What To Do In New England’s Berkshires

moby dick arrowhead herman melvilleOne hundred sixty-two years ago, Herman Melville made an impetuous decision to move to the Berkshires after going on a picnic with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was taken with the region’s beauty and believed it would be a quiet refuge that would be an ideal place to write.

Melville penned Moby Dick at Arrowhead, the farm he bought in Pittsfield, but the book was a commercial disaster and he wasn’t able to support his family from his writing and half-hearted attempts at farming. He left the Berkshires to become a customs inspector in New York after a 13-year stint at Arrowhead, but retained his strong affinity for the region.

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The rural splendor that seduced Melville and others continues to bring creative types to the Berkshires from around the world, but the high cost of living means that it’s still difficult for starving-artist types to afford to stay for very long. There may be no other rural area in the country that has the combination of natural beauty and abundant cultural offerings as the Berkshires. The region’s proximity to New York and Boston makes it a popular, and pricey, weekend getaway.But you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy a short getaway in the Berkshires, especially if you visit during the week. On a recent trip to the region, we found a double room for $89 at the amiable Yankee Inn, just a few miles outside Lenox, a delightful town within spitting distance of a host of natural and cultural attractions. We liked it so much that we considered extending through the weekend, until we found out that our room rate would skyrocket to $259 per night.

Below you’ll find some suggestions for how to spend a short getaway in the Berkshires without breaking the bank. You can hit all of these places if you start in Williamstown, and proceed east and south to N. Adams, Adams, Hancock, Pittsfield, Lenox and Stockbridge.

Williamstown- Home to Williams College, one of the country’s finest liberal arts colleges, this handsome, walkable town has more going on than many cities with ten times its population. With the Williamstown Theater Festival, The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art in town, there’s always something going on in this classic New England town.

mass moca MASS MoCA- The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the coolest museums I’ve ever been to, even though most of the exhibits went right over my head and reminded me of something that might have been discussed on an episode of Sprockets (see video). Three things I love about this place: 1) it’s located in a restored 19th century factory complex that’s an attraction in and of itself, 2) my kids loved the dinosaurs, Legos and opportunities to do arts and crafts projects in the museum’s Kidspace, and 3) the museum café is one of the best of its kind anywhere, with good food, drinks and ice cream at reasonable prices.

Bike the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail- A scenic 11-mile bike/recreation path that begins next to the visitor’s center in Adams, and winds its way through Lanesborough and Cheshire. If you want to get your adrenalin flowing even faster, the region is also well known for its whitewater rafting.

Mt. Greylock State Reservation- Mt. Greylock’s peak is the highest point in Massachusetts and it’s a great spot for a scenic drive or hike. Melville is said to have loved the view of Greylock from the window of his home in Pittsfield.

pigs cute onesIoka Valley Farm- My boys, ages 2 and 4, loved the farm animals, slides, games and hayride at this family farm, which was established in the 1920s. It’s not dirt cheap at about $30 for a family of four, and I found their syrup for sale at a supermarket in Lenox for a lower price than they sell it for at the farm, but if you have young kids, you’ll want to bring them here for some low-tech, educational fun.

Melville’s Arrowhead- This is a great place to learn more about Melville’s fascinating life story and there’s a replica whale and whaleboat in the yard that makes for a great photo opp (see above).

Lenox- Classy little Lenox has a great, walkable little historic core that boasts some classic old New England homes, a great little bookstore, a host of expensive restaurants and the Old Heritage Tavern, a great place for dinner and drinks that’s a rare bargain in these parts. While in Lenox, you might also want to hear some live music at Tanglewood or take in a show at Shakespeare & Company.

kennedy park lenoxKennedy Park in Lenox- Right next to Lenox’s lovely 18th Century Church on the Hill, you’ll find Kennedy Park, which is a beautiful, quiet place for hiking, jogging and mountain biking. There are 15 miles of shady, wooded trails – my favorite is the Red Neck – but all of them are quite pleasant.

Stockbridge- This is yet another enticing little town that’s perfect for a leisurely stroll. And if you like Norman Rockwell, who lived in the Berkshires for the last 25 years of his life, you’ll want to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum.

See How the Other Half Lived- The super rich have been summering in the Berkshires for a very long time, and there are a host of posh estates you can tour, or if you’re frugal or have a short attention span, gawk at from the outside. Check out Naumkeag in Stockbridge, and homes built for Edith Wharton (The Mount) and J.P. Morgan’s sister (Ventfort Hall) in Lenox.

ventfort hallSee How the Other Half Lives- You might get kicked out, depending on how you’re dressed, but stop by the Wheatleigh in Lenox to see where those with some serious cash stay and eat when in the Berkshires. Room rates range from $715 for basic rooms to $21,000-$35,000 per night for use of one of their 19-room “palazzos.”

