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.

10 Ways to Deal with February in New England

Estabrook Woods in Concord, MA is quintessentially New English.

Estabrook Woods in Concord, MA is quintessentially New English.

Generally, I hate February. I’m convinced the real reason that the month is so short is because some Roman emperor hated it too, and, one February 29th in a winter that had been particularly gray and bleak, decreed: “Oh, to hell with it. It’s March now. March 1st. Got that?” I’d probably move us on to March even sooner, but sadly I don’t have the same level of calendrical control.

Nevertheless, February is here and it must be dealt with. There are only 10 more days to go, so I’ve come up with 10 ways to deal.

1. Take a winter hike in the Blue Hills. At the beginning of the month, before the major nor’easter that dumped 30 inches of snow on Boston, I went for a vigorous three-hour hike in the Blue Hills, on the Skyline Trail. You’d probably need your snowshoes to make the same trek now (or you could snowshoe or ski one of the wider, flatter trails). It was much more serene than the Blue Hills are in the warmer months; just me, a handful of other blissed-out winter hikers, and some gently falling snowflakes making everything look magical. Dust off your trekking poles and your CamelBak, and bundle up in plenty of layers.

2. Take a walk somewhere pretty. If winter hiking sounds too strenuous, then throw on your Bean boots and do something easier. I’m a year-round visitor to Estabrook woods in Concord (here’s a map), but my favorite time of year to visit is the winter. Just something about the snow, the sunlight, and the bare trees. It’s a great place for dogs, who can run around off-leash — and also a great spot for those of us who like saying hi to other people’s dogs. For other options, check out the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s useful park finder.

Long Trail brewery is close to Okemo and Killington.

Long Trail brewery is close to Okemo and Killington.

3. Get thee to a brewery. There are enough great breweries in New England to fill a book. But a quick list of favorites would have to include: Long Trail in Bridgewater Corners, VT (cram in around the woodstove with apres skiiers and be sure to try the Coffee Stout and the Triple Bag); Harpoon in Boston (do the tour and enjoy 30 minutes of unlimited tasting; then take yourself tipsily over to the ICA); Night Shift in Everett, MA (a nano-brewery Ben has been raving about; I’ve yet to go); the Shipyard Brewery in Portland, ME (conveniently located in the historic waterfront district, not far from a charming narrow gauge railroad museum); and Moat Mountain in Conway, NH (sit in the bar and get some of their amazing BBQ nachos to go with your sampler). There’s also the delightful Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, NH — I’m a sucker for their sampler and their pretzel rolls.

4. Eat brunch and ice skate. When was the last time you hit up your favorite Boston brunch place and then went skating on the Frog Pond? There’s a reason it’s a Boston tradition: it’s fun. Pick up some hot chocolate on Charles Street to keep yourself warm while you wait in line for skates.

5. Try nordic skiing. The weekend of the big blizzard, Ben and I were in Waterville Valley, NH taking a ski lesson. Ben’s already a good cross-country skier, but my skills were rather, uh, rusty. We took a skate skiing lesson and I’m hooked. Not only is it vastly cheaper than downhill, but it’s much, much more of a workout. After a couple of hours, your legs will be tired and your endorphins will be up; and unlike with alpine skiing, you won’t be cold. The trail system around Waterville is extensive and well-maintained, and it’s just about a 2-hour drive from Boston. There are also ski tracks closer to Boston, in Carlisle and Weston. Of course, if you have the gear, you don’t need to bother going to a groomed trail system; with all the snow we’ve gotten this month, you can just find an obliging patch of woods and get to it.

6. Go to a spa. Sometimes, you just need to get warm. Boston is replete with spas featuring hot tubs (like at Inman Oasis), Russian baths (like the old-time Dillon’s), Finnish baths, and chi-chi top-shelf spas (like the one at the Mandarin Oriental). Further out, I’ve been to both Essential Therapies Day Spa in Bolton and — way far out — Cranwell in Lenox. This last makes a great day trip if you combine it with a tour of The Mount (Edith Wharton’s estate) and dinner at Nudel (swoon).

