By MICHELLE GREEN
Published: February 21, 2003
UNDER a storybook blanket of snow, Lenox, Mass., may look like just another well-groomed New England town. In fact, this hamlet in the southern Berkshires is a retreat where world-weary types seek sustenance for body and soul. Home to the Canyon Ranch and the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, it is also summer headquarters for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which performs at Tanglewood. The Gilded Age equivalent of the Hamptons, Lenox offers sweeping vistas and mild summer weather that, in the 19th century, brought Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Westinghouses to the Housatonic River valley to build showy villas that they called Berkshire cottages. Along with the Mount, above, Edith Wharton’s magnificent house, many of those enormous houses are still standing — some as inns, others as private homes. A hundred and fifty years after this mill and farming village was discovered by swells, it is a town with an air of luxe, calm and voluptuous pleasure. But since this is New England, there is an athletic twist: summer brings hiking, biking and riding; winter is about skating, skiing and snowshoeing. (When it comes to clothing, it’s Harvard Square all the way; if it looks good in Park City, Utah, don’t pack it.)
Friday 5 p.m.
1) Sidewalk Tour
In the early evening darkness of deep winter, the part of town designated as historic Lenox village (anchored on the west by the monument at the intersections of Route 183, Old Stockbridge Road, and Main and Walker Streets) glitters with fresh-fallen snow, and the quiet is all-encompassing. Though summer brings swarms of music lovers, this isn’t people-watching season; you’ll want to get your bearings by bundling up for a hike in the town center. Head east on Walker Street to No. 81, a Queen Anne Victorian built in 1885. Now the Gables Inn (413-637-3416), it once belonged to the family of Wharton’s husband, Teddy, and was a summer home for the couple while their own getaway was under construction. Wharton wrote several stories in its octagonal library. Modeled on a 17th-century English estate, the Mount itself is open from May 3 through Nov. 2 (2 Plunkett Street, at Route 7, 888-637-1902). At 104 Walker Street, you will see the somber-looking Elizabethan Revival mansion that is Ventfort Hall. Built in 1893 for Sarah Morgan, the sister of J. P., it has been transformed into the Ventfort Hall Museum of the Gilded Age. If the imposing brick building looks familiar, it is because it served as the setting for the St. Cloud’s orphanage in the 2000 movie ”Cider House Rules.” On winter weekends, it is open for hourly tours from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. (admission $8, 413-637-3206).
2) Stressless Supper
If you’re road-weary and ready for an easy supper, head for the South Mountain Grill (1015 South Street, 413-499-2075), a little north of the village. It is near the refurbished Yankee Inn and other motels on Route 7. You won’t need reservations; it is a casual place where you can lounge in the bar and tuck into a hamburger ($6.75).
4) Into the Woods
Since breakfast is part of the deal at most inns, fuel up early and spend the morning cross-country skiing or trekking through the woods. At the 380-acre Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club, groomed trails are available to drop-in snow bunnies. You can rent equipment in the pro shop (55 Lee Road, 413-637-2563; $16 a day for skis, $16 for snowshoes; $14 for a day-long trail pass) and beginners can opt for cross-country lessons or guided snowshoe treks. Other choices include Kennedy Park on Main Street, a town-owned spread with trails that traverse a 500-acre hardwood forest ($11 a day for cross-country or snowshoe equipment from the Arcadian Shop, 91 Pittsfield Road; 413-637-3010). Or hike through the 1,500-acre Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary (472 West Mountain Road, 413-637-0320), which has a thriving beaver colony and seven miles of trails.
5) Got Your Gold Card?
In the area bordered by Main, Walker, Church and Franklin Streets, inviting boutiques sell handmade jewelry, clothing and furniture. R. W. Wise, Goldsmiths (81 Church Street, 413-637-1589) sells contemporary jewelry, and antique and estate pieces in gold and fine gemstones.
6) Paris in the Berkshires
Call ahead to reserve a table at the Bistro Zinc (56 Church Street, 413-637-8800) in Lenox Village; it is a stylish place that attracts well-heeled weekenders. The interior is authentically Left Bank — tile floors, mirrored walls, red-leather banquettes and a lounge with a polished zinc bar. At lunch you will find steak frites ($10) and mussels mariniere ($9), along with duck confit served with lentil and potato salad ($8).
7) Rhinestones and Yoga
High on a hill with a sweeping view of the Berkshires, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Heath (308 Nest Street, 800-741-7353) was
once a Jesuit seminary. These days, decaffeinated clients in leotards and yoga pants float from meditation classes to renewal workshops, looking less like ascetics than urbanites who have finally had a good night’s sleep. Though most guests stay for several days, the center is open to the public and visitors can call ahead to book treatments like aromatherapy ($75 for 50 minutes), facials ($85 for 60 minutes) and stone therapy massage ($130 for 90 minutes). Or just waft into the gift shop, where you can snap up rhinestoned yoga togs and all manner of jewelry for your feet.
8) Feast on Conversation
After an aperitif at your inn, walk to the Church Street Cafe (65 Church Street, 413-637-2745). There is no pretension here, just pretty rooms hung with interesting artwork. Still, you may feel like Wharton as you eavesdrop: conversations tend to involve the spiritual adventures of the wealthy (as in ”I’m surrounded by a lot of rich, unhappy people up there” — this from a bald sage in a cashmere turtleneck). Winter starters include chestnut and caramelized leek ravioli with pulled duck and shiitake mushrooms ($10.50); entrees include double-thick pan-roasted maple-and-cider-glazed pork loin chops ($21.50). A mocha ice cream torte with chocolate sauce ($6.50) is among the dessert offerings. Revive yourself at the bar with an Armagnac or an espresso. If you’re staying in the village you can hike through the snow and the moonlight back to your inn.
9) Where Dogs Run Free
Start the day with a hike. From the Town Monument, walk north on Main Street, past Housatonic Street, turn left when you reach Cliffwood Street. Walk past the Cliffwood Inn (on your left), a belle époque mansion built in 1904, and keep an eye out for locals walking their enormous dogs; you may encounter a giddy animal unleashed and bounding through the snow.
Brunch at Wheatleigh (Hawthorne Road, 413-637-0610) is a relative steal, given its magnificent setting (where the prix fixe dinner is $75). You may find yourself alone in the elegant glass-enclosed portico, looking out at the manicured grounds. Wheatleigh, above, has a European air that is reflected in the cuisine. The pastry basket includes dreamy croissants, hot chocolate is served in a silver pot and the orange juice is freshly squeezed — the Continental breakfast perfected ($18.50) — and there are à la carte items, too, like a smoked salmon and fromage blanc omelet ($19). No one will stop you if you stroll around afterward, pretending that the oasis is all yours.
Lenox is about 180 miles — a three-and-half-hour drive — from New York City. Take the New York Thruway or the Taconic State Parkway to Interstate 90 East. Get off I-90 at Lee, Mass., and go west on Route 20 to Business Route 183 South, where a sign will direct you to ”Historic Lenox.”
Bus service is operated by Bonanza (800-556-3815) and Peter Pan (800-343-9999). The Albany airport is about an hour away.
A palazzo erected for a Spanish countess in 1893, Wheatleigh (Hawthorne Road; 413-637-0610) is one of Lenox’s two truly opulent hotels. (The other, Blantyre, is open from mid-May until late October.) Set on 22 acres, Wheatleigh looks like the set for a 1930’s film about the filthy rich: parquet floors, soaring ceilings and a sweeping staircase — everything but Jean Harlow in a bias-cut gown. The 19 rooms and suites have silver-plated bathroom fixtures and Bulgari toiletries. Rooms are $465 to $945; suites, $965 to $1,250, depending on season.
The Cliffwood Inn (25 Cliffwood Street; 413-637-3330) is a large antiques-filled belle èpoque house two blocks from the center of town. It has an indoor counter-current swimming pool and an outdoor pool; six of its seven rooms have fireplaces. Rooms are $114 to $254 on weekends, depending on season.