Cheap travel: The Mohawk Trail

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When economic fortunes take a downturn, one of the first things to go is vacations. After all, it's really hard to justify a jaunt to St. Bart's or London when you're struggling to cover your credit card bills. However, just because you can't afford to go globe-trotting doesn't mean that you're doomed to spend all your time stuck in your apartment or house. Rather than abandon your vacation entirely, why not opt for a lower-priced choice?

One of my favorite vacation spots is the Mohawk Trail. Comprising a stretch of Route 2 that winds across Western Massachusetts, the Mohawk trail was one of America's first scenic highways. Twisting through steep mountains and over the beautiful Deerfield river, the trail has been a tourist attraction for almost a hundred years. In that time, it has had surprisingly little change, and even features many of the original Indian-themed gift shops and small tourist cabins that cropped up in the early twentieth century. For much of its length, the Mohawk Trail offers visitors the chance to experience travel as it was eighty years ago.

The best guide that I've found to the area is Muddy River Press' Historic Auto Trail Guide: The Mohawk Trail. The text is a little clunky at times, but it covers many of the major attractions and is illustrated with dozens of pictures depicting the area in its heyday. Even if you get the guide, here are a few of the major attractions:

North Adams

North Adams is probably the best-known and most developed city on the trail. Formerly an industrial town, it has converted many of its warehouses and factories into artist's studios, galleries and museums. Of particular interest is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or Mass MoCA, a converted factory that offers some truly amazing exhibition spaces. Regardless of your opinions about contemporary art, you're sure to be blown away by the huge installations.

North Adams is also very near the site of the Hoosac Tunnel, a five-mile tunnel that cuts through Hoosac mountain. An amazing engineering project, the tunnel bankrupted the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was responsible for almost 200 deaths. North Adams has a museum on the tunnel, and you can easily drive to one of its entrances. It's fairly spooky; even on a hot summer day, it seems cold and musty. It's not surprising that the tunnel has generated quite a few ghost stories.

No trip to North Adams is complete without a visit to the Natural Bridge, which is located just outside of town. A former marble quarry, Natural Bridge offers some amazing examples of erosion and stunningly beautiful views.

If you're looking for food, North Adams doesn't really have much to offer, but there are a few decent pizzerias, and you can also visit the Golden Eagle, which is located just outside of town on the hairpin turn overlooking North Adams. The food is good, but a little pricey, and they tack on assorted "view fees" if you eat upstairs. My favorite restaurant in town, though, is Hickory Bill's. It offers some of the best barbecue that I've ever had; this is particularly surprising, given its location several hundred miles North of the Mason-Dixon line!

When it comes to lodging, North Adams is one of the best places on the trail. If you prefer the sterile comfort of chain hotels, it offers a Holiday Inn and an old Howard Johnson's. On the other hand, if you're in the mood for something a little more old-fashioned, the Wigwam Western Summit offers reasonably priced cabins with great views. The nearby Whitcomb Summit is undergoing something of a renaissance, and has done a lot of work on its hotel rooms and cabins. Like the Wigwam, it has amazing views.

Shelburne Falls

In a lot of ways, Shelburne Falls demonstrates the power of determination. On the surface, it's another former factory town, but the hard work of the residence has transformed it into a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. In addition to the Glacial Potholes, which are a pretty amazing natural resource, the town has the famous Bridge of Flowers. Essentially, they took an abandoned trolley bridge, filled it with fertilizer, covered the fertilizer with flowers and - voila! - the Bridge of Flowers was born. It has been a tourist attraction ever since.

Shelbourne Falls also has some of the best restaurants in the area, and features the Lamson and Goodnow knife factory and outlet store. Lamson is among America's best kitchen knife manufacturers, and the outlet store offers some excellent deals in knives and other kitchen supplies.

Mount Greylock

Massachusetts' tallest peak, Mount Greylock, features a beautiful trail to the top. If you're pressed for time, or just don't feel like going on a long hike, you can also drive. The view from the summit is amazing, and the Bascomb Lodge offers overnight accomodations in a stone building constructed in the 1930's by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 2007, the lodge was closed, as the road up the mountain was being repaired. From the sounds of things, though, it will probably reopen this year.

Williamstown

Williamstown is where the rustic Mohawk Trail meets the chic Berkshires. It is the home of Williams College and the famed Clark Institute, a truly amazing art museum. If you can visit in July or August, you might also be able to score a ticket to the Williamstown Theater Festival, one of the country's top summer stock theaters.

Admittedly, the Mohawk trail is not for everyone. It doesn't feature beautiful beaches, and the swimming is rocky, to say the least. However, it does offer beautiful scenery, amazing museums, and a unique opportunity to travel in much the same way as your grandparents did. And, if that's not enough, it's a total bargain. Lodging is very reasonably priced and the restaurants aren't too expensive. Besides, when was the last time you visited a genuine imitation Indian trading post gift shop?

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.


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