A Heartwarming Day Trip to Western Massachusetts and the Norman Rockwell Museum

Autumnal Scene in Stockbridge, Massachusetts

I was back east recently visiting my parents in upstate New York. Mom and I had on our agenda a “day out” to ourselves, one just like the old days. To us that meant planning a jaunt to a nearby destination such as the Hudson Valley region, southern Vermont or the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, all scenic and fairly rural destinations within about an hour’s drive of my parents’ house in Troy, New York. These were the places we would travel to throughout the years, especially when I was growing up. Together we would marvel at the pastoral landscapes while chitchatting the day away. Lunch, a bit of shopping and often a museum visit were all key components of a successful day trip, the perfect female bonding experience for two gals living in a house full of men. (I grew up with five brothers, a father and no sisters.)

It was during these joyous excursions that my love for unique places full of personality and charm emerged. I could hardly tolerate department stores or malls when I was a girl and still have a hard time with them today. Yes, these trips to soulful sites full of history and tradition planted the seeds for the shopping service I founded in Paris some years later and the four books I came to write on shopping and touring in Paris and the French provinces. My philosophy is and always will be about the whole shopping and touring experience—it’s not so much about what you buy, it’s about how and where you buy it and what you learn along the way. Truth is, I’m not even a big advocate of buying, but we all do, so why not have it be something special that you’ve procured in a memorable manner?

This special day to ourselves was more challenging to organize since we don’t leave my eighty-five-year-old Dad alone much any more. With a hearty, microwavable meal prepared in advance at the ready, cell phones listed in plain site and the reassurance that his Life-Alert was in working order, we said “Hasta la Vista,” knowing full well that we’d all appreciate the much-needed time away from each other.

The Berkshires won out this time, mostly since I expressed a keen desire to visit the new Norman Rockwell Museum. (New is relative since this current, more expanded showcase of this great American illustrator’s works and more opened in 1993. My Mom and I had visited the original Norman Rockwell Museum a couple of times decades ago, but we had not had the opportunity to find our way to this part of western Massachusetts in years. Hey, what can I say? France and Colorado have been my focus throughout most of my adult life.)

Norman Rockwell Museum (exterior). Photo by Art Evans. ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.

On this gorgeous Indian Summer day, we set out for Stockbridge, Massachusetts along the Mass Pike, a leisurely drive that revealed the most beautiful fall colors of my whole ten-day October trip home. We were hitting it at its best, an especially fortunate occurrence for me since I had also taken in the peak foliage of the Rockies just before I left Colorado. The bursts of russet, crimson, bittersweet and dark yellow on the long, loaf-y Berkshire Hills furnished quite a different autumnal tableau from the orangey-golds that flank our snow-capped, towering peaks. Indeed, this part of the country appears older and more steeped in tradition than the mighty West.

The Red Lion Inn: The Place for Lunch

After a short tour along a meandering road off the highway, we arrived at Stockbridge, surely one of the most picturesque villages in all of New England. With a Main Street scene that appears fresh out of a storybook, it’s no wonder Norman Rockwell chose to live here the latter part of his life and to feature many of the town’s buildings and residences in his works. Mom and I headed directly for The Red Lion Inn, one of our all-time favorite places to lunch. As one of the few continuously operating inns in the country since the 1700s, you can bet that coming here plunges you into a marvelous immersion of Colonial America.

We were happy to be seated right away in their glorious dining room filled with leaf peepers from all over the world. (We even met one couple from Australia.) Mom and I happily settled in to this regal setting replete with red floral carpet and wallpaper, white tablecloths and collections of teapots and coffee pots adorning the walls. “I love how everything is so clear and sparkling,” my mother remarked. Indeed, it was nice to see that it was as lovely and grand as I had remembered it from many years ago. Mom and I calculated that it had in fact been eighteen years since we last lunched at The Red Lion Inn. It seemed hard to believe as we both commented that we hoped it wouldn’t be another eighteen before a return visit.

