Some tourist attractions can be easily experienced, by taking in a scenic view or driving down a famous byway. But other places must be explored to be appreciated, with layers revealed as you go. That's how it is in Western Massachusetts, with sites like the Emily Dickinson Museum, the Quabbin Reservoir's "accidental wilderness" and many other treasures — from great restaurants to unusual bookstores — waiting to be discovered.
Of course there are Walmarts, Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts here, just like everywhere else. But you can also tune into the region's bucolic, historic side by driving for miles along winding roads past small farms, town squares, and communities founded in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the region's nicknames, the Pioneer Valley, was a promotional name dreamed up by businessmen in the early 1900s harking back to those early settlements.
As you roam around, you'll see that each town has a unique claim to fame. Deerfield is famous as the site of an attack in 1704 by Native Americans and their French allies in which more than 40 villagers were killed and over 100 taken captive. South Deerfield is home to the Yankee Candle flagship store, where Santa's elves are always hard at work and it snows indoors every four minutes. In Shelburne Falls, blooms change by the season on the Bridge of Flowers. Tulips were big in early May, vibrant pink peonies will flower soon.
Another side of the area's personality comes through in a different nickname — the Happy Valley, which suits the counterculture vibe that's perhaps inevitable with so many college campuses nearby (Amherst College, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, Smith and UMass-Amherst among others), along with generations of alumni who never left. The happy hippie theme is evident in stores like Food for Thought in Amherst, described as a "workers' collective bookstore" and A Child's Garden in Northampton, a place that advertises itself as welcoming "babywearing and cloth diapering."
For a unique outdoor experience, visit Quabbin Park, which was created in the 1930s when four towns were moved to make way for a 39-square-mile reservoir fed by local rivers. The watershed area consists of 120,000 acres of forests and meadows cleared of human habitation to keep the waters pristine. The reservoir supplies water to more than 2 million people in 51 communities, and the landscape is an unusual mix of engineering, human history and open space.
"The term accidental wilderness captures the essence of it," said Clif Read, supervisor of Quabbin's interpretive services. "It was not designed as a wilderness area or wildlife sanctuary or state park, but because of the protection of the area around the drinking water, it has become wild."
Hiking around, you may stumble across cellar holes, but the best remnant of the Quabbin's past is a stone foundation known as the Powers House, located across from Hank's Meadow. You can follow the outlines of the 19th century house that stood here, step into what was the cellar, and find old bricks. The house was torn down along with hundreds of others to make way for the reservoir, but this foundation happened to survive.
Many trails run through the woods, but one of the most scenic loops is around Goodnough Dike, near the park's east entrance off Route 9. The trail is paved, so it's accessible and perfect for biking, but it's also a pleasant walk, not quite 2 miles. The varied terrain takes you first through woods, then past a grassy slope topped by a neat stone wall, before suddenly revealing the reservoir's expanse of blue.
Elsewhere, a climb up the Quabbin's observation tower offers 360-degree views of "how the reservoir fits with the surrounding lands," as Read put it. On a clear day you can see 62 miles away to Massachusetts' highest point, Mount Greylock.
Then set aside a couple of hours to immerse yourself in the world of Emily Dickinson. Even the poet's most ardent fans might be daunted by the prospect of a 90-minute tour of the Homestead, the house where she lived and died, and the Evergreens, a neighboring home where her brother's family lived. But the tour is fascinating and feels more like a two-act play than a museum visit. (A 45-minute version of the tour skips the Evergreens.)
At the Homestead, "visitors see the rooms she occupied during her adult life, where she worked over and over all that magnificent verse. Then, at the Evergreens, visitors encounter an unexpected surprise: a breathtaking time-capsule of the 19th century," said Jane Wald, the museum's executive director.
The outlines of Dickinson's life are well-known. She was a bright girl who once predicted in a letter that she would become the "belle of Amherst," but as she aged she became an eccentric recluse. When she died, her sister discovered a cache of nearly 1,800 poems. The tour describes the complicated posthumous efforts to publish her work amid the fascinating drama of life at the Evergreens, where her brother lived with his wife and children while carrying on an affair with a married woman.
Wald says visitors are drawn to "the element of mystery or enigma" that surrounds Dickinson and her poems, but the tour "adds unexpected layers" to the prevailing view of how she lived. "There are stories that portray a very sharp kind of wit and humor that's not necessarily part of a longstanding image of what this reclusive poet was like," Wald said. "She had a fierce independence."
Ask at the museum for directions to West Cemetery, where Dickinson is buried, less than a 10-minute walk away. The tombstone bears the words "Called back," a phrase the poet used in a letter shortly before her death, suggesting perhaps that she was not quite of this world.
Small towns and rural areas don't always offer fine dining, but this region does. Recommendations from locals include, in Northampton, Osaka (sushi), Mulino's (Italian), Amanouz (Moroccan), the Eastside Grill, and for breakfast, Sylvester's; Chez Albert, a French bistro, in Amherst; and La Veracruzana, for Mexican, in Amherst and in Northampton. And while Panda East in Amherst is your basic Chinese restaurant, it's worth going just for the chicken with spicy tea sauce.
Other good eats include the Blue Heron in Sunderland, and the Night Kitchen, located in Montague on the banks of the Sawmill River next to the Bookmill, a used bookstore. The Bookmill itself is a destination, housed in an 1842 gristmill at 440 Greenfield Rd. Settle down with your laptop or a book in a comfy old chair, or outside by the rushing water. The store's motto can be taken home in the form of a bumper sticker: "Books you don't need in a place you can't find."