A Books-and-Beers Drive Through the Pioneer Valley

New England has a rich literary history. Thanks to its ivy-choked universities, Boston’s history as a publishing town, and, very likely, just something in the water, the region has given rise to more than its fair share of writers — Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost, to name just a handful.

We’re somewhat less known for our alcoholic history. Which is too bad — because these six little states offer a wide variety of fantastic microbreweries.

Our ultimate destination: Brattleboro VT

Our ultimate destination: Brattleboro VT

One wintry weekend, my mother and I decided to combine both our love of literature and our appreciation of fine beer into a two-day scenic drive through the best used bookstores and craft breweries of the Pioneer Valley, so-called because the banks of the Connecticut River were popular with the early settlers. Today, it’s popular with college students — Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, UMass Amherst, and Hampshire are all located there — which makes it easy pickings books n’ beers fans.

We began with a swing through Massachusetts’ southern tier, driving west along the Mass Pike (route I-90). It is never my preferred road — there are tolls, traffic, and not a whole lot of character — but I wanted to get to the Opa Opa Steakhouse and Brewery (in Southampton, MA) in time for lunch. It’s a Texas-style steakhouse with New England craft beers run by Greeks: I was not going to miss this. Their beers are legitimately delicious (especially the IPA, their flagship) and the food was surprisingly good — and I think both are better at Opa Opa than they are at the nearby Northampton Brewery, which only has the advantage of being right in an adorable college town. (Opa Opa is on Massachusetts State Route 10, more or less surrounded by nothing.)

Felix bookstoricus.

Felix bookstoricus.

Then it was time for a postprandial bookstore. Sage Books is a sun- and cat-filled used bookshop in Southampton, where we enjoyed a leisurely browse. But the bookstore we’re really sentimentally attached to is the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, home to Mount Holyoke College. This involved backtracking a bit, to cross back over the Connecticut River and pick up Route 47, on the eastern side. But if you have the time, the local, state road is worth the detour.

In the afternoon, we crossed the state line to reach Brattleboro, VT, where we checked into the affordable Latchis Hotel. It’s an art deco building on the National Register of Historic Places, and contains a magnificent 750-person movie theater. Each guest room is different; ours was painted a vibrant lilac color. Brattleboro is a walkable, artsy, earthy town that has managed to pull itself up from its crumbling-mill-town nadir. It’s managed the trick of feeling remote, while also giving the impression that there’s always something going on.

We poked around the cafes and art galleries, hitting up a really excellent used bookstore that looks just like you want your New England bookstore to look: like a combination of a batty professor’s house and Diagon Alley shop. The simply named Brattleboro Books claims to offer over 75,000 used books. I believe them.

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Felix craftbeericus.

In the evening, we walked from our hotel to a brewpub called McNeill’s, famous for its ESB and its tap shaped like a catamount (which is Vermonter for “mountan lion”) carved out of a giant hunk of wood. But don’t let that give you the idea it’s a fancy-schmancy place. There were some hipsters playing trivia there when we arrived, but as soon as the game ended, they left and were immediately replaced with aging bikers who seemed to prefer darts. Mother and I hung out in a corner, nursing our beers and playing Scrabble.

The next day, we headed south back to Massachusetts. This is when I remembered an important difference between zoning in Vermont versus New Hampshire; we had taken the local road (Rt 142) on the West (Vermont) side of the Connecticut River north to Brattleboro and it was picture-book Vermont: snow-covered hills, red barns, and so on. But the road on the Eastern (New Hampshire) side, Route 63, was all Wal-Marts and motor home outlets: Southern NH at its finest. Keep this in mind if you decide to retrace our steps!

The Book Mill

The Book Mill

Our destination this time was Greenfield, Mass and The People’s Pint, a brewpub conveniently located right at the intersection of I-91 and Route 2. Full of delicious Pied Piper IPA, Farmer Brown ale, and their well-executed simple fare, we then traveled a bit eastward to the town of Montague, a town I love for two reasons: my grandmother was born there, and it’s home to the Book Mill, the used bookstore with the best bumper sticker of all time: “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” The rambling, rickety store overlooks a rocky stream (it was once, after all, a mill) and also plays host to the Lady Killigrew Cafe, a spot popular with quietly studying Amherst students. Don’t be afraid of the brown rice and setan salad. It’s delicious. I found myself having a second lunch. (But it was so healthy!)

Also in this Route 2-meets-I-91 corner is Element Brewing Company, in the gently crumbling town of Miller’s Falls. While there’s a lot of revival in this part of Massachusetts — old industrial mills have been turned into everything from world-class art museums (Mass MoCA) to condos — it doesn’t seem to have reached Miller’s Falls. But where else can you wander into a brewing facility, introduce yourself, and find yourself sitting down with the brewer himself, who’s interrupting his day to pour you both a taste?

