When I want to escape from the noise and stress of city life, I head west. Not "West" west, Gold Rush west, "west of the Mississippi" west—just a short jaunt west of Boston, to Massachusetts’ North Quabbin region, for a hearty dose of country living.
From Boston, it’s a scenic, 88-mile leisurely drive along Route 2, so jump in the car—or rent one—and plan to stay for a long weekend. In March and April, Thursday through Sunday gives the best experience.
First stop is the quiet town of Petersham (locals pronounce it Peters-ham, not Peter-sham) and one of my favorite places to stay, Colonial Hill Alpaca Farm Bed & Breakfast. Delightful inn owner Terry Emmrich gives guests personal tours of her expansive, 1742 colonial home and encourages an afternoon catnap on the couch in the living room or on the four-season porch. If the weather is pleasant, head out back and meet the herd of 23 Peruvian Huacaya alpaca that graze the inn’s three-acre yard and provide silky fleece that Emmrich spins into fiber for scarves, socks and sweaters that she sells in her onsite shop.
Visitors should appreciate a low-key vibe. Farming is woven into the fabric of everyday life here and has been since the early 18th century when the area was settled. You’ll see working dairy farms, apple orchards and natural and organic gardens, as well as the remnants of early farmsteads and old stone walls, dotting the rural landscape.
It makes sense, then, that farm-to-table eating is practice here, not fad, and foodies will literally enjoy the fruits of the North Quabbins labor. Family-owned Smith’s Country Cheese makes award-winning Gouda in Winchendon, monitoring the process from milking through aging. Stop in for a tour of the cheese-making room, before testing out ultra-fresh slabs of creamy Gouda (in flavors like salsa or caraway), havarti (vegetable, dill), smoked cheddar and Smith’s signature, spreadable Gouda in the farm store that sits just uphill from the cow pasture. Then rendezvous at the Kitchen Garden, a bakery that specializes in Scandinavian breads, including Swedish limpa and, my favorite, the soft-braided, cardamom-spiced Finnish coffee bread with a sugary crust.
Feel less guilty about supersizing your caloric intake by lacing up hiking boots and exploring the boon of recreational pursuits available in the region. Petersham and neighboring New Salem border the Quabbin Reservoir, a massive, man-made body of water that covers 39 square miles and supplies drinking water for Boston and surrounding towns. Constructed in the 1930s, the reservoir, its park and its reservation lands are beautiful places to visit. Gain access through specific numbered gates and don’t bring Fido. Since March tends to be a shoulder month, consider the weather, but regardless of falling snow or greening trees, there is a load to do: snowshoeing, sledding, cross-country skiing, hiking, biking. This time of year, wildlife spotting within the watershed may yield nesting bald eagles, turkey vultures and moose. For majestic views, head north along Route 202 and pull off at the New Salem lookout.
Petersham, itself, is largely occupied by conservation land, notably Harvard Forest, which is owned by Harvard University. It boasts 3,600 acres across five tracts of land and is open to the public for horseback riding and dog walking, fishing at Harvard and Connor’s ponds, trail hiking, and flora and fauna study. If the forecast looks grim, visit Harvard Forest’s Fisher Museum, a beautiful building that has an outstanding collection of 23 dioramas that depict scenes of central New England forests. In Petersham, Royalston, New Salem and Phillipston, preservation group The Trustees of Reservations holds nine different outdoor properties, from the swampy, woodsy, home-to-beaver-and-bobcat Swift River Reservation, to rugged sites that feature dramatic waterfalls, including the not-to-miss Doane’s Falls.
Check in at Johnson’s Farm & Sugar House in Orange, because March also means that maple-syrup season is in full swing. If you’ve never tasted the real stuff—but even if you have—you need to go. Explore the sugarhouse and canning room, open daily, where the staff and fifth-generation family members explain the process of turning sap into syrup. Then venture across the street, where Johnson’s restaurant serves up home cooking at breakfast, lunch and dinner—try the chicken glazed in Johnson’s own syrup and topped with walnuts and apples. A country-style store sells jugs of sweet maple-y goodness.
If you’re not the outdoorsy type, the Benedictine monks of St. Mary’s Monastery and the sisters of St. Scholastica Priory host a lovely, traditional, Latin Gregorian chant and mass, daily at 1 pm, at their chapel, just down the road from Colonial Hill. In neighboring Hardwick, the Hardwick Vineyard & Winery corks six varieties of French-style wine blends—the tart Massetts Cranberry is the best-seller. Sample a few wines in a rustic setting, take a tour through the vineyard and the property’s 1795 house, or enjoy a glass and some cheese on the porch.
Antiques hunters can scout out a number of stellar shops filled with all things old and old-looking. At Templeton’s town common, Country Mischief occupies a 1770 dwelling, filling 20 rooms with primitive, country and colonial-style home decor, pottery made by local crafters, and vintage, antique and reproduction items. The store also has an adorable, quaint café with a fireplace and a screened-in porch that serves delicious omelets and sandwiches on homemade bread. In nearby Baldwinville, Nouveaux Riches offers a quirky selection of antique smalls, collectibles and some furniture, while Nancy MacEwen’s aptly titled Country Antiques in Phillipston features Colonial-period antiques like cupboards and yellowware, old signs, boxes and gardening cultivators. MacEwen’s shop is only open by chance or appointment, but the great finds make it well worth calling in. If the sky looks the least bit sunny, keep an eye peeled for pop-up tag sales—with so many old homes and forgotten-about barns, these often yield treasures straight out of “American Pickers.”
The Where list: Resources for the traveler in Central and Western Massachusetts
- Colonial Hill Alpaca Farm Bed & Breakfast, 235 North Main St., Petersham, 978.724.0301
- Country Antiques, 250 Ward Hill Road, Phillipston, 978.249.7517
- Country Mischief, 10 Baldwinville Road, Templeton, 978.939.5460
- DCR Quabbin Reservoir, 413.323.7221
- Hardwick Vineyard & Winery, 413.967.7763
- Harvard Forest and Fisher Museum, 324 North Main St., Petersham, 978.724.3302
- Johnson’s Farm & Sugar House, 210 Wheeler Ave., Orange, 978.544.7835
- The Kitchen Garden, 268 Baldwinville Road, Templeton, 978.939.8558
- Nouveaux Riches, 7 Central St., Baldwinville, 978.652.5071
- St. Mary’s Monastery, 271 North Main St., Petersham, 978.724.3350
- St. Scholastica Priory, 271 North Main St., Petersham, 978.724.3213
- Smith’s Country Cheese, 20 Otter River Road, Winchendon, 978.939.5738
- The Trustees of Reservations, 978.921.1944