1-2-3 Weekend: The Berkshires, Massachusetts

by  Elissa Garay | Sep 26, 2011
The Berkshires
The Berkshires / Kirkikis/iStock

As New England’s blazing fall foliage season kicks into high gear, leaf peepers, culture seekers, and outdoor enthusiasts alike will find their paths converging in the leafy cultural hideaway of the Berkshires, a 945-square-mile rustic-chic retreat in western Massachusetts. This pastoral playground has long reeled visitors in (particularly from Boston and New York, at just about a 2.5-hour drive away from each), without ever managing to feel overrun, thanks to the expansive area’s winning trifecta of pristine natural beauty (low-lying mountains, secluded lakes, flourishing forests), picturesque main street towns defined by mom-and-pop establishments and extravagant Gilded Age “cottages” (Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, and North Adams rank supreme as tourist hubs), and heady mix of museums and festivals showcasing the region’s longstanding artistic and cultural activity (familiar names like Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Norman Rockwell all found creative inspiration here).

Note that the peak leaf-peeping window this fall is forecasted for early to mid-October – check out the Berkshires foliage calendar for the latest updates. Then head out for our carefully crafted 1-2-3 Weekend: 1 hotel, 2 restaurants, and 3 things to do that combine the best of the Berkshires’ new and tried-and-true.

1 – Hotel

This contemporary, design-savvy property in the shadows of the trumpeted mill complex-cum-museum MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) manages to seamlessly meld sleek lines and modern creature comforts with artsy, vintage accents and historical architecture. The Porches Inn unfolds in an imaginatively revamped row of six, late 19th-century Victorian houses that had fallen into disrepair before being given new life as a hotel just two years after the stellar museum’s opening back in ’99, a major catalyst for the revitalization of the old mill town-turned-artists’ hotbed, North Adams.

Porches / The Porches Inn

Vibrant colors spill from the outside into the 47 ritzy-retro rooms where high-tech touches like free WiFi and DVD players (a complimentary laptop can be borrowed, as can selections from the hotel's Blu-Ray/DVD library), are met by quirky country home touches that pay homage to the generations of mill workers’ families that lived here, including antique lamps from the ‘40s and ‘50s, vintage furnishings, and paint-by-number artwork; distinctive oversize bathrooms come outfitted with either jetted or claw-foot tubs and mirrors fashioned out of the building’s original window frames. The formerly detached row houses are brilliantly stitched together by a duo of rocking chair-lined verandas (the defining characteristic from which “Porches” borrows its name) and roofed-over common areas that have been converted to indoor patios and catwalks. Some second floor rooms offer balconies in lieu of the outdoor porch space.

Common areas include a reception area with two living rooms (one touts a fireplace) and small breakfast nook (buffet breakfast is included in the nightly rate), as well as a heated lap pool, hot tub, sauna, and fitness center – all are open to guests 24 hours a day. Wander up the wooded hill behind the property to huddle around a fire pit, available to guests for evening bonfires. 231 River St., North Adams; 413-664-0400; www.porches.com

2 – Restaurants

For farm-to-table fare served up in a stately mansion dating to 1881, head to the Kemble Inn Restaurant in Lenox, which opened in July. Diners can choose an alfresco experience (weather permitting) on the scenic outdoor patio overlooking the property’s two acres and surrounding Berkshire Mountains, or opt for the intimate indoor dining room. Gourmet three-course prix fixe dinner menus, priced at a reasonable $47 per person, are on offer Wednesday through Sunday evenings. Menus change out weekly, but recent versions have featured entrées like Scottish salmon with crispy skin and sautéed herb spätzle, followed by fresh berry-topped blueberry gelato for dessert. Italian-American chef Riccardo DeLuca’s placement here follows a duo of executive chef positions at area five-star Michelin-rated restaurants. A reasonably priced wine list features bottles from just $21; or, splurge for a signature cocktail like the Kembleton, featuring Tanqueray gin, Campari, a dash of sugar, and grapefruit juice. 2 Kemble St., Lenox; 413-637-4113; www.kembleinn.com

For more casual pub grub in cozy environs, scope out the ‘6 House Pub, part of the 1896 House Inn, in Williamstown, offering dinner and lunch daily (after Columbus Day weekend, lunch will be served on weekends only). Laid out in an old converted barn, the wood-paneled pub and restaurant oozes character with touches like wing-backed chairs, a roaring pellet stove, and bovine-themed decor like their mounted cattle mascot, Harold the Hereford; an outdoor terrace and fire pit provide a welcoming outdoor oasis in season. Choose from comfort food options with inventive takes like apricot bourbon chicken wings and “frickles” (fried pickles), six specialty burgers (try the Mediterranean with Gorgonzola, grilled portobello, roasted peppers, and tomato basil aioli), as well as an assortment of hearty supper salads including greens topped off with grilled plums, Granny Smith apples, Gorgonzola crumbles, and glazed walnuts. Popular seafood options include lobster rolls, lump Maryland crab cakes with roasted red pepper sauce, and Boston baked scrod. The graham cracker-crusted cheesecake is hands-down one of the best we’ve ever had (on special for a limited time only). Pair your meal with a local microbrew from the Berkshire Brewing Company on draft. 910 Cold Spring Rd. (Route 7), Williamstown; 413-458-1896; www.6housepub.com

