Ruth Brindle discovers the delights of a pre-Christmas break in Massachusetts
IF you’re looking for an ideal place for a bit of winter R&R there’s a B&B option that fits the bill exactly – Boston and The Berskshires that is, in New England.
Although this time of year is a bit late for catching the spectacular autumn foliage which attracts millions of visitors to the area each year, you gain with very competitive prices on flights, hotel rooms and a more relaxed and less crowded atmosphere. There’s also all the fun of the Christmas lights and festive events to join in with.
On a recent trip to the New England state I made a great decision to fly with Norwegian, the low-cost airline with none of the downsides of the usual budget suspects. The 7 hr 20 min flight from Gatwick to Boston Logan airport was smooth and I enjoyed the no fuss amenities of the 787 Dreamliner and was promised less jet lag as a bonus. My seat was comfy and I loved the touch screen for everything from watching films to ordering snacks as well as a dinky bottle of sparkling wine. Even paying was easy as I just swiped my card under the screen to keep a tab open! A bit dangerous, but stress free.
Logan is also a very short drive, about 20 minutes, from the city centre and I’d chosen to pick up my Hertz rental car at the airport which was super easy. Using my phone as sat nav even jet lag didn’t put me off an easy ride into the city. My pre-booking of the car, a cute compact SUV, was a good move and was cheaper than organising it when I got there. I was on my way where my first upscale hotel stay awaited. Luxury spa and shopping, here I come.
The Mandarin Oriental has an air of understated opulence and its design, paying close attention to its Chinese feng shui principles, has peace and harmony at its core. With a roaring fire in the lobby and the manager’s two friendly pet Golden Retriever dogs Bonnie and Tara wandering freely around, it’s really welcoming.
In my room with its touch controls at my fingertips for lighting of every hue and a huge bed that felt like sleeping on a cloud, my relaxation was guaranteed.
Upstairs is the only five-star rated spa in Boston and the wider state with a blend of oriental influences and sophisticated Boston-style treatments. The Digital Wellness Escape says it all – you are invited to leave your technology behind and indulge your senses. Exchanging your shoes for a pair of slippers is the symbolic ritual that takes you from outside stress to escape mode. Treatment manager Shan, a Devon girl, is obviously proud of the spa’s status and its special attention to detail such as the Buddha boards for visitors to paint or doodle on and treatments such as the Himalayan Salt Stone Massage. Full and half day experiences can be booked in advance. Rooms from £525 per night, www.mandarinoriental.com/boston/
While it was hard to leave my beautiful room there’s so much to discover in Boston and it’s very walkable. From the hotel’s coveted address in Boylston Street it’s just a few steps to some top end shopping and dining in Newbury Street – all brownstone elegance and designer boutiques – Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana and (shops I can actually afford to visit) Cos, H&M and Zara. A beautiful place to stroll. But as the weather is pretty cold, you don’t even have to go outside from the Mandarin Oriental to more retail indulgence at the Prudential Centre next door, accessed by stairs from the lobby. From there it’s also an indoor stroll to Copley Place, a mall with more designer options. At the top of the Prudential Centre is the Skywalk Observatory which gives an awesome 360-degree view of the city including the Charles River, Cambridge and home of the Red Sox baseball team Fenway Park. A highlight of a visit here is the Dreams of Freedom experience which celebrates the important role that immigration has played in shaping the city and American history. Boston is one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities, with one out of every three residents born abroad, and a population that speaks more than 140 different languages. www.skywalkboston.com
Still in the elegant and historic area of Back Bay in Boston, which is an area of land reclaimed from under water over many years, is the luxury boutique hotel XV Beacon. Here the very personal service includes a hotel Lexus limo that is at your disposal free to whisk you around the city. The hotel stands at the top of Beacon Hill one of the most iconic and historic streets in the city, home to the golden domed State House. A few steps away is Boston Common and Public Garden which was prettily festive with Christmas lights and alive with activities including a skating rink.
My room here reflected its turn of the century links with dark wood-clad walls and vintage style bathroom fittings. After staying here I’m finding it difficult at home to live without a switch at the side of my bed to turn on the ‘log’ fire in my room. Two wine gasses and whiskey tumblers also stand at the ready for a little 24-hour in-room dining. I cuddled up in a cashmere throw and custom-made bed linen – it’s the kind of luxury I’d like to become accustomed to! My personally delivered macaroon and chocolate plate was just the icing on the cake.
