Friday 21 November 2014

New England: Tantalising taste of life in a gilded age

Andrea Smith did not get to sleep in the same bed as JFK in Lenox, New England, but she did get to experience an era fondly recalled by the president

Published 12/12/2010 | 05:00

ENVY can strike in the weirdest of ways. While visiting the small New England town of Lenox recently, I wanted to be able to say that I had slept in the same bed as John F Kennedy in the gorgeous Garden Gables Inn but, alas, that particular boast fell to someone else. I had to settle for ABC news anchor Forrest Sawyer slumbering in my bed, though our visits were on different occasions, of course.

We were in Lenox, Massachusetts, as part of a two-destination trip, incorporating the Berkshires and Boston, a three hour-drive away. Lenox has a population of only 5,000 and the houses are all gorgeous -- think Gilmore Girls meets Wisteria Lane.

The neighbouring town of Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but, alas, we visited out of season. There's an amazingly varied programme of musical events on offer if you're planning on going there over the summer.

Back at the Garden Gables Inn, I may not have got JFK, but I had the most amazing four-poster bed all to myself. Our innkeepers, Peggy and John, couldn't have done enough to make us feel at home, and every evening we'd come home from dinner to a decanter of wine and plates of crackers, cheese and fruit laid out for us.

There are lots of art galleries around the area, and the first one we visited was Mass MoCa, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (www.massmoca.org). Our visit here polarised the group, as some thought that it was cool, modern and thought-provoking, while the rest of us were baffled and bewildered. Nonetheless, it's worth visiting, if only for the fun of debating the artistic merits of a white painted board on a white wall, and what looked to me like a load of toddlers' scribbles on another. Then again, I'm not exactly Pauline Bewick, so what would I know?

It was a completely different matter at the Norman Rockwell Museum, (www. nrm.org), where we were all united in admiration for the work of the 20th-Century American painter and illustrator. I could have stayed for hours. Rockwell is most famous for the cover illustrations depicting everyday life, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post magazine, and the NRM is home to the world's largest collection of original Rockwell art. If you can possibly squeeze in a visit, it's so worth it, as Rockwell's illustrations will definitely make you laugh, think, cry and possibly fall in love a bit.

During the winter months, the Berkshires is a haven for those who enjoy snow hiking and ice-skating. The Cranwell Spa Resort has a fitness centre, and also offers a great range of sporting activities. The area is covered in deep snow for several months, and it is a very popular destination for winter sports enthusiasts.

But for a misspelling by the clerk when the town name was being registered, Lenox would have been called Lennox. It was transformed into a "gilded age" resort during the economic and population growth period of 1880 to 1920, and the vast and opulent mansions dotted around the place are from that period. We visited Ventfort Hall, an imposing Jacobean revival-style mansion built in 1893 for Sarah Morgan, the sister of JP, the American financier, banker and art collector. It's now the home of The Museum of the Gilded Age, and has been declared an official project of Save America's Treasures.

The exterior of the building was used as St Cloud's Orphanage in the Academy award-winning movie The Cider House Rules, and several scenes were shot on its magnificent staircase in the Great Hall. The tour was fascinating, possibly because our guide was so animated and passionate about it all, and it was really interesting to see the renovation work that has been done to restore the imposing building.

We also visited the small town of Stockbridge, home to the Berkshires' oldest inn, the Red Lion Inn, which was built in 1773 by Anna and Silas Bingham. At the time, travel was difficult and wearying, and the inn was a welcome stop-off point. It retains its old charm, but now has accommodation for more than 100 visitors, and a lovely dining room. We had a delightful lunch there, and could choose from local dishes such as autumn squash and cider bisque, New England fish and chips -- which consisted of Barrington Brewery beer battered haddock -- and braised Punsit Valley beef seasoned with Burgundy wine.

Shopping fiends will love visiting the Prime Outlets designer village in Lee, about an hour away, which offers up to 65 per cent off designer brands. While the scale of such outlets can be off-putting the fact that all of the shops are housed in pretty New England buildings made it more palatable.

I even surprised myself by scooping a few bargains, while my companions happily loaded up on Nike, Calvin Klein, Banana Republic, Hugo Boss, and Tommy Hilfiger.

There is something very serene about the Berkshires, and it is the ideal place to combine with a visit to the more lively Boston. Its history and quaint old buildings and inns provide a rare insight into what it must have been like to live there during the gilded age.

As JFK himself put it, "We would like to live as we once lived, but history will not permit it," -- but Lenox gives that tantalising taster!

GETTING THERE

ANDREA travelled with Aer Lingus, which operates daily direct flights from Dublin to Boston, and three weekly direct flights from Shannon (except Jan 5 - Mar 28). Fares start from €209 each way, including taxes and charges. For further information and to book, www.aerlingus.com. She stayed at the Garden Gables Inn, 135 Main Street, Lenox, MA 01240. www. gardengablesinn.com. For more information on the Berkshires, visit www.massvacation.com

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