Travel

By Anya Strzemien

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There’s not a whole lot to look forward to in the winter. The 4:00 sunset, the arctic wind tunnels that make it painful to go around the corner, sweating under your 10 layers of clothes…why continue living? But I’m a glass half-full kind of girl, and I’m calling on all my fellow pasty, chapped ladies to make the best of what this season offers and it entails appreciating the sparse beauty of the season on weekend country getaways. I usually make it up to New England, and there one can partake in the sports of sledding, skiing, ice-skating and, of course, whiskey-drinking, leaving behind the New York City winter sports of slush puddle-avoiding, windtunnel-gusting, delivery-ordering, and, of course, whiskey-drinking. Though I wasn’t planning to ski, sled, or ice-skate, I headed to The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for some whiskey.

During the four-hour drive to the Inn from New York City, my anticipation built as the landscape rolled out around me draped in beautiful white blankets of snow. I had decided to bring my mother along with me for this girls’ weekend getaway to celebrate her birthday the following day. As we traveled through one small town after another, we finally reached the main strip of Stockbridge, 50 percent of which is seemingly taken up by the (gorgeous) elephant that is The Red Lion Inn.

Founded in 1773, and drenched in American history (the symbolic red lion’s tail has a green tip, which represents American opposition to the British monarchy), the Inn was a tavern, where travelers could stop, drink, and sleep. It continued to expand into a larger inn and was called the Stockbridge House in the 1860s. The Red Lion Inn then burned to the ground in 1896. The Stockbridge community rallied together and rescued the antiques that line the walls of the Inn, but were not able to save the building itself. It was rebuilt in 1897, went through several owners and was finally bought by Massachusetts Senator Jack Fitzpatrick in 1968 and reopened for business in 1969 as the Red Lion Inn. Since then it has achieved fame for its presence in the Norman Rockwell painting “Main Street Stockbridge,” and for its proximity to the modest Berkshire ski mountains and the Tanglewood music grounds. It’s also just a damn beautiful place.

My mother and I checked into our suite, which contained a bedroom that looked like it had survived a floral explosion (but in a good way), a spacious bathroom, and a somewhat charmless but well-equipped living room. However, we never even used that room because our bedroom was so adorable and cozy.

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We then bundled up to set out for a stroll around Stockbridge. (By the way, even Berkshire mountain winds have nothing on Midtown Manhattan windtunnels.) It was about 6pm and the town was shutting down for the day, but there were a few open boutiques that sold very original pieces. There was also an old-fashioned soda counter that stays open till 8pm. The center of town also offers a restaurant or two, and some bakeries. However, I soon found out that the main nightlife, even for the locals, was all under the roof of The Red Lion Inn…but I’m not there yet.

After our walk, all I could think about was getting cozy in the Tavern of the Inn, a more casual offshoot of the restaurant and oozes charm, with low ceilings, handsomely-worn wood floors, and cozy wooden booths. But it was time to get ready for our dinner reservation, Haunted by a meal we had at the Inn a few years earlier, my mother and I chose not to eat at the Red Lion again. The dining room itself somehow balances grand and quaint, but our memory of the food is that it was pretty standard. It could very well have changed, and our breakfast there the next morning was very good, but we weren’t willing to take the gamble so we hit the road for Lenox, a town about 10 minutes away. Upon a friend’s recommendation, we ate at Le Bistro Zinc, a French bistro, and had a delicious meal with very professional service. For appetizer, I had a spinach salad with fennel, pomegranate seeds and pomegranate vinaigrette and my mother enjoyed her clam bisque. She then had a rack of lamb and I had my favorite dish in the whole world: duck confit, here served with apple fritters. For dessert my mother had lemon sorbet and I had the delicious tarte tatin with Berkshire vanilla ice cream. And my whiskey was good too.

We then headed back to the Inn, laughing that it was only 9pm and in New York, I would only just begin to think about dinner at this hour. We figured we were in for an early, low-key night, which was fine with us as we’d both brought along plenty of reading material. First we wandered the halls of the Inn, fascinated by the virtual museum of antiques and paintings, and the nooks of the hotel such as a tiny library with the biggest dictionary I’ve ever seen. We found that the hotel was full of these charming details, such as two side-by-side phone booths that were wallpapered, wall and ceiling, with old Norman Rockwell covers for “The Saturday Evening Post.” Scattered throughout the Inn were bowls of gumdrops for us to eat from. I convinced my mother, usually early to bed, to join me for a nightcap at The Lion’s Den, the basement tavern/music venue of the Inn.

We entered and to our delight, the band was excellent. Calling themselves The Sun Mountain Band, they played excellent bluegrass involving a fiddle, banjo, guitars, and even spoons. The Lion’s Den had the same old charm as the Tavern, a fire was burning, and the place was packed with a riotously enthusiastic audience. I met a Stockbridge native named Michael, a former bank VP turned carpenter who sported a shaved head, leather jacket, and outgoing personality. We started chatting and he said that he’s a friend of the band and they were coming over to his uncle’s house afterward, as was most of the audience, for an “after-party” and invited me and Mom.

So when the group gathered and we’d met his uncle John, a Greg Allman look-alike with amazing storytelling skills, we all filed back to the house, which was a few hundred yards from the Inn. A 200-year-old house steeped in Stockbridge history (John gave us all a tour of the antiques and the house’s idiosyncrasies, like a narrow spiral staircase designed for the lady of the house to kill any intruder as he came up the stairs). John inherited the house from his grandmother, who used it is as a beauty parlor. I thought it all tied in very nicely to the theme of this website.

So my mother and I hung out in their basement, kicked back Buds with a group of locals that ranged from their 20s to 50s, the band played and we all chatted. It wasn’t your Norman Rockwell-looking crowd, but it was most definitely Norman Rockwell hospitality. I finally had to drag my mother home around two in the morning because I was exhausted, and as we tipsily walked through a dead-silent Stockbridge, we joked about being the Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie of Stockbridge.

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Back at our room, a maid had turned down our beds and left chocolates and nighttime storybooks. I decided on the spot that the storybooks were just about the cutest thing ever, and after we got into our beds, I subjected Mom to what is officially called Story Time. Halfway into the first story I looked over at her and she was fast asleep, however, because frankly the stories sucked. They were fictional endorsements of the Inn. Nevertheless, it was a nice idea.

The next morning (after setting our alarm to make it), we enjoyed a breakfast of endlessly flowing freshly squeezed orange juice, eggs, pancakes, and bacon and I started to reconsider my harsh judgment of the restaurant. We felt incredibly refreshed and grateful to the hotel for not only providing so many services to us under one roof, and great ones at that. And then we rode off into the sunset.

Originally published January 2004
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