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Vacationing in the Berkshires

We wanted two things on our vacation: trees and music. and so we went to the Berkshires. We packed up the car and drove the two hours from Boston to Tanglewood, the very name, coined by Hawthorne, evocative of gnarled roots and soaring trees, of music rustling through leaves. But of course the Berkshires are far more than the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. They come honestly by their plural designation, because they offer such a range of activities: art, music, theater, dance, great food, hiking, shops, romantic inns.

Those who live and summer here are themselves a wildly diverse lot. There are the quilters at Pumpkin Patchworks, the fudge-makers at Catherine's Chocolates, the ice cream entrepreneurs in seemingly every town. There are the artistic refugees—potters, novelists, glassblowers—looking for quiet and low rent. There are the retirees who, in a sedentary variation of the American Dream, have chosen not to roam the interstates in an RV, but to buy a fixer-upper and convert it into a B&B.

Then there are the golfers at Cranwell, the wealthy spa-goers at Canyon Ranch, the meditative macrobiotics renewing themselves at Kripalu, the urbanites arriving in chauffeur-driven cars at that estate away from home, Blantyre. There's the painter of personalized mailboxes picking out corn at a farm stand, next to a world-famous conductor. The dance troupe occupying an entire inn for a week. The BSO string section gathered at a chic bar in Great Barrington, critiquing last night's soloist.

My husband and I were traveling with our two small children, which meant most B&B's would not accommodate us. Little feet thumping down the bridal staircase! China rattling in the antique cabinets! Canyon Ranch would not take families either, understandably fearful that a six-year-old boy and his two-year-old brother might distract, awaken anxiety, and maybe even cause a relapse among guests trying to heal stressed minds and bodies. Instead we checked into the Red Lion Inn, a big, busy wayside hotel that began as an 18th-century stagecoach stop. In front of the white Colonial-style building is an enormous porch with an army of rocking chairs; the interior is filled with sturdy old-fashioned furniture, antique tchotchkes, and ruffles and lace (the inn's owners founded the Country Curtains company). Because of the Red Lion's fame, size, and location in the heart of Stockbridge, the public rooms are always filled with tourists. In the 18th century they came by stagecoach; now they come by the busload. They are American tourists. They buy scented candles at the Yankee Candle Co. and needlepoint pillows at the Pink Kitty gift shop, and when they sit down to dinner in the Red Lion's chandeliered dining room they tuck into good, wholesome American food: slabs of beef with mashed potatoes; chicken and gravy.

Stockbridge is not a town for those who turn up their noses at nostalgic Americana and industrial-strength country charm. This is the former home of Norman Rockwell—and current home of the Norman Rockwell Museum—and the best place in the world to purchase Rockwell "collectibles." Stockbridge was tamed for tourists long ago. The 1739 Mission House museum was moved to Main Street in the 1920's from its original site on Eden Hill, the better to attract visitors. It's hard to imagine, as the cars whiz by, that Reverend John Sergeant's little house once stood in the Mohican wilderness as an advance feeler for a stampeding new American civilization.

A 15-minute drive and a galaxy away, there is not a ruffled curtain to be seen. The town of Great Barrington feels like a Manhattanite's idea of a nice country retreat; it is filled with ethnic restaurants and expensive boutiques selling weather vanes, Persian rugs, and exquisite children's wares. If you need a hand-smocked dress in size 2T, an infant's sailor suit, or a thoroughbred maple rocking pony with a real horsehair mane and tail, you will not be at a loss in Great Barrington.

Restaurants here can satisfy the most finicky eaters. At Baba Louie's Woodfired Pizza Restaurant, on Main Street, the virtuous can get their wood-fired sourdough pizza without just about everything: without meat, of course; without cheese (the alternative is soy mozzarella); without wheat. A short stroll away is one of the town's treasures, Bizen Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar. It's owned by Michael Marcus, surely one of the best Jewish sushi chefs in the world. Marcus himself crafts the traditional Japanese dinnerware: all the sushi trays and sake bottles are fired unglazed in Marcus's own wood-fed kiln, using a method called bizen. The charred, mottled pieces look more like petrified wood or rock than they do plates and cups. (They're for sale at Marcus's studio, Joyous Spring Pottery, in nearby Monterey, along with his magnificent art pieces, vases, and intricately cut lanterns.)

At dawn one day we threw off our candlewick bedspread and yanked open curtains fringed with pompoms. Armed with maps and fresh baguettes from Stockbridge's Daily Bread bakery, we drove to Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary to walk the Audubon nature trails. The gentle path around the beaver ponds was hushed, the water green with the reflection of the surrounding green leaves. Stumps with great tooth marks testified to the industry of the beavers who worked nights there. Green frogs sat and eyed us, as we eyed them.

Another day we drove up Mount Everett, past farms and meadows, stamp-sized houses on acres of land. From a lookout at the summit we could see how small the towns and houses were, how far between, and how good the land was in all its shades of green.

Along the summit road we found, like a pretty pocket mirror in the forest, Guilder Pond, which our guidebook said was the highest freshwater pond in Massachusetts. A single picnic table stood on the shore. The water glinted with tiny fish, and barely a breeze stirred the reeds and bulrushes.

Heading back to Stockbridge, we came upon a place called Turner Farms, where a sign read maple syrup for sale. A dog ambled out of the white farmhouse to meet us. From behind a fence some 20 cows looked us over. We entered a shanty through an open door and found a long table lined with jugs of maple syrup in all grades and sizes, a list of prices, a box for money, a receipt pad, and a note: please put money in the box and fill out a receipt.

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