A Bright Spot Princeton: A haven for intellectuals, Princeton is more than just the home of a beautiful university. This New Jersey town has a high degree of charm.

April 06, 1997|By Barbara Shea | Barbara Shea,NEWSDAY

Breakfast time at the old village inn. I'm nibbling on a mound of home-baked delicacies and busily pretending to ignore the intense business discussion at the next table. But it's far too compelling -- especially when Mr. Have-I-Got-a-Deal-for-You starts quoting the "Rubaiyat" of Omar Khayyam.

Scholarly conversations always seemed to be at my elbow in preppy Princeton -- both on the Ivy League university campus and in the downtown business district across the street. But that's one thing that makes this historic community such an appealing oasis amid central New Jersey's commercial sprawl.

College towns always manage to be simultaneously stimulating and relaxing, and just strolling across Princeton's 600-acre main campus can be as revitalizing as a weekend at a health spa.

Princeton's proximity to two of the East Coast's largest cultural centers -- it's an hour from New York and Philadelphia by train or car -- helps draw top writers, statesmen, scholars and entertainers as lecturers. Weekend visitors generally can count on catching some world-class celeb or other -- maybe while sitting in a seat once occupied by Brooke Shields or TV Superman Dean Cain, both Princeton grads.

Not every visitor comes to Princeton in pursuit of things cerebral, of course. Forrestal Village factory outlet mall on U.S. Route 1 a few miles from town is a prime goal for many.

Downtown, you can pick up a walking-tour brochure at Bainbridge House, the landmark Georgian building at 158 Nassau St. that serves as headquarters for the local historical society.

The historical society sponsors guided walks ($5) Sunday afternoons, but tourists also are welcome to join the free campus tours offered by undergraduate members of the university's Orange Key Guide Service. No reservations are needed; just show up at one of the scheduled times posted on the door at the rear of Maclean House, the yellow brick mansion inside the main college gates.

About a dozen visitors had gathered when I arrived for a recent 10 a.m. tour, many of them prospective students and their parents. Our guide -- a junior with suitably impressive academic credentials and aspirations -- smoothly answered questions and led us through the history of the university, which was chartered in 1746 as the College of New Jersey.

The tour started with the campus' oldest building, Nassau Hall, which for half a century housed the entire college -- classrooms, bedrooms, dining rooms and prayer hall (the university has Presbyterian roots but now is nonsectarian). George Washington drove the British from Nassau Hall during the American Revolution and revisited it in 1783 when the Continental Congress met there. As well as briefly serving as the U.S. Capitol, it was also New Jersey's first statehouse.

Our next stop was the campus chapel, third largest in the world and a marvel of stained glass, carved wood and Gothic gargoyles (among them the mascot bulldog of rival Yale University, the architect's alma mater).

We paused at Prospect House, where alumnus Woodrow Wilson lived when he was president of the university, and admired the backyard flower garden designed by his wife in the shape of the college shield.

After the tour, I browsed in the acclaimed Princeton Art Museum and in the two public galleries at Firestone Library, which contains literary manuscripts and other papers by such authors as Booth Tarkington, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (who was a member of the Class of 1917 but never graduated).

All universities are steeped in tradition, and one cherished Princeton custom keeps students from using the main campus gates until after commencement (superstition has it that they won't graduate if they flout the ban).

Princeton students, of course, regularly throng the downtown area across Nassau Street, which contains a gamut of businesses selling everything from funky jewelry to expensive art and antiques.

Princeton isn't a bastion of haute cuisine (the ad for one eatery promises "the least greasy yet full-flavored Chinese food in town"). There's no shortage of coffeehouses and cheap-eats haunts like P.J.'s Pancake House, Harry's Luncheonette, the Annex and the Athenian. But genteel landmarks like Lahiere's are increasingly being joined by elegant newcomers such as Quilty's, across Witherspoon Street.

The only place I consistently saw lines for both lunch and dinner, however, was trendy Teresa's Pizzetta Cafe, which serves well-priced Italian specialties including an array of tasty "pizzettes." A few dollars ensures a glass of good wine -- and interesting conversation -- at the bar.

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