Head to Boston and The Berkshires for a two-centre winter break

Massachusetts has so much to offer in the city and stunning countryside, writes Ruth Brindle…

WHILE millions of visitors travel here each autumn to catch the spectacular autumn foliage, the festive holiday is also a good time of year to head across the Atlantic as there are very competitive prices on flights, hotel rooms and less crowds.

In November my son and I decided to explore the best of historic Boston before travelling out by car to the beautiful forest-clad hills of The Berkshires and its pretty New England towns and villages.

For me, Boston promises a relaxed stay right from the start as Logan airport is only a very short drive, about 20 minutes, from the city centre, so you can start enjoying the sights straight away

Our drive to the first luxury stay at the The Mandarin Oriental was not hampered at all by heavy traffic. London would have been impossible in early evening.

The hotel, in the very central Boylston Street, is welcoming with its open fire in the lobby and the manager’s two friendly pet Golden Retriever dogs Bonnie and Tara wandering freely around.

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The gorgeous furniture and luxury fittings in the room – check out the touch light dimmers at my bedside – and a huge bed that was one of the most luxurious and comfortable I’ve ever slept in – felt truly special.

Upstairs is the only five-star rated spa in Boston with a blend of oriental influences and sophisticated Boston-style treatments. The Digital Wellness Escape says it all – you are invited to leave your technology behind and indulge your senses. Exchanging your shoes for a pair of slippers is the symbolic ritual that takes you from outside stress to escape mode. Treatment manager Shan, a Devon girl, is obviously proud of the spa’s status and its special attention to detail such as the Buddha boards for visitors to paint or doodle on and treatments such as the Himalayan Salt Stone Massage. Full and half day experiences can be booked in advance. Rooms from £525 per night,  www.mandarinoriental.com/boston/

From the hotel lobby it’s just a few steps away to find some top end shopping and dining in Newbury Street – all brownstone elegance and designer boutiques – Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana as well as Cos, H&M and Zara. A beautiful place to stroll. www.newbury-st.com/Boston/Shopping_and_Business_Directory

But when the weather is cold, you don’t even have to go outside from the Mandarin Oriental to more retail indulgence at the Prudential Centre next door, accessed by stairs from the lobby. From there it’s only also an indoor stroll to Copley Place, a mall with more designer options. www.simon.com/mall/copley-place

Here the stores are mostly designer Dior, Coach, Chanel, Christian Louboutin and department store Barneys of New York, Hugo Boss, Jimmy Choo, Michael Kors and Louis Vuitton to name a few. You can also find J Crew, Banana Republic and Gap if you are trying to keep an eye on the purse strings.

At the top of the Prudential Centre is the Skywalk Observatory which gives an awesome 360-degree view of the city including the Charles River, Cambridge and home of the Red Sox baseball team Fenway Park. A highlight of a visit here is the Dreams of Freedom experience which celebrates the important role that immigration has played in shaping the city and American history. It’s one of the oldest cities in the US, founded in 1630, and is one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities, with one out of every three residents born abroad, and a population that speaks more than 140 different languages. www.skywalkboston.com

While this winter visit was all about shopping and spa treats (more of that later!) you cannot fail to feel the city’s proud history as you walk the streets. You can learn more about the seat of the American Revolution by taking a guided stroll along the 2.5 mile Freedom Trail to see the most important sites and learn about the people and events of the time. You can also go on a self-guided tour.

This elegant and historic area of Back Bay in Boston, on the other side of the Charles River to Cambridge, the home of Harvard University, was built on land reclaimed from swamp over many years. Here was our next base – the luxury boutique hotel XV Beacon.

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Personal service here goes to the highest level. One privilege included with your stay is booking the hotel’s Lexus limo to take us around the city is definitely how the other half lives. The hotel stands at the top of Beacon Hill one of the most iconic and historic streets in the city, home to the golden domed State House. (From £445 per night for a double room, www.xvbeacon.com)

Just down the hill is Boston Common and Public Garden. We went for an evening stroll to watch mums, dads and children ice skating in the light of all the pretty Christmas decorations.

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My room here reflected its turn of the century links using dark wood-clad walls and vintage style bathroom fittings. After staying here I’m finding it difficult at home to live without a switch at the side of my bed to turn on the ‘log’ fire in my room. Two wine gasses and whiskey tumblers also stand at the ready for a little 24-hour in-room dining. I cuddled up in a cashmere throw and custom-made bed linen – it’s the kind of luxury I’d like to become accustomed to! My personally delivered macaroon and chocolate plate was just the icing on the cake.

But having shopped Downtown it was time to venture to other areas and the SoWa district, a 10-minute drive from Downtown, is a more edgy, up and coming area with a vintage market and boutique shops with lots of art, cutting edge design and home furnishings to browse.

