Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.
WHEN SPRING ARRIVES in New England, some of us kind of lose our minds. Can you blame us? After being stuck inside all winter, we welcome those first feeble rays of March sunshine like a long-lost friend, greeting 50-degree weather with T-shirts and smiles. Behold, the prodigal sun!
But spring around here is fickle, and often very wet. As much as we long to get outside, sometimes nature just doesn’t cooperate.
That’s why the four-season playground of the Pioneer Valley makes for a great spring getaway. Amid the collage of college towns and rolling farmland, there’s every opportunity to hike, bike, or play outside when the sun is out — but also plenty of ways to get your outdoor fix indoors when Mother Nature douses your best-laid plans. And that’s not to mention a hyperactive year-round cultural calendar that, buoyed by the nearby colleges and universities, defies the bucolic landscape.
On my latest visit with my wife and young daughter, we stay at the historic Hotel Northampton (413-584-3100, hotelnorthampton.com). We always seem to end up there, just because it’s smack downtown in Northampton, the artsy epicenter of this “Happy Valley.” Northampton’s stroll-inducing Main Street and offshoots are jammed with art galleries, restaurants, bars, music venues, and unique shops worth a visit in any season.
With sidewalk musicians, cheap eats from all over the world, and a student-bohemian energy, downtown Northampton, only about 100 miles from Boston, feels a lot like Harvard Square; there are even familiar facades, like the original Raven Used Books (413-584-9868, ravenusedbooks.com). But one big difference is that driving for 10 minutes finds you not “almost to Watertown,” but rather enveloped by gorgeous countryside and pastoral landscapes immortalized by artists of the Hudson River School.
The Pioneer Valley is the Commonwealth’s bread basket; this is where farm meets table. I’m not just talking about the trendy restaurants that serve locally sourced ingredients (there are plenty); I mean that some working farms also serve food on the premises. In the past, we’ve stopped for lunch and a sweet treat at Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery (413-586-2142, barstowslongviewfarm.com), which offers ice cream, cheeses, and more. The burgers, when available, come from cattle that are raised on the pretty, family-owned Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley. But in the spring, perhaps no other foodstuff is better enjoyed on site than maple syrup.
On weekends during sugaring season, a number of Massachusetts maple farms serve syrup-soaked pancake and waffle breakfasts. So we stuff our faces full of blueberry pancakes, thick-cut bacon, and virtually unlimited pure maple syrup at the North Hadley Sugar Shack(413-585-8820, www.northhadleysugarshack.com), where breakfast is available daily through April 15 this year, and you can watch syrup making up close on weekends.
I’m of French Canadian descent, so I take maple syrup pretty seriously (though not as seriously as my mom, who used to carry a small bottle to breakfast in case a restaurant tried to pawn off some grotesque, gooey forgery). And I have to say: I’m in maple syrup heaven. I could do this every morning if I lived nearby, so perhaps it’s best that these breakfasts are as fleeting as spring itself. (The sugaring season typically runs from late February into April, but it depends on the weather; sap runs best when it’s below freezing at night and warmer during the day.)
We try to burn off some of those gloriously empty, syrupy calories by hiking to the historic Summit House, a former hotel teetering atop Mount Holyoke in Hadley’s J.A. Skinner State Park. The interior of the 19th-century landmark has been off-limits due to ongoing restoration work, but the wraparound (and around, and around) porch still offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the Connecticut River Valley and beyond.
The roughly 3.5-mile round-trip hike is on a paved, winding road, so we’re able to manage it in street shoes and with our 5-year-old. There are a variety of trails through the woods as well, but bring your duck boots — it’s mud season. And if you’re short of time or breath, you can drive halfway up — or even all the way to the summit — later in spring when the park gates are open, and soak up the scenery without breaking a sweat.
If the dramatic bend in the river below looks familiar, you might recognize it from Thomas Cole’s famous 1836 painting, known as The Oxbow. Around that time, Mount Holyoke was the second most popular tourist attraction in the United States, behind only Niagara Falls. That surprised me, too, at first — but after a long look and a deep breath at the summit, it makes a lot more sense.
Other great beginner or moderate hikes in the area include a flat, 3.7-mile loop around Ashley Reservoir in Holyoke; trails in Mass Audubon’s 724-acre Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary (413-584-3009, massaudubon.org) in Easthampton; and Mount Sugarloaf State Reservation in South Deerfield, where a variety of trails are open year-round, with the summit road opening in mid-May. But our legs are wobbly enough for one day, and spring is starting to do that thing where it openly mocks your optimistic wardrobe decisions.
With rain clouds approaching, we seek shelter and find serenity in nearby Montague at the Montague Bookmill (413-367-9206, montaguebookmill.com), whose delightfully beckoning slogan, “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find,” reads like a dare. We accept the challenge and find both the bookshop itself — a rambling collection of cozy rooms and creaky floors in a former mill on the Sawmill River — and an armful of used books begging to come home with us.
