The hallowed Williamstown Theatre Festival is shuttered. The Williamstown Film Festival sets up, and closes, in October. So what's a poor culture vulture to do for the winter season?
Plenty, it turns out.
There is something special about off-season stays in places that cater to tourists in the summer. People are less harried. Gallery owners have more time to talk about their exhibits. Restaurateurs seem to enjoy themselves. The mood is more romantic. And the scenery is gorgeous.
Few sights are as breathtaking as when snow and ice cover the trees and the sun is shining as you make your way across Route 2 below the hairpin turn that ushers you into North Adams. The clean air and crisp light only add to the beauty.
My wife and I honeymooned at the Guest House at Field Farm in Williamstown six years ago and we've been returning ever since. But Field Farm closes Jan. 1 while they refurbish the fire alarm system and tend to other matters.
Rather than sit around and mope, we gave the Porches Inn a try. North Adams has become a destination since MASS MoCA opened in 1999, a 13-acre mill complex converted into a museum for contemporary art.
Across the street, Jack Wadsworth bought a block of run-down Victorian row houses. Nancy Fitzpatrick of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge and architect Ann McCallum, working with the museum, then transformed them into Porches. The inn is as cozy as it is spacious, as quaint as it is modern, as unpretentious as it is arty.
The 50-plus rooms and the reception area seem as if they were arranged by your favorite antiques designer, all with the intention of mixing the industrial milltown past with the comforts of a modern inn. A beautifully appointed room in the Sage Building is adorned with 12 flowered dishes on the wall, paint-by-numbers artwork, plus a TV and DVD player tucked away in a cabinet. The workout room has David Byrne artwork and the sauna building has a giant TV suitable for sports events or general partying. Three common rooms in the main building are lined with a pleasant array of memorabilia.
Porches has a homey feel, what former innkeeper Alexander Eberle calls "retro-edgy, industrial granny chic ambience." Two games in a sitting room seem appropriate: Go to the Head of the Class and Antiques Roadshow: The Game.
The Northern Berkshires are a destination for skiers, or so I'm told. My two goals in life are to stay upright and to stay warm. Skiing never seemed the best way to achieve either.
Instead it's on to the museums. At MASS MoCA the big attraction this winter is the cerebrally psychedelic work of the late Sol LeWitt, 105 pieces of wall art that have taken over Building No. 7.
The Clark in Williamstown is at the other end of the art world. Here nothing is more avant-garde than Monet. But its great collection of Homers, Sargents, and early Impressionist masters make the Clark a must stop. It's worth a trip up the hill to the Stone Hill Center to see Tadao Ando's contemporary building with its Zen-like views of the countryside.
The current exhibit in the main building, "Drawn to Drama: Italian Works on Paper, 1500-1800" is too academic for my taste. Much more stirring is the series of photography exhibits at the Williams College Museum of Art, an eye-opening look at culture, community, and identity. Most notably, Liu Zheng's masterful portraits of "The Chinese" have been compared with Diane Arbus's photos of people on the outskirts of American life and August Sander's broader swath of Germans in the Weimar Republic. Don't miss the photography or the museum's permanent collection.
On Spring Street, the main drag, there are striking local landscapes by George Van Hook and John C. Terelak at the Harrison Gallery and more exotic work at LiAsia Gallery. My favorite shop in Williamstown is Toonerville Trolley CDs & Records, which specializes in rare recordings and imports. Alas, market forces are catching up with Hal March, the knowledgeable and personable Toon-master, who wonders how much longer he can maintain the store. So catch him while you can.
Williamstown has several good eateries for the budget-conscious, with Thai and Indian restaurants next to the Spring Street galleries and on Water Street a couple of relatively inexpensive places, Hobson's Choice and the Water Street Grill. You can also get fully caffeinated at Tunnel City Coffee.
But eat, at least once, at Mezze Bistro + Bar at the head of Water Street, one of my favorite restaurants. Sole or lamb, chicken or scallops, I've never had a dish that didn't melt in my mouth.
Co-owner Nancy Thomas buys locally and chef Joji Sumi subtly blends French and Asian touches into a personal brand of new American cuisine. Thomas is a great host as well. I once asked the waiter for something with a little more body than the pinot noir I was drinking and Thomas came over with tastes of three other reds. Ask for a reservation in the more convivial bar area.
Thomas also runs Caf?? Latino, a more casual restaurant at MASS MoCA, where the food is rich and tasty, though not as memorable as Mezze's. Around the corner from the museum is the illustrious Gramercy Bistro. Though impressed with the French atmosphere, we were underwhelmed with the bland paella and salty chicken. I gave it another try and had a much better seared tuna dish and a sensational curried butternut squash bisque.
One of the great things about the Berkshires in winter is that you take in things you might otherwise overlook. Last winter I saw "Persepolis," the excellent animated film about Iran, which I didn't have that much interest in back home. It was playing at the funky Images Cinema, which has just reopened after a renovation. This year the movie was Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married." Back in Boston I would obsess over which movie to see. Here, it's kind of nice to have someone smart make the choice for you.
That goes for music, too. I was familiar with Jim White's Southern Gothic music, but never thought of seeing him in Boston. After a concert at MASS MoCA I'm really hooked. White's surreal but soulful musings in between songs recall Flannery O'Connor crossed with David Byrne. And MASS MoCA's alt-cabaret setting was the perfect place to see him, except for what might be the hardest chairs in the universe.
Katherine Myers, marketing director for the museum, says its audience is primed to try new things because of the affordability of the shows and trust in the museum's taste.
In an age when we are barraged by choices, sometimes it's liberating to have more limited options, particularly when they are as tasteful, and tasty, as they are around Williamstown.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.