But having shopped Downtown it was time to venture to other areas and the SoWa district, a 10-minute drive from Downtown, is a more edgy, up and coming area with a vintage market and boutique shops with lots of art, cutting edge design and home furnishings to browse.
I was lucky enough to be there during the Winter Festival on the first weekend in December and it was very busy and vibrant. The 100 or more festive stalls in the old power station created a queue to get in; there were some fun food trucks too selling lunch treats, as well as music, ice sculpting and a vintage market.
Later in the day a meal at SoWa’s most sought-after Italian eateries Cinquecento was a real delight. Housed in a warehouse-style large, open-plan area all wooden beams and steel, it has obviously become one of the city’s hottest destinations to eat. The atmosphere is great but it’s the excellent and delectable food and the superb service that makes it special.
It was so hard to choose between the alluring appetizers I shared quite a few with my dining companion. These included steamed mussels, oysters, grilled octopus (a signature dish with celeriac and olives) and a special treat of steak tartare. I was then treated to sea bass with wild mushrooms. With no space for dessert we indulged in a takeaway tiramisu, the best I have ever (later) tasted. The menu is varied and ambitious and fun. A not-to-be-missed night out. www.cinquecentoboston.com
So although it was sad to leave bustling Boston, the quiet and beautiful Berkshires beckoned, 120 miles outside the city. Famous for its fall colour, it’s both an ideal destination for lovers of the great outdoors – hiking, walking, skiing, snowshoeing and kayaking on the many lakes and a haven of relaxation.
The Berkshires is also a mecca for culture lovers with a lively arts and entertainment scene. It has attracted writers, artists, actors and arts enthusiasts both past and present. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge is world renowned as is the music programme at Tanglewood in Lenox the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
So to get a taste of this rich legacy I visited The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown
on my way into the heart of The Berkshires. This ‘best of the best’ collection of art from the Renaissance to the early 20th Century is truly stunning. Brought together by Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune and his wife Francine it is housed in a newly renovated site with beautiful new exhibition and café space designed by architect Tadeo Ando that is as memorable as the art itself, blending the beautiful 140 acre grounds with the buildings themselves.
While far too many to list, there are works here by Rubens, Boticelli, Gainsborough, Renoir, Degas, Lautrec, Degas, Turner, American artists including John Singer Sargent, Frederic Remington and a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart that all the world will recognize.
The intimate rooms also display extensive collections of ceramics, silver, photography and sculptures, all of which provides a rich background for the institute’s world renowned arts study centre. A memorable place to visit. www.clarkart.edu
The Williamstown theatre festival also attracts top stars of the acting world. Bradley Cooper was seen strolling down Main Street during a pre-Broadway run of The Elephant Man a couple of years ago. I was also told that Meryl Streep lives nearby. This is an area where traditionally the rich and famous of New York and Boston go to escape to their ‘cottages’ – otherwise known as mansions to us.
One such residence is Bellefontaine once a private home, then a seminary and a boarding school, but now a luxury health retreat. This is a place to go to truly relax, rejuvenate and heal with 40 classes a day and 200 wellness and spa services.
I had far too little time to discover everything on offer, but right from the moment of booking it is obvious that this is a personally tailored experience like no other. The integrated services here go right from medical and spiritual to beauty and sport. There are doctors, healing energy and spiritual wellness experts, nutritionists, sports instructors and creative arts instructors.
Visitors fill out an assessment form before arriving and a programme adviser will discuss this to devise advice sessions, classes and treatments to suit you.
But if it’s a more low-key, fun and relaxing stay you’re after that’s on offer too. My swim in the gorgeous indoor pool at night with soothing music and underwater lighting, an amazing facial with a super professional therapist Bonnie and a rejuvenating hour in the ladies’ spa were highlights. I learnt a lot about my skin during my treatment and during just one 20-minute class on foot health I enjoyed a very valuable lesson on how to keep my feet in tip top condition. The teachers know their stuff.
The daily programmes include an amazing range of activities and classes for all abilities and tastes, both indoors and outdoors. On one day I had over 60 different activities (free and paid-for) to choose from. These included an outdoor hike, a warm-up stretch and more at 7.45am to visual journaling and cardio tennis at 10am, aerial cardiac yoga or The Challenge of Change, turning good intentions into effective actions for a happier healthier you, at noon, the art of fencing or a boxer’s workout at 3pm, and other choices up until 8pm including Seeking Freedom From Stress and Crochet Creations.
