Five years ago, when my wife and I dropped our oldest child off for freshman orientation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I had great expectations not only for her, but for the time I’d spend in her new college town. When I was an undergrad in Boston decades ago, my parents visited for Parents’ Weekends and football games — and over four years, they became well acquainted with the city. So as I savored my first taste of Antonio’s Pizza (antoniospizza.com, 413-253-0808), the famed slice emporium in town, I figured that this bucolic, artsy area would become a place I’d come to know well.
Over the next few years, my second child joined his older sister at UMass. By 2020, my name appeared on leases for two different off-campus apartments. Occasionally, I’d visit in a rented U-Haul to schlep mini-fridges and sofas, but my visits focused on logistics, not recreation. Several factors drove this behavior. Amherst is close enough — less than a two-hour drive from Boston — that I had no reason to stay overnight. UMass’s football team (6 wins and 34 losses during the last four years) limited the appeal of fall weekends. My children took cars to school, reducing their need for parental pickups. Add in the COVID restrictions that have reduced access to campus events, and I’d argue that it’s excusable that I’ve been an absentee collegiate parent.
Now, with pandemic regulations easing and my children’s time at UMass winding down — my daughter graduated last year; my son should follow suit next May — I’m working to change that, starting with a recent jaunt to the area. And it could be the perfect destination for a day trip for you, too. By June, most of the students at the so-called Five Colleges — UMass, Amherst College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke — will be home for the summer, freeing up parking spots and restaurant tables. Places that closed during the pandemic are reopening (though some still require masks). This year more than most, spring in Amherst has felt like a reawakening.
My visit starts at a large yellow home on Main Street. My daughter spent two years in an apartment across the street from Homestead, the former residence of poet Emily Dickinson and now home to the Emily Dickinson Museum (emilydickinsonmuseum.org, 413-542-8161). We’d always intended to visit, but in March 2020, the museum closed due to the pandemic. When it became clear COVID would linger, the museum’s leadership launched a $2.5 million restoration that’s now in its final stages. The building, owned by Amherst College, is expected to reopen in early summer, according to museum officials.
The reopening will be well timed, because Emily Dickinson is having a moment. In 2019, Apple TV+ premiered a creative reinterpretation of the poet’s life story, starring actress Hailee Steinfeld as Emily. Dickinson freely mixes historical detail with contemporary dialogue, a modern soundtrack, and edgy plotlines. (In the pilot, Emily swears, smokes cigarettes, and makes out with Susan Gilbert, her future sister-in-law, who some historians believe was Emily’s real-life romantic interest.) After the show’s three-season run ended in late 2021, The New York Times called it one of the 10 best shows of that year.
Even while closed, the museum has witnessed surging interest in the poet. Its Instagram account has grown from 2,000 to more than 30,000 followers, and its recent virtual events have drawn attendees from some 70 countries. Some Taylor Swift fans believe the poet influenced the singer-songwriter’s 2020 album Evermore, which was announced on Dickinson’s birthday that year — the same month philanthropist MacKenzie Scott (formerly Bezos) wrote a meditative blog post comparing Dickinson’s self-imposed reclusiveness with the isolation many people have experienced during the pandemic.
Inside the house, during a sneak preview of the renovations in mid-March, the first floor remains a construction site. In the home’s original kitchen, Jane Wald, the museum’s executive director, pulls a large Ziploc bag from a shelf. It contains scraps of old plaster, which restorationists had carefully excised from walls to determine the home’s wallpaper schemes after 1855, when Dickinson began her most productive years of poetry. Wald walks through first-floor parlors, pointing to changes: raised ceilings, restored pocket doors, the rebuilt fireplaces and main stairway, newly-uncovered original flooring, and the reinstallation of the home’s old front door, which was found in the garage. “One of our goals was to restore it to match the surroundings that Emily Dickinson experienced and in which she created her poetry — to represent what her physical and visual environments were like, and to convey a sense of her as a real person,” Wald tells me.
The highlight of the Homestead tour is Dickinson’s large upstairs bedroom, covered in floral-and-vine wallpaper. Under the straw-mat rugs, the original floorboards show a well-worn path leading to her small writing desk. (Although most of the bedroom furniture is original, the desk isn’t — the real one is at Harvard University.) Wald notes that even the chattiest visitors shift into a reverential silence when they first enter the bedroom. “It takes a few moments to let it wash over you,” Wald says.
A short drive down Triangle Street lies West Cemetery, which contains the Dickinson family burial plot. Emily’s grave is ringed by mementos left by fans: seashells, pencils, and, near the base, side-by-side photos of the real-life poet and Hailee Steinfeld dressed as her character.