[Photos by Dave Seminara]

Marblehead, Massachusetts: America’s best preserved historic town?

marblehead massachusetts Tourism boards across the country have long struggled to find innovative ways to market destinations large and small, inviting and mundane. We have “historic districts” that have been turned into vast parking lots; towns that play up tenuous connections to living and deceased celebrities; states that promote Amish tourism even though the Amish simply want to be left alone; hokey festivals; and any number of other contrived gimmicks to try to get you to come visit.

West Virginia is Wild and Wonderful. Pennsylvania promises that You’ve Got a Friend There. New Mexico is The Land of Enchantment. In Kansas, There’s no Place Like Home. Louisiana is a Sportsman’s Paradise. Virginia is for Lovers (and pathological drivers, in my estimation).

Massachusetts likes to call itself The Spirit of America. That might sound a bit grandiose but there is a town on Boston’s North Shore that I think is the best-preserved historic town in America. The American landscape gets more homogenous by the day, but Marblehead, perched on a dramatic finger of land on the Atlantic Ocean just thirty minutes north of Boston, was founded in 1629 and has improbably managed to retain many of its historic homes, cemeteries and churches.

Tourists descend on Colonial Williamsburg like packs of hungry hyenas on the trail of a fresh carcass, but somehow, Marblehead’s atmospheric streets remain largely tourist free. The town is the birthplace of the U.S. Navy and remains one of the east coast’s premier yachting centers, with three yacht clubs and a host of regattas. It isn’t close to a highway or train station and that’s probably why it has managed to avoid the strip mall scourge that’s plagued so many old towns around the country.

On the edge of Marblehead you’ll find a Starbucks, a CVS and some other chain stores, and there are big box retailers ten miles away, but Marblehead’s historic core is filled with independent shops and restaurants with nary a national chain in sight. Everything is pretty much Wicked Local. But the town’s biggest draws are the colorful 18th and 19th century homes, many with nameplates showing the name and occupation of their original inhabitants, and its spectacular natural setting on the Atlantic Ocean.

Marblehead is an undeniably upscale place with its fair share of millionaires but unlike other cutesy historic enclaves, it also has its share of lower income residents and budget friendly dining and drinking options. I have family members who live in Marblehead, so I’ve been visiting this town for more than twenty years and I never get tired of it. Aside from the beauty and the charm, it’s a real community where people know each other well and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

Here’s what to do in Marblehead.The Muffin ShopIn a town filled with history, you might wonder why I’m sending you to a muffin shop. Well, for the muffins, obviously, but this place is more than just a damn good place to add to your waistline with homemade muffins or lobster rolls made fresh each morning. It’s the heart and soul of the town and if you want to meet locals, you’ll find them lingering here in groups over breakfast every morning. But come early because they never seem to bake enough to keep up with demand.

old town marblehead massachusettsOld Town – Get lost on the backstreets of Marblehead’s Old Town. There is no single neighborhood in the country that gives one a better flavor of what life was like in Colonial America.

Shops along Washington Street – There are a host of interesting, if pricey, shops here including the new Atlantis & Cloudveil outdoor specialty shop.

Crocker Park – A great place to sit and watch the boats go by.

The Driftwood – One reviewer on Yelp called this hole-in-the-wall eatery “Swamp Yankee territory,” and I couldn’t agree more. Another great spot to meet locals.

Devereux BeachThis great little beach is dramatically situated at the foot of a little body of land referred to as Marblehead’s Neck.

marbleheadHit the Neck – Take a drive or bike ride out to the very end of the Neck and enjoy the unbelievable view from the benches in Chandler Hovey Park next to the Marblehead Lighthouse. On the way back to town check out the Old Corinthian Yacht Club. Just try to look like you belong and you probably won’t be asked to leave.

Old Burial Hill Cemetery – One of the most atmospheric old cemeteries in New England and it offers a spectacular view to boot.

Fort Sewall – This was an armed fort used to defend against British invaders in the War of 1812. If you have kids, they’ll enjoy sitting on top of the cannons and looking out onto the Atlantic.

Dark and Stormy on the Waterfront – Have a tall 16-ounce dark & stormy, rum and ginger beer, cocktail at Maddi’s Sail Loft and visit the Barnacle for an early, harbor-side dinner.

old tombstone marbleheadGetting there – You can take Express Bus 441 or 442 from Haymarket downtown right to Marblehead’s Old Town but it takes a good hour. If you drive, follow route 1A, which isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds. Signs on this twisting road can be elusive.

Images by Dave Seminara, Rick Harris and Garden State Hiker on Flickr.

Fall festivals: five delicious ways to celebrate

fall festivalsThere’s something really depressing about seeing the last of the tomatoes, corn, and stonefruit at the farmers market, the withering vines in my neighbor’s gardens. But fall is also an exciting time for produce geeks, what with all the peppers and squash, pomegranates and persimmons.