Of course the ultra-healthy meal options, which are included in the cost of a nightly stay, are also a highlight. Forget the mega meals that are the usual fayre of a US visit. This food is fresh, it’s clean and it makes you feel good. When dining in the casual café or the more formal dining room you can eat as much as you like, but you’ll have the nutritional information you need (dishes broken down by proportion into carbs, protein, fibre, healthy fats etc) to make a good choice for you. Daily cooking classes help health seekers to carry on the good work of Canyon Ranch at home.
The beautiful grounds too offer a respite from daily stress. I really enjoyed the Spirit Walk Labyrinth that invited me to take a walking meditation to help think around a particular topic or problem in my life.
A three-day stay is usual, so I feel I only scratched the surface during 36 hours, but if you have your own wellbeing in mind this is a fabulous place to combine a holiday in Massachusetts with lasting beneficial effects. From £600 per night, www.canyonranch.com
While Canyon Ranch is a full-on health experience, in the nearby town of Lenox, the Garden Gables Inn touches the senses in a different way. It is simply gorgeous. Just being in the beautiful 18th century building makes you sigh with pleasure.
The Colonial style building originally called Butternut Cottage was moved from its original site on Main Street to its current location, still just a short walk from the centre of beautiful Lenox. It is now owned by two members of the Vittori family who also own a vineyard and orchard in nearby Richmond, which guests can also visit.
My bedroom, with its four poster bed, quilt, antique furnishings and open fire was somewhere I would have quite happily stayed in to relax all day. But the ‘sherry room’, with bottles of sherry and glasses on offer and the sitting room, also both with open fires, was like being in a home from home.
Cookies, tea, coffee and fruit is on offer to self-serve all day and there is full waitress service for breakfast. I couldn’t resist the melt-in-the-mouth buttermilk pancakes and maple syrup, a speciality of the region. The lovely staff also make a stay here feel like you’re staying with friends. Nothing is too much trouble and they regularly check to make sure everything is OK with you.
The Berkshires has a great tradition of farm to table food and dining at Garden Gables gives a delicious experience of that. There is no regular dinner dining, but you can book the Private Chef’s Table with a menu worked out between you and the professional chef on certain nights.
I enjoyed pan seared diver sea scallops with celery root puree, pickled beet and rosemary followed by a garden baby greens salad with late fall fruits, glassy walnuts in a sherry honey-vanilla vinaigrette. The main course of pan-roasted ribeye steak was served with heirloom mushrooms, roasted late-fall veg, a shallot and confit-leek fondue topped off with a Bearnaise sauce. Even though full I couldn’t resist the delicious cheese selection and strawberry and chocolate acorns. Wow.
To add to all this ultimate relaxation is the B&B’s on-site petit spa which offers massages, including hot stone, therapeutic and sports treatments. The Swedish massage (£70) in the relaxed atmosphere of one of the two spa rooms got rid of aches and pains and tensions effectively. You can book this or a facial in advance. One night’s B&B at Garden Gables Inn is from £150 per night, www.gardengablesinn.com
The town of Lenox has small, individual shops to browse around and the best stocked liquor store I’ve ever seen, indicative of the good taste of both residents and visitors! But the festive atmosphere, together with a very obvious, warm community spirit makes this an ideal place to come at this time of year. Watching Father Christmas arrive on a fire truck for the tree lighting ceremony was great fun. I felt very welcome here and at home and will definitely be back.
For more information about Massachusetts and all it has to offer, visit www.massholiday.co.uk
For The Berkshires, visit www.berkshires.org
For Greater Boston, www.bostonusa.com
Norwegian: London Gatwick – Boston
Norwegian operates a four times weekly direct service between London Gatwick and Boston Logan International Airport ideal for leisure and business travelers.
Flights are on brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft offering all passengers complimentary inflight entertainment in two cabins – Premium and economy.
Economy fares start from £134.90 one way / £224.80 return and £400 one way / £720 return in Premium at www.norwegian.com/uk or 0330 8280854 (opt. 1).
The onboard experience
Norwegian’s flights to the U.S. are serviced by brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliners offering a Premium and economy cabin. These technologically advanced aircraft are faster, greener and help reduce the effects of jet lag. Passengers travelling in the Premium cabin can enjoy spacious seating with extra legroom, complimentary drinks, dinner, inclusive luggage, fast track security and access to select airport lounges.
Four days hire of a Nissan Versa (or similar) from Boston Logan International Airport costs from £113.49. Book online at Hertz.co.uk
Visit www.hertz.co.uk/p/american-road-trip-planner to plan your own, personalised road trip anywhere in the States.