7. Ski hut-to-hut at Maine Huts and Trails. Drive north — waaaay north — and take advantage of this ever-growing network of trails and rustic huts in the woods of Maine. Friendly staff will have hot meals waiting for you when you arrive, and they’ll even move your gear along for you so you can schuss unencumbered.

8. Go antiquing. From Cape Ann to Maine’s Route 1 to Connecticut’s Route 7, New England is full of neat old stuff. Find some of it near you.

9. Try a new museum. So you’re bored with the MFA, the Science Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner. So what? New England is full of other great options: the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the RISD museum in Providence, Fruitlands in Harvard, the Currier Museum in Manchester, the Worcester Art Museum, the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton (really — it’s stunning). Pick one and go find out what it is.

10. Make a hot toddy and read a good book. There’s no better time in New England to finally read that novel (or, if you’re like me, pore over your trail guides and make plans for spring). So get off the Internet already and pick up that paperback. For the toddy, I prefer simple recipes. My current favorite is Meyer’s rum, hot water, and lime juice. Lather, rinse, and repeat until spring.

New England’s Perfect Inn?

The Rabbit Hill Inn; there's been lodging in this location since the 1800s, when the junction was a key way-station between Boston and Montreal, and Montreal and Portland.

The Rabbit Hill Inn; there’s been lodging in this location since the 1800s, when the junction was a key way-station between Boston and Montreal, and Montreal and Portland.

I’ve always been a hoarder. Easter candy was saved until Halloween; Halloween candy preserved until Easter. So when my parents gave us a gift certificate for the Rabbit Hill Inn for my 30th birthday, of course I saved it until my 31st. But it was worth the wait; it made the perfect getaway for an lazy long weekend away from Boston, and an ideal way to spend a low-key birthday.

An easy cruise about two and a half hours up 93, the inn is one of the uniformly white clapboard houses in quiet Lower Waterford, Vermont, at the gateway to the Northeast Kingdom. The service was without parallel; every whim (bucket of ice and two champagne flutes? coming right up!) was catered to. In fact, the staff’s attitude was so friendly and welcoming, it took us a while to get used to it; no one is this nice anymore. Except maybe the people who answer the phone at Zappos.

Admittedly, we came to this weekend with wildly different expectations: I was expecting to sit by the fire, read books, solve crosswords, and maybe, if I felt like exerting myself, play a game or two of Scrabble. And indeed, we did all those things. But Ben’s plan was more ambitious: Antiquing! Exploring! Music! Food! We did some of those things. But even though the scenic drive around Lake Willoughby was striking — it’s more like a Norwegian fjord or a Scottish loch than something you’re used to seeing in New England — if I had it to do over again, I’d just stick close to home.

The exotic Lake Willoughby.

The exotic Lake Willoughby.

If you must leave the inn, the quaint towns of St. Johnsbury, VT and Littleton, NH are both nearby. And while we were there in the quiet shoulder season — something I definitely recommend — in summer and winter you’re not far from some serious mountains, whether hiking or skiing is your preference. Once you’ve spent a day or two lazing around doing jigsaw puzzles in the living room, drinking Talisker at the inn’s Snooty Fox Pub, and stuffing yourself full of delicious country breakfasts and big-city caliber gourmet dinners, you might think an invigorating climb up all 5,249 feet of Mt. Lafayette (30 minutes south) sounds pretty good. And if for some reason you get tired of breakfast at the inn, the awesome Polly’s Pancake Parlor is just 20 minutes away. (A tip: call ahead to put your names on the list in advance. There’s nearly always a wait.)

A quick word about the inn’s restaurant: it’s not the usual heavy, overpriced, salty old-person fare you get at most inns. They do tend to push early dinners (and the Snooty Fox shuts down around 9 pm), but the idea is that you eat well, eat early, and go to bed. The food, though, is fantastic — well-executed modern dishes with portions that will leave you satisfied, but not stuffed.

Of course, it’s not cheap; but you get what you pay for. (Or in our case, what my parents paid for. Thanks Mom and Dad!) While some (ahem, Ben) may ask why you’d want to pay a bunch of money to go somewhere and do nothing, my attitude was a little more OMG I GET TO SIT AROUND AND DO NOTHING. No computer, no cooking, no dishes, no cleaning, no having to even boil your own water for tea — yeah, I’d pay for that.