It’s not hard to find either bookshops or brewpubs along this route — what’s hard is figuring out how to arrange all your eating and drinking so that you maximize both. But don’t sweat it: the worst that will happen is you’ll end up eating two lunches.

Pawtuckaway to Portsmouth: Hiking and Eating

Just about an hour and 15 minutes north of Boston, Pawtuckaway State Park in southern New Hampshire is the perfect middle-ground between leisurely woodland strolling and vigorous actual hiking. On a recent excursion, Ania and I chose the park’s longest loop trail, roughly 8 miles and passing over two peaks, as a way to break in our legs for a new hiking season. (Don’t get too excited; even the taller north peak was scarcely over 1,000 feet.)

A damn fine dam at Pawtuckaway State Park.

A damn fine dam at Pawtuckaway State Park.

Our path took us past all sorts of wildlife — or signs thereof — from the sparrow-sized mosquitoes that followed us most of the way (it being our first hike of the spring, we naturally both forgot to bring bug spray) to a massive beaver dam separating two large ponds. One has to wonder if the beavers look at the park’s rustic little wooden bridges and scoff. Or perhaps wonder how we manage to get the boards so flat using only our teeth.

We also tramped past rockclimbers belaying one another among the park’s house-high boulders, and startled some unidentifiable black birds who’d made a huge nest in a notch in the cliffs. If anyone knows of a cliff-dwelling bird whose cries sound like a buzz saw, let us know.

OM NOM NOM at Portsmouth's Black Trumpet Bistro.

OM NOM NOM at Portsmouth’s Black Trumpet Bistro.

Having completed our leisurely hike in about five hours, we were ready for some beer. Suddenly, the 45-minute drive to Portsmouth (or more specifically, the Portsmouth Brewery) seemed like NBD. We were there in a flash, a sampler spread out before us, ranging from the smokey stout “Chat Noir” to the pleasingly refreshing session “Petite Enffronte” to the stealthily strong (10% ABV, not that you could taste it) “Wheatwine.” At 5pm, the barkeep produced a plate of fries doused in bacon, feta, garlic, and chives, announcing that it was their free 5pm bar snacks. We ate most of the plate before we could stop ourselves, then tore ourselves away to stroll around the town.

We reasoned that the best way to miss the crush of weekenders returning from Maine to Boston on I-95 would be to have an amazing dinner at the Black Trumpet, a cozy bistro tucked into one of Portsmouth’s antique seaside buildings. We sat upstairs in the wine bar, which had a homey, casual ambiance, and faced the paralyzing indecision of the menu. Fortunately, in such a situation there are no bad choices — and plenty of excuses to go back.

A Weekend in Woods Hole

A typically stunning Cape Cod sunset as seen from near the Woods Hole ferry terminal.

A typically stunning Cape Cod sunset as seen from near the Woods Hole ferry terminal.

To most New Englanders, Woods Hole is the way station to Martha’s Vineyard — a quaint village we see in passing as we rush to hop on the ferry. But when my friend Susy got married in Woods Hole this September, Ben and I had the chance to slow down and savor this oft-overlooked little town.

We stayed at the Sands of Time Inn, which consists of an old-fashioned motor inn (the rooms have balconies overlooking the water) and a traditional harbor house with classic B&B furnishings. In the mornings, we’d stroll the seaside sidewalk into town, where we had breakfast at the Pie in the Sky bakery and cafe. With pastries the size of your head and breakfast sandwiches on Portuguese sweetbread with linguica, there was plenty to feed our post-wedding hangovers. I was happy just to sit for a while at a picnic table out front, enjoying the cool Cape Cod air and doing a crossword, watching the line expand and contract as ferries pulled in and out of the neighboring berth.

Another highlight: oysters and ocean views at the Landfall, a restaurant made famous to me by the bride. (She worked there for several consecutive summers.) Ben ordered a beer, and I got the rum runner — which came served in a pint glass. The waitress set it down and, with a certain amount of pride in her voice, described as “probably the most alcoholic drink we have.”

If you’re wondering why they call it “Woods Hole,” it’s so called because the tidal pond in the center of town — Eel Pond — was once entirely surrounded by woods. And, being round, it kind of looks like a hole. Hence… Woods Hole.

My only regret is that I did not try the tacos at Quick’s Hole. When Ben returned to Woods Hole for some saltwater fishing, he texted me an envy-inducing photo of their delicious fish taco.

However, we had plenty to keep us busy in not-so-sleepy Woods Hole and the environs, including a late night at Grumpy’s, a friendly local dive with live music, pool, and — my favorite — air hockey. And on our way out of town, we strolled around the prosperous shops of Falmouth before antiquing our way off the Cape. When you’re not rushing to catch a ferry, it turns out that there’s no need to hurry.