A Night In a Shaker Village

HANCOCK, MA -- In most dining places, an invitation to step back in time means someone thought a Laura Ashley decor or a bunch of old bric-a-brac would create a certain mood.

Here at the Hancock Shaker Village, you literarally are treading historic boards.

The offering of a candlelight Shaker dinner and tour lured me to this
charming spot on Route 20 midway between New Lebanon, NY, and Pittsfield, MA, a half-hour drive east of Albany, New York's capital city.

The village was one of 18 established as religious communities by the
Shakers in eight states after the death in 1784 of sect founder Ann Lee, who is buried near the site of the present Albany International Airport.

At its apogee, this 2,000-acre community had about 250 members. The movement declined after the late 1800s, and the last Shakers left the village in 1960. (A group of less than a dozen Shakers still lives in the Sabbath Day Lake community in Maine.)

At that point, a group of local people purchased the community and its 21 remaining buildings. It now is run as a not-for-profit educational organization. The village itself has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

The candlelight dinner series, held throughout the summer and fall, is anything but an eat-and-run affair. Plan for a fascinating 3 1/2-hour session of talks that will take you into the lives of the Shakers at various stages of the movement, tours of different aspects of the village, a communal dinner in the Believers'  Dining Room, and a music program after dinner.

The round stone barn is often used as the icon for the village promotions, but the Brick Dwelling is the key structure, an impressive multi-storied one, built in 1830 to house nearly 100 Shaker brothers and sisters.

The celibate community kept the sexes separate but fully equal, and the dwelling duplicates nearly all living functions -- one side for women, the other for men in a fascinating mirror image architectural style. For the candlelight dinner, the sexes mix at the long tables, 16 to a table with four tables in the room; but, in Shaker days men sat on one side of the room, women on the other.

The food for these events is prepared by local specialty caterers and brought to the village for serving. The caterer's kitchen modifies some of the Shaker recipes for modern preferences as needed, but stays as true as possible to the originals.

The affair begins in the Meeting Room, sometimes called the chapel, of the Brick Dwelling with iced tea and  an orientationby the two guides -- one male, one female, of course. The group is split into two mixed groups for walking tours, then participants reassemble in the kitchen of the Brick Dwelling to chat about what they've seen, over iced tea or excellent hard cider from the West County Winery at at Pine Hill Orchards in nearby Colrain, MA.

The dinner menu, served family-style, varies each week. For my visit, it consisted of a light garden salad wirh a basic vinaigrette, followed by a peppery herb broth, robust with cilantro, dill, summer savory, oregano,  parsley, thyme and rosemary; and baskets of moist, yeasty bread accented by lemon zest.

The main course was Sister Clymena's Chicken Pie, accompanied by herbed rice, glazed carrots and green beans with dill weed. The chicken pie was a delight, although the serving size was skimpy -- tender chunks of breast meat and button mushroom slices in a tarragon-heavy cream sauce with a hint of brown sugar, all contained in a flaky crust.

Other weeks, the main item may be pot roast with cranberries, ham baked in cider, or roast lamb with ginger and cider. An alternative low-fat item is available if ordered in advance. The night I visited, it was a breaded, broiled chicken breast entree.

The meal finishes wirh slabs of dense honey cake topped with vanilla ice cream, and coffee or tea. That night, the coffee was a bit weak and not very hot. But, that is hardly enough to quibble about in the totality of a good meal.

After dinner, we returned to the Meeting Room -- once again segregated by gender -- to learn about the Shaker religious services and to hear a capella songs (the Shakers did not use musical instruments) and participate in a few activities with some visitors volunteering to execute Shaker dance steos under staff supervision.

I could have gone on for another hour.


• Our 2005 New England Dining Guide
• Our 2005 Cape Cod Dining Guide


'Time Share' In Paradise

April L. Dowd photo

PHILLIPSBURG, St. Maarten -- This 37-square-mile Caribbean island is the smallest land mass in the world shared by two sovereign powers. In this case, the Netherlands and France, and they've been sharing it for 350 years.

Sint Maarten, located 150 miles east-southeast of Puerto Rico, is a small volcanic part of the Leeward Islands, a mixture of independent island nations as well as land owned by the Dutch, the French and the British.

Although the terrain is much the same across the island -- Paradise Point, at an elevation of 1,400 feet, is a high volcanic peak in the central area, sloping down to sandy beach and settlement areas -- life is a bit different depending on which side you see.

The Dutch side is marked by a busy center of commerce  -- dominated by more than 80 jewelry shops and numerous duty-free enterprises -- particularly in the crowded business sector of the capital of Philipsburg. The French side is a bit more laid-back, shown by the daily open-air market on the town dock and fish mart (shown above) in the capital of Marigot, overseen on a steep hill by the old Fort St. Louis.

The airport -- Princess Juliana International, where you can only land and take off in daylight because there are no lights -- is on the French side. All the casinos are on the Dutch side, but the beaches are fairly well sprinkled around the island.

Cuisine ranges from resort hotel continental to fine French food (Grand Case is a small town on the French side considered one of the top dining spots in the Caribbean) to one of the many "lolos" -- outdoor barbecue spots that dot the countryside. And don't miss trying the native liquer, called guavaberry liquer. It's like a mild raspberry, and is often found in guavaberry coladas and has a comparatively low alcohol content.

As you check out these and other attractions, don't be concerned about the border. It's an open one, and the only real way you can tell when you cross from one side to the other is by seeing discrete little stone markers.

And if you don't speak French or Dutch, no problem. English is spoken by virtually everyone. If you want to practice any other language it's not at all uncomon for shopkeepers, hotel staff and the like to nimbly jump from one language to another -- sometimes in mid-sentence -- as the need arises.

Severe hurricane damage several years destroyed or damaged many buildings and eradicated much mature plant growth. In recent years, the island has been battling to regain its share of the Caribbean tourist trade, so bargain packages are plentiful. And for convenience's sake, the U.S. dollar is the preferred currency everywhere.

Day trips to nearby islands are popular: St. Bart's, Anguilla, Saba, Ilet Pinel and Caye Verte, the latter two particularly attractive to snorkelers. But if your tastes run more to land activities -- say, golf -- you have only one choice: the 18-hole course at Mullet Bay.

The island abounds with typically tropical beaches as well as bustling shopping areas. Above, a view of Marigault, the capital of the French side, and at left a shot of its main street. Below left, the shop-lined main drag in Phillipsburg, capital of the Dutch side.
• Island Hopping Guide
• French Caribbean International
• Friendly Caribbean
• Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel
• Official St. Maarten Home Page
• St. Martin Weather Forecast
• The daily newspaper
• Hospitality & Trade Association
• Special travel guide
• Restaurant Guide

Blog Archive