Report from Berkshire County: Finding the “all” feeling

Photos of Tanglewood, Lenox
View of Stockbridge Bowl, Lenox, Mass.

By Robert Israel

Summer afternoon: American author Henry James declared these are the two most beautiful words in the English language. Add Berkshires as the third word, and you’ve arrived at the heart of it.

Berkshires summer afternoon: dining al fresco with a glass of chilled wine on the lawn at Tanglewood in Lenox while listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra; watching dancers leap from the outdoor stage at Jacob’s Pillow against the backdrop of the verdant Becket woods; renting a canoe or kayak and paddling in Stockbridge Bowl; biking down quiet country roads under sunny skies, not a cloud in sight.

These and other delights have attracted visitors to the region since before the days when another American author, Herman Melville, who lived on a farm in Pittsfield in the 1850s, penned the best description of a Berkshires summer afternoon: “You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day,” Melville wrote to his neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, living nearby in Lenox. “Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling.”

I’ve been a summer visitor in the Berkshires for the past dozen years or so, and I can attest to having experienced Melville’s “all feeling” many times. Since there is much to discover in Berkshire County – 1,000 square miles bordering on Vermont, New York and Connecticut – I’ve selected a few places to recommend, where you, too, can experience a sense of wonderment this summer.

Lenox: the epicenter of Berkshire County

The epicenter of the Berkshires is Lenox, a jewel of a town that looks very much like it did when some of the wealthiest families during the Gilded Age built “Berkshire cottages” to host guests. Author Edith Wharton built one of these cottage — The Mount — which is open for touring.

I chose to stay in one of these cottages – the Hampton Terrace at 91 Walker Street – as my base. It turned out to be an inspired choice.

Hampton Terrace, (www.hamptonterrace.com), built in 1897, was completely restored and renovated in 2000, but it has preserved its grandeur and comfort. The innkeepers, Stan and Susan Rosen, greet visitors with a warm southern hospitality. A full and tasty breakfast is served every morning. Their dog, Atticus, sat beside me on the sun-porch during one breakfast, and he never begged as much as implored me to share a morsel of food with him. I stayed in a spacious and comfortable room located upstairs in a restored stable across from the swimming pool, where the windows looked out on a grove of trees. At sunset one night, I spied a red fox crouching in the leaves right outside the window.

The sighting of wild creatures is not unusual in the Berkshires, according to the Rosen’s neighbor, Rosemary Chiariello. She and her husband Fabrizio are proprietors of another exquisitely restored mansion, the Gateways Inn http://www.gatewaysinn.com, located just a few doors down from the Hampton Terrace at 57 Walker Street.

“I was in the kitchen preparing lunch when a black bear walked down the driveway one afternoon,” Rosemary said.

Sprawled over 500-acres in Lenox, Tanglewood has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the past 71 years. There are four distinct musical venues to choose from — the Theatre, the Shed, Ozawa Hall and the lawn. There are also many popular concerts planned throughout the summer. The weekend I attended, Earth, Wind and Fire performed as part of their 40th anniversary tour. Despite pouring rain, hundreds on the lawn were seen dancing, while the musicians, with an enviable abundance of energy, rocked on.

Mass MOCA

Occupying 13 acres of land in the heart of North Adams, a northern Berkshires town around 30 miles from Lenox, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is a complex of 26 buildings, many of them connected via bridges. A restaurant, the Gramercy Café, serves tasty and elegant lunches and dinners, and the galleries, just beyond the restaurant, are able to host the most sprawling and massive installations I have seen at any museum.

To offset expenses, the museum hosts large concerts, planned throughout the summer. This relatively new Berkshires institution (founded in 1999) attracts 120,000 visitors a year and has helped to revive the northern Berkshires area. It is well worth seeking out.

Fine Dining

While there is no shortage of restaurants to discover in Berkshire County, I discovered one I know I will be returning to, the Castle Street Café in Great Barrington: http://www.castlestreetcafe.com

Owned by chef Michael Ballon, the restaurant hosts jazz ensembles several times a week at night. The adjacent dining room, a large comfortable space with exposed brick and windows that look out on the busy summer town, serves scrumptious seafood, pasta and steak dinners. The style here is casual yet elegant. Chef Ballon, the author of a cookbook, has a knack for bringing fabulous flavors together in simple dishes that you will not find elsewhere. The restaurant is located next door to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center (www.mahaiwe.org).

Take the Long Way Home

While it is possible to get to the Berkshires via a superhighway (Rt. 90, or the Massachusetts Turnpike), I took the long way home, a less traveled road, Route 2, which brought me to North Adams and then, through Pittsfield, into Lenox, Great Barrington and Stockbridge.

The Berkshires region is a place of relaxation, discovery, culture and accessibility to nature. If you take Route 2, it is possible to stop along the way at any number of small towns, or to explore the extensive state park system. Sitting by a river, or lying quietly in a meadow is where you will find the “all feeling” Melville described, in the midst of a bustling summer season.

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. An earlier version of this piece appeared in Edge Magazine, Boston.

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