“I’d be ninety-six then,” my Mom piped up. A bitter-sweet comment since I felt a tweak of sadness that she would be that old but was also happy that she considered living that long, something she balked at in years past.

“Well, you might not be driving then, Mom,” I replied. “But I’d be happy to chauffeur you here.” We laughed since in all of our forays, Mom has always been the driver and I’m the navigator, at best.

We savored every spoonful of our New England Clam Chowder, followed by salads, a Caesar for my mother, a Frisée, Radicchio and Spinach for me. People around us feasted on hand-carved turkey sandwiches, Indian Pudding, Roasted Pumpkin Crème Brulée and other tempting offerings. We passed on dessert and padded out to peruse the Inn’s fine furnishings and outstanding collection of china up close. Being cat lovers, we also gave Simon, the Inn’s resident kitty, a few good pets.

The Red Lion Inn in Fall: A Veritable Pumpkin and Gourd Fest

We poked around The Red Lion Inn Gift Shop and then looked next door at An American Craftsman Gallery and Stockbridge General Store, a charming old cache of goods loaded with everything from horehounds (one of Mom’s favorite candies) to hand-dipped beeswax candles, hand thrown pottery and much, much more. As we creaked over the wooden floor, commenting on the various tchotchkes, it truly felt like old times. Perhaps the only thing different was that we were moving slower and buying less. I guess that’s what happens with age and wisdom!

The “Four Freedoms” gallery at Norman Rockwell Museum. Photo courtesy of Berkshire Visitors Bureau. All rights reserved.

Another short, scenic drive landed us at the Norman Rockwell Museum—finally! I walked in here with my mouth gaping nearly as wide as it had when I first laid eyes on his magnificent paintings. So many of them came back to me although in this new, more airy space they’re better displayed. Here they’re featured with extensive explanations that tell the story of each of Mr. Rockwell’s marvelous works, his picture-perfect glimpses of life in America. We also appreciated this new space for the well-placed seating areas that invite you to sit and contemplate the paintings, drawings and illustrations until you’re ready to move on. Closing time came all too fast, but I was still able to dart around the Museum’s campus to take in more idyllic Berkshire Hills views and to glimpse at the artist’s original studio that had been moved here from Stockbridge. I then blasted downstairs of the museum to watch the ten-minute video on Norman Rockwell’s life while admiring the extraordinary display of his renowned The Saturday Evening Post covers on display in the same room. Mom scoured the gift shop during that time until we both shuffled out of the museum with the last of the day’s stragglers.

Photo by Sarah Edwards. ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.

Norman Rockwell’s original Stockbridge studio (exterior). Photo by Art Evans. ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.

We took the back roads home winding through more fall foliage-festooned villages than we could count. Colorado isn’t as big on Halloween decorations, perhaps because the snow and cold arrives so early, so I delighted in all the goblins, pumpkin patches and scarecrows along the way. We only stopped once and that was for another northeastern tradition of sorts that we like to share together:  a coffee shake from Friendly’s. The trip had been a triumph—mother and daughter enjoyed time together while giving father a break. We recounted our day’s doings to Dad upon our return and he did the same about his day with us.

Now that my father heard our raves about The Red Lion Inn and the Norman Rockwell Museum, I can only hope that my parents find their way there together in the not-too-distant future. Day trips do a world of good, even if you break out of the mother-daughter equation.

The Red Lion Inn, 30 Main Street, Stockbridge, 413-298-5545.

Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Route 183, Stockbridge, 413-298-4100.

An American Craftsman Gallery, 36 Main Street, Stockbridge, 413-298-0175.

Stockbridge General Store, 40 Main Street, Stockbridge, 413-298-3060.

Thank you to the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce  and Kevin Sprague for the images in this post.

Note the fall colors appeared to be late this year in the East, supposedly due to all the rain they had and few frosts. So I’m sure there’s lots of great leaf-looking to be enjoyed in New England. Holiday time is also very special there as well.

Check out Cape Cod, Cranberries and the Creation of Ever-Lasting Memories to read about another memorable New England fall trip, that time with both Mom and Dad.

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