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.

Maple Syrup Season. Awww, Yeah.

A balanced New England breakfast.

A balanced New England breakfast.

When the streams start rushing and the icicles start dripping, the sap starts rising in the sugar maples — which means it’s maple syrup in the north country.

I’ve always wanted to go on a “sugaring season” weekend in New Hampshire or Vermont, and last weekend I had just that opportunity. It was “NH Maple Weekend,” which meant that sugar shacks across the state were holding open houses. I visited three.

The southernmost, Benton’s, offered a heaping breakfast of maple baked beans, ham, eggs, pancakes, hash browns, and coffee, as well as a look at their sap-boiler out back. If you’re only going to visit one, this is the one I would choose. The Benton family has been sugaring for five generations. Their dining room offers delicious comfort food served on paper plates with plastic forks and a big smile. A long line develops quickly — they’re only open on weekends, and the staff is minimal, so get there as close to 8 am as possible. Avoid the pancakes, frankly; no pancake is as good as the flapjack you’ll have at Polly’s Pancake Parlor, further north. But if you want to get something “mapley” try the maple baked beans which are insane (sorry vegetarians, they come with bacon mixed in). Next time I go, I’ll also be giving the French toast a try. No matter what you order, it’s the perfect way to load up for your day of skiing or hiking. I know I didn’t need to break for lunch after breakfasting there. And my grand total came to all of 12 bucks. Oh, and yeah: they had a bluegrassy guitar player singing in the backroom.

Built by a 19th century Chicago tycoon, today the Rocks Estate offers maple "experiences" in March and April.

Built by a 19th century Chicago tycoon, today the Rocks Estate offers maple “experiences” in March and April.

Further north, the Rocks Estate was offering a more comprehensively educational look at sugaring in New England. I sat through about a thirty-minute presentation of the history of maple sugar in the region, including a homespun video. From this I learned a) that maple sugar was originally called “Indian Sugar,” because Native Americans in the region had long ago learned how to harvest it from maple trees, and b) that in the 19th century, Abolitionists advocated using it because, unlike sugar cane from the South, it was produced without slave labor. Also, c) that it takes anywhere from 40 to 60 gallons of sap to get a single gallon of delicious maple syrup. I also got the opportunity do try a classic New England combo: a plain donut, warm maple syrup, and a homemade sour pickle. OM NOM NOM.

At Benton's in Thornton, NH, you can truly taste the rainbow.

At Benton’s in Thornton, NH, you can truly taste the rainbow.

The Rocks Estate also offers hay rides, a gift shop, the chance to tap a tree yourself, and cooking demonstrations. I, for one, saw the chef from the Sugar Hill Inn explain how to make maple creme brulee. Mm hmm, that’s gonna happen. The one downside: the ticket for the “NH Maple Experience” (as they call it) was 15 clams. Anyhow, I definitely want to go back in the summer. The estate at one time had amazing formal gardens; I don’t know if they’ve been restored, but they’re close enough to Polly’s Pancake Parlor that I figure it won’t hurt to just…check.

The most remote sugar shack I explored was Fuller’s, which I had convinced myself was the BEST. Only, it wasn’t. I’m sure their maple syrup is lovely, but there was no sap to be had that far north — it’s still too cold, so no boiling demo — and no breakfast and no activities. However, they did offer me free sugar on snow with a pickle, a classic New England treat from my childhood. I was also recommended a few sugar shacks further south, notably Parker’s, which is close enough to the Massachusetts border that it could probably make an easy day trip for any Boston-bound person. However, I dallied a bit too long in the north country and didn’t make it down there before close.

In the end, what I learned was this: it’s best to go to the sugar shacks with a) food, or b) activities. The ones without, “authentic” as they may be, and delicious as their syrup may be, just aren’t as much fun to visit.

