The first day of summer. The first things I do, after turning off the highway onto the rolling back roads of the Berkshires, are crank the car windows open and inhale the perfumed air. No matter that I’m allergic to almost everything: resiny hemlocks, sweet clover, vanilla-scented bedstraw and almondy meadowsweet. The sneezing is worth the heady rush in this bucolic region of Western Massachusetts.
In addition to lush greenery, there are more than 100 cultural attractions throughout the Berkshires, a geographic region that spans the northern and southern borders of the state. Most savvy travelers have heard of Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Mass MoCA, one of the largest contemporary art museums in the United States. But what of the area’s smaller, equally interesting destinations?
On my trip in late June, I set out to explore some venues that could easily — but shouldn’t — be missed. I opted to stay in Lenox for its interesting hotels, shops and restaurants — and because it’s centrally located and would make the ideal home base. It’s one of many towns in the area where the words “quaint” and “picturesque” leap predictably (but accurately) to mind.
In a region of narrow, winding roads, finding Chesterwood requires navigating the narrowest and most winding. (Thank you, GPS.) The 122-acre property in Stockbridge is the former summer home and studio of Daniel Chester French, a sculptor best known for the “Minute Man” in Concord, Mass., and the seated Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, which is celebrating its centennial year in D.C. Chesterwood’s historic home will be closed until next year for extensive renovations, but visitors can peruse informative exhibits at the visitor’s center, tour the formal gardens, stroll woodland trails and enter the studio, designed in 1897 by French’s colleague Henry Bacon, a Beaux-Arts architect whose final project was the Lincoln Memorial.
Stepping into the studio, with its soaring 26-foot-high walls and views of the gardens and Monument Mountain, feels a bit like entering a sacred space. Diffused natural light bathes plaster models that span the artist’s career, including poignant studies of his wife’s, his daughter’s and his own hands, as well as the final seven-foot-high plaster of the seated Lincoln, whose rugged visage is an inspiration at any scale. An unfinished marble sculpture, Andromeda, lies supine, as if waiting for the artist’s return.
About a mile down the road, stone pillars mark the entrance to the sprawling campus of the Norman Rockwell Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of Rockwell’s art. The museum collaborated with Chesterwood to produce “The Lincoln Memorial Centennial Exhibition: The Lincoln Memorial Illustrated,” on view through Sept. 5. Inhabiting two of the museum’s galleries, the exhibit focuses on the work of contemporary and historical illustrators, cartoonists and artists who have used the monument as a symbolic element in their work, complemented by archival photographs, sculptural elements and artifacts. Rockwell’s illustrations and paintings of the 16th president are in the mix; indeed, no other national figure appears in his work more frequently than Lincoln, whom he publicly called “the greatest American.” Allow time to visit additional changing exhibitions and Rockwell’s studio, tours of which need to be booked in advance.
From the museum, it’s a quick drive to West Stockbridge, an area often overshadowed by its larger neighbor, Stockbridge. What this community lacks in size it more than compensates for with its one-of-a-kind offerings. Two of the main streets in town are populated by mom-and-pop shops selling antiques, fine art, Shaker furniture and books. The Hotchkiss Mobiles Gallery is full of colorful sculptures — created in the sprawling adjacent studio — hanging amid pottery, glass, jewelry and other crafts.
On Center Street, Charles H. Baldwin & Sons has been manufacturing pure vanilla and other fine extracts since 1888, following the same recipes as the founders — using only Madagascar beans — and the same copper percolator and aging barrels. Visitors are apt to find ebullient owner Jackie Moffatt, whose husband’s great-great-grandfather founded the shop, overseeing the space crammed with baking ingredients, old-fashioned toys, candles and retro gifts.
For food, the Public Market serves specialty hot and cold sandwiches to go, or stop by No. Six Depot for hand-roasted, small-batch coffees; tea; smoothies; and sweet and savory snacks. The Truc Orient Express Restaurant, owned and operated by the Nguyen family for 44 years, serves authentic, traditional Vietnamese food for takeout, including the hands-on locals’ favorite, “Happy Pancake,” a rice-flour crepe stuffed with vegetables and your choice of shrimp, pork and chicken.
The nearby TurnPark Art Space, created by Igor Gomberg, a Ukrainian immigrant, and Katya Brezgunova, a Russian immigrant, showcases contemporary architecture and sculpture on the 16-acre site of a former marble and lime quarry. The landscape of hills, woods, meadows and lake is designed to be a place of exploration for adults and children. Indeed, there’s an “Alice in Wonderland” feeling to walking its paths and discovering fantastical art — a colorful, glazed ceramic village sprouting in the underbrush; a life-size golden figure floating in the quarry — in unexpected places. Other works pack an emotional punch, such as photographs by Gomberg’s son, Dmitry, of Ukrainian refugees (displayed inside Shami Shinogi’s “Eyeball,” a round structure made of wood and sticks) and Victor Melamed’s “Collateral Damage,” which documents victims of the current war with portraits and stories printed on fabric that flutters in the trees.
