Editor's Note: As a special travel feature for September, TheStreet.com offers a series of weekend getaways, each designed to help you find the Good Life. Enjoy!
Two hours from Boston, three hours from New York City, western Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley spends the fall bathed in brilliant color.
Just east of the Berkshire Mountains, the Valley -- as it's known to locals -- is a hodgepodge of farmers, academics and alternative lifestyles.
The Pioneer Valley is comprised of three rural counties (Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire) that hug the sprawling Connecticut River; about 680,000 people call it home.
But from the ancient dinosaur tracks of South Hadley to the designer jeans in the boutiques of Northampton, this area is a surprising mishmash of old-fashioned New England living and modern amenities.
Nestle Into Northampton
If a weekend away from the city -- but not too far -- is what you crave, then head for Northampton.
Perhaps it's the small New England feel of the locally owned businesses and the hipness of the unique coffee shops, restaurants, live music venues and shopping that have earned Northampton the nickname of "Paradise City."
This small city of 29,000 people was founded in 1656 by landowner and fur trader Cornet Joseph Parsons.
If you'd like to stay in the middle of it all, try
The Hotel Northampton ($155 to $349), which is in the center of the scenic downtown.
Start your first day with a stroll down Main Street.
Be sure to check out the store window at
Faces, 175 Main St. Employees design it monthly, and no two are ever the same. Venture inside for trendy clothes and kitschy housewares, and don't miss the T-shirt wall toward the back of the store.
One of my favorite shirts reads:
Welcome to Northampton. Here's your parking ticket.
Be sure to heed the shirt's warning: though parking in Northampton is inexpensive, there is no free parking -- and the local meter maids are notoriously swift on the draw.
For high-end women's clothes, look to
Cici Boutique (150 Main St.), or head into Thorne's Marketplace to check out
Taylor Men/Taylor Women .
There are also a number of excellent art galleries downtown that feature both local and national artists. The
Don Muller Gallery (40 Main St.) boasts a large collection of local glass artists; in an old bank building across the street, Silverscape Design (1 King St.) showcases stunning jewelry and objets d'art.
And there's always the annual
Paradise City Arts Festival, an upcoming autumn favorite (running Oct. 7-9) that highlights fine arts and crafts.
After all that shopping and critiquing, you're bound to need refueling.
The coffee shop reigns supreme in Northampton -- there is one around practically every corner -- but avoid the
and Dunkin' Donuts if you want to sample some of the delectable local fare.
Northampton Coffee (269 Pleasant St.) has exotic flowering teas and, if you're lucky, some vegan peanut butter chocolate chip cookies from the Evolution Cafe down the road in Florence, Mass. Don't let the vegan label put you off -- these rich treats are worthy of any carnivore.
Tucked down at 60 Masonic St. in an old firehouse, Woodstar can't be beat for smooth coffee, artisanal-bread sandwiches and unique snacks.
There really is virtually every cuisine imaginable in this town: The Lhasa Cafe (159 Main St.) serves traditional Tibetan food;
Amanouz (44 Main St.) features superb Moroccan fare (be sure to try the couscous dishes, authentically served from tagines).
There's even barbeque --
Smokin' Lil's (7 Strong Ave.). Or try the intimate Green Street Cafe (62 Green St.) for a cozy French dinner.
Keep in mind that many restaurants and cafes in Northampton operate on a cash-only basis -- make sure you visit the ATM before venturing out to try the local cuisine.
And no meal in Northampton is complete without a visit to
Herrell's Ice Cream (8 Old South St.).
Owner Steve Herrell is said to have invented the dangerous practice of mixing crushed-up candy and cookies into ice cream in the late 1970s. On weekend evenings, the line at Herrell's often spills out to the sidewalk, but the ice cream is well worth the wait. Thick and creamy, with such unique flavors as burnt sugar and butter, Herrell's is not to be missed.
Foraging for Foliage
Perhaps the only thing Northampton lacks are spectacular views of foliage. The leaf-peeping prime varies, but usually falls between the third week in September and the third week in October.
For those spectacular views, head north from Northampton on route 91. Hop off at exit 24, then head east on route 116 for about a mile to the stunning
You can either drive or hike to the top, but if you choose to hike, make sure to wear proper footwear. The trail to the top is short, but very steep.
From the peak, you'll have a pristine view of the Berkshire Hills, the Connecticut River and
Mike's Maze. Each year, Warner Farms carves a different picture into a corn field that also serves as a maze. (This year, the maze is a portrait of the iconic chef chef Julia Child, who died in 2004.)
Continue up 91 north to Greenfield for access to other classic hikes and views. Take exit 26, then route 2 west to
Shelburne Falls. On the way, stop at the
High Ledges for a gentle walk and rewarding views of Mount Greylock.
Continue on route 2 west to visit the scenic downtown Shelburne Falls. Be sure to see the Glacial Potholes of Salmon Falls, and take a walk over the famous Bridge of Flowers -- a trolley bridge from 1908 that has been transformed into a garden paradise.
There are also plenty of antique stores and galleries on Bridge Street and Main Street, featuring the best local artisans have to offer.
After all that activity, head back to Greenfield to relax at the
People's Pint (24 Federal St.). This local favorite's own home-brewed beer pairs superbly with its hearty New England fare. (Again, like many area restaurants, the People's Pint only takes cash.)
If you prefer a quieter pace and easy access to the many great hikes in the Valley, stay in one of the region's bed and breakfasts.
The Bird's Nest ($95-$125) in Buckland, just outside of Shelburne Falls. A good night's rest is guaranteed in this secluded spot, and not surprisingly, birds will be your only alarm clock -- other than the enticing scents of the made-to-order breakfast wafting up the stairs. The hosts are well-versed in all the area's attractions and will even send you on your way with delicious homemade snacks.
Shelburne Falls also has several bed and breakfasts: try the
Johnson Homestead ($75-$110) or Six Maple Street ($90-$100; 413-625-6870).
And over the weekend of Sept. 16, the town of Orange (30 miles east of Shelburne Falls) hosts the
Garlic and Arts Festival.
Live music, arts booths -- and, of course, garlic -- will abound at this annual gala.
There is even a free shuttle bus on Saturday that will run between the Garlic Festival and the Athol Fall Festival, which features antiques, crafts and a large farmer's market.
And before you head back home, check out the local color up close, on horseback. Mt. Toby Stables (413-548-4949) in Leverett offers one of the best trail rides around, leading you on a unforgettable path through the serene Mt. Toby State Forest.
Saddle up, and let the Happy Valley cast its spell.
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Penelope Dane is a writer and sociologist living in Baton Rouge, La. She is currently working on her M.F.A. in fiction and conducting research on teen poetry.