• Amherst-area activities, attractions, explorations and events that may interest you during your stay at the Birdsong Bed & Breakfast.

Bike the Rail Trail

Explore the 10.6-mile Norwottuck Rail Trail

Norwottuck Bike Trail in Amherst

Norwottuck Bike Trail in Amherst

Among the most widely used recreational resources in the Pioneer Valley is the Norwottuck Rail Trail. It is a Massachusetts state park built on an abandoned Boston & Maine rail bed that runs from Belchertown through Amherst and Hadley, and across the Connecticut River into Northampton. It is enjoyed not only by cyclists, but by walkers, joggers, birdwatchers, roller bladers, and in winter, snowshoe’ers and cross country skiers.

Opened to the public in 1993, the trail was originally 8.5 miles long, but has been lengthened at both ends to its current 10.6-mile length. The westernmost parking area at Elwell State Park, is close to Interstate 91 and the city of Northampton, and therefore is popularly considered the trail’s starting point. However, the designers set up mileposts that begin at the Station Road Parking Area in South Amherst, and that is our point of reference for the map below.

Norwottuck is an Abenaki word meaning “in the midst of water,” and it is an apt title. The rail trail extends from the wetlands of Lawrence swamp, in sight of the profile of Mount Norwottuck on the Holyoke Range, and across the striking steel truss bridge over the Connecticut River.

One feature introduced by the Norwottuck’s designers has been less than popular. Recycled bottle glass was added to the paving mixture to give it sparkle. While it does glisten in the sunshine, the “glassphalt” has been a pneumatic disaster, accounting for numerous flat bicycle tires. Cyclists are advised to pack a patch kit, at least until a $4-million repaving project scheduled to begin next spring is completed.

View Norwottuck Rail Trail in a larger map

Norwottuck Rail Trail

Norwottuck Rail Trail

Mile marks are measured from the Station Road Parking Lot, heading west towards Northampton.

  1. The first mile of the trail is highlighted by Poor Farm Swamp and a beaver pond to the right, and scenic Thistlebloom Farm on the left. Several conservation trails head off into the woods.
  2. Mile 2 will take you past the rolling hills of the Amherst College cross-country course to the south, and the College Wildflife Sanctuary on the opposite side. You may want to stop for a rest at the granite seat known as Grampa’s Bench near the 2-mile mark.
  3. Mile 3 passes by the Amherst College athletic fields, tennis courts and Orr Rink. To reach downtown Amherst, cut through the College at the tennis courts to Route 9, or continue through the tunnel under South Pleasant St. and exit just beyond. Amherst Common is a half mile to the north.
  4. A short ways past the Mile 3 mark, Swift Way, a bicycle path that leads to UMass, veers off to the right. Amherst Golf Course is ahead on the left. Look carefully and you will see a couple small trails past the golf course that lead to the lovely Larch Hill Conservation Area and Bramble Hill Farm.
  5. Mile 5 leads past the rear of the Hampshire Mall to a stop sign at South Maple St. in Hadley. You might want to stop into Maple Farm Foods on the right for a snack. Across South Maple St. is an entrance to the back parking lot of Mountain Farms Mall which features among other stores, a Whole Foods, Panera Bread, Eastern Mountain Sports, Barnes & Noble bookstore and a Walmart (there’s a Target at Hampshire Mall if you prefer).
  6. Midway through Mile 6, a tunnel takes you under heavily traveled Route 9, and into a blind curve. Heed possible oncoming trail users. Ahead on the right you will pass examples of the fertile farm fields that Hadley is famous for.
  7. Mile 7 crosses East St. in Hadley and a reddish renovated barn that houses a ballet school and 2 well-stocked used bookstores, Grey Matter Books and Troubadour Books. Bicyclists receive a 10% discount.
  8. Mile 8 passes two parallel West Streets and the Hadley Common before coming to an expanse of farmland on the right, enriched by eons of Conecticut River floods.
  9. Entering Mile 9 you will soon spot the pièce de résistance of the ride, the river crossing over a Lattice Truss Bridge, originally built in 1887, which offers spectacular views to the south and north. The bridge passes over the mostly unvisited Elwell Island and accesses the Elwell State Park parking area and the only official restrooms on the trail. Now in Northampton, you will cross busy Damon Road where there is a pedestrian and cyclist crosswalk. This westward 1.5-mile extension to the trail was added in 2007.
  10. The Norwottuck Rail Trail ends just before the live Pan Am Railways track on Woodmont St. in Northampton, 9.1 miles from the Station Rd. starting point. Plans are in the works to build a tunnel under the track and King St. (Route 5) to connect the Norwottuck Rail Trail with the Northampton Bikeway which follows the same rail bed past into Haydenville.
Norwottuck Rail Trail Bridge

