The Berkshires in western Massachusetts, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Boston, are picture-perfect with rolling hills and leafy knolls. It’s no wonder the Gilded Age’s high society developed this region into a summer paradise, complete with magnificent mansions and manicured parks and gardens.
Acclaimed annual festivals include the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, where the Boston Symphony Orchestra resides for the summer, Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Becket, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Lenox is also where the renowned Shakespeare & Company has been holding court since 1978.
These are just a few of scores of cultural events all summer long. On top of that there’s the sprawling Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, and Lenox is home to the world-famous Canyon Ranch fitness and spa resort.
The Berkshires are a dream destination for everyone from performance lovers, to fitness fanatics, to tranquility seekers.
Lenox then and now
Lenox is a small town with an illustrious and interesting heritage. Similar to Newport, Rhode Island, Lenox distinguished itself as the epicentre of society swells during the period between the Civil War and the First World War.
Artists and writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Catherine Sedgwick, Fanny Kemble, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were among those who settled in Lenox in the 19th century. They were drawn there not only to admire the beautiful countryside and scenic views of mountains and lakes, but to hobnob with the many prominent financiers and industrialists whose luxurious and imposing summer homes were scattered around Lenox and the surrounding area.
One such property is the Bellefontaine Mansion, which is part of the Canyon Ranch compound. Another is Ventfort Hall, a Jacobean-style estate and museum that is one of about 75 summer cottages—as in Newport, the term “cottage” refers to a palatial summer mansion—built in and around Lenox and Stockbridge during this period.
Back in those days, artists were invited to perform for the seemingly endless special occasions being held at these estates during the summer months. Today, the public is the beneficiary of a plethora of activities, from cultural and culinary to camping and hiking.
Upon arrival we jumped into a rigorous two-day fitness program at the Canyon Ranch that included an off-campus hike (with guide) so we could surround ourselves in nature. A diverse range of sports classes—so little time and so many to experience—for every fitness level every hour on the hour and special dance choreography classes were part of our fitness regime, along with enjoying healthy and flavourful meals and snacks to keep energized.
The dining room is located in the fully restored 19th-century Bellefontaine Mansion. Evening lectures, seminars, and arts/crafts classes for guests are held in the gorgeously appointed library room.
We were able to enjoy live performances during the evening hours. After an early dinner (this is not a late night type of resort, and no alcoholic beverages are served), we attended a magnificent performance of Beethoven, Strauss, and Wagner at Tanglewood, a few minutes away by taxi. The resort took care of getting our tickets and arranging transportation. The next evening we saw “The Merchant of Venice” being performed in-the-round by Shakespeare & Company at the Tina Packer Playhouse, a short stroll from the resort.
The following afternoon, after a short hike arranged by Canyon Ranch, we visited Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Jacobean-style mansion and museum was built by George and Sarah Morgan, she being the sister of financier J. Pierpont Morgan, as their summer home. The interior is a lovely backdrop for the concert series at the mansion. (The exterior of the building and the magnificent staircase in the Great Hall were used in the filming of the Academy Award-winning movie “The Cider House Rules”).
Train buffs will delight in the restored 1903 Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum with its interactive railroad exhibits, also in Lenox.
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge—Rockwell’s home town—houses the largest collection of his original art as well as his beloved paintings and illustrations from “The Saturday Evening Post.” Also in Stockbridge is the Berkshire Botanical Garden, one of America’s oldest botanical gardens. It features 23 seasonal display gardens and is open year round.
Besides the abundance of hiking and biking trails, along with rafting and canoeing—activities that are accessible almost throughout the entire year—the Berkshires has cultural events on par with any major city. The health and fitness aspects are excellent options to round out your visit.
Isabelle Kellogg is a writer and public relations consultant in the luxury sector, with a passion for diamonds, jewelry, watches, and other luxury products, including travel.