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Vacationing in the Berkshires

"Did you ever see so many trees?" David asked the kids as he pointed out the car window.
"Yes I did," our two-year-old replied.
"Where?" asked David.
"Over there," he said, with implacable logic, pointing out the opposite window.

We were driving to Jacob's Pillow to see an African storytelling-and-dance performance. The outdoor stage is set on the lip of the mountain, and as we arrived, late, the sun was flaming down behind the dancer and her drummer. On the grounds of the dance complex sits the four-foot-high boulder named "Jacob's Pillow" by a Yankee farmer. You can imagine Jacob lying there and dreaming of angels, catlike, Tharp‚like, dancing up and down a ladder from the mountain to the sky.

In West Stockbridge we watched glassblowing in the open studio of the Berkshire Center for Contemporary Glass. Aproned artists extended rods of colored glass into furnaces, where they flowered into globes and vases, blossoms and teapots, molten teardrops and spinning platters. An adjoining light-filled gallery sold the work of scores of artisans: glass flowers, paperweights, nubby glass earrings, and serving bowls and plates sized for a giant's salad or wedding cake. There were glass apples and grapes and bananas in glass bowls, and dozens of marvelous glass bagels sprinkled with black glass poppy seeds, or white glass salt.

A river runs through West Stockbridge, and walking along it you can shop at galleries and antiques stores, manufacturers of stained-glass windows and sun-catchers. Not least desirable of the stops is the Berkshire Ice Cream Scoop Shop, which serves some of the richest, creamiest ice cream we've ever tasted.

Down the road in Lee, we found the family-owned quilt-making business Pumpkin Patchworks. The small, nondescript store shows just a few quilts, but sells others wholesale all over the country. We picked out a simple Around the World block pattern and ordered a quilt, choosing all the fabrics ourselves from bolts in the front room. The queen-sized quilt, mailed to us a month later, cost $280.

Lenox, once the summer place of novelist edith Wharton, was the most elegant of the towns we visited, with its well-tended front lawns and elegant old ladies. It was also the most musical, with its summer population of Tanglewood students.

We took a gravel walkway past thick patches of myrtle and old-growth trees to see Wharton's mansion, the Mount. And we toured the house's empty rooms and peeling, water-damaged walls. The docent waved his hands over sad disheveled spaces and conjured the furniture, draperies, and leather-bound books that were auctioned off in 1935. But preservationists, we learned, were gearing up for a thorough restoration.

Shakespeare & Company, directed by Tina Packer, takes over the Wharton property for matinee and evening performances. Outdoors in the garden, the actors run and play and tramp around the Main Stage. The company is proudly innovative—so much so that we were at a loss as to which performance to see. We passed on the reverse-gender casting of King Lear with Olympia Dukakis in the title role, and we skipped the plays performed by the summer students. I picked out All's Well That Ends Well, part of the "Bare Bard" series—not an all-nude offering, as the name suggests, but a performance advertised as no-frills Shakespeare. The production lived up to its name: it was plain and spare, and mostly centered on Shakespeare's language—with a little Renaissance clowning and overacting to get in the way. The grudgingly appreciative couple sitting next to us explained that they were still shell-shocked from having endured The Merchant of Venice the night before. "They had Jessica reconciling with Shylock at the end!" they told us at intermission. "And everyone singing 'Kol Nidre'! And it was starting to rain!"

Well, Lenox does look like a place where radical innovation might chafe. The town has a Whartonesque air of refinement. Its inns are adorned with window boxes pouring out cascades of flowers. Lenox's 19th-century houses turned restaurants serve delicate salads and open-faced grilled-vegetable sandwiches on artisan bread. Women with manicures and Hermès scarves sit down for dinner at Spigalina. There is something decidedly old-school about Lenox; in fact, one gets the feeling that everyone here went to the same old schools together.

But lenox is also a magnet for music lovers, and it was music that we wanted most. The Red Lion Inn was booked for the second half of our stay, and so, midweek, we decamped for Lenox's Apple Tree Inn, on a hill populated with apple trees. Lovely as the inn is, its greatest asset is its location. A short stroll down the hill and across the road, and you are at Tanglewood's main gate. After concerts, while the rest of the audience sits in gridlock in Tanglewood's parking lots, you can walk back to the inn's cozy paneled tavern.

During our stay at the Apple Tree we ate fresh cranberry muffins each morning, then sat in the sun by the pool and listened to the Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearse. From our hilltop we could see mountains covered with green trees, all around. One morning we listened to a rehearsal of the Elgar cello concerto. We thought the air must have been particularly clear that day, the cello came through with such sweet intensity. Then we realized that the sound was coming not from Tanglewood, but from the Apple Tree itself. We followed the music to the lodge, and discovered that the next day's soloist was practicing in his room, three doors down from ours.

The concerts were splendid, but we soon found we liked them best when we were sitting on chairs in the Koussevitzky Music Shed. There we could concentrate on the music, the layers of sound opening up from the orchestra before us. It was far more difficult to listen when sprawled on the sweeping lawn. The sunbathers in lawn chairs, the families with books and Scrabble sets, the scent of wine and flowers all distracted us. The music broadcast over great outdoor speakers dusted us like pollen, but could not galvanize the way it did when we sat up front, not only listening but watching the string section, or the timpanist, or Martha Argerich with demon fingers flying, setting the keyboard afire as she played Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3.

At night, the lawn at Tanglewood flickered with the candlelit dinners of evening picnickers. Walking through the grounds, we discovered the new Seiji Ozawa Hall. Wood-lined, its sound warm and resonant, Ozawa Hall is Canyon Ranch for the ears. The back wall opens to a narrow swath of lawn, but the hall itself is intimate, perfect for chamber music. We heard I Solisti Veneti, an ensemble based in Padua—a perfect fit in the space, sweet and precise under conductor Claudio Scimone. The sound was bell-like, carrying through the summer night. No one wanted them to stop. They played encore after encore: Vivaldi, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini. Reluctantly, the audience finally gave up applauding and wandered off across the grass, searching for Tanglewood's main gate.

Stars shone above us. Cimarosa's Concerto in C for Oboe and Strings echoed in our ears. At the Apple Tree Inn, hot drinks awaited us. Cool breezes rustled in the trees. We thought: this is what we've come for.


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