Norwottuck Rail Trail Bridge over the Connecticut River

Posted in Beyond Amherst, Outdoors | Leave a comment

Buy a Book

Shop in Amherst’s world-class bookstores

Archbishop Tutu bought a book at LAOS Interfaith Book Center during a 1992 visit

Photo courtesy of LAOS

Archbishop Desmond Tutu bought a book at
LAOS Religious Book Center during a 1992 visit

The Amherst town seal features a book and a plow, and our treasured bookstores and farms are both heroically persevering against the pressures of modern times. Ruth Backes’s 1989 guide, The Bookstores of Amherst listed 10 local booksellers. Today only 3 of them remain, and one is expected to close by year end. Fortunately, however, a couple newcomers have emerged, and Amherst continues to be as well endowed with good bookstores as any community in Western Massachusetts.

View Bookstores of Amherst in a larger map

Bookstores of Amherst

Bookstores of Amherst

  1. Eric Carle Museum Shop, 125 West Bay Rd. – The museum’s shop, run by veteran children’s bookseller Andrew Laties, has been described by Parents’ Choice as “very best bookstore for picture books in the entire world.”
  2. Yiddish Book Center, 1021 West St. – Holder of one of the world’s largest collections of Yiddish-language books. The adjoining bookstore offers a unique collection of Yiddish and Jewish-oriented books and CDs.
  3. A. J. Hastings, 45 South Pleasant St. – In addition to office supplies, Amherst College and UMass clothing, and greeting cards, Hastings sells newspapers, magazines, maps and a small assorment of local interest books.
  4. Jones Library, 43 Amity St. – Pay what you want for any book on the shelves of constantly changing donated titles in the public library foyer.
  5. Amherst Books, 8 Main St. – Book browsers’ paradise in the heart of Amherst. The shop has a well-stocked shelf devoted to Emily Dickinson. Used books are on the lower level. Recognized as “Best Bookstore in New England” by Boston Magazine’s New England Travel & Life in 2007.
  6. Food For Thought Books, 106 North Pleasant St. – Workers collective with an inspired selection of titles on current affairs, social issues, progressive politics, the environment and other subjects of an activist bent. It began in 1976 as an extension of the Amherst Food Co-op, hence the name.
  7. LAOS Interfaith Book Store, 233 North Pleasant St. – LAOS (Laymens Academy for Oecumenical Studies) Book Store’s specialties include Church history and theology, interfaith philosophies, children, families and Bibles. Located on the 2nd floor of the Carriage Shops and in operation since 1971.  Sadly, plans are underway to close the doors by year end.
  8. UMass Textbook Annex, 360 Campus Center Way – Textbooks for University of Mass. courses may be purchased or picked up here.

Beyond being sources of reading material, several of Amherst’s bookstores are event venues. My family and I will cherish the memory of meeting ex-presidential candidate Senator George McGovern this past March at Amherst Books where he was signing copies of his new book, What It Means to Be a Democrat. We were sad to hear of his passing last week at age 90. Mr. McGovern, who carried only Massachusetts and District of Columbia during his 1972 race against Richard Nixon showed his grace and good humor when he inscribed a book for my wife who was running for Jones Library Trustee at the time: “To Carol, Success in all your elections.”

