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Easy Escapes for Two

Getaways that are close to home — and yet a world away

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Time your visit to martha’s herbary — with the oldest pet cemetery in the Northeast — so that it’s lunchtime as you finish selecting your prepubescent bay and olive trees and perhaps pick up a pretty shawl in the shop. Then make a beeline across the road to the vanilla bean café for some outrageous fun.

Pray for good weather so you can dine outdoors at a wrought-iron table under an umbrella, all the better to watch as tattooed and gentlemen bikers roll in on the most glamorous, gleaming bikes outside of a Harley-Davidson museum. Although this is a major bikers’ stop (these wide-open scenic highways were made for them), everybody just loves this place, from the pretty teens crossing over from the Pomfret School and teachers from the Rectory School (writer Robert Ludlum is an alumnus) to locals and the “outsiders” who have heard about it.

Owned by brothers Brian and Barry Jessurun — and named after their sister Bean — the café has won every major food accolade from reviewers ever since it first opened in 1989. Live folk music is a big draw on Saturday nights. Step around Stella, the owners’ 175-pound English mastiff who wears a sign around her neck reading “Please don’t feed me,” go past the aquarium on your left (very feng shui appropriate for success, says Brian) and stand in line to place your order. You will need more than a few minutes to peruse the dozens of selections scribbled on the chalkboard (burgers, chili, beer and local Hosmer Mountain soda are big hits here at high noon; dinner selections read more like a bistro’s). The Bean’s “Ginger Lemonaide” is a ladies’ favorite sipping beverage.

If you’re an art lover, visit the celebrations gallery housed in a beautiful Queen Anne Victorian in Pomfret. Art is displayed on two floors and there’s a gift shop brimming with specialty tea-related items. In the works is a tearoom overlooking the back gardens. For beautiful Italian ceramics, decorative ceramic chickens and handpainted hutches, drop in at the MaJilly Store, also in Pomfret. It is housed in a barn built by Irish immigrants in the 1900s. Close by in Woodstock is a Gothic revival extravaganza. The 1846 home of publisher Henry Bowen, roseland has original furnishings, lovely stained glass windows and one of the oldest bowling alleys in the country.

On our last night in these quintessential historic towns, we went to the still river café in Eastford for dinner. Owned by Robert and Kara Brooks, the restaurant looks like a gussied-up barn from the outside. Go up a flight of stairs, and suddenly you enter a sophisticated, contemporary dining room full of white surfaces and an expanse of glass framing farmland and woodland. It has an upbeat ambience, where guests come spiffed up and delicious food arrives beautifully arranged on white plates (our waiter was their son Peter). Raw materials shine through in the cuisine for good reason — most of the ingredients are grown on the property. Still River is an unexpected bit of Manhattan in the country and patrons often drive from Fairfield County to savor the whole experience. On October 19, following a garden and kitchen tour on the property, the restaurant will host a seven-course “farm to fork” dinner ($125 per person) to benefit the Nature Conservancy Rain Forest Project.

The next day, to cap off a great visit to the Quiet Corner, detour a bit to the We-Lik-It Farm in Abington for homemade ice cream served up in a waffle cone. It’s comfort food for the ride home.

Art in the Berkshires
Travelers can embark on a trail at the foothills of the Berkshires in Massachusetts that traverses both familiar and newly unexplored realms of fine art. Enveloped between the shaved, pea-green sweeps of lawn in Williamstown and the urban streetscape in the former mill town of North Adams are incredible art museums. Every year since the midnineteenth century, thousands of national and international art aficionados have visited this area for the culture it offers in so narrow a strip of land. In the summer months, theater and music —Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow farther south and theater festivals within Williamstown — have gained recognition worldwide. But the art scene is a twelve-months-a-year reason to enjoy a weekend a few hours from home.

Begin at the sterling and francine clark art institute. Situated in a pristine setting on 140 acres in Williamstown, it houses permanent collections of French impressionists, Old Masters and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American artists. Its center entrance hall is a mass of humanity in July and August, but is almost surreal in the fall as the crowds clear out. The space feels huge, almost contemplative, a prelude to visiting the Clark’s recently opened Stone Hill Center.

Designed by award-wining Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the center is in striking contrast to the surrounding forest that clothes the Green Mountains and the Taconic Range to the north, east and west. To get to the center, visitors must cross over gravel paths and planked bridges through a woodland garmented with scrawny wildflowers and seedheads, and invariably, they are startled when they suddenly come upon the concrete, wood and glass center on the crest of a hill. The building, while a work of art in itself with all its angles, floating stairs and rigid walls and arches, is deliberately minimalist so that the art within its intimate galleries garners all the attention.

From now until October 19, two inaugural exhibitions — works by John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer — will run simultaneously with one in the Clark’s main galleries —Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly. Not to be missed are the powerful Undertow by Homer and Fumée d’Ambre Gris by Sargent, an all-time museum patrons’ favorite painting.

An integral part of the Stone Hill Center, the williamstown art conservation center is the largest of its kind in the United States. You can watch the experts behind north-facing expanses of glass tenderly nourish a huge range of art forms, from furniture and paintings (Van Gogh’s Irises was conserved here) to baseball mitts sent by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for some tender loving care.

There are cafés both in the center and in the museum proper if you need an energy boost before moving on, perhaps to hike the trails that bookmark the campus. It’s worth a stop at the information desk to inquire about performing art, another important component of the Clark.

