Escape RI with Easy Fall Day Trips
Here are four fun getaways to explore for a few hours, or maybe the weekend.
A good time to take a study break. By Courtney Coelho
College towns are a unique beast. Their steady flow of students bring a mix of culture, food and shopping that’s more robust than the average small town. That also means they tend to be great places to visit. And while this certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule, it is the case for Northampton, Massachusetts, home to iconic Smith College. An oft-overlooked gem located in the center of the state, Northampton’s center is buzzing with restaurants, shopping and plenty to do on Smith’s adjacent campus, with a vibe that’s classically New England with a touch of hippie. My husband and I stumbled upon the small city on a trip to the Berkshires and as soon as we saw it, we started making plans to go back and explore more thoroughly.
Which is how we find ourselves driving west on the Mass Pike early one recent morning. The trip is an easy one — about an hour and forty minutes from Providence — with plenty of hilly, tree-covered vistas to enjoy.
Pulling into the downtown area, the first order of business is to fill our growling bellies. A stop at Glazed Doughnut Shop seems like it will do the trick. The two-shop chain (there’s one in nearby Amherst, too) has all the classics, plus some more unusual fare. We opt for beignets and a maple bacon bar, plus two coffees, and take our food a few blocks over to Pulaski Park. The small urban space in the center of town was recently renovated and has plenty of shade and seating, along with a playground and water sculpture. We commandeer a cafe table and enjoy our sweet and starchy breakfast al fresco. glazeddoughnutshop.com
After we eat, a little mental stimulation is in order, so we head over to nearby Smith College. Originally designed in the 1890s as a botanical garden and arboretum by Frederick Law Olmsted, the campus makes for a scenic backdrop to our midday stroll with its stately buildings, thousands of mature trees and beautiful lake at its center. Parts of the garden, as well as a conservatory, are still in existence, including one of the oldest rock gardens in North America, which is equal parts beautiful and impressive in size. smith.edu
We head first into the Lyman Conservatory, one of the few of its kind remaining in existence. For a nominal donation, anyone can go in and peruse the series of greenhouses that hold all manner of rare, unique and endangered plants, along with varieties of coffee, tea, vanilla, fern and succulent.
But Smith has much more to offer visitors than just plants, including an impressive art museum, so we make our way there next. After meandering through the gallery — which at the time was showing a special exhibition exploring representations of the human body in East Asia over the last century — we scope out the permanent collection on the second, third and lower floors. To our surprise and delight, we spot works from heavy-hitters including Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso, Monet and Degas alongside older works and modern creations.
Studiousness gets our appetites up again. We walk the few blocks back into town and duck into Belly of the Beast, a cozy spot with communal tables that serves made-from-scratch fare using lots of seasonal and local ingredients. After filling up on cold soba noodles and a grain bowl accompanied by local ciders, we decide to spend a few hours checking out Main Street’s shopping options. bellyofthebeastma.com
Among the home stores and the requisite Urban Outfitters are some not-to-be-missed offerings. Exhibit A: Faces, a one-of-a-kind gift shop that sells all sorts of items — some nostalgic, others more of the gag variety. facesmainstreet.com. We spend a good thirty minutes just browsing the selection of putty, lava lamps, emoji pillows and cat-shaped cheese graters before heading across the street to Thornes Marketplace, another Northampton
institution. The multi-level store has everything from locally made chocolates to books to flowers, but the real gem is Acme Surplus. The variety alone is worth a look — think tie-dye T-shirts sharing shelf space with rubber gloves — and the prices make leaving empty-handed nearly impossible. thornesmarketplace.com
Feeling hungry again after all that shopping, we make our way over to Northampton Brewery, where we score a table in the rooftop beer garden and sample the American pale ale, an IPA, burgers and the buffalo cauliflower dip. northamptonbrewery.com
The food serves to satiate, but one final stop is needed to make the day complete. Buzzfeed named The Tunnel Bar one of the “19 Bars in America You Should Drink At Before You Die.” Naturally, we have to check it out. We snag a table along one of the subway-tiled walls and order a couple of cocktails. Sipping, we marvel at the unique space, preserved so that we could clearly imagine a train pulling in, whistle blowing, during its heyday as a train station. thetunnelbar.com.
It is an unexpected way to end a day full of unexpected discoveries and we wrap up our visit only wishing we had stumbled upon Northampton sooner.
Nuts and Bolts
Drive time: Less than 2 hours from Providence to Northampton
Miles: 196 round trip
How to get there: Take Rt. 146 to I-90 W and it’s a straight shot from there. However, if you have more time, it’s definitely worth exploring some of the back roads for a more scenic route.
Best season to go: Summer or fall
If you stay over: Hotel Northampton. Accommodations are generally limited to B and Bs and chain hotels, but the Hotel Northampton is the exception. Centrally located downtown and walking distance to Smith College, shopping and restaurants, it’s a convenient option that also offers plenty of comforts. The onsite fine-dining restaurant, Wiggins Tavern, is a cozy spot for drinks or dinner by the fire, while the more casual Coolidge Park Cafe offers the ideal vantage point for people-watching while eating. 36 King St., Northampton, Mass., 800-547-3529, hotelnorthampton.com.
Don’t miss: Live Music. Given Northampton’s large population of young creatives, it’s not surprising that the city is known for its live music venues. The Academy of Music Theatre (aomtheatre.com) is a storied icon that brings in world-class musicians, dancers and comedians year-round. If you’re looking for lesser-known artists, check out Iron Horse Music Hall (iheg.com), the Parlor Room (signaturesoundspresents.com) or Bishop’s Lounge (bishopsloungenoho.com).
Worth a detour: Treehouse Brewing Company. Didn’t get your fill of local brews in Northampton? Stop by Treehouse Brewing Co. in nearby Charlton on your way back home. The brewery’s IPAs and stouts inspire a cult following so come with a cooler and be prepared to wait in line to pick up your stash. Still, it’s well worth the stop if only to grab a couple pints and relax in an Adirondack chair on the lawn. 129 Sturbridge Rd., Charlton, Mass., 413-523-2367, treehousebrew.com.
Closer to home: Worcester. With Worcester Polytech, Holy Cross and several other schools within miles of each other, Worcester is another option if you’re looking for the variety a typical college town has to offer. Attractions include the Worcester Art Museum, Tower Hill Botanic Garden and loads of great restaurants in this rapidly developing city. discovercentralma.org.