Weekend Away with Teens in Northampton, Massachusetts
Smith College Museum of Art in the town of Northampton.
Spring and Fall are beautiful times to visit the Pioneer Valley.

A mother-daughter weekend in the hip New England town of Northampton, in the shadow of Smith College, makes for a rewarding and fun time away.

My 12-year-old daughter Maddy and I recently spent a mother-daughter summer weekend exploring the serene Pioneer Valley in the western part of Massachusetts.  We especially enjoyed Northampton, home to all-women’s Smith College, one of the institutions that make up the Five College Consortium in the valley.  The presence of these academic institutes ensures a rich variety of cultural offerings.

The Northampton “Downtown”

We both immediately liked the “granola” vibe that the town’s pedestrian friendly main street gives off.  Familiar franchises, such as Starbucks and CVS, sit side by side with independently owned coffee houses, used book stores and boutiques. Maddy particularly liked the time that we spent browsing in a bead shop. We were thrilled to find out that Steve Herrell, founder of Steve’s Ice Cream and the famous “mixins “or “smoosh-ins’, lives in the area and that Herrell’s Ice Cream, which he no longer owns, still makes his famous concoctions.   Steve Herrell came up with the novel idea of blending in flavors back in the 80’s, and is the inspiration behind flavors like heath bar crunch. Maddy was not familiar with Steve’s, but I had fond, long ago memories of choosing my ice cream flavor, and watching my desired mix-in being pummeled into it, creating a new taste treat. We stood on a long line, sampled new flavors like Twinkie, before we settled for our standby, cookies and cream, another of Steve Herrell’s original creations.  It was well worth the wait!

We walked over to the Smith College Museum of Art in time for Second Fridays, the museum’s monthly series of family-friendly gallery talks and make-your-own art projects.  Admission is free on the second Friday of the month, from 4 till 8pm.  We headed straight to the museum educator to get our materials for the project, a printing process of etching designs into a scratch board. We were guided through each step by the supportive and friendly staff.

We had time to view the small, eclectic permanent collection, focusing on the collection of Greco Roman vases, as Maddy had studied the history of that period in school. We also enjoyed the Impressionist paintings.

Our favorite part of the museum was the lower level women’s bathroom, truly a work of art in itself. This not-to-be missed space features uniquely decorated bowls and wash basins, in a colorful variety of tiled patterns. Even the inside of the toilet bowls are not left out!  Male patrons waited until the coast was clear to catch a glimpse of these porcelain wonders. We females did the same, peeking in the men’s room to see its equally artistic facilities. We were surprised to find such creativity in such an unexpected place. And it was fun to see the forbidden fruit of the men’s room!

Outdoor Pleasures at Look Park

Saturday morning was clear and postcard perfect, so we headed straight for a day in the great outdoors. Our destination was Look Memorial Park, a five-minute drive to neighboring Florence. This lush, verdant 150-acre space offered us a wealth of recreational choices. After paying the $4 parking fee, we were given a map of the grounds.  We began by hopping on the steamer train which looped around the park and gave us a valuable overview. Feeling well oriented, we headed for the Christenson Zoo, where we petted and fed pygmy goats and sheep, and saw owls, hawks and eagles.

Next, we rented a pedal boat on Willow Lake. There were bumper boats as well, and an 18-hole miniature golf course. But, Maddy was intrigued by the water playground which was like none we had ever before seen. Large, colorful mushroom and flower shaped structures sprayed refreshing water onto thrilled children. She was very glad that she had brought her swimsuit, which she quickly changed into to join in the water play. The jets work in a rotating fashion, so it was fun for the adult spectators to see the kids trying to guess which would be the next jet to blast water.

When we got hungry, we headed to the picnic store, the park’s snack bar. We enjoyed the reasonably priced hot dog, fries and drink combo.  The hot dog was true New England style, served on a top split, toasted, buttered bun. We found a table, and settled into some relaxing people watching. The park was full of walkers, bikers and roller bladders, making the round of the scenic 1.2-mile loop. We saw lots of families and large groups who had reserved space in the park’s picnic shelters, all enjoying the summer afternoon.

Look Park is also home to the Pines Theatre, which houses weekly Monday morning children’s plays and other entertainment in the summer months. The park also presents a summer concert series that features both locally and internationally known musicians.

Even on a summer day, we could imagine how lovely Look Park would be at other times of the year. The park is a four season facility, and takes special pride in its winter wonderland light display for the holidays.  Winter activities include snow shoeing and cross country skiing.  I imagine that autumn must be particularly lovely, as the Pioneer Valley is blessed with a beautiful, colorful foliage display.

Sunday morning was spent at the Botanic Garden of Smith College, located back on the campus.  The Japanese garden impressed us with its fine views of paradise pond. We both did some observations and sketching. It was peaceful, and just what we needed before the drive home.

Trip Planning Details for a Northampton Weekend Away

Our weekend in Northampton was a success.  We both found the Pioneer Valley, and its main city of Northampton, to have the right mix of culturally stimulating possibilities, coupled with recreational fun, that we think kids, teens and parents would enjoy.  As the home to such fine universities, I am glad that Maddy got a sense of the area.  With neighboring towns like Amherst beckoning, we plan on returning soon.

If you go, plan ahead to take advantage of the variety of area lodging in all price ranges. It’s hard to know when one of the nearby Five Colleges (Mt. Holyoke, University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Hampshire College are the others) is holding a special event or performance, so rates can fluctuate for little apparent reason.

However, one of the nicest places to stay is the historic Hotel Northampton (800/547-3529) located at 36 King Street, Northampton, MA 01060. It was built in 1927 with many of the original antique furnishings of owner Lewis Wiggins. Families will enjoy a meal at Wiggins Tavern, moved from its original home in New Hampshire, and a New England institution that has hosted the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jenny Lind, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Rates in the $$-$$$ range include a meal at the tavern, but even if you don’t stay, try to visit the lobby and stop for a cool drink in their outdoor cafe.

Another collegiate favorite is the Lord Jeffery Inn (800/742-0358), fondly known to generations of parents as the “Lord Jeff.” Another vintage New England B&B dating from the 1920s, it was totally restored and made more upscale a few years back, and a fine dining restaurant has been added.

The Campus Center Hotel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, more often called the UMass Hotel, is a modern, three-star facility with 116 rooms. The refurbished rooms — there’s always work going on here — decorated with photos of the campus through history, include wall-mounted LCD televisions, iPod docking stations and same-day laundry service. In addition to standard doubles, there are suites that include a separate bedroom, a living room area, two bathrooms and a kitchenette. Although it’s about a 15-minute drive to Northampton, it’s scenic, and the hotel staff note that the south-facing hotel rooms look over the Campus Pond while the north-facing rooms provide a view of the engineering and science complex with the rolling hills north of Amherst in the background. (The north rooms are said to be extremely popular in the fall, when the foliage is at its peak.) Parents and students will enjoy knowing that it serves as a training site for students in the hospitality and tourism management department in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. 

For dozens of other options, check out your favorite motel or hotel chain and you’re bound to find something suitable. 

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