George McGovern at Amherst Books

George McGovern at Amherst Books

3 Books about Amherst and Books

  • The Bookstores of Amherst, A Browser’s Guide. By Ruth Backes (1989). A survey of 10 bookshops and 2 book auctions in Amherst at the time. I’d like to thank the kind folks at LAOS Interfaith Bookstore for giving me a copy.
  • Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. By Aaron Lansky (2004, Algonquin Books). The Yiddish-book-saving adventures of Hampshire grad Aaron Lansky that led to the founding of the National Yiddish Book Center. Lanksy won a MacArthur Award for his book preservation efforts, and the 2005 Massachusetts Book Award for the book.
  • Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Bookstores Represent Everything You Want to Fight For – From Free Speech to Buying Local to Building Communities, 2nd Edition. By Andrew Laties (2011, Seven Stories Press). Memoir of his decades in the bookselling business and call to action on behalf of the buy local movement, by the manager of the Eric Carle Museum bookstore.

The first title is out of print, but the other two are available. You can purchase or order them from a local bookseller.

Posted in Shopping | Leave a comment

Dine Out

Enjoy fine dining in Amherst.

Lumber Yard fare

Our guests commonly request our suggestion for a place to have dinner. With close to 100 restaurants in town, the answer is not so simple. From Salvadoran takeout to award-winning soups to pizza by the slice, Amherst has dining options for all palates and budgets. In addition to a good meal, however, visitors are often in search of a memorable dining experience.

Here is a list of Amherst eateries that aspire to offer upscale or fine dining. Of the eight establishments listed, seven are clustered in the center of town.

View Amherst Fine Dining in a larger map

Amherst Fine Dining

Fine Dining in Amherst

  1. Lumber Yard, 383 main street, (413) 253-4200menu
    A relative newcomer to the Amherst fine dining scene, the Lumberyard was launched by Rolf and Cindy Nelson who also operate the Sconset Café on Nantucket.
  2. 30 Boltwood, 30 Boltwood Ave., (413) 256-8200menuThe restaurant is attached to the Amherst College-owned Lord Jeffery Inn, 30 Boltwood extends “casual elegance with inspired cuisine.” There is an outdoor dining area in the warm weather months.
  3. Johnny’s Tavern, 30 Boltwood Walk, (413) 230-3818menuUpscale burgers and American food. The lunchtime burger and beer special is popular.
  4. High Horse, 24 North Pleasant St., (413) 230-3034menuThe High Horse Brewery and Bistro was opened in 2012 by the owner of the acclaimed South Amherst beer pub, Moan and Dove. It may be the only place in town that serves poutine. Upstairs is a billiards table.
  5. Judie’s, 51 North Pleasant St., (413) 253-3491 – menuNow in its 35th year of operation, Judie’s is a downtown Amherst institution. It is renowned for its signature popovers. We like the “Littles” combination of a petite sandwich, fries and soup or salad. Vegetarians can ask for the portabella or veggieburger “Little” which are not listed on the menu.
  6. Bistro 63, 63 North Pleasant St., (413) 259-1600menuVeteran chef Mauro Aniello serves up an eclectic assortment of steak and seafood dishes, soups, salads and desserts.
  7. Chez Albert, 178 North Pleasant St., (413) 253-3811menuPopular venue for birthday meals and dinner dates, Chez Albert has consistently been named Best French Restaurant in the Valley by the Valley Advocate poll.
  8. The University Club, 243 Stockbridge Rd., (413) 545-2551menuFormerly the private UMass faculty club, the University Club is now open to the public on weekdays and serves contemporary New England fare. It is located in the oldest house in Amherst, where famous sculptor Daniel Chester French lived as a teenager.
Posted in Dining | Leave a comment