New England college towns are the templates for what we imagine American university life should be. These small academic communities are ideal places for a weekend visit, especially at peak leaf-viewing season. To stroll across a busy common, have coffee at a café, hike a nearby hill, browse at a bookstore, or just picnic under a tree as the leaves are starting to turn is to experience the simple pleasures of small-town college life. I attended a big, anonymous city university in upstate New York, but somewhere in the back of my mind there's a lingering thought that I missed out on a real liberal arts education. Maybe it comes from my mother, who had her heart set on my going to Williams College, near the Five Colleges (Amherst, University of Massachusetts, Hampshire, Smith, and Mount Holyoke) in western Massachusetts. So when I found myself in adjacent New Hampshire in prime foliage season, I decided to combine a scenic drive with a visit to Williams–a trip back to a past that could have been mine.
On a crisp and sunny Friday morning, my friend Gen picked me up in Peterborough, where I'd been staying, and we headed southwest, toward Amherst. Our plan was to take only secondary roads, visiting other campuses along the way, staying at bed-and-breakfasts, and giving ourselves plenty of time to explore the area.
Just over the border in Massachusetts, where Route 10 turns into 63, a detour near Northfield led us through rolling farmland. The birches, maples, and hickories were igniting with sparks of rust and saffron, but there was still green in the cornfields, and roadside stands were selling the summer's last tomatoes alongside bushels of shiny new apples.
Unconcerned with direction or time, we drove slowly, passing gas stations and general stores. It was almost dusk when we rolled into Amherst. Let the tourists have Vermont, I thought, imagining its roads clogged with tour buses.
After a good night's sleep at the Allen House Victorian Inn, a restored late-19th-century bed-and-breakfast on Main Street, we woke up to a glorious, breezy morning. The inn was serving pumpkin pancakes, but I satisfied my urge for a latte and the New York Times at Rao's Coffee Roasting Co. Emily Dickinson had lived in Amherst (her house is now a museum), and the town is still a great place for writers and readers, with good cafés and excellent independent bookstores. After our lattes, we wandered into the Atticus Bookstore, where the friendly salesclerk advised us to drive south to Mount Holyoke, "the prettiest campus in the area. Those women's colleges knew how to do it right."
We headed south on 116, windows down, bound for Mount Holyoke. The woods in Hadley were a blaze of color, vibrant shades of red, yellow, orange. We took a quick tour past the imposing Gothic Revival buildings, immense lawns (the school sits on 800 acres), and the lake, and got back in the car.
One of the things I like best about western Massachusetts is how easy it is to find your way to the center of every town and then out again into the countryside. We drove into Northampton and parked at the main entrance to Smith College and its expansive riverside campus, the most beautiful we'd seen. Its white clapboard buildings, mixed in among the brick and mortar, made the school seem more approachable. And Northampton is my idea of a perfect college town: not too small, and diverse enough to provide a dose of the real world.
From Northampton, we headed west on Route 9 through a river valley that kept growing steeper and narrower until its dense woods blocked out the sun. At Cummington, we pulled into the Old Creamery, an antiquated general store, for cones of Bart's homemade ice cream.
We had planned to continue west on Route 9, but the woman running the store suggested a detour through West Cummington along River Road–a side trip that led us to Route 8 and into North Adams. This former mill town is now the unlikely site of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), a 19th-century factory that has been transformed into a huge contemporary visual and performing arts center.
Since my college days, Williamstown has gained fame for its summer theater festival and museums, and it's now one of the Berkshires' biggest tourist destinations. Just behind the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, on Route 2, there's a well-marked trail that leads up through the woods and into the sunlight atop Stone Hill. From our vantage point just southwest of the college, we had an unobstructed view (framed by the imposing mountains of Vermont to the north) of what looked like a storybook campus. Only a few miles away, I knew, there were shopping malls and highways.
The next morning, we rode through a frosty haze to Spring Street, Williamswn's main drag. While ideal for a lazy weekend morning, the funky shops and used bookshops that I loved in Amherst were missing, and the lattes and muffins weren't half as good as Rao's. Still, hearing my mother's voice echoing in my head ("It's not just pretty–it's smart and cultured, too"), I tried to love it, or at least like it. But all that came to mind was, Perhaps I should have gone to Amherst.
Where to Stay
Allen House Inn 599 Main St.; 413/253-5000; www.allenhouse.com; doubles from $125, including breakfast and afternoon tea; cash preferred. Just down the block from Amherst College, this 1886 Victorian bed-and-breakfast has antiques-filled rooms, Oriental carpets, and claw-foot tubs. Lord Jeffery Inn 30 Boltwood Ave.; 800/742-0358 or 413/253-2576; www.lordjefferyinn.com; doubles from $119. A 48-room, eight-suite hotel built in 1926. Several Colonial-style rooms have balconies that overlook a lush garden.
