The Berkshire Mountains offer cultural attractions in a scenic natural setting.
In the closing decades of the 19th century, as America was enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity, which author Mark Twain called the Gilded Age, wealthy families from Boston and New York built summer homes in the scenic Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Although the families called them “cottages,” these sprawling residences and landscaped grounds were like mansions. Some live on today, as hotels, resorts and museums.
“These were well-to-do city folks who were used to having cultural attractions close at hand,” says Lindsey Schmid, director of marketing for the Berkshire Visitors Bureau. “So now that they’re here, what were they going to do? Their answer was to establish cultural facilities—music and art and dance and drama—here in a beautiful natural setting. That’s the heritage for all the wonderful things the Berkshires offer visitors today.”
While it’s easy to simply relax and enjoy the region’s clean mountain air, green forests and plentiful rivers and lakes, there’s always something happening in the Berkshires.
Summer is the prime season for attractions like the Tanglewood Music Festival, held at what was once a family estate and is now the site of dozens of concerts featuring symphonic, chamber, choral and contemporary music, along with musical theater. Jacob’s Pillow, originally a farm and now a National Historic Landmark, is home to America’s longest-running international dance festival. In 2015, it hosted dance companies from Cuba, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Canada and all across the United States. An Indian dance company, Shantala Shivalingappa, also performed there in 2013.
“The Pillow really provides an immersive experience in dance. It’s much more than a performing arts center because we have the schools and archives,” says Andrea Sholler, general manager at Jacob’s Pillow. “We get a lot of international visitors because we have dance companies from all over the world. When people come here, they feel the breadth of what we have to offer. A family can come on the weekend and enjoy a matinee performance, have a picnic and then stay for a scholarly talk or a free performance on our indoor/outdoor stage.”
Art lovers can lose themselves year-round in the many museums, historic sites and gardens in the Berkshires. One such site is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), located in a renovated 19th century factory complex. It now houses dozens of galleries with hundreds of works of visual and performing art, along with shops and restaurants.
“There are a lot of jaws hitting the floor when visitors come to Mass MoCA for the first time,” says Jodi Joseph, director of communications at the museum. “They’re amazed by the sheer magnitude of the place. Another special thing is that we’ve retained so much of the original 19th century architecture. You can really feel the presence of all the workers who spent time in these factories, where things were made and continue to be made.”
Many famous writers and artists have called the Berkshires home. These include novelists like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton, and landscape painters like Thomas Cole and George Inness. Herman Melville wrote “Moby-Dick or, the Whale” while living at his mountain farm here and quintessential American artist Norman Rockwell spent his later years living and working in the area. The Norman Rockwell Museum, one of the most popular year-round cultural attractions in the Berkshires, houses hundreds of his original paintings, drawings and personal memorabilia.
While there’s plenty to do indoors, the Berkshires also offer a wide variety of outdoor activities. These include hiking, biking, river rafting, fishing, canoeing, hot air ballooning, golfing, yoga, skiing, ice skating and snowmobiling. A recent addition is Ramblewild, an environmentally sustainable and family-friendly aerial adventure park set in a beautiful hemlock forest. Ramblewild features eight elevated rope-and-wood-plank obstacle courses connecting the trees at varying heights and requiring different levels of exertion to complete. Four of the courses feature zip lines that carry visitors swiftly over a deep ravine.
“Some courses are for families with children and others are for ‘weekend warriors’—people who exercise regularly and like to do that outdoors,” says Paolo Cugnasca, one of Ramblewild’s owners. “It’s a wonderful in-forest experience all year round. In the winter, the park is magical, and we offer snowshoeing and backcountry skiing. We are stewards of one of the most beautiful places I know.”
Visitors who work up a hunger (or thirst) will find a broad choice of open-air and traditional restaurants and pubs. Many offer fresh “farm-to-table” food, which take advantage of the many small farms still operating in the Berkshires.
“Agriculture and food culture are part of the Berkshire experience,” said Schmid. “The stores have locally grown produce. There are roadside fruit and vegetable stands all over that run on the honor system—visitors can pick up whatever they want and leave the money.”
Visitors can also take home their little piece of the Berkshires in the form of antiques and vintage treasures. Specialty stores are yet another option, which sell a wide variety of products, from handmade chocolates and locally crafted textiles to exclusive pieces of glass, jewelry, ceramics and sculpture.
The Berkshires are attracting more international visitors every year, Schmid says, with many flying into Boston or New York and picking up a car for their tour.
“Boston is a two-hour drive and New York City is three hours away,” she says. “A nice trip is to triangulate that—coming into Boston, visiting the Berkshires and, then, seeing New York on the way out. You ‘bookend’ the Berkshires with urban experiences.”
During summer, most hotels and motels in the Berkshires have a three-night minimum stay and prices start at about $125 [approximately Rs. 8000] a night. There are usually no minimum stays the rest of the year and prices start around $85 [approximately Rs. 5600] a night.
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.