I broke up the weekend with a visit to Littleton, NH, where I picked up some new ski bindings at Lahout’s (knowledgeable staff, always a great price) and had a delicious lunch at Miller’s Cafe, right on the river. The Yankee pot roast sandwich was a great addition to my uber-Yankee weekend. I also had a surprisingly good dinner at the Coyote Grill in Waterville Valley, NH. I’d been there before and, at that time, wasn’t terribly impressed — it was over-priced and not very well executed. This time it still felt over-priced but was excellently executed, and they had a small but carefully chosen beer list. Rumor has it there’s a new chef. Just don’t be put off by their location — in the Waterville Valley athletic center. Also, penny-conscious patrons be advised: there’s a cheaper bar menu. And of course, I skied — you can’t spend an entire weekend mainlining maple syrup and not get a little bit of physical activity in. Right?

A Scenic Drive Around Cape Ann

Last weekend, on Columbus Day, Ben and I were heading back from Portland, Maine when we decided to take a scenic detour around Cape Ann. If you’re looking for a good leaf-peeping route, we recommend it.

The Globe recently did a “Mohawk Trail vs. Kancamagus Highway throwdown” for scenic fall drives, completely ignoring Cape Ann. And in fact, an unofficial poll of friends revealed several who had never been to the lesser-known Massachusetts cape at all; including Ben! This is a pity. Cape Ann is dotted with charming architecture, local history, state parks, and antiques.

You can see the route we followed here:

We started in Newburyport, a beautiful beginning — historic houses line the street like sailboats drawn up to a pier — and cruised down 133 into Newbury and Ipswich. One regret: we did not stop at the Plum Island Sound Wildlife Refuge. I’ve been before and it is stunning, but on this trip, we thought we should keep moving so as not to delay our dinner in Gloucester too late. This was a mistake. Cape Ann is not as big as it looks, and the main roads (133 and 127) actually get you from A to B fairly quickly. As it was, we cruised on to Essex, where we limited ourselves to two of its many antique shops. Another regret! We both later agreed we should have dawdled there much longer.

Halibut Point is a great place for a quick stroll.

Nevertheless, once we got to the oven mitt of the cape and up to Halibut Point State Park, we did get out of the car and stroll around. There’s a striking view of an old granite quarry overlooking the ocean, and paths through the brush down to the rocky point.

Back in the car, we continued around to the “thumb” of the cape and Rockport, possibly the tourestiest town in New England. I immediately purchased a hot cider, which instantly transformed me into Ms. Autumn Woman. A profusion of shops proffered Rockport sweatshirts, fudge, taffy, and other seaside ususals, especially out along the ticky-tacky Bear Skin Neck, a pedestrian zone. At the end of the neck you can often find a lone violinist, playing to the picture-snapping crowd. This would be fine, but for the back-up orchestral music being pumped out of his intrusive amplifier. It reminded me of a flutist I once saw spoiling the ambiance of Bryce Canyon by a) playing the flute, and b) hooking his flute up to some sort of electronic echo machine. We fled.

By the time we arrived in Gloucester, it was just a little after 4pm; we’d completed the entire drive in something like three hours. Deeply regretting that it was too early for dinner, and not wanting to brave the pre-Halloween crowds in Salem, a favorite town of ours, we resigned ourselves to slipping into the evening rush in 128. I don’t know why they call it a rush, as everyone was driving very slowly. And instead of our delicious dinner at one of the places we’d been recommended — Duckworth’s Bistrot, the Franklin Cafe, the Alchemist — we simply picked up some Indian takeout in Somerville and ate it in front of Inspector Lewis. Not a bad end to any day; just not the end we’d been hoping for on this particular day.

When we do it again, we’ll spend much more time browsing the antique stores in Essex and north of the Cape, and less time in Rockport. (We did find a few good shops — which I’ll add to this post once I can remember their names (eek) — but we would skip Bear Skin Neck completely.) I’d also want to explore more of the small museums in the area (like the Beauport Museum, the Cape Ann Museum, and Sargent House) and some of the sites that are just sort of curious or interesting (Hammond Castle, Dogtown Common, the Rocky Neck art colony).

So was this trip a swing-and-a-miss? Not hardly. More like a sacrifice bunt. We still had a good, if very mellow, time, and we consider it recon for our next ramble around Cape Ann.

What else did we miss? Let us know!