During the late-19th-century Gilded Age, the Berkshires were the inland equivalent of Newport, Rhode Island, with dozens of opulent “cottages” constructed here by newly rich titans of American industry. Built for an era in which “society” was a respectable full-time occupation for folks with names like Carnegie and Westinghouse, some 75 of these giant mansions still stand, especially around the genteel town of Lenox (pop. 5,025). Many of the houses have been converted to palatial B&B inns, full-service health spas, or private schools; others are home to organizations whose presence has made Lenox a seasonal mecca for the performing arts.
The lives and times of the Gilded Age elite were well chronicled by Edith Wharton, who lived in Lenox for many years in a 42-room house she designed and built for herself called The Mount (413/551-5111, daily summer only, $20 adults). Set in three acres of Italianate gardens and recently restored, The Mount is just south of central Lenox, well signed off Plunkett Street. Wharton, who considered herself better at gardening than writing, was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (for her 1920 The Age of Innocence). She drew upon local people and incidents in many of her works, including two of her most famous: The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.
Lenox is also connected with another great American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived here with his family around 1850 and wrote The House of Seven Gables at what is now Tanglewood (888/266-1200), the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and visiting pop performers like James Taylor and Earth, Wind and Fire. Besides Tanglewood, the Lenox area also hosts the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (413/243-0745) in Becket and the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413/997-4444) in Stockbridge, so you can understand why such a small town is such a big magnet for East Coast culture vultures.
The Berkshires’ annual influx of cosmopolitan concertgoers affects everything in southwestern Massachusetts, most obviously the local restaurants, half of which cater to seasonal immigrants from Boston and New York. Try the eclectic menu at the tiny but highly regarded “locavore” Nudel Restaurant (37 Church St., 413/551-7183), where the sometimes-exotic tastes from the kitchen come from locally sourced ingredients. Many other contenders for the town’s gourmet dining crown lie within the same two-block area.
Along with its many good restaurants, Lenox brims with more than 20 handsome B&B inns, all attractively situated amid wide lawns and gardens. Try the historic and cozy Birchwood Inn (7 Hubbard St., 413/637-2600, $199 and up), opposite the Church on the Hill, or the Brook Farm Inn (15 Hawthorne St., 413/637-3013, $139 and up), which offers more than 700 volumes of poetry in the library, poetry readings on Saturday, and poems du jour for perusal before breakfast. Another popular option, right at the center of Lenox, is the charming Church Street Inn (16 Church St., 413/881-4139), built in 1771.