Pioneer Valley has Massachusetts spirit

“In the sleepy west of the woody east
is a valley full, full o’ pioneer.
We’re not just kids to say the least.
We got the ideas to us that’s dear”

When Charles (“Black Francis”) Thompson wrote the opening lyrics of “UMass” for his Boston rock band the Pixies, he succinctly captured the free spirit prevalent in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.

At least the 1997 album “Death to the Pixies” captured that segment of free spirits at some of the region’s famous colleges: Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, UMass Amherst, Springfield.

However, the Pioneer Valley -- which consists of Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties where the Connecticut River runs through – has a lot to offer visitors besides college campuses.

Despite its celebrated iconoclastic attitudes emenating from the schools, it honors its traditions in such places as Old Sturbridge Village and Historic Deerfield, recreations of early New England villages that can actually make your kids like history.

Overall, it is a region replete with art galleries, performance spaces, the Basketball Hall of Fame (shown above), the Big E exposition complex, the Six Flags New England amusement park, and bookstores. So many bookstores, in fact, that nearly a decade ago a New York Times story put collectors wise to the opportunities there:

“Our three-day visit was dedicated to browsing and buying amid the valley's rich and collegial network of bookshops and private dealers. More members of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Antiquarian Booksellers (36) are to be found in this area than in bookish Greater Boston (25).”

What to see:

Old Sturbridge Village, Route 20, 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge (800) 733-1830 -- This 200-acre layout is the largest outdoor history museum in the Northeast. It presents a look at a rural village of the 1790-1840 period, with more than 40 restored original buildings, including homes, a meeting house, sawmill, blacksmith shop and country store. Costumed “history interpreters” carry out the community’s daily activities and interact with visitors. Upcoming events include “School Vacation Week” activities (April 19-27) to help keep restless kids busy, “Muster Day” (May 17), a grand gathering of militia reenactors, complete with guns, fifes and drums.

Historic Deerfield, 80 Old Main St., Deerfield (413) 775-7214 -- 
The complex is situated on a 330-year-old, mile-long street. It includes 13 museum houses built between 1730 and 1850, and the Flynt Center of Early New England Life which displays more than 25,000 objects made or used in America between 1650 and 1850. Although the museum houses are closed in winter, many events are held. Among them, a winter lecture series, weekend hours for the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, and such activities as a “Colonial Chocolate Celebration” on Feb. 9 leading up to Valentine's Day, and a “1704 Colonial Encampment Weekend” on Feb., 29-March 2. Then, on March 1, is “Winter's End Tavern Night” at Hall Tavern
 when Colonial reenactors from throughout New England gather. It’s open to the public through advance reservations. Among upcoming events: “Dinner in a Country Village” and “Maple Days” in March and “Discovery Camp” and “School Vacation Week” in April.

Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, 1000 West Columbus Avenue, Springfield (877) 446-6752 -- This monument to basketball encompasses displays, artifacts and interactive sites celebrating all levels of the game invented at the Springfield YMCA in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith. The spherical Center Court atrium is organized around a full-sized basketball court where a multimedia program called “The Moment” is presented there.

Six Flags New England, Route 159, 1623 Main St., Agawam (413) 786-9300 -- This sprawling seasonal theme park, once known as Riverside: The Great Escape, runs the gamut from aquatic attractions to thrill rides to exhibitions to live entertainment. The amusement park is scheduled to open in April, and the water park, Hurricane Harbor, in May. A lot of its attractions are DC Comics-themed, including “Superman: Ride of Steel,” a roller-coaster that is 208 feet tall and drops 221 feet into a tunnel, reaching a top speed of 77 mph.

Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, Springfield Museums, The Quadrangle, Springfield -- Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, and many of his 44 illustrated books (“The Cat in the Hat,” “Green Eggs and Ham,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) are celebrated in bronze sculptures by Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, Geisel's step-daughter.

Where to eat

In college towns, particularly those grouped in Hampden County, dining spots of all sorts are abundant. Likewise in the vicinity of the major tourist attractions. A few samples:

Union Station, 125A Pleasant St., Northampton (413) 586-5366 -- This former train station was designed and built in 1896 by noted architect H.H. Richardson (Albany City Hall) and became a restaurant, banquet and catering operation in 1999. It has four dining and drinking venues, including steak-and-seafood, Italian. The Tunnel Bar and The Deck.

Fitzwilly's, 23 Main St., Northampton (413) 586-8666 -- The is a historic pub style eatery, housed in a 19th-century Masonic hall with exposed brickwook and tin ceilings. It’s been a popular spot for more than 30 years, serving everything from sandwiches and salads to steaks and seafood.

Butterfly Chinese & Japanese Restaurant, 48 Russell St., Hadley (413) 585-8989 -- Local restaurant critics have said good things about this stylish new restaurant just across the Coolidge Bridge from Springfield. Full Japanese, Chinese and vegetarian menus, offered in cutting-edge d├ęcor.

Where to stay

A variety of Web sites offer a categorized collection (hotels, b&b’s, cabins, hostels, inns and campgrounds. of possibilities: Pioneer Valley Lodging, Valley Visitor.

Dowd's Guides

Andorra calling


This just in.

After hosting thousands upon thousands of visitors from all over the globe, my drinks Web site just got its first visitor from Andorra.

That may not mean anything to most people, but for someone like me who has had a lifelong fascination with maps, geography and tiny, out-of-the-way countries (see San Marino, Liechtenstein and Kiribati), a real-time connection with someone in Andorra is like striking gold.

I've visited a couple of tiny countries -- Luxembourg, located at the confluence of Belgium, France and Germany, and Antigua & Barbuda, an islands-nation in the Caribbean, for example -- but they're easily reached.

The Principality of Andorra is a bit more remote, tucked into a 174-square-mile pocket in the eastern Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. Local legend says it was founded in A.D. 805 by Charlemagne the Great. The earliest document known that mentions Andorra is the act of consecration of the cathedral of Santa Maria of Urgell in 839.

Despite its location,10 million tourists manage to find Andorra each year. That must agree with the 72,000 locals since tourism provides 80% of the country's income and the population has the highest average life expectancy of any nation in the world (80 for men, 86 for women).

One of the biggest attractions is the large amount of area for skiing. This Sunday, for example, the main race of the Andorran Ski Championship will be held and thousands of fans will flock to the mountains for the event.

But that's the touristy stuff. When I visit a country I prefer to find something offbeat. In Andorra, that can be the bordas, the old traditional mountain homes. More than two dozen of them have been converted to public restaurants, most of which are known for a signature dish. Thus, a tour of the bordas is a gastronomic treat that comes highly recommended.

I'm making out my dining list right now. If I can just link up to my Web site visitor, I may even be able to get a personal tour.

About Andorra
Lonely Planet's Andorra Overview
CIA World Factbook: Andorra
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