I was lucky enough to be there during the Winter Festival on the first weekend in December and it was very busy and vibrant. The 100 or more festive stalls in the old power station created a queue to get in; there were some fun food trucks too selling lunch treats, as well as music, ice sculpting and a vintage market.

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Later in the day a meal at SoWa’s most sought-after Italian eateries Cinquecento was a real delight. Housed in a warehouse-style large, open-plan area all wooden beams and steel, it has obviously become one of the city’s hottest destinations to eat. The atmosphere is great but it’s the excellent and delectable food and the superb service that makes it special.

It was so hard to choose between the alluring appetizers that we shared quite a few. These included steamed mussels, oysters, grilled octopus (a signature dish with celeriac and olives) and a special treat of steak tartare. I then enjoyed sea bass with wild mushrooms. With no space for dessert we indulged in a takeaway tiramisu, the best I have ever (later) tasted. The menu is varied and ambitious and fun. A not-to-be-missed night out.  www.cinquecentoboston.com

So although it was sad to leave bustling Boston, the quiet and beautiful Berkshires beckoned, 120 miles outside the city. It’s both an ideal destination for lovers of the great outdoors – hiking, walking, skiing, snowshoeing and kayaking on the many lakes and in the mountains and a haven of relaxation.

The Berkshires is also a mecca for culture lovers with a lively arts and entertainment scene. It has attracted writers, artists, actors and arts enthusiasts both past and present. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge is world renowned as is the music programme at Tanglewood in Lenox, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

So to get a taste of this rich legacy I visited The Clark Museum in Williamstown

on my way into the heart of The Berkshires. This ‘best of the best’ collection of art from the Renaissance to the early 20th Century is truly stunning. Brought together by Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune and his wife Francine it is housed in a newly renovated site with beautiful new exhibition and café space designed by architect Tadeo Ando that is as memorable as the art itself, blending the beautiful 140 acre grounds with the buildings themselves.

While far too many to list, there are works here by artists including Rubens, Botticelli, Gainsborough, Renoir, Degas, Lautrec, Degas, Turner, American artists including John Singer Sargent, Frederic Remington and a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart that all the world will recognise.

The intimate rooms also display extensive collections of ceramics, silver, photography and sculptures, all of which provides a rich background for the institute’s world renowned arts study centre. A memorable place to visit. www.clarkart.edu

The Williamstown theatre festival also attracts top stars of the acting world. Bradley Cooper was seen strolling down Main Street during a pre-Broadway run of The Elephant Man a couple of years ago. I was also told that Meryl Streep lives nearby. This is an area where traditionally the rich and famous of New York and Boston go to escape to their ‘cottages’ – otherwise known as mansions to us.

One such residence is Bellefontaine once a private home, then a seminary and a boarding school, but now a luxury health retreat. This is a place to go to truly relax, rejuvenate and heal with 40 classes a day and 200 wellness and spa services.

We had far too little time to discover everything on offer, but right from the moment of booking it is obvious that this is a personally tailored experience like no other. The integrated services here go right from medical and spiritual to beauty and sport. There are doctors, healing energy and spiritual wellness experts, nutritionists, sports instructors and creative arts instructors.

Visitors fill out an assessment form before arriving and a programme adviser will discuss this to devise advice sessions, classes and treatments to suit you.

But if it’s a more low-key, fun and relaxing stay you’re after that’s on offer too. My swim in the gorgeous indoor pool at night with soothing music and underwater lighting, an amazing facial with a super professional therapist Bonnie and a rejuvenating hour in the ladies’ spa were highlights. I learnt a lot about my skin during my treatment and during just one 20-minute class on foot health I enjoyed a very valuable lesson on how to keep my feet in tip top condition. The teachers know their stuff.

The daily programmes include an amazing range of activities and classes for all abilities and tastes, both indoors and outdoors. On one day there are over 60 different activities (free and paid-for) to choose from. These included an outdoor hike, a warm-up stretch and more at 7.45am; visual journaling and cardio tennis at 10am; aerial cardiac yoga or The Challenge of Change, turning good intentions into effective actions for a happier healthier you, at noon; the art of fencing or a boxer’s workout at 3pm, and other choices up until 8pm including Seeking Freedom From Stress and Crochet Creations.

Of course the ultra-healthy meal options, which are included in the cost of a nightly stay, are also a highlight. Forget the mega meals that are the usual fayre of a US visit. This food is fresh, it’s clean and it makes you feel good. When dining in the casual café or the more formal dining room you can eat as much as you like, but you’ll have the nutritional information you need (dishes broken down by proportion into carbs, protein, fibre, healthy fats etc) to make a good choice for you. Daily cooking classes help health seekers to carry on the good work of Canyon Ranch at home.