Although Amherst is best known for its colleges, drive a few miles north for a reminder that this remains an agricultural region. Small towns like Sunderland, Whately, Deerfield, and Montague could be settings for a Kacey Musgraves country music video. You’ll pass general stores, barbecue joints, and hot dog stands. Smell the manure. Enjoy the drive down Route 47 along the Connecticut River, but be careful: This flat stretch of asphalt is busy with bicyclists.
Thirsty? Good — you have options.
In January, Tree House Brewing Company (treehousebrew.com/visiting-deerfield), the Charlton-based company whose top-rated craft beers have a cult following, unveiled an expansive brick-and-glass facility in Deerfield. If you make a reservation, you can head inside to sample Tree House varieties on tap Wednesdays through Sundays. On a Saturday afternoon, the parking lot is crammed with people who, unlike me, have planned ahead. Lacking a reservation, I pull into a short drive-through lane (open seven days a week), punch my credit card number into Tree House’s website using my phone — and a few minutes later, a staffer wheels out a hand truck with two boxes full of cold cans to take home.
A few miles south, in Hatfield, I drive down a dirt road past grapevines and into the parking lot of Black Birch Vineyard (blackbirchvineyard.com, 413-247-3300). The winery grows 10 varieties of grapes on 17 acres. Inside, patrons can sit at tables and do a full tasting — five 1-ounce pours for $10 — and, on weekends, order wood-fired pizzas from a food truck. (Groups of more than six require reservations.)
Instead of the full tasting, I order a single glass of Epic Red and grab an Adirondack chair on the patio, where there’s ample seating. The vineyard’s owners, Ian Modestow and Michelle Kersbergen, encourage people to bring blankets and leashed dogs.
On the south side of Amherst, near the edge of Hampshire College, sits the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (carlemuseum.org, 413-559-6300), which celebrates the children’s author — and, more broadly, illustration as an artform. Though the museum closed for parts of 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, young families have returned. In an alcove, staffers read aloud to children; in the art studio, visitors grab supplies and, with guidance from museum helpers, make their own visual creations.
I head right for the main gallery, which displays a range of art by Carle, who died in May 2021 and is best known for the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Surrounded by images from the kinds of books I haven’t read to my children in 10 years, I become nostalgic. Like many adults, I spent just a few years savoring picture books with my kids, and when that phase passed, I’d forgotten how meaningful the medium can be.
As COVID restrictions lift and even cautious travelers dust off their suitcases, be aware that after two years of reduced activity, businesses that once served as destinations may no longer be around. In downtown Amherst, for example, I was saddened to discover that The Lone Wolf, a popular breakfast spot, had closed its doors — though I was able to satiate my hunger with a tasty breakfast sandwich at the nearby Black Sheep Deli (blacksheepdeli.com, 413-253-3442).
I experience this again in nearby Montague. For decades, I’ve seen bumper stickers touting the Montague Bookmill — ”Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” — the town’s quirky used bookstore (maq.ujw.mybluehost.me, 413-367-9206). On this trip, I manage to find it and browse titles in the ramshackle former mill building. I discover, however, that The Alvah Stone, the eatery situated in the bookstore’s lower level, closed in September and was eventually replaced by the Watershed Restaurant (watershed440.com, 413-367-3085). Luckily for diners, the new spot has the same lovely views of the Sawmill River, in addition to delicious fare (try the French dip portobello sandwich).
Still, dining options abound. When my son, who has spent the afternoon initiating his fraternity’s newest class of brothers, finally returns my texts around 5 p.m., he says he’d like to grab dinner. By then, most of the places I’d hoped to eat — Johnny’s Tavern or 30Boltwood in Amherst, Homestead in Northampton, Blue Heron Restaurant & Catering in Sunderland — are fully booked. My son and his girlfriend suggest Garcia’s, a family-owned, budget-friendly Mexican restaurant a short walk from the UMass campus.
As I pull into the parking lot, I immediately recognize it. When my daughter first toured UMass, we’d had lunch at a Bertucci’s in this space. Then, for two memorable months in 2019, it housed a restaurant called Porta’s, which closed after officials revoked its liquor license over reportedly flagrant violations of the Commonwealth’s alcohol laws. In the fall of 2021, the space became Garcia’s (413-230-3017), with a colorful tile bar, sports on big-screen TVs, strong margaritas, and a solid lineup of Mexican staples at prices students can manage. I easily finish two grilled-chicken tacos, which come topped with Monterey Jack cheese, honey-grilled onions, and pico de gallo.
There’s more to explore in Amherst and the surrounding towns, and I plan to do so. We’ve already circled October 15 — Parents’ Weekend at UMass. And my third child, a high school junior, will soon tour the campus. I may have missed out on what Amherst has to offer the last few years, but I aim to make up for lost time.
Daniel McGinn is an executive editor of Harvard Business Review. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.