 Nassau Street, 609-924-1353; Breakfast for two, about $20.

The Bent Spoon, 35 Palmer Square West; 609-924-2368.

Princeton University campus tours, from Frist Campus Center, Washington Street and Prospect Avenue, at 10 and 11 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Free. 609-258-1766.

Princeton University Art Museum, Elm Street and Prospect Avenue, 609-258-3788; Free.

Micawber Books, 114 Nassau Street; 609-921-0828.

Princeton Record Exchange, 20 South Tulane Street; 609-921-0881.

Palmer Square,

Travel Time: 1:11