Head toward Main Street in Williamstown, make a right and you’re at the williams college museum of art, home to more than 12,000 works in fourteen galleries that span the history of art. You’ll need to do your yoga-breathing exercises in earnest before entering the museum, for on the undulating lawn out front are mysterious eyes watching you. The creation of sculptor/artist Louise Bourgeois, the assemblage of four large pairs of disembodied eyes and one giant eight-eye cluster (they change colors as sun and shadows and moon and light sweep over them) seems intimidating until you relax and enjoy their playfulness as well as their psychological meaning. Step inside the museum, which is also a teaching arm of the college, and you’ll encounter the same sweep of emotions, beginning with Warhol’s giant self-portrait mounted on a wall off to the side of a staircase. Beneath haloed spikes of hair, Warhol’s disembodied head and fixed stare are eerily spectral.

Within WCMA’s galleries, visitors encounter the familiar (Mary Cassatt, Thomas Nast, Frederic Remington), the ancient (Assyrian reliefs from 880 b.c.), the historical (national papers, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the United States Constitution), and the modern to the contemporary (Del Flusso e Riflusso by Judy Pfaff and signature lithographs by Benton Spruance on view until October 5). As at the Clark, WCMA’s galleries are full of space and light, particularly the neoclassical, octagonal rotunda that was originally a library.

Visit these two museums on the same day since they are so close to each other. If you still have energy, browse through the small galleries on Spring Street, the retail hub (all two blocks of it) of Williamstown. Break for some pad Thai at the Sushi Thai Garden.

Next morning, trek a few miles east on Route 2 for a totally different experience, driving from the economically, academically and culturally rich college community to the once bleak, but now revitalized town of North Adams. It’s a startling contrast between town and gown, but not for long: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is dramatically re-invigorating this corner of the northern Berkshires.

Mass Moca is an exhilarating experience — the artists who exhibit here are going to change the way you look at art from here on in. The place has a dynamic vibe that is palpable as soon as you encounter the row of six maple trees in the courtyard. The work of conceptual artist Natalie Jeremijenko, the trees hang upside-down, their roots nestled in stainless steel pots suspended from overhead wires. This approach to the glass-door entrance to MoCA sets the stage for the synergy within.

Suddenly, the whole world is metal, or so it seems, from the heavy prisonlike doors in the jailhouse brick restrooms in the basement to the racks in the museum shop aptly coined “Hardware,” to the reception counter and to the outdoor deck, tables and chairs where you can enjoy a delightful lunch prepared by the Lickety Split café (soups and ice creams are excellent — definitely try the mulligatawny soup).

Welcome to MoCA, an avant-garde museum of visual and performing arts. It is the largest entity in North Adams, whose population is less than 15,000. MoCA was once a factory complex where print textile and later electrical components were manufactured.

With twenty-seven buildings occupying thirteen acres, the museum complex occupies nearly one-third of downtown North Adams. On its campus are art galleries, a theater, an outdoor cinema, performance courtyards and offices for media industries. It is the provocative universe of contemporary artists: giant canvases by Anselm Kiefer that probe Germany’s history; a haunting hallucinatory tree by Jennifer Steinkamp, whose branches swish from side to side with the help of a video installation; a forest painting by Anthony Goicolea of a single, massive tree intriguingly usurped by masked bandits; interactive biospheres of town greens by Vaughn Bell (put your head into one for a neat symbiosis between you and artist and hothouse terrarium); and a shadowy landscape abstracted onto the floor and wall by Mary Temple.

MoCA has provided the impetus for art galleries, artists’ lofts and art studios to open on several short blocks within the town and within the nearby windsor and excelsior mills. Peek in at kolok gallery where the chances of meeting the artists are good and at the hudson gallery where Jane Hudson holds court (be sure to check out the new leather “retro” handbags from a local artisan). A celebration of art in the Berkshires (specifically North Adams) takes place on October 11 and 12. Ride the historic trolley between venues.

Although the dining scene is not as diverse or as plentiful as it is in Greenwich, there are enough restaurants to please you within the two communities. gala restaurant in the Orchards hotel inWilliamstown and the gramercy bistro in North Adams are both excellent (eggs Benedict at the Gala wins high praise), and both require dinner reservations. Gala is the more formal of the two, although we saw all dimensions of fashion at both places, from the very casual to the jacket-and-tie set. The bar at the Gala is a popular watering hole (as is the absolute fun cabaret in the summer).

Lodging is no problem, with motels at every turn. For a truly pampered stay, orchards is our choice. Rooms are spacious and handsomely furnished with the most comfortable beds we’ve ever experienced. Amenities are wonderful, including apples and chocolate chip cookies every day in your room and afternoon tea in a sitting room furnished with English antiques. Staff is gracious, and there’s a fitness room to burn off the calories gained at dinner.

Across from Mass MoCA, porches in North Adams is so retro — Granny Chic is an apt description — as to be funky and the “in” place to stay. One long porch connects six restored Victorian-era row houses, once rooming houses for mill workers. The furniture looks retro, too, as do the bathrooms. Everything you see in your room is for sale, even the bed and the bedspread and the bathroom mirror! An experience staying here, for sure. The fire pit is appealing on cool nights, and there’s a hiking trail up the hill behind the pool.

On the jaunt back home, the norman rockwell museum is a must stop for a healthy jolt of Americana. Set on a lovely rural estate in Stockbridge, the museum houses the world’s largest and most significant collection of the artist’s work. Rockwell’s studio, moved to this spot intact, is open through October.