If you love yourself some good food and drink, here are five reasons to welcome fall. No matter where you live in the North America, at least one of these is guaranteed to be coming soon to a town near you.

1. Hit a harvest festival
From the hokey (corn mazes, hay rides) to the downright debaucherous (late-night live music and beer gardens, camping in orchards), harvest festivals are a blast, no matter what your age. A great harvest festival will include delicious food; local craft beer, cider, or wine; farm tours and seminars; a children’s area and special activities; live music, and, if you’re lucky, a beautiful, bucolic setting in which to experience it all. Some festivals run the span of a weekend, providing an opportunity to take in more of the educational offerings.

Below are some of my favorite festivals, all of which have an educational component to them. Should you find yourself in Northern California in early October, it’s worth a detour to attend the famous Hoes Down Harvest Festival (Oct.1-2) at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, near Davis. It’s one hell of a party (there’s also a top-notch children’s activity area, so little people will have fun, too); definitely plan on camping in the orchard and bring your swim suit; the farm is located beside Cache Creek.

Other great celebrations of fall: Vashon Harvest Farm Tour (Sept. 25), Vashon Island, WA; CUESA Harvest Festival (Oct. 22), Ferry Building Farmers Market, San Francisco, CA; Annual Harvest Festival, Sustainable Settings (mid-Sept.; date varies, but mark your calendars for next year!) Carbondale, CO.

September 22nd, from 7:30-9pm, the 16th Annual Harvest in the Square is being held in Union Square; online tickets are still available until tomorrow at noon for what is one of New York’s premier food and wine events. Some general admission tickets will be available at the event for a higher price.

[Photo credit: Flickr user zakVTA]fall festivals2. Check out Crush
In North America, the wine grape harvest is held in September or October, depending upon weather patterns. In Napa Valley, “Crush” has just started, and with it, fall colors on the vines; barrel tastings; special winery tours, wine-and-cheese pairings, and up-close-and-personal views of the Crush itself. Even if you’re not an oenophile, it’s by far the most beautiful time to visit Napa and it’s neighboring wine region, Sonoma Country. For Napa wineries and event listings, click here. For California’s Central Coast wine region events, click here.

Check out wine harvest events in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Washington state’s Yakima and Walla Walla regions, and British Columbia’s Fraser and Okanogan Valleys (go to Wines of the Northwest for events calendar on all of the aforementioned); for New York’s Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, and other regions go to Uncork New York!

3. Go apple pickingfall festivals
With apple-growing regions scattered all over North America–from Virginia and Pennsylvania to New York, Washington state, British Columbia, and California–there’s no shortage of opportunities to attend festivals or U-picks. This traditional fall pastime is a fun activity for kids and supports the local economy and foodshed. Put up apple butter, -sauce, or freeze a pie for Thanksgiving, but be sure to save enough for winter (all apples and pears are placed in cold storage once the growing season ends, so the fruit you buy later in the season won’t be freshly picked). Store in a cool, dry, dark place. P.S. Don’t forget to buy some cider doughnuts if they’re available.

Please note that due to unusual weather patterns (aka “global warming”) this past year, the harvest is delayed in many parts of the country, including Washington. Check with local farms before heading out.

4. Visit a cidery
If you prefer your apples fermented, there are some excellent craft cideries throughout North America. The tradition of craft cider distilling hails from Western Europe, but domestically, the hot spots are the Pacific Northwest (including British Columbia), parts of the Midwest, and the Northeast.
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5. Feast at a farm dinner
For food lovers, few things beat dining outdoors in an orchard or pasture, surrounded by the people and ingredients that made your meal possible. Farm dinners are a growing national trend; they may be hosted independently by the farm (Washington’s Dog Mountain Farm, Colorado’s Zephyros Farm, and California’s Harley Farms Goat Dairy are my picks) or hosted by companies like Portland, Oregon’s Plate & Pitchfork and Boulder’s Meadow Lark Farm Dinners. Many farm dinners are fundraisers to help protect local agricultural easements or wetlands, but your participation also supports the farm and local foodshed.

Farm dinners are also held at wineries, distilleries, craft breweries, mariculture farms, and creameries; a tour should be included. The best part, however, is when the guests include everyone from the local cheesemaker, rancher, fisherman, or winemaker, to the potter who made the plates. It’s both humbling and gratifying to meet the people who work so hard to ensure local communities have a safe, sustainable food supply.

[Photo credits: grapes, Flickr user minnucci]

Wine Tasting Room Etiquette

Why Plymouth Rock Is New England’s Biggest Tourist Trap


Have you ever been to a tourist trap? A scam of a site, something over-hyped and talked about until it can’t possibly be worth it? The sort of thing you walk up to, snap a photo of and curse as you walk back to your car?

