Vacationing in the Berkshires
This idyllic corner of New England has become all things to all people, mixing high culture and urban sophistication with farmhouse simplicity. So just whose Berkshires are they, anyway?Novelist Allegra Goodman heads for the hills to stake her claim. Then we step in with a definitive guide to the region
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.
"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.