For most folks, Mount Laurel has long been the ho-hum crossroads of near-in New Jersey. It is the location of Exit 4, the Philadelphia-Camden interchange of the New Jersey Turnpike since the early 1950s, and, perhaps because of that, the terminus for many New York- and Washington-bound buses.
Mount Laurel, though, also has a historic and even an entertainment side, with several homes that date back more than 200 years and a burgeoning restaurant area along State Route 73.
While it may hardly rival the Liberty Bell and its Center City environs or Atlantic City and the Shore, this South Jersey township does have enough attractions for a look-see weekend trip. Look and see.
Mount Laurel Living Nativity
"We're putting the holy back in the holiday," said Mark Willey, pastor of the Fellowship Baptist Church, which sponsors the Mount Laurel Living Nativity, starting Saturday night.
More than 200 people stage scenes from biblical times around the huge church grounds. There are live animals as well in most of the 13 walk-though scenes. Willey expects as many as 60,000 visitors during the seven nights of the display. It is free, with parking throughout the grounds, and there are even hot chocolate and cookies at the end.
Paws Farm sits on a sublime eight acres in an otherwise rapidly developing township. The township runs it as a farm and nature educational center, mostly for children ages 10 and younger.
There are three buildings with animals and interactive exhibits. In the barnyard area, you'll find goats, ducks, chickens, pigs, deer, donkeys, swans, and miniature cows and horses. Along the nature trail, kids can see hawks, porcupines, skunks and even a wallaby. In the educational center are turtles, snakes, guinea pigs and chinchillas.
The dairy barn houses a model veterinarian's office and a supermarket model, all designed to show how farms and animals integrate into the outside world. It is both a drop-in place and an educational center that has classes.
Though there are a number of historic homes in Mount Laurel, the most famous one is Paulsdale, the childhood home of Alice Paul, a leader in the fight for women's suffrage and, from that time until her death in 1977, the Equal Rights Amendment.
The Alice Paul Institute runs tours of Paulsdale as well as leadership educational programs for girls at the home. Paul was born on the farm at Paulsdale in 1885 and lived there until she attended Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. She was from a Quaker activist family, and used Quaker principles of active nonviolence in her suffragist and equal rights work.
From the time New Jersey Turnpike Exit 4 opened in the 1950s, Mount Laurel has offered a warren of restaurants along nearby Route 73. Most of these eateries tended to be roadhouses or diners, places for a quick bite before getting back on the highway.
Not Bellagio Ristorante, the elegant eating place in the Westin Mount Laurel. Its chrome and glass sheen is clearly upper-end, not burger-and-shake. The food is creative and primarily Italian, though with steaks and veal chops added, and an array of personal pizzas. "Prescespada Acapulco," for example, is swordfish with artichokes, diced tomatoes, and white wine ($28), and Lombata Milanese is a flattened veal chop topped with greens, tomatoes and balsamic vinegar ($35).
CoCo Key Water Resort
Hoping to capitalize on that new recession-era phenomenon the "staycation," the Mount Laurel Marriott in the fall added an indoor water park, CoCo Key Water Resort.
Spread over several levels, with 55,000 square feet of play space, CoCo Key has three water slides that curve even to the outside of the main building, a lazy-river tubing ride, smaller water cannons and slides for toddlers, and an arcade for miniature landlubbers.
While those using the hotel will certainly use CoCo Key, it is primarily meant for locals who want a day of indoor water fun. Birthday party facilities and group rates are available.