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Take the Kids

Take the Kids: Western Massachusetts has more than a day of fun to offer

  • Mass MoCA, in North Adams, Mass., has been open since 1999. <br/><br/>Danielle Kronk/For the Monitor

    Mass MoCA, in North Adams, Mass., has been open since 1999.

    Danielle Kronk/For the Monitor

  • A family looks at Korean installation artist Ran Hwang's "Dreaming of Joy" at Mass MoCA's Kidspace exhibit of "Freedom: Just Another Word For..." <br/><br/>Danielle Kronk/For the Monitor

    A family looks at Korean installation artist Ran Hwang's "Dreaming of Joy" at Mass MoCA's Kidspace exhibit of "Freedom: Just Another Word For..."

    Danielle Kronk/For the Monitor

  • Danielle Kronk Barrick and Dan Barrick, February 6, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Danielle Kronk Barrick and Dan Barrick, February 6, 2013.
    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • Mass MoCA, in North Adams, Mass., has been open since 1999. <br/><br/>Danielle Kronk/For the Monitor
  • A family looks at Korean installation artist Ran Hwang's "Dreaming of Joy" at Mass MoCA's Kidspace exhibit of "Freedom: Just Another Word For..." <br/><br/>Danielle Kronk/For the Monitor
  • Danielle Kronk Barrick and Dan Barrick, February 6, 2013. <br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

Every once in a while, a destination is just appealing enough – and just far away enough – to persuade us to turn a day trip into a weekend adventure. In this case, the draw is a museum that’s guaranteed to offer something amazing to visitors of any age: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (known by its far cooler nickname, Mass MoCA) in North Adams.

Our itinerary includes a winding drive along an old Native American trail; some dabs of natural history; the largest contemporary art museum in the country; and, of course, good food. North Adams is about a 2 1∕2-hour drive from Concord, though you’ll find plenty of excuses to delay along the way. That’s why we recommend extending this trip to an overnight excursion.

From Concord, head southwest toward Brattleboro, Vt., then south on Interstate 91 into Massachusetts. Exit the highway at Greenfield and hop on the Mohawk Trail, also known as Route 2. While there may be quicker routes to North Adams, the Mohawk Trail has a lot to recommend it. This winding, two-lane highway follows old Indian hunting paths, but that’s not the only reason it feels like a throwback to pre-highway travel. Look out the window, and you’ll catch glimpses of vacationing from days gone by: tacky roadside souvenir shops, no-frills cabins, old country inns, Indian-themed “trading posts” and numerous scenic overlooks with dreamy, mountain views.

For an early pit stop, pull over in Shelburne Falls, a quaint village with several galleries, toy and clothing stores, and diners. Even if your travelling companions aren’t demanding a snack stop, Shelburne Falls offers two prime attractions.

The first is the justly famous Bridge of Flowers, a former trolley bridge now lined on either side with a stunning array of – you guessed it – flowers. Strolling along the path, with the Deerfield River flowing beneath you, is like walking through a floating garden. There’s no entrance fee, and kids are welcome, though the narrow walking path can get crowded on weekends.

The other natural attraction here is found at the end of Deerfield Street, just a few blocks from the center of town. Follow signs to find a unique collection of glacial potholes drilled by Mother Nature thousands of years ago into the rocky bank of the Deerfield River. A wide deck provides safe viewing into the riverbed pocked with dozens of smooth holes of various sizes dating to the last ice age, when glaciers made their way across New England. Enlist your kids to see who can spot the biggest pothole.

Continue along the Mohawk Trail on to North Adams. You’ll know you’re close when you reach the breathtaking, 180-degree hairpin turn that seems to leave you suspended above the Berkshire Hills. Cruise just a couple of miles further downhill, and you’re in North Adams.

This former mill town fell on hard times after several manufacturers closed or left in the early 20th century, taking thousands of jobs with them. But the opening of Mass MoCA in 1999 spurred something of an artistic and economic renaissance. And while some pockets of downtown still suffer from neglect, you’ll also find numerous art galleries, artists’ studios, coffee shops and restaurants. It’s clear that the local economy has now firmly shifted from the industrial to the creative. Head over to Mass MoCA, just two blocks from Main Street, to see how.

The museum occupies nearly 150,000 square feet of exhibition space on a sprawling campus of brick mill buildings, allowing for the kind of massive installations that are all but impossible in more traditional museums. It also means that Mass MoCA is ideally suited to younger visitors in numerous ways. The galleries – many the size of football fields – give children plenty of space to roam, wriggle and even run, without risk of banging into a painting or sculpture.

The museum’s current centerpiece is an installation by Chinese artist Xu Bing, called “Phoenix.” It consists of two giant, fantastical sculptures of birds, constructed from assorted pieces of industrial cast-offs from Chinese factories – bent wire strips, old wheel hubs, strings of lightbulbs, and metal scraps. Up close, the sculptures look like collections of trash, but at a distance, suspended from the gallery ceiling, they display the grace and power of giant birds in mid-flight. Because they hang several feet from the gallery floor, young ones can run freely beneath them and experience the art from all angles. Our daughter spent a good half hour racing beneath the birds’ “bellies” without attracting so much as a warning glance from a museum guard.

A neighboring gallery plays a continuous reel of animated art by the same artist, which also may transfix otherwise restless children. (The “Phoenix” exhibit remains on display through October.)

Other Mass MoCA highlights include several galleries devoted to murals by American artist Sol Lewitt, whose images are also particularly accessible to young children. Full of bright primary colors, repetitive shapes and rhythmic, swaying patterns, Lewitt’s floor-to-ceiling paintings are like children’s books projected on a grand scale. Add the abundance of natural light from the galleries’ huge windows, and this exhibition provides a jolt of color and energy for art lovers of all ages.

While the exhibition spaces span several mill buildings, a network of ramps and sloped mezzanines provide easy access between galleries, so navigating strollers between exhibits is easy.

Don’t leave Mass MoCA without a stopping at Kidspace, a gallery that lets children try their hand at art-making. On our visit, there were stations on Chinese calligraphy and model-building, and plenty of opportunities for kids to reflect on their own powers of creativity.

The museum’s cafeteria offers plenty of lunch options, including quiches, soups and burritos, as well as kid-friendly items like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hot dogs. Downtown North Adams also has a handful of fine lunch and dinner offerings. The Hub, at 55 Main St., serves up soups, salads and pasta – as well as more surprising dishes, like jambalaya and Greek chicken – in a family-friendly atmosphere. Desperados, around the corner on Eagle Street, offers the usual Mexican fare in a bustling but laid-back setting. The box of crayons at each table should distract the kids long enough to allow parents to enjoy a pitcher of the delicious, homemade sangria.

If you spend the night in North Adams, head to Brew HaHa, near the corner of Main and Marshall streets, the next morning for a quick breakfast of bagels, muffins, eggs or oatmeal.

And if you want a bit of outdoor exploring before the drive home, you’ll find a lovely, modest hike a short drive from downtown. Follow Route 2 west for just a mile or so, and turn left on Marion Avenue. Continue to the end of the road, where you’ll find a discreet entrance to the Cascades Trail. The level path leads through dense woods along a rippling brook, eventually reaching a small waterfall – just one more display of beauty in this surprisingly lovely town.

If you go:

Mass MoCA – 87 Marshall St., North Adams, Mass.; $15 for adults, $10 for students, $5 for children ages 6 to 16, free for children 5 and younger; massmoca.org.

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