I saw one just the other day. It was Plymouth Rock, the lump of granite that supposedly marks the spot where a ragged band of English religious refugees washed up on Massachusetts’ shores.

It was such an awful disappointment, and here’s why.

There’s just nothing to it. You know why they call it Plymouth Rock? Because that’s all it is. A rock, covered by a little pavilion, guarded by a small rail. The day I visited, a historian was standing nearby, not doing much of anything.

Tourists, including me, would walk up, take a look, take a photo… and then shrug. There it is, I thought, if that’s actually the rock. Questions of authenticity were not assuaged, at least for me, by the fact that 1620 has been stamped into the stone and the sandy footing on which it rests has been manicured like a Japanese rock garden.

It reminded me of other totems to which we travel, only to tick them off our list. Old Faithful is one, the Statue of Liberty is another. You’ve heard so much about them, had them drilled into your head as an essential piece of American lore, heard grandiose promises about the meaning they hold. And yet nobody seems to actually enjoy them. When you visit, you visit to click the camera shutter and to say, “Oh yeah, I went there on vacation and saw it. Great time!” when you’re at a backyard barbecue with those neighbors you don’t really like. That’ll show ‘em.

Was it totally the worst thing ever to go see Plymouth Rock? Of course not. I’m sort of humble-bragging about it with this post! But there was so little happening aside from the rock itself-a few ice cream shops, a couple of t-shirt stands-there seemed little reason to visit Plymouth but to see the disappointing rock.

I could be wrong about that last bit. But I didn’t leave time to explore Plymouth. I was just there to see its Rock.

Five steps to a romantic New Hampshire getaway

New Hampshire romantic getaway
Put the stress and pressure of the workday behind you. This is exactly what was on my mind a few weeks ago. I needed to get away from the daily grind for a bit, and the back roads of New England were calling. I wanted something quiet, remote and relaxing. New Hampshire came to mind immediately.

It had been a while since my last trip to New Hampshire – close to 20 years since my last visit to the White Mountains. So, I had to reacquaint myself with the local options. In the process of doing so, I found five crucial steps to planning a great romantic getaway to the Granite State.

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When you’re planning your long weekend (or longer) in New Hampshire (or western Massachusetts, Vermont or Maine), keep the following in mind:

1. Invest some time in picking the right room: for me, this was probably the most important part of planning my getaway. I wanted to find an inn (not a bed and breakfast or a hotel) that had a fireplace and an in-room Jacuzzi. I wouldn’t compromise on these criteria … and I wanted them at less than $200 a night (all in). Since the New England Inns and Resorts Association website allows you to search member properties based on these elements, that’s where I went to do my homework and book, finding the Christmas Farm Inn, in Jackson, NH. It wound up being exactly what I was looking form.

2. Remember the New Hampshire state liquor stores: wine is not expensive! The state liquor stores have a wide selection of wines, and they’re a bit cheaper (in most cases) than they are in nearby Boston and not-so-nearby New York. Pick up a few bottles, depending on the length of your stay, for in-room enjoyment. Think about it: (a) wine by the fireplace, (b) wine in the Jacuzzi, (c) wine on the deck and (d) wine in bed. This really is a no-brainer.

3. Get a sense of the cuisine ahead of time: if you’re visiting northern New Hampshire from a city, be ready for some differences. The restaurants close a lot earlier, especially off season. So, hitting the local restaurant at 10:30 PM just isn’t an option – you’ll starve! Plan to eat earlier dinners, leaving more time for chilled wine in the Jacuzzi back at your room (there’s an upside to everything). While there are some interesting options in the area (such as Wine Thyme in North Conway, NH), upscale alternatives aren’t as common as they are in New York or Boston. Be ready to de-prioritize culinary and focus on the “romantic” part of “romantic getaway.”

4. Fight the urge to stay in your room: the whole point of a romantic getaway is to enjoy the person you’re with … which sometimes leads to longer mornings in bed and the temptation not to wander too far from the room (hint, hint). Keep the spirit without becoming a hermit by packing a lunch and a bottle of wine before heading over to Rocky Gorge in White Mountain National Forest. Sit on the rocks as the river rushes by, and sip on a glass of Pinot Noir if the air is crisp (Gruener if it isn’t). Circle the nearby lake for a bit of privacy; the trail is easy to walk and won’t draw as much traffic as Rocky Gorge.

5. Take in a sunset: for a fantastic sunset, head over to Cathedral Ledge. It isn’t far from the Conway, NH area, so you won’t lose much time to the drive. In summer, the later sunset might leave you scrambling to find dinner afterward, so choose a restaurant that’s nearby to make sure you aren’t scrounging after enjoying a bit of natural beauty.