This state’s Berkshires have often been called America’s Lake District and, like their English counterpart, the gently rolling hills, endless miles of deep green forest and glistening lakes have drawn writers and other artists here to flourish creatively in a setting of primal beauty and tranquillity.
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville wrote here, in cottages just seven miles apart. Longfellow, Edith Wharton and Edna St. Vincent Millay also found inspiration here. Conductor Serge Koussevitzky founded the Berkshire Music Festival in 1934, and his work is carried on by Leonard Bernstein teaching at Tanglewood.
The Berkshires run from Vermont’s Green Mountains through western Massachusetts into Connecticut, ending at Long Island Sound. Berkshire history traces events from the late 17th Century, when Indians lived in the wilderness, to an 1880-1915 Gilded Age of enormous summer “cottages,” a few of which are now hotels.
Visitors are drawn here by cultural and outdoor events: Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony in summer residence; Shakespeare & Company’s classic performances; Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, America’s oldest, and enough galleries and museums to satisfy the most ardent culture sleuth.
Getting here: Fly USAir or United to Hartford, Conn., or American and TWA with changes. You’ll need a car to tour the Berkshires properly, so pick up one at the airport for the 90-minute drive to Lenox, the area’s cultural center.
How long/how much? Three or four days for skimming the scenic-cultural surface, more if you can arrange it. Lodging and dining throughout the region are both moderate.
A few fast facts: Early spring, during New England’s “mud months,” is about the only time to cross off for a visit. Summers are alive with indoor and outdoor activities, fall is a wonderland of foliage and winters bring out dedicated skiers, with eight downhill and 22 cross-country centers.
Getting settled in: The White Horse Inn (U.S. 7, Pittsfield; $90 to $100 B&B; double, high season, $60-$65 low) is a turn-of-the-century home with an old barn-carriage house and deep garden out back, on the road to Lenox. Loree and Robert Zeis are very helpful hosts, seeing to it that you find the best places for dining in the Berkshires.
You’ll find a comfortable living room and lots of nooks and crannies for curling up with a good book. Bedrooms are downright pretty, with flowered coverlets, dust ruffles and hanging baskets of greenery. Have your fresh-squeezed orange juice and homemade muffins in the enclosed-porch breakfast room while soft classical music gets your day started on the right foot.
The Red Lion Inn (Stockbridge; $83-$110 double, high season, $68-$93 low) began life as a tavern-stagecoach stop in 1773, and still has the original wood floors. Bedrooms and public areas are furnished very traditionally. There is a broad veranda for rocking and watching. We were charmed by the Widow Bingham Tavern where you may sip or dine, and a flowery courtyard out back for meals on summer days.
The Inn at Stockbridge (U.S. 7; $105-$130 B&B; double, $80-$90 with shared bath) is a classic Georgian country house on 12 acres with four formal white columns at the entryway. Within, all is gracious comfort, deep chairs and couches, antiques and a grand piano.
Bedrooms are elegant, with crystal decanters of brandy, dishes of candy and fresh flowers creating an ambiance of gentility. Breakfasts are a joy, a special gourmet affair with fine china, crisp linen and other niceties. There’s also a swimming pool in a bower of trees.
Regional food: While most New England kitchens stick pretty much to bedrock American fare, Italian restaurants abound, and there is a satisfying mixture of other ethnic dining.
The making of excellent cheese may have gotten its start in the Berkshires with a 1,200-pound Great Cheshire made for President Jefferson near Lenox in 1801. Cheddars are always good in this part of New England, and nearby Rawson Brook Farm makes marvelous chevres , including one version with wild thyme and olive oil.
Moderate-cost dining: The Apple Tree Inn (224 West St., Lenox) was built more than a century ago as an estate house, becoming an inn about 50 years later. The choice for dining is in either a gazebo-like room or rustic tavern with fireplace; both are very handsome.
The Apple Tree menu is strong on Italian, with half a dozen imaginative pastas, main dishes such as osso buco , veal marsala and chicken puttanesca in a strong Italian sauce with garlic, capers and black olives. Just opposite the entrance to Tanglewood.
Church Street Cafe (69 Church St., Lenox) calls itself an American bistro. An eclectic menu takes this description a bit afield with the likes of Thai beef salad, Chesapeake Bay crab cakes and Creole gumbo. A thoughtful selection of California and European wines.
Cheesecake Charlie’s (36 Church St., Lenox) is the sort of place to head for if you’re a cheesecake addict used to the heavier Eastern version. There are about 40 kinds, including Dutch apple and Bailey’s Irish Cream, all made by owner Ralph Patillo’s mother. The menu is liberally sprinkled with Italian specialties. A great place for the entire family.
Going first-class: Cranwell Resort (just outside Lenox; $220-$385 double high season, $99-$315 low) was the 19th-Century “cottage” of John Sloane (W&J; Sloane), and later a country club with golf course, polo grounds, stables and its own airfield. Now it’s a complex of the huge and stately main mansion and surrounding cottages, still with an 18-hole golf course, broad terraces, pool, tennis courts and the finest dining room. Bedrooms are as baronial in decor as the mansion: marble baths, fresh flowers, enormous beds and views said to be the best in the Berkshires.
On your own: Keeping busy in the Berkshires is easy. Visit the studio and summer home of sculptor Daniel Chester French, who created Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. Then scout for tickets to a Shakespeare & Company performance on the grounds of Edith Wharton’s magnificent French chateau, the Mount. Tanglewood is a summer hotbed of renowned international musicians working with the Boston Symphony, plus students from around the world.
A visit to Hancock Shaker Village outside Pittsfield will introduce you to the unusual beliefs and ways of that farming and celibate religious group, their handicrafts and dances. And a drive through Williamstown and the campus of Williams College will unfurl one of New England’s most beautiful villages.
The town’s Hobson’s Choice (159 Water St.) is a rustic restaurant of knotty-pine walls laden with old carpenter’s tools where you’ll enjoy fine food, good spirits and the friendliest of prices.
Be sure to visit Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute where the collection of American and European masterworks will take your breath away, particularly the number and quality of Monets. It’s one of the nation’s best-kept secrets.
Fall foliage in the Berkshires is a scenic high point of the year, and winter snows turn the region into a gigantic Christmas card, bringing unbridled joy to skiers.
For more information: Call the Massachusetts Division of Tourism at (617) 727-3201, or write (100 Cambridge St., Boston, Mass. 02202) for brochures on the Berkshires, its accommodations, restaurants and cultural attractions. For information on all of New England, call New England USA at (617) 432-6967, or write to 76 Summer St., Boston, Mass. 02110.