Most of us in the Merrimack Valley think of the Pioneer Valley region of Massachusetts as a place where people go to attend college. Also known as the “five college area,” it’s home to UMass Amherst, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College and Hampshire College, and consists of the western Massachusetts town of Amherst, the city of Northampton and the smaller towns that connect and surround them.
What most people don’t realize is that this part of Massachusetts is also rich in culture and full of great things to enjoy, including museums, botanical gardens, excellent restaurants, boutiques, craft breweries and wineries, and performing arts venues. Outdoor activities include hiking, snowshoeing and skiing. A number of geological sites, including one of the state’s most photographed waterfalls and a park that’s home to fossilized dinosaur footprints, can also be found there.
The Hotel Northampton, built in 1927 and a member of Historic Hotels of America, is located in downtown Northampton and makes a good base of operations. The gem of the place is the Wiggins Tavern, an authentic 18th century pub that was moved to the hotel from Hopkinton, New Hampshire, in 1930. Whether you stay at the hotel or not, I highly recommend stopping at the tavern for a cocktail.
Northampton’s downtown shops, restaurants and attractions are best visited on foot. Included is the Smith College Museum of Art, about a 10-minute walk from the hotel. The museum’s extensive collection features work from around the world, ranging from ancient to modern, including paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, films and decorative arts.
A visit to the Botanic Garden of Smith College is also worthwhile. Though its outdoor collection is unavailable during the winter, the Lyman Conservatory’s greenhouses combine to create an indoor paradise. Home to more than 3,000 plants from various regions of the world, Smith’s collection includes orchids, palms, ferns and succulents, and has been a source of specimens for researchers seeking cures for cancer and AIDS.
Vegetal enthusiasts might also want to visit UMass Amherst’s Durfee Conservatory. Consisting of five greenhouses, it’s home to seven camellia trees that date back to 1867, when the conservatory opened. The trees bloom during the winter and are a heavenly sight to behold when wintry wind is blowing outside.
A fun place for kids and people who used to be kids, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, also in Amherst, can brighten any dreary winter afternoon. The Carle’s collection includes more than 7,300 pieces of original picture book art, including work by Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”) and Ludwig Bemelmans (“Madeline”). The Carle’s museum shop is an excellent place to find unique gifts for special children in your life.
A bit off the beaten path in the town of Montague is The Alvah Stone, a small farm-to-table restaurant where everything from the condiments to the cocktails is house-made from locally sourced ingredients. Diners at the restaurant, which is located inside the historic Montague Mill on the Sawmill River, are encouraged to settle in and take their time enjoying their food.
Creative appetizers include honey soy-glazed Brussels sprouts, and braised carrots with sumac, feta and pistachios. Entrees include charred flat iron steak, wild catfish, and gnocchi with scallions and black pepper ricotta. The restaurant offers a nice selection of local craft beers, wine and craft cocktails, as well. If you decide to eat here, reservations are recommended, especially on weekends. When booking a table, ask if you can sit by the windows for a peaceful river view.
The Hotel Northampton
Smith College Museum of Art
The Botanic Garden of Smith College
The Durfee Conservatory
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
The Alvah Stone