Where to Eat
Black Sheep Deli & Bakery 79 Main St.; 413/253-3442; www.blacksheepdeli.com; sandwiches from $3. Snack on overstuffed deli sandwiches and luscious desserts, made daily. Rao's Coffee Roasting Co. 17 Kellogg Ave.; 413/253-9441; www.raoscoffee.com. Stop in for coffee and pastries at this local favorite–great for people-watching.
What to Do
Farmer's Market Amherst Town Common; Saturdays, May-November, 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Atticus Bookstore 8 Main St.; 413/256-1547. A wide variety of new and used books for sale.
Where to Stay
Knoll Bed & Breakfast 230 N. Main St.; 413/584-8164; www.crocker.com/~theknoll; doubles from $70. A historic 1910 building with four rooms overlooking 17 acres of farmland and forest. Take a picnic along and explore the rambling grounds.
Where to Eat
Bart's Homemade Café 235 Main St.; 413/584-0721; www.bartshomemade.com; cones from $2.40. The best ice cream. Thirty flavors, including chunky chocolate mousse with raspberry. Old Creamery 445 Berkshire Trail, Rte. 9, Cummington; 413/634-5560. On the way out of town, stop at this grocery for a sandwich and a scoop of Bart's to go. Look Restaurant 410 N. Main St., Leeds; 413/584-9850; lunch for two $10. Diner-style food–soups, sandwiches, burgers–in a low-key roadside setting.
Where to Stay
Orchards Hotel 222 Adams Rd.; 800/225-1517 or 413/458-9611; www.orchardshotel.com; doubles from $195. A 49-room country inn with the intimate feel of a bed-and-breakfast. Porches Inn 231 River St., North Adams; 413/664-0400; www.porches.com; doubles from $160. Steps from MASS MoCA, the inn was created from old Victorian row houses. Colorful rooms are filled with vintage lamps and Mohawk Trail memorabilia.
Where to Eat
Mezze 16 Water St.; 413/458-0123; dinner for two $90. The menu at this bar and bistro might include standout dishes such as roasted halibut with summer squash, oyster mushrooms, and sherry vinaigrette; and Peekytoe crab with tomato water, avocado, and pickled cucumber.
Williamstown Theatre Festival 413/597-3399; www.wtfestival.org. The summer celebration, which won the 2002 Tony Award for best regional theater, occasionally features superstars (Gwyneth Paltrow, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing are WTF alumni). Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts 274 Main St., Northampton; 800/224-6432. This month's performances include Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, staged by the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and Thomas Cole, A Waking Dream, a multimedia work about the founder of the Hudson River school, conceived by Donald T. Sanders.
Not just the stamping ground for the academic elite, western Massachusetts has a wealth of impressive art collections. Williams College Museum of Art (15 Lawrence Hall Dr., Suite 2, Williamstown; 413/597-2429; www.williams.edu/WCMA) has corralled an eclectic range of artists, including Goya, Pissarro, Beckmann, De Chirico, and Cornell. The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute (225 South St., Williamstown; 413/458-2303; www.clarkart.edu) is best known for its French Impressionist paintings, including 30 canvases by Renoir. The sprawling 13-acre Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (87 Marshall St., North Adams; 413/664-4481; www.massmoca.org) is the largest contemporary art space in the United States. On view this month: the only bronze sculpture by Joseph Beuys, and Robert Wilson's 14 Stations, a post-millennial multimedia update of the traditional Christian Stations of the Cross. Take a tour of the Dickinson Homestead, the 19th-century home of Emily Dickinson (280 Main St., Amherst; 413/542-8161; www.dickinsonhomestead.org), in which the famous poet spent all but 15 years of her life.
Stay at one of 56 campsites or in a log cabin at Mohawk Trail State Forest (Rte. 2, Charlemont; 413/339-5504; www.state.ma.us/dem/parks/mhwk.htm); you can hike the paths and explore more than 18 miles of rivers and streams. Easily accessible from many streets in the Amherst area, the Norwottuck Bicycle Trail (www.amherstcommon.com/walking_tour/bikepath) winds through eight miles of wetlands and farming country from southern Amherst to Elwell State Park in Northampton. Rent wheels at Valley Bicycle in Hadley (8 Railroad St.; 413/584-4466) or Amherst (319 Main St.; 413/256-0880). The Hopkins Memorial Forest (413/597-4353; www.williams.edu/CES/hmf) spans 2,500 acres, with gardens and 15 miles of walking paths. In the winter, the snow-covered trails are perfect for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
The town of Amherst, in northwestern Massachusetts, is 90 minutes west of Boston and three hours north of New York City. The nearest airport is Bradley International, 45 minutes from Amherst, serving Hartford, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts. Amtrak (800/872-7245; www.amtrak.com) has limited service to Amherst and extensive service to Springfield (30 minutes away by car). From Amherst to Williamstown is a 90-minute drive. It's best to have a car to do a true campus tour, but the University of Massachusetts Transit System (413/545-0056; www.umass.edu/campus_services/transit) and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (413/781-7882; www.pvta.com) both offer free bus service between the Five Colleges and surrounding towns (excluding Williamstown).