The Winning Ways of Western Massachusetts

DennisTagneyJr

Many visitors to one of the USA's most historic states tend to stick close to its Atlantic Ocean coast, because of course there's a lot to love about destinations like Boston and Cape Cod to its south. But there's an entire state's worth of equally scenic and historic treasures stretching some 124 miles (just over 200 kilometres) west to the New York State border (a bit over a two-hour nonstop drive) - and it makes for a great overnight or several-day excursion from "Beantown". It's a countryside of picturesque towns and rolling landscapes that I dare say will charm the most jaded of travellers - and makes a great road trip, by the way). Here are five of its premier destinations, from east to west.

 
Worcester

 

Roughly pronounced "wustah" (gotta love that Massachusetts acccent!), New England's second-largest city after Boston (pop. 181,000) is in the south centre of the state, an hour's drive from Beantown. Founded in 1673, "Wormtown" became an industrial powerhouse in the 19th century, then hit a rough patch throughout the late 20th century. But today Worcester has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years thanks in part to new biotech and health industries, along with urban renewal projects. In addition to plenty of Victorian-era architecture on the National Register of Historic Places, it's got a vibrant arts/cultural scene (including the Worcester Historical Museum, and Worcester Art Museum, both 122 years old, and Mechanics Hall, at 163 one of the USA's oldest concert venues). There's also a pretty lively nightlife (especially around Shrewsbury Street with its restaurants and bars/clubs), thanks to a student population drawing from around a dozen area universities and institutes.

 


 

Sturbridge

 
A half hour west of Worcester, this town of just under 8,000, settled in 1729, boasts plenty of charm on its own historic and scenic merits, as well as charming eateries, bed and breakfasts, and shops full of antiques, vintage items, and gifts. But its main claim to fame is Old Sturbridge Village, an open-air "living history" museum founded in 1936 which recreates rural New England life from the 1790s through 1830s. Its more than 200 acres (80 hectares) include more than 40 transplanted period buildings (including three water-powered mills) and a working farm, with docents in period costumes plying antique trades such as blacksmithing and weaving, as well as explaining the whole lot to visitors. Nature enthusiasts will also enjoy nearby Wells State Park and other lovely preserves and trails.

Amherst

 
Another hour west of Sturbridge and settled in the 18th century this college town of 38,000 is famous especially for its progressive politics; prestigious and historic  institutions including Amherst and Mount Holyoke colleges; a certain degree of artsiness/New-Ageiness; and its many distinguished residents over the generations, including poets Emily Dickinson ("the Belle of Amherst") and Robert Frost, foreign-policy bigwig Paul Nitze, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Stone, and actress Uma Thurman. It's a leafy, lovely place, and also offers good dining and nightlife along with at least ten historic landmarks and museums, most notably the Emily Dickinson House/Museum, and the art and history museums of the various colleges, and of all things a Yiddish Book Center (oy!).

 


Northampton

Another handsome as well as progressive/artsy/crunchy college town (pop. around 28,000), it's practically a hop, skip, and a jump (well, a 20-minute drive) from Amherst. Here, too, there are cute shops and galleries lining downtown, historic hostelries (like the Hotel Northampton, built in 1927) and eateries (like 200-year-old Wiggins Tavern); a history museum, Historic Northampton; and a prestigious college, Smith, a 146-year-old women's institution with a fine botanical garden and museum of art including contemporary works as well as those of Edgar Degas, Winslow Homer, Pablo Picasso, and James Whistler (of Whistler's Mother fame). Northampton's special strength is performing arts at venues like the Academy of Music (established 1891) and the also vintage Calvin Theater. Another notable local feature is its strong LGBT scene, particularly the "L" part. Nature areas nearby include Look Park, the Norwottuck Rail Trail, and Mount Tom State Reservation.

 

 


The Berkshires

 

Finally, about an hour west of Northampton, you're in the Berkshire Mountains, a region of rolling hills and peaks ranging from 700 to 1,200 feet (210-370 metres) high, geologically a northern extension of the Appalachian range. They're home to lovely historic towns and natural areas as well as a thriving cultural/arts scene, all of which make them a popular getaway for New Englanders as well as folks from New York State right next door.

Imperialista

 


First up is Lenox, settled in 1750 and a population of just over 5,000. Its allures include charming restaurants and bed and breakfast inns amid lovely architecture dating back to colonial times - with one landmark, the late-19th-century Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, an example of how it has been home to some of the USA's wealthiest and/or most distinguished figures, from writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton (whose estate the Mount, above, is open to visitors); to robber barons like Andrew Carnegie as well as the Astors and Vanderbilts; to more recently the likes of musician Yo-Yo Ma and fashion designer Nicole Miller.  Train buffs will enoy the Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum and culture vultures the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, right outside town and a huge seasonal draw.

 
Barely 15 minutes north of Lenox, the regions largest town (around 45,000 inhabitants) is Pittsfield, whose downtown is also home to Gilded-Age landmarks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as the  Berkshire Athenaeum, the public library, the Berkshire Museum, and the Colonial Theater. You can also have a whale of an interesting visit at Arrowhead, the mid-19th-century home of Moby Dick author Herman Melville.

 

 

About the same distance south of Lenox, much smalle Stockbridge (population 2,000, settled 1737) is another trove of period charm and various wonderful shops, restaurants, and hostelries (including its famed Red Lion Inn, established in 1773). It's also home to the Berkshire Botanical Garden; a Gilded-Age mansion-museum called Naumkeag; a trio of venerable theaters along with the 93-year-old summertime Berkshire Theater Festival; and the Norman Rockwell Museum, the largest collection of work by the onetime resident who was one of the USA's most iconic "Americana" artists.

 

Several other attractions I really mustn't leave out include, in the tiny town of Hancock (population just over 700 and located just ten minutes south of downtown Pittsfield), one of my favourite "living history" spots of all time. The Hancock Shaker Village (above) was occupied as a commune from 1783 till 1960 by a utopian, egalitarian religious sect called the Shakers, originally founded in England and who established nearly 20 such communities in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest before dying out (because they kept going only through recruitment, since they were celibate). It's a fascinating look into an era, mindset, and culture (including the shaking-like dance they perfomer during worship that gave them their nickname) and its most distinctive feature is a round stone barn that's one of the very few left in the country.

On the arts side, there are also a trio of museums in the northern Berkshires: the 22-year-old Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA, specialising in cutting-edge exhibitions) in the town of North Adams, and in Williamstown, the Clark Art Institute (showcasing European and U.S. art of the 14th through 20th centuries, including some very famous names) and the Williams College Museum of Art (particularly strong in the 20th and 21st century).  And if you're into modern dance, the USA's first and longest-running dance festival (since the 1940s), Jacob's Pillow, (above) runs every summer in Becket, a half hour southeast of Pittsfield.

And finally, the Berkshires being mountains, there are several mountain resorts -Bousquet, Butternut, Catamount, and Jiminy Peak (above), with excellent skiing/snowboarding and other snow sports in winter, and in summer a host of nature and adventure activities like thrilling downhill "mountain coasters".

So yes, it's only a couple of hours' drive from Boston to the western border of Massachusetts, but as you can see, the wealth of fantastic stuff to do and see along the way can provide a week or more of fascination!

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