By François Steichen
Locals call it “America’s Switzerland,” but I was reminded of The Shire. I’m talking about an area within weekend-trip distance of Greenwich: a roughly 700 square-mile section of western Massachusetts delimited by the Westfield, Deerfield and Connecticut rivers and vaguely shaped like the bud of a hop plant.
Indeed, the bedrock in these foothills is Gneiss, the same ancient metamorphic rock that dominates the southern Swiss Alps. So the Helvetian comparison has some truth to it. The farms are well-tended and repaired; the descendants of mostly English, French-Canadian, Polish and Irish families have a reputation in the area as very hard workers. Residents here do not seem too worried about developers’ encroachment; they are making a living as farmers, against the national odds.
Even the B&B I stayed in reminded me of the Swiss reputation in hotel arts. The Shelburne House Bed and Breakfast sits atop a hill of the Colraine-Shelburne Road, surrounded by apple orchards, about half a mile from the Mohawk Trail (Route 2). A rigorously clean room, private bath, supportive mattress and country air that made me sleep like Rip van Winkle? It would have been enough.
But Sarah Carpenter Martin’s impeccable hospitality and Nathan Martin’s magic in the kitchen made them rock stars in my book. Al dente bacon. Home fries that are neither mushy, starchy, nor greasy. A small heap of arugula with a tablespoon of vinaigrette – surely designed to provide a touch of bitter, mouth-cleansing energy for the day ahead. If the breakfast was heroic – an omelet the first day and waffles the second – it was also elegantly-portioned. The Shelburne positively reeks of consideration for their guests.
And yet… not Switzerland. The Shire. If you are willing to look beyond the facile honky-tonkness of the Mohawk Trail’s shuttered motels and tacky gift shops, you will begin to grasp the code: wherever a sign says “Maple Syrup Sold Here,” or “Cider,” or “Raw Milk,” or “Eggs,” that is a secret entrance to the natural, non-artificial, world of The Shire. The forests are dense here; the Berkshires are, after all, the southern extension of Vermont’s Green Mountains. But the hills seem to roll more than Vermont’s, the meadows seem bigger, and there are even switchback roads that lead to railroad tracks, cross elliptical bridges spanning palisade-enclosed gorges, and whose grades test your car’s ability to downshift.
There are horses and cows in pasture that will have your children squeaking with delight. And while you’re at it, get in a raft along the Deerfield River with them and enjoy the controlled chaos of taking rapids and feeling the water spray on your face. CrabApple Whitewater, Inc., Berkshire Whitewater, or Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort are good bets for guided rafting.
Go fly fishing on the massive flat-sheet pools below the Bardwell’s Ferry Lenticular Through-Truss Bridge – a jaw-dropping national landmark. Or float the river AND fish with a drift boat excursion from Pheasant Tail Tours.
Cycling is a major weekend-warrior sport in The Shire. Cyclists love the challenge of the steep and constant up-and-down hills there. So you needn’t feel any apprehension about strapping your bike on top of your car for the trip up.
Hiking is also a major attraction here, whether on the easy stroll trails of the Bullitt Reservation (animals also found here for the kids!), or the more strenuous trails of the Massachusetts Audubon High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary or even one of the many trails in the Mohawk Trail State Forest complex (Zoar, Todd Mountain, or the Hoosac Tunnel).
Our country offers us magical vistas like the Rockies and the Grand Canyon, so we often forget what is close to home. Go check out “The Shire,” and you will see that magic does not always require an exhausting trip.
François Steichen founded and owns Frenchy’s Wine Road. At 10 years of age, he took his first sip of a sparkling wine. Since that moment, the magic of fermentation and spontaneously-produced bubbles has never truly relinquished its hold on his curiosity.
François is a resident of Old Greenwich with almost 20 years’ experience in the Wine Industry. To learn how he can help you with wine- & beer-related matters, feel free to check out his webpage or reach out to him at: [email protected]