Attached to the Bookmill is the Lady Killigrew cafe and pub (413-367-9666, theladykilligrew.com), an equally enchanting space with industrial remnants and giant windows overlooking a mesmerizing waterfall. We pass up the tasty-sounding sandwiches grilled on local sourdough for the peanut-ginger udon noodle bowl and warm brown rice salad, paired with picks from the small but excellent draft beer list.
From Montague we meander west and then south on Route 5, where we make a brief detour into the Old Deerfield Village Historic District. Even if you don’t stop to visit the Historic Deerfield museum (413-774-5581, historic-deerfield.org) — a collection of a dozen or so impeccably maintained 17th- and 18th-century houses and furnishings — a slow drive down Old Main Street feels like a time warp.
When we reach South Deerfield, it’s pouring. But we enter a waterproof natural wonder: Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory and Gardens (413-665-2805, magicwings.com). This 8,000-square-foot indoor tropical paradise hosts nearly 4,000 different exotic butterflies, who flit all around us as they dart through the lush greenery. Other inhabitants include colorful Gouldian finches, waddling button quail, and terrariums filled with frogs, lizards, and other critters. One of them, teeming with cockroaches, leaves me squirming but our daughter squealing with gross-out glee.
We were in the neighborhood, so I figured we ought to see what draws half a million visitors each year to Yankee Candle Village (877-636-7707, yankeecandle.com), the candlemaker’s 90,000-square-foot flagship store in South Deerfield. I was fully prepared to poke fun at this global capital of kitsch and candles . . . but, I’ll admit, it was pretty amazing as giant stores go.
Like some kind of New England-themed Disneyland ride, there’s an old-fashioned general store, a fudge and candy shop, and a Colonial candle-making museum. On top of the family-themed events and performances, kids can create their own colorful candles from scratch or make wax statues of their hands (after repeatedly plunging their fists into ice-cold water, then melted wax). There’s a 20-foot indoor waterfall, antique toy trains chugging along elevated tracks above you, and even, in the Christmas-themed Bavarian Village, indoor snow every four minutes.
A cure for the ensuing overstimulation can be found at Paul and Elizabeth’s restaurant (413-584-4832, paulandelizabeths.com) in Northampton. Its lofty ceilings, tall windows, and dozens of potted plants give off a refreshing, spring-like simplicity. And the menu, with a focus on seasonal specials, fresh fish, and locally sourced vegetables, was at once creative and comforting — and surprisingly affordable. The sesame-seed-encrusted catfish is perfection — light but incredibly flavorful — and my wife doesn’t leave so much as a trace of her organic pasta dish.
Just downstairs is the flagship location of Herrell’s Ice Cream (413-586-9700, herrells.com), which might ring a bell if you lived in Allston or Cambridge in the 2000s. I’m not ashamed to admit that we get dessert here two nights in a row. If your sweet tooth doesn’t do dairy, even the almond milk ice cream we sample is delicious — but you can also get fresh-made doughnuts, including vegan and gluten-free options, at Glazed (413-270-1885, glazeddoughnutshop.com), around the corner.
Walking around Northampton is its own urban hike, and we pop into store after quirky store. From the decidedly nonessential delights of Essentials (413-584-2327, helloessentials.com), which now shares space with Strada shoes, to the curated and crafty shops in Thornes Marketplace (413-584-5582, thornesmarketplace.com), it’s easy to find one-of-a-kind gifts and unique household items here. If your parents are bird lovers like my dad, talk to the helpful staff at Backyard Birds (413-586-3155) for a Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gift. We always struggle to get much farther down Main Street than the wonderful Broadside Bookshop (413-586-4235, broadsidebooks.com), which invariably sucks us in and spits us out over an hour later and a few books richer.
When you need replenishment, excellent coffee and sandwich-type fare is easy to come by: Haymarket Cafe (413-586-9969, haymarketcafe.com), Tart Baking Co. (413-584-0717, thetartness.com), and Woodstar Cafe (413-585-9777, woodstarcafe.com) are all the type of coffee shop you wish would open up in your neighborhood.
After ice cream and a stroll around town, it’s time for us to turn in. But if you’re without a little one in tow, make sure to see who’s playing at the Iron Horse Music Hall (413-586-8686, iheg.com). This legendary but intimate venue has hosted some of the biggest names in folk and roots music on their way to the top, from Tracy Chapman to Beck to Wynton Marsalis. The same ownership books bigger shows at the Calvin Theatre and club acts at Pearl Street; you can check a combined calendar of listings on the website, or call the Northampton Box Office at 413-586-8686.
When it’s not sugaring season (or when your travel companions don’t share your compulsion to guzzle maple syrup two days in a row . . . harumph), morning in Northampton means French toast and omelets at cheerful Sylvester’s (413-586-5343, sylvestersrestaurant.com) or eggs and the house hash at the cozier Jake’s (413-584-9613, jakesnorthampton.com).
Both get crowded on weekend mornings, so if you can’t stomach the wait, grab some bakery treats and coffee to go and have a picnic breakfast in Look Park (413-584-5457, lookpark.org) in Northampton’s Florence village. The 150-acre expanse is run by a private nonprofit that charges a fee to park, but it’s a beautiful place to spend a few hours outdoors. A small, free zoo includes pygmy goats, peacocks, owls, deer, and other animals kids can feed by hand, and a seasonal steamer train makes a 1-mile loop around the park for $2 and change.
Speaking of trains, the Northampton area is blessed with miles and miles of paved bike paths along former railroad lines. These flat, car-free routes make for the ideal bike ride (rentals start at $25 a day at Northampton Bicycle; 413-586-3810, nohobike.com), and they’re also nice for walking when hiking trails are muddy with spring snowmelt. The popular Norwottuck Rail Trail connects Northampton with Amherst, but if you take the Manhan Rail Trail about 4 miles south, you’ll come to a new gem in Easthampton: Mill 180 Park (413-203-1687, mill180park.com). Of course, you can also drive there, which we do.
Mill 180 is an indoor public park inside a huge brick industrial building on Lower Mill Pond. Designed to emulate a lively city park, but indoors, it has a landscape of artificial turf, various lawn games, and hundreds of hydroponic plants that eventually make their way into the cafe’s delicious salads. Local beers and wine are on tap, too; I enjoy a Nightshade Stout from Abandoned Building Brewery (413-282-7062, abandonedbuildingbrewery.com), whose taproom is a couple of buildings down.
We meet up with friends and let our kids explore the park’s features together; they include a giant chess board, foam building blocks, and a whimsical mushroom-shaped cabin. Weekends often bring some type of family entertainment, and our daughter gets her face expertly painted for the price of a small tip. It’s tough to get the kids out of there, but by early evening, the family crowd begins to dissipate and the grownups take over, with periodic concerts and other events.
Despite the soggy weather, we return home with our spirits brightened. And thanks in no small part to the area colleges, the valley is saturated with other rainy-day entertainment as well. There’s art everywhere, from the heavy-hitting collection of the Smith College Museum of Art (413-585-2760, smith.edu/artmuseum) in Northampton to more whimsical works at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (413-559-6300, carlemuseum.org) in Amherst. Get your fossil fix at the free Beneski Museum of Natural History (413-542-2165, amherst.edu/museums/naturalhistory) or visit the homestead of a cherished American poet at the Emily Dickinson Museum (413-542-8161, emilydickinsonmuseum.org), both in Amherst. And drizzly days make a fine excuse to visit some of the area’s excellent craft beer taprooms, like Berkshire Brewing (413-665-6600, berkshire-brewing.com) in South Deerfield and Lefty’s Brewing Company (413-475-3449, leftysbrew.com) in Greenfield.
But if it’s the outdoors you’re after, you can always find it in the Pioneer Valley — rain or shine.
Jon Gorey is a writer in Quincy. Send comments to email@example.com.Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.
BEST BETS FOR SUNNY OR SOGGY WEATHER
Get your fill of nature no matter what the fickle spring skies throw at you. Here are your best bets no matter the weather in Pioneer Valley.
Northampton’s Look Park (413-584-5457, lookpark.org) is a treasure in good weather, with acres of grassy fields and a petting zoo, plus a seasonal steam train ride, mini-golf, and pedal-boat rentals.
Mill 180 Park (413-203-1687, mill180park.com) in Easthampton is an indoor public green space designed to make the best parts of a great city park — such as greenery, community, and programming — available in all weather.
The Bridge of Flowers is an old trolley bridge spanning the Deerfield River in Shelburne Falls that’s lined with hundreds of flowering plants. It makes for a colorful and sweet-smelling stroll between April and October. See what’s in bloom at bridgeofflowersmass.org.
Get your bloom on at the Lyman Plant House at the Botanic Garden of Smith College (413-585-2740, smith.edu/garden), which holds thousands of plants from around the world encased in glass greenhouses.
The Pioneer Valley has plenty of scenic day hikes, such as Mount Holyoke, Mount Sugarloaf, Mount Tom, and Chesterfield Gorge.
At Central Rock Gym (413-584-7625, centralrockgym.com) in Hadley — the second of more than a dozen locations in this fast-growing Massachusetts-based chain — we and some friends hired a staff member to belay for us as we took turns scaling the 40-foot walls. It was surprisingly cheap when split four ways.