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The beautiful grounds too offer a respite from daily stress. I really enjoyed the Spirit Walk Labyrinth that invited me to take a walking meditation to help think around a particular topic or problem in my life.

A three-day stay is usual, so I feel we only scratched the surface during 36 hours, but if you have your own wellbeing in mind this is a fabulous place to combine a holiday in Massachusetts with lasting beneficial effects. From £600 per night, www.canyonranch.com

While Canyon Ranch is a full-on health experience, in the nearby town of Lenox, the Garden Gables Inn touches the senses in a different way. It is simply gorgeous. Just being in the beautiful 18th century building makes you sigh with pleasure.

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The Colonial style building originally called Butternut Cottage was moved from its original site on Main Street to its current location, still just a short walk from the centre of beautiful Lenox. It is now owned by two members of the Vittori family who also own a vineyard and orchard in nearby Richmond, which guests can visit.  

My bedroom, with its four poster bed, quilt, antique furnishings and open fire was somewhere I would have quite happily stayed in to relax all day. But the ‘sherry room’, with bottles of sherry and glasses on offer and the sitting room, also both with open fires, was like being in a home from home.

Cookies, tea, coffee and fruit is on offer to self-serve all day and there is full waitress service for breakfast. I couldn’t resist the melt-in-the-mouth buttermilk pancakes and maple syrup, a speciality of the region. The lovely staff also make a stay here feel like you’re staying with friends. Nothing is too much trouble and they regularly check to make sure everything is OK with you.

The Berkshires has a great tradition of farm to table food and dining at Garden Gables gives a delicious experience of that. There is no regular dinner dining, but you can book the Private Chef’s Table with a menu worked out between you and the professional chef on certain nights.

We enjoyed pan seared diver sea scallops with celery root puree, pickled beet and rosemary followed by a garden baby greens salad with late fall fruits, glassy walnuts in a sherry honey-vanilla vinaigrette. The main course of pan-roasted ribeye steak was served with heirloom mushrooms, roasted late-fall veg, a shallot and confit-leek fondue topped off with a Bearnaise sauce. Even though full I couldn’t resist the delicious cheese selection and strawberry and chocolate acorns. Very memorable.

To add to all this ultimate relaxation is the B&B’s on-site petit spa which offers massages, including hot stone, therapeutic and sports treatments. My son reported that the Swedish massage (£70) in the relaxed atmosphere of one of the two spa rooms got rid of his aches and pains effectively. You can book this or a facial in advance. One night’s B&B at Garden Gables Inn is from £150 per night, www.gardengablesinn.com

The town of Lenox has small, individual shops to browse around and the festive atmosphere, together with a very obvious, warm community spirit makes this an ideal place to come at this time of year. Watching Father Christmas arrive on a fire truck for the tree lighting ceremony was great fun. I felt very welcome here and at home and will definitely be back.

Shopping at a glance

Brits who travel to Massachusetts enjoy tax free shopping on all clothes and shoes up to $175 (£130), in a single purchase. With sales in January – now is the perfect time to plan a winter shopping trip.

Popular shopping locations in and around Boston include:

Assembly Row outlet shopping. www.assemblyrow.com/

Wrentham Village Premium Outlets which is just 50 minutes outside of Boston with 170 outlets with many high-end brands at discounted prices.www.premiumoutlets.com/outlet/wrentham-village

Harvard Square is filled with boutiques and independent clothing, gift and jewellery stores. www.harvardsquare.com/

Natick Mall is a great family shopping experience with over 250 stores including numerous children’s retailers – just 30 minutes from Boston. www.natickmall.com/en.html

Plan your visit

For more information about Massachusetts and all it has to offer, visit www.massholiday.co.uk

For The Berkshires, visit www.berkshires.org

For Greater Boston, www.bostonusa.com

Getting there

Norwegian operates a four times weekly direct service between London Gatwick and Boston Logan International Airport.

Flights are on brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft offering all passengers complimentary inflight entertainment in two cabins – Premium and economy. These technologically advanced aircraft are faster, greener and help reduce the effects of jet lag. Passengers travelling in the Premium cabin can enjoy spacious seating with extra legroom, complimentary drinks, dinner, inclusive luggage, fast track security and access to select airport lounges.

Economy fares start from £134.90 one way / £224.80 return and £400 one way / £720 return in Premium at www.norwegian.com/uk or 0330 8280854 (opt. 1).

Car hire

Seven days’ car hire of a Chevrolet Spark (or similar) from Boston International Airport (based on Nov 4 – 11, 2018) costs from £229.68. Book online at Hertz.co.uk

Visit www.hertz.co.uk/p/american-road-trip-planner to plan your own, personalised road trip anywhere in the States.

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