About 25 miles east, the area around the tiny town of Becket seems even more rural than the rest of the region, making it an unlikely candidate to host a preeminent dance festival each year. Yet it does just that. After turning off Jacob’s Ladder Road and taking a long, bumpy drive along George Carter Road, I arrived at Jacob’s Pillow, a dance center, school and performance space that is celebrating its 90th-anniversary season this summer. Set on 220 acres of towering forest and resting on the traditional lands of the Agawam, Nipmuc, Pocumtuc and Mohican tribes, the rustic venue (affectionately called “the Pillow”) feels like a step back in time.
Aware of the pedigree of the dancers past and present who have performed here — including Alvin Ailey, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Twyla Tharp, Ronald K. Brown and Kyle Abraham — I was expecting a manicured campus with steel-and-glass architecture. What I found instead was a charming collection of weathered barns, sheds, dirt paths with lights strung between trees, and wood posts with signage directing visitors to performance venues, including the newly expanded and renovated Ted Shawn Theater, named after the dancer and impresario who purchased the land and subsequently founded what would become the festival in 1933.
For a sublime dance experience, nothing beats settling onto benches in a forest and watching a performance at the Henry J. Leir Stage. With its stunning backdrop of mountains and trees rustled by perfumed breezes, it perhaps best embodies the merging of pastoral wilderness and the creative spirit found in the Berkshires.
Regis is a writer based in Wellfleet, Mass. Her website is necee.com.
If You Go
Where to stay
16 Church St., Lenox
Located in the heart of town, this former 18th-century farmhouse is a newly rehabbed boutique inn offering 30 rooms with non-fussy, modern interiors, and dining inside or alfresco. Rates from $167 per night.
11 Hawthorne Rd., Lenox
The Italianate-style Gilded Age mansion, set on 22 acres of lush parkland landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, is a Forbes five-star hotel with high ceilings, museum-quality art and antiques, fine dining and an outdoor heated pool. Seasonal rates from about $700 per night in low season and from about $800 in high season, which is Memorial Day through October.
Where to eat
The Portico by Jeffrey Thompson
11 Hawthorne Rd., Lenox
Set in a glass-enclosed Italianate portico at Wheatleigh, this eight-table restaurant serves multicourse menus crafted by chef Jeffrey Thompson. Modern French gastronomic offerings include sea trout, foie gras, lamb and Pointy Snout osetra caviar. Reservations required. Open Thursday to Sunday, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Four-course prix fixe dinner, $135 per person; six-course tasting menu, $185 per person.
8 Main St., West Stockbridge
Locally owned, go-to spot for build-your-own and specialty sandwiches, hot dogs and pulled pork on buns; available daily for takeout. Snag a seat at the outdoor picnic table or pack for a picnic. Sandwiches from $4.99.
Truc Orient Express Restaurant
3 Harris St., West Stockbridge
Family-owned Vietnamese restaurant offering spring rolls, BBQ pork on rice noodles, five-spice whole Cornish hen and its signature “Happy Pancake.” Vegan options available. Order ahead and dine on the outdoor deck or take it to go. Dinner Friday through Sunday, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Entrees from $20.
The Pillow Cafe
358 George Carter Rd., Becket
Full-service dining and cocktails in a tent on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow. Two- or three-course prix fixe menus, with selections such as corn chowder, a miso salmon bowl and steak frites. Reservations required. Open Wednesday to Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. for dinner, and Saturday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for brunch. Prix fixe two-course dinner, $50 per person; three-course dinner, $65 per person. Brunch items from $12.50.
16 Church St., Lenox
This restaurant and bar at the Whitlock inn serves healthy breakfast offerings and tasty entrees. Open Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., for drinks only at the bar; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. for brunch; Friday to Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner. Cocktails from $12, brunch mains from $13 and dinner mains from $19.
What to do
4 Williamsville Rd., Stockbridge
The site of the former summer home and studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French, who created the seated Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial. Open Thursday to Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Oct. 24. Guided tours available. General admission: $20 per adult, $18 seniors, $15 military, $10 college students and young adults, and those under 13 are free.
Norman Rockwell Museum
9 Glendale Rd./Route 183, Stockbridge
A 36-acre campus with museum and studio of painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell, presenting the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work in changing exhibits. Open Thursday to Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General museum admission: $20 per adult, $18 seniors and retired military, $10 college students, and free for active-duty military, front-line medical workers and more. (Check website for details.) Add-on studio tours available for an additional $5 per person.
Charles H. Baldwin & Sons
1 Center St., West Stockbridge
Makers of pure vanilla and other extracts since 1888. This is the place to stock up on baking ingredients, retro toys, candles, greeting cards and sundries. Call for hours.
TurnPark Art Space
2 Moscow Rd., West Stockbridge
Outdoor sculpture park in 16-acre former marble and lime quarry founded by Igor Gomberg and Katya Brezgunova. Includes small indoor gallery and gift shop. Open Wednesday to Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entry is $10 per person, and those under 12 are free.
358 George Carter Rd., Becket
A 220-acre National Historic Landmark and summer attraction for dance with performance venues. It’s also a school showcasing world-premiere performances, workshops, exhibits and community events. Season ends Aug. 28. Ticket prices vary.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage