In the crunchy Seventies, no New England town was crunchier than Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The core population back then seemed to be made up of double-wide earth mamas in droopy skirts and ethnic ponchos. Secondhand-book shops did a brisk business in astrology guides, composting how-tos, and manuals illustrating positions found in the Kama Sutra. The dining-out culture was primitive.
"I vividly remember when even a coffee shop couldn't survive in Great Barrington," says Bradford Wagstaff, owner of the Old Inn on the Green in nearby New Marlborough. "You were hard-pressed to find someone to make you a grilled-cheese sandwich."
What a difference a quarter of a century makes. Like many towns swaddled in the chenille folds of the Berkshire Hills, including Stockbridge, Sheffield, and Lenox, Great Barrington has sworn off granola. At Verdura on Railroad Street you can order seared foie gras, vanilla-roasted fruit, and a salad of locally grown microgreens with the confidence that you will be eating at least as well as you would at any of Manhattan's pumped-up bistros of the moment, minus the side serving of hubris. Sidewalks are littered with twiggy Paris Hilton types wearing Juicy Couture cashmere tracksuits and far too much Bond No. 9 perfume. The same dog-eared bookstores that once did so well with ecology titles now blithely ask—and get—$150 for a fluffy Diana Vreeland picture book.
The evolution of the Berkshires from a locus of hippie-dippie-dom to a playground purveying the kind of surfacy values championed by the Empress of Fashion was vigorously under way during a number of recent visits I paid to the area, whose soft hills and open fields have the good taste not to look too tended. "The upscaling of the Berkshires," as the process is frequently but not always lovingly called, more than pleased me, for I should say right here that I was not a fan of the Old Berkshires, or OB, as I have come to call them. I have never owned a pair of Birkenstocks, never made a recipe from the Moosewood Cookbook, and never (at least not knowingly) assumed a position from the Kama Sutra. Call me a snob. You can even call me a princess. But give me the New Berkshires—NB—any day.
Driving the transformation is a wave of new or newly redone hotels whose influence is being felt far beyond the emerald limits of Berkshire County, a 50-mile-long corridor of western Massachusetts that shares borders with Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. After struggling for two decades to get it right—and battling a quaint OB aesthetic that had a stranglehold on lodgings in the region—Wheatleigh, in Lenox, has become the most modern, luxurious, tightly run country hotel in the United States.
"When we arrived in the Berkshires in 1981, everyone felt that you couldn't sell a country property without frilly canopy beds and a truckload of chintz," says Susan Simon, who owns Wheatleigh with her husband, Lin. "But we believed people would respond to good contemporary design."
Encouraged by the Simons, last summer Bob and Sonya Berle, a couple of blue-blooded ex-models, opened Elm Court, also in Lenox. Like Wheatleigh, the house is a "cottage," one of the dozens of summer showplaces built in the area in the late 1800's and early 1900'sby patrician New York and Boston families who could not take the social heat of Newport. Elm Court was commissioned by Bob Berle's great-great-grandparents: Emily Vanderbilt, one of the commodore's granddaughters, and W. D. Sloane, of the Sloane furniture dynasty. Its grounds were laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, co-author of New York City's Central Park. With rooms averaging an eye-popping $935 per night in the highsummer season, Elm Court may well be the most expensive bed-and-breakfast on the planet.
Down the road, former power-pop producer Tom Werman, whose ear-ringing acts included Twisted Sister and Cheap Trick, is marketing his handsome 1890 Stonover Farm as the anti-B&B, or NB B&B, as I prefer to think of it. As at Wheatleigh, if you like Victorian gewgaws, stay home.
"We're not big on antiques," Werman says, "and that includes four-poster beds. Guests love Stonover's streamlined look and the fact that so many museums, arts festivals, and spas are right at our doorstep."
Recognizing that no turn-of-the-21st-century destination can make it without a fleet of spas, the Berkshires have become the bikini-wax capital of the Northeast. Cranwell Resortis betting a cool $9 million it can duplicate the cash-cow fortunes of its Lenox idol, Canyon Ranch, by adding a 35,000-square-foot facility and an exhaustive 40-treatment menu. "When we looked at all the things we could do to become a major player nationally, everything kept pointing to a spa," says general manager Lewis Kiesler. "It's made us competitive with the top resorts in the country." The Gedney Farm Spa, opening next month on the same compound as the Old Inn on the Green, is dime-sized by comparison, but significant for what it reveals about the way established hotels in the area are thinking. Nervously aware that snoozing could mean losing, even OB properties feel they must get into the well-being business if they are to be contenders in the NB.