Massachusetts Travel Guide

The state of MASSACHUSETTS was established with a lofty aim: to become, in the words of seventeenth-century governor John Winthrop, a utopian “City upon a hill”. This Puritan clarity of thought and forcefulness of purpose can be traced from the foundation of Harvard College in 1636, through the intellectual impetus behind the Revolutionary War and the crusade against slavery, to the nineteenth-century achievements of writers such as Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau.

Spending a few days in Boston is strongly recommended. Perhaps America’s most historic city, and certainly one of its most elegant, it offers a great deal of modern life as well, thanks in part to the presence of Cambridge, the home of Harvard University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), just across the river. Several historic towns are within easy reach – Salem to the north, known for its “witch” sights, Concord and Lexington, just inland, richly imbued with Revolutionary War history, and Plymouth, to the south, the site of the Pilgrims’ first settlement (1620).

One of the most celebrated slices of real estate in America, Cape Cod boasts a dazzling, three-hundred-mile coastline with some of the best beaches in New England. A slender, crooked peninsula, it’s easily accessed from the region’s snug villages, many of which have been preserved as they were a hundred or more years ago. Today, much of the land on the Cape, from its salt marshes to its ever-eroding dunes, is considered a fragile and endangered ecosystem, and once you head north to the Outer Cape, past the spectacular dunes of Cape Cod National Seashore, you get a feeling for why this narrow spit of land still has a reputation as a seaside wilderness. Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod, is a popular gay resort and summer destination for bohemians, artists and fun-seekers lured by the excellent beaches, art galleries and welcoming atmosphere.

Just off the south coast of Cape Cod, the relatively unspoiled islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have long been some of the most popular and prestigious vacation destinations in the USA. Both mingle an easy-going cosmopolitan atmosphere and some of the best restaurants and B&Bs on the East Coast. Nantucket is usually considered the more highfalutin’ of the pair, teased for its preppy fashions; Martha is more expansive and laidback, known for its elaborate gingerbread-style houses, wild moorlands and perfect beaches.

Western Massachusetts is best known for the beautiful Berkshires, which host the celebrated Tanglewood summer music festival and boast museum-filled towns such as North Adams and Williamstown – both in the far northwest corner of the state, at the end of the incredibly scenic Mohawk Trail. Amherst and Northampton are stimulating college towns in the verdant Pioneer Valley, with all the cafés, restaurants and bookstores you could want.

The Berkshires

A rich cultural history, world-class summer arts festivals and a bucolic landscape of forests and verdant hills make the Berkshires, at the extreme western edge of Massachusetts, an especially enticing region.

Just south of I-90 and fifty miles west of Springfield, the spotless main street of STOCKBRIDGE is classic Berkshires, captured by the work of artist Norman Rockwell, who lived here for 25 years until his death in 1978. The most comprehensive of several tributes to the artist in New England, the Norman Rockwell Museum displays some 574 of his original paintings and drawings, most of which were Saturday Evening Post covers.

Roughly five miles north of Stockbridge on US-7, tourists flock to LENOX each year for its summer performing arts festivals, but there are also a couple of literary attractions hereabouts worth checking out.

From 1790 until 1960, the Hancock Shaker Village, eleven miles northwest of Lenox, was an active Shaker community, and today offers an illuminating insight into this remarkable Christian sect. A branch of the Quakers that had fled England to America in 1774, the Shakers were named for the convulsive fits of glee they experienced when worshipping. Hancock retains one of the biggest collections of Shaker furniture in the country and is home to eighteen preserved clapboard buildings.

In the northwest corner of the Berkshires, sleepy NORTH ADAMS and bucolic WILLIAMSTOWN are the unlikely locations of the region’s premier art showcases. The former is home to the glorious Mass MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), a sprawling collection of modern installations (including Sol LeWitt’s mind-bending work), videos and upside-down trees in a captivating old textile mill. In Williamstown, the highlight of The Clark is its 32-strong collection of Renoirs, while the ravishing Williams College Museum of Art specializes in American art from the late eighteenth century onwards, including the world’s largest repository of work by brothers Maurice and Charles Prendergast.

Martha’s Vineyard

The largest offshore island in New England, twenty-mile-long MARTHA’S VINEYARD encompasses more physical variety than Nantucket, with hills and pastures providing scenic counterpoints to the beaches and wild, windswept moors on the separate island of Chappaquiddick.

Martha’s Vineyard’s most genteel town is Edgartown, all prim and proper with its freshly painted, white clapboard colonial homes, museums and manicured gardens. The other main settlement, Vineyard Haven, is more commercial and one of the island’s ferry ports. Oak Bluffs, in between the two (and the other docking point for ferries), has an array of fanciful wooden gingerbread cottages and inviting restaurants. Be aware of island terminology: heading “Up-Island” takes you southwest to the cliffs at Aquinnah (formerly known as Gay Head); conversely, “Down-Island” refers to the triumvirate of easterly towns mentioned here.

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Andy Turner

written by
Andy Turner

updated 26.04.2021

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