By Craig Davis, CraigslegzTravels.com
We went to the Berkshires in search of colorful fall foliage.
Instead, we found wintry chill in a bleak place called Florida.
Nothing was as expected on this mid-October 2018 venture to western Massachusetts, from the landscape stuck mostly on green to that incongruously named town at the highest elevation on the Mohawk Trail.
There were no flowers in Florida, Mass., and hardly any colorful foliage anywhere in the Berkshires.
Instead of prime leaf peeping it was leaf poupon.
And yet, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable autumn trips we’ve taken.
When travel plans don’t adhere to the script, improvising makes for adventure.
With trees failing to deliver the usual fall spectacle, we looked for color elsewhere and found pleasing and unexpected alternatives. Notably:
— An art museum overflowing with Impressionist paintings including a surprising array of Monet and Renoir, my favorites.
— The unique Bridge of Flowers in the quaint town of Shelburne Falls, a walkway over the Deerfield River lined with more than 500 varieties of annuals and perennials.
(See more fall travel ideas at the bottom of this story.)
Autumn arrives late, if at all
Planning a fall foliage trip to New England is always a crap shoot. The third week of October is usually a good bet that has paid off for us over the years in some memorable displays of changing colors on leaf-stalking expeditions in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
This year, even long-time residents weren’t sure if it would eventually deliver the usual vibrant splendor in western Massachusetts. At best, there was a half-hearted smattering of light yellows.
“It’s drab,” said the woman at the visitors information office in Shelburne Falls.
Some leaves were simply withering and blowing off in the wind, leaving bare canopies next to trees that were mostly green.
“It’s been too wet and warm,” said Tim McCaffery, proprietor at The Cornell Inn, the B&B where we stayed in Lenox, Mass.
To rephrase James Taylor, the Berkshires were blah on account of no frosting.
We drove northward into Vermont to see if it was different there. There was a crisp fall feel, pumpkins on display and hot cider on tap. But the most colorful sight was the bright red Silk Road covered bridge near Bennington, Vt.
We continued as far as Shaftsbury, stopping at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum. Again, we were struck by the colorless surroundings. That is, unless your idea of color is steel gray.
The view of the old barn on the farm where the poet once lived, with a storm setting in, a different artist came to mind: Andrew Wyeth, who leaned heavily on earth tones.
Our intent was to hike on the Robert Frost Trail, a two-mile path through the woods that begins adjacent to the stone house. This is the setting for Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Those plans were aborted at the trail head by an afternoon downpour.
Clark Museum a haven for Impressionist art
Rain came heavier as we retraced our route back to Massachusetts. Unlike some popular fall destinations that offer little more than scenery, the Berkshires are known for cultural attractions – art museums, theater, dance, music, film and historic sites – that provide alternatives. Some are more prevalent at other times of year; Lenox is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Saving grace on this rainy, dreary afternoon came at the Clark Institute of Art at Williamstown. The out-of-the-way locale in the northwest corner of the state seems an unlikely site of one of the best art museums in the country, but The Clark is worthy of the distinction.
A few miles away in North Adams, the Mass MoCa is the largest gallery in the United States, a massive display of contemporary art sprawling over 25 buildings of a former factory complex. That will be left for a return trip and will require a sizable block of time.
The Clark was an ideal and artful refuge to spend a couple of hours, best known for its extensive collection of French Impressionists including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro as well as more than 30 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The exhibit from the private collection of Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and his French actress wife Francine. They began collecting art in Paris in the early 1900s.
A featured attraction is Degas’ famed Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, one of the most prominent sculptures of Impressionism. Like the Little Dancer, there are many copies of Rodin’s The Thinker at various museums, and The Clark has one as well.
Cruising the Mohawk Trail
Seeking scenery in the Berkshires, the Mohawk Trail is a must. Travelandleisure.com lists it high on the list of best places to see fall foliage in New England.
Though it stretches east-west from the New York border to the Connecticut River, the best of it is along the historic 37-mile swath of Route 2, from North Adams east to Greenfield. Originally a Native American path, in 1914 it became one of the first scenic driving routes in the United States.
We began the climb on the steep hairpin uphill turn outside North Adams, which severely taxed those early Twentieth Century autos, hopeful that the first overnight frost of the season had brought some fall color overnight.
It felt more like winter as we stopped at Whitcomb Summit to enjoy the view at the Elk on the Trail statue. Then we shivered in Massachusetts’ version of Florida, which Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about but isn’t much to write home about.
The jewel of the Mohawk Trail is father east at Shelburne Falls, where scenes of the legal-comedy drama “The Judge” with Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert Duvall were filmed in 2013. The picturesque town on the Deerfield River is another historic setting with its falls and nearby formation of glacial potholes formed by metamorphosed volcanic ash. It was an important fishing ground for Native Americans who called it Salmon Falls.
But the star attraction is the unique Bridge of Flowers, ranked among the 10 best places to visit in the fall in New England by newengland.com. The former trolley bridge spanning the river to link the towns of Shelburne and Buckland was converted to foot traffic in 1929 and maintained since then as a floral-lined walkway.
It is one of those timeless places that endures simply to bring joy and brighten the day for those who pass over it. Even with the temperature dipping to freezing the night before, there was still plenty of bright bloom on the bridge.
Here was a place that was truly worthy of being called Florida – that is, flowery, full of flowers.
As to why the traditional fall color of the Berkshires was lacking on this visit, Nell McCaffery, our hostess at the Cornell Inn provided the most viable explanation:
“Mother Nature has a mind of her own.”
More fall trips to take
Our partners at alltherooms.com offer tips for your next autumn adventure:
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