3 – Things to Do

Foliage season adds a Technicolor touch to a hike up Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’ highest peak at a modest 3,491 feet, and the site of the state’s first wilderness state park, which has grown to more than 12,500 acres under the stewardship of the Mount Greylock State Reservation. So ecologically diverse is the transition from Greylock’s base to its summit that its equivalent has been likened to walking from Pennsylvania to Maine in a day. Black bear, moose, white-tailed deer, and some 100 species of birds (including owls, hawks, and ravens) are among the wildlife that make their home here. Leaf peepers can expect reds, oranges, yellows, browns, tans, and the occasional deep purple from the forests, including the sugar maple-laden northern hardwood forest on the lower slopes, and the central hardwood forest, dominated by oaks (the summit is rounded out by largely evergreen boreal balsams and spruces).

Panoramas at the peak offer sweeping views of up to 90 miles away clear across five states, weather permitting (though note the summit is shrouded in cloud cover for a third of the year). A climb to the top of the crowning, 93-foot-high Veterans War Memorial – dating back to 1932 – offers even more spectacular views. Refuel at the summit’s rustic Bascom Lodge (www.bascomlodge.net), offering casual breakfast and lunch fare (a prix-fixe dinner with a changing nightly menu is by reservation only), as well as lodging through late October. Note the scenic summit road closes for the season on November 1; snowmobiles, cross-country skis, snowshoes, mountain bikes, or your own two feet are the sole means of transit post-road closure. A 70-mile network of trails traverse the mountain, including an 11.5-mile section of the Appalachian Trail; a primitive campground is accessible by hiking only. Don’t miss the free park ranger-led hikes and programs (we’re especially keen on the medicinal herb walk), which depart from the Visitor Center; call ahead for scheduled outings. Visitor Center, 30 Rockwell Rd.; 413-499-4262; www.mass.gov/dcr/parks/mtGreylock

MassMoca / MASS MoCA

Get your arts fix in at the visual and performing arts haven that is the massive MASS MoCA, which debuted back in 1999 in the quiet northern Berkshires mill town of North Adams, and today manages to attract some 120,000 annual visitors. Its superlative showcase of rotating installations unfolds in the largest center for contemporary art in the U.S., with some 150,000 square feet of exhibition space and 13 acres of grounds set on the site of a repurposed 19th-century factory complex – generous space that allows for splendid large-scale installations you'd be hard-pressed to come by in the more confined big-city museums.

Don’t miss Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, the museum's sole long-term installation; it took nearly six months and a team of 65 artists and art students to painstakingly install 105 of LeWitt’s drafting and painting installations, which illustrate Minimalism and Conceptual art infused by geometric forms, meticulously drawn lines, and architecturally inspired drawings. Our favorite current exhibition is Nari Ward’s sculptural installation Sub Mirage Lignum, which opened in April and will run through February 2012. The 60-foot-long work is composed of discarded materials (old oil barrels, plywood shacks) collected from Jamaican neighborhoods where he lives and works that have been shaped into a conical design meant to recall a basket-woven fish trap.

Additionally, more than 75 performances are scheduled year-round dedicated to dance, music, theater, film, and more. Note the museum is closed Tuesdays. Combo tickets with the top-notch Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge (www.nrm.org) or the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown (though note that much of the museum’s famed collection of French Impressionist paintings are currently on tour as the museum completes extensive renovations; www.clarkart.edu) can be purchased for $25, a savings of $5 and $6, respectively. 87Marshall St., North Adams; 413-662-2111; www.massmoca.org

Finally, the ongoing roster of cultural events and festivals in the region are second-to-none, and though some of the biggest powerhouses of the bunch are slated for summer runs (like the renowned Tanglewood Music and Tanglewood Jazz festivals in Lenox, www.tanglewood.org; and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, www.jacobspillow.org), fall offers its own hearty bounty. This season, look for highlights like the debut of the Made in the Berkshires Festival, featuring new-work music, theater, and dance performances (in Pittsfield and Stockbridge; October 14–16, 21–23; www.thecolonialtheatre.org), the Fall Festival of Shakespeare at Shakespeare and Company (in Lenox; November 17–20; www.shakespeare.org), and the Williamstown Film Festival, highlighting indie flicks (in Williamstown and North Adams; October 21–23, 27–29; www.williamstownfilmfest.com).

Getting There

Situated in western Massachusetts, the Berkshires are set within easy driving distance of several major U.S. metros: 120 miles from Boston, 147 miles from NYC, and 258 miles from Philadelphia. A car is a must to properly explore the area, which is fairly expansive and limited in public transportation options. Plan on renting a car if you do fly in; the closest regional airport is 45 miles away in the New York State capital of Albany, where Southwest, Delta, US Airways, and a handful of other carriers operate. Additionally, motor coach service is available from most neighboring cities, while Amtrak offers service to Pittsfield from Boston.

For general trip-planning information, see our Massachusetts Travel Guide, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, packages, and more travel deals.

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