Where nature and culture mingle

The Berkshires offers historic homes, art museums, and breathtaking views four seasons a year.

Norman Rockwell house 88 248 (photo credit: Darren Pinsker)
Norman Rockwell house 88 248
(photo credit: Darren Pinsker)
Green and crisp. I'm not referring to the exotic Asian culinary delicacy of the multilegged variety that a waiter once offered to add to my soup in southwestern China; I demurred with respect to the insect but, adventurous still, opted for having a raw egg plopped into my broth and was rewarded for my blind courage with two consecutive days of legendary cramps. (Note to self and others: This was roughly 15 minutes after browbeating my wife for not being sufficiently adventurous and native in her choice of cuisine.) The colors and texture - green and crisp - describe the abundant leaves and refreshing air in the Berkshires, a bucolic and cultural corner of southwestern Massachusetts. With the Dow Jones average behaving like a bipolar inpatient and my own mood correlated closely to the Dow's vertiginous decline, a few days of serenity in the mountains intermixed with a healthy serving of culture was just what Dr. Dow ordered. So my wife and I set out for the Massachusetts hills, using the charming and centrally located town of Lenox as our base, and found exactly what we were looking for. The Berkshires are most famous for the Tanglewood summer festival of classical music. But with summertime not yet here, the cultural offerings of the Berkshires are still rich, and the hill-dotted landscape is inviting and beautiful. The enticing fusion of nature and culture that characterizes the region was apparent in the places we visited - historic homes, art museums, nature preserves - and the natural spaces between the places. THE WRITER'S retreat of the early-20th century author Edith Wharton, located near Lenox, offers one fine example of the region's seamless synthesis of culture and nature. Wharton, an important American novelist, took a great interest in interior design and the architecture of gardens, subjects about which she wrote several nonfiction works in addition to her many novels. "The Mount," as her summer home is called, is located in a secluded wooded area overlooking Laurel Lake. The lake reflects the surrounding forest like a giant telescope's polished mirror, the quiet of the woods surrounding the lake broken only by flocks of birds. One envies Wharton's opportunity to live and write in this place. To arrive at the estate, the visitor walks down a path bordered on either side by enormous trees, the leaf canopy lending a private feel to the 400-meter walk. One is immediately drawn to The Mount's beautiful gardens, designed by Wharton and fashioned after the classic gardens of Italian villas, which invite wandering and exploration; and one quickly comes to understand how this serene summer estate helped to nurture Wharton's prolific output of approximately 40 books in as many years. The interior of the majestic house holds architectural interest (though a shortage of funds leaves it in need of a face-lift in a few places). Of particular interest is Wharton's vast personal library whose many books contain marginal notes and markings that offer insights into the intellect of this largely autodidact, Pulitzer Prize-winning author. THE ATMOSPHERE at the regal Wharton estate differs markedly from the small-town scenes painted by another famous denizen of the region, Norman Rockwell. The Norman Rockwell Museum in nearby Stockbridge offers a panoramic view of the life's work of the eponymous American artist. Rockwell was an illustrator for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post. But for anyone who has been charmed by his work - and it is hard not to be moved by his depictions of life in small-town America - he was far more than an illustrator. His subject matter ranged from portraits of American presidents to painterly vignettes portraying country pharmacists. His works often have a near photo realistic quality, the faces and hands of his subjects bearing intricate detail, the slightly exaggerated expressions capturing and conveying surprise or joy or hope with great poignancy. The museum offers a wonderful opportunity to take in the full breadth of the artist's work. Many of these iconic paintings will be familiar to the viewer as they have long become part of the American cultural landscape. The grounds of the museum also contain Rockwell's artist studio, situated at the foot of a beautiful valley that shimmers in theatrical shades of green. BEYOND THE tree lines the Berkshires abound in colorful theater. The excellent Shakespeare and Company recently staged The Canterville Ghost at the company's intimate Elayne P. Bernstein theater. The play, a takeoff of a story by Oscar Wilde about a Texas family's sojourn in a haunted English house, was entertaining, a comic relief that suited today's mood far more than a more haunting meditation on life after death would. The cast clearly enjoyed themselves, as did the audience. Michael Hammond performed admirably and hilariously in the role of Sir Simon de Canterville, drawing the audience into the play from the very beginning. Michael Toomey was also a standout as the family patriarch Hiram Otis. What the play lacked in profundity it more than made up for in spirit. The outdoors in the Berkshires is tonic for the spirit, so we set aside some time to experience nature at the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, just outside Lenox. This large nature preserve contains 11 kilometers of trails, and is home to a population of beavers and many species of birds. I am far from an ornithologist, but I enjoy an exotic bird sighting as much as the next guy and was fortunate enough to see a rather large bird with a rather large bill take off from its perch a few feet away. (Note to self: This was roughly 45 seconds after I had complained to my wife that I had not yet seen wildlife. If I were an ancient Greek, I would have thought this bird was an omen.) My wife and I opted for a light 30-minute walk around Pike's Pond. We were alone on the trail. The place was ours for the moment, the only noise an occasional leaf floating to the ground in these placid woods. Lodging, dining, antiquing and culture Lodging The Gateways Inn, located in Lenox, offers comfortable rooms in an excellent, central location (51 Walker Street; +001-413-637-2532). Lenox is home to numerous other bed and breakfast establishments. Stockbridge and many of the surrounding towns also offer lodging options. Many of the Berkshires' cultural and historical offerings can be found within a few miles of Lenox and Stockbridge. Edith Wharton's Estate: The Mount is located in the environs of Lenox and is open May through December (2 Plunkett Street; 413-551-5111). The Norman Rockwell Museum: The museum is located a short drive from the center of Stockbridge (9 Glendale Road, Rt. 183; 413-298-4100). Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary: The nature preserve is situated a few minutes' drive from the center of Lenox (472 West Mountain Road; 413-637-0320). Dining Church Street and Housatonic Street in Lenox offer a variety of dining alternatives, ranging from French to Asian cuisine. The Gateways Inn has an excellent restaurant which serves fine continental fare. Antiquing Head south from Lenox on Route 7 toward the Connecticut border to seek out treasures at one of the dozens of antique shops dotting the road. Elise Abrams Antiques in Great Barrington contains a museum-like collection of sets of antique dining glassware (11 Stockbridge Road; 413-528-3201). Robert Davis Antiques at Twin Fires Barn in Sheffield (1350 Berkshire School Road; 413-229-8899) has a large collection of antique dining tables. It is open Friday through Sunday from 12 to 5 and Monday through Thursday by appointment. Or randomly stop in at any one of the many antique shops along the route. You may well walk out with a new addition to your home. (If you are an impulse buyer, you may regret the six-foot tall, circa 1870s wooden elephant you just bought.) Chocolate Culture If you find yourself on Route 7 heading in the direction of New York, stop off at Belgique in Kent, Connecticut (1 Bridge Street; 860-927-3681). This specialty chocolate shop offers the richest hot chocolate in the Americas, and possibly in the solar system. Do you remember the chocolate river from the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Put your lips to a cup of Belgique's hot chocolate and you will feel as if a tributary of that river is being poured down your gluttonous gullet. If I ever find myself back in Kent, Connecticut (tomorrow), I will try one of Belgique's many other exquisite-looking chocolates and desserts. As good as they look they no doubt taste even better. Kultur Culture: For a broad overview of the region's cultural offerings, obtain the brochure Culture in the Country. Contact the Berkshires Visitors Bureau for this and additional information (www.berkshires.org; 800-237-5747 or 413-743-4500).