Ski Towns: Great Barrington, Mass. - Ski Mag

Ski Towns: Great Barrington, Mass.

Travel East
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Great Barrington, Mass 1103

The gentle slopes around Great Barrington, Mass., will always have a place in the scrapbook of my life. When I was a young buck in metropolitan New York, my father and I would lock horns over weekend ski destinations. Typically, I'd press for the Catskills so I could tackle black-diamonds like Hunter Mountain's Hellgate. My father, who preferred decorum to devilish drops, would raise an eyebrow and suggest Butternut Basin in the Berkshires. Usually, we'd compromise...and go to Butternut. "I thought you might see things my way," my father was apt to tease at some point. But I'd already be smiling.

Great Barrington is nestled in the southwest corner of Massachusetts, which abuts Connecticut and New York. Skiers headed to Butternut from points south enter Great Barrington on a scenic byway (Route 7), which swells into a four-lane Main Street. Downtown Great Barrington consists of an impressive array of 19th-century brick architecture, bracketed by the French chà¢teau-style Searles Castle and the "Brown Bridge" spanning the Housatonic River.

Great Barrington's sturdy brick storefronts, Georgian Revival library and imposing granite churches stand out from more typical white-clapboard New England villages. Even draped only in highway salt, the town still manages an upright appearance and seems an ideal place for a skier to live. Outdoor enthusiasts have plied local hills since before World War II, when skiers braved the CCC-cut Thunderbolt Trail on nearby Mt. Greylock. Now there's Butternut, along with Catamount, just over the New York border, as well as the destination resort of Jiminy Peak in Hancock, Mass. But most residents take to Butternut.

For starters, it's close. A motivated kid could bike there from any of the airy Victorians overlooking town. And while local property values continue to skyrocket, Butternut's ticket prices could hardly be more reasonable: $199 for a season pass, or $15 for the day on Mondays and Tuesdays. "Their grades are good, and their mom approved," one father with school-age boys admits sheepishly on a sunny Monday. But beyond competitive pricing, Butternut has the intangibles that families like: excellent programs and long mellow runs that wend their way in harmony with the mountain. Credit for crafting the trails and the atmosphere belongs to founder Channing Murdoch, who, employees joke, "blessed every tree cut at the area."

Despite its winter charms, GreatBarrington was for years considered a lackluster "pass-through" town by summer visitors drawn to Gilded Era destinations like Edith Wharton's Lenox a few miles up the road. More recently, urban refugees—led by the artists that animate the Berkshires' grand and lesser stages—have come to see the attractions of the Berkshires berg. "Even though in some ways it's a typical ski town, it's as much a summer town, with culture like you wouldn't believe," says Butternut Ski School Director Einar Aas. While tourists browse the cultural fare or the region's ubiquitous antique shops, the burgeoning second-home community—and the town's natives—tend to ply the interstices of town. And G.B.'s back streets offer some tasty surprises, like El Punto de Encuentro, a latin market thriving next door to the Helsinki Café, a hopping live-music venue that attracts a surprising number of nationally known performers.

Just through the alley on Railroad Street, a.k.a. "Little Soho" for its eclectic mix of shops and restaurants, sits Bizen, an exceptional open-hearth Japanese restaurant, where skiers chatter about conditions between bites of sashimi and gulps of estate sake. And with 66 restaurants in town, take a stroll and you'll get "packed powder and pass the paella" just down the street. That's a change. "When I came here in 1964, there were no real restaurants, only pubs with pickled eggs because they had to serve food with the beer," Aas insists.

While Great Barrington's gustatorial choices have evolved with its recent renasance, so has its attitude toward the river running through it. The Housatonic—prime real estate in Colonial days—became one of Massachusetts' most polluted waterways in industrial times. "Great Barrington is turning its back to the River," warned native son and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois in 1930. DuBois beseeched the town to adopt a new ethic and "clean it as we have never in all the years before thought of cleaning it." For the past 15 years, residents have done just that, transforming a once-blighted section of riverbank into the short but beguiling River Walk near the heart of downtown. For longer strolls, the 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine passes nearby.

Surrounded by Tanglewood—the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—the Jacob's Pillow dance programs and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), Great Barrington holds its own on the cultural front. In summer, residents can walk to opera at the landmark Mahaiwe Theatre, jive to jazz outdoors at Butternut and worship world-class chamber music in the lovely white-marble St. James Episcopal Church. Not bad for a country town with 7,300 full-time residents. "You can be from here and still appreciate the culture," 33-year-old native Brian Gibbons says pointedly one morning while riding a pokey old quad at Butternut. A landscape designer and dedicated telemark skier, Gibbons has a response for the handful of locals who still pan the arts as rich-man's play. "I'm like, 'Have you ever been to Mass MoCA?' It opens up your mind."

Great Barrington's residents have always been free-thinkers. At the site of the present Federal-style town hall, area farmers armed with pitchforks and muskets displayed the first open resistance to British rule in 1774. Today, from environmental activism to scrutiny of new development, natives and newcomers tend to work together to chart the town's future, says realtor Jonathan Hankin. A Butternut regular who moved to Great Barrington seven years ago after burning out on life in Venice Beach, Calif., Hankin acknowledges that deciding to consolidate the area's elementary and junior high schools in a single building took more than a few town meetings. "People had an emotional attachment to the neighborhood schools they could walk to," he says.

Proponents hope the new, centralized schools set to open in 2005 will be a unifying force, much like the recently completed Berkshire South Community Center, also built to serve surrounding communities. The Center—featuring three pools, an auditorium and a youth center—provides diversions young Great Barrington residents never enjoyed before. In the words of one local ski coach: "My kids spent their lives trying to get out of the Berkshires, and now that they're out of college, all they want to do is come back." Don't tell my father, but I know the feeling.

On the Market

60 Blue Hill Road
Located a mile off Route 7, this log cabin feels remote with 3.6 wooded acres. Built in 1975 and simply designed, it has 1,566 square feet, 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. There's a deck off of the living room, which also has a stone fireplace.
List Price $285,000
Listing Broker Bob Romeo, 413-528-3458; century21franklinstreet.com

49 South Street
This 1863 farmhouse sits on a quiet street among other historic homes. It has 6 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, a wrap-around porch and 3-car garage. Other features: a 300-year-old copper beech tree and a large back yard.
List Price $549,500
Listing Broker Brant Keller, 413-528-2040; isgoodrealty.com

2 Berkshire Heights
This century-old 5,200-square-foot Victorian occupies 4.7 acres on "the Hill," and has five bedrooms and four bathrooms. Other features: three fireplaces, a butler's pantry, a dumb-waiter, wainscotting and a coffered ceiling.
List Price $875,000
Listing Broker Joe Carini, wheelertaylor.com; 413-528-1006

Almanac

Great Barrington Population 7,288; elevation 721 feet; median price of a single-family home $252,500; property tax $15.62 per assessed $1,000; main businesses: tourism, construction, education; public school population 1,519 (K—12) from Great Barrington, Stockbridge & West Stockbridge. Local ski areas: Ski Butternut (1,000 vertical feet, 110 skiable acres, 100 annual inches, $199 per season, $45 per day), Catamount (1,000 vertical feet, 150 skiable acres, 90 annual inches, $199 per season, $45 per day)

Lodging
Wainwright Inn, $100—$275; 413-528-2062; wainwrightinn.com.
Thornewood Inn, $75—$250; 413-637-1469; thornewood.com.
Cranwell Resort Spa, $165—$415; 413-637-1662; cranwell.com.

Dining
Castle Street Café (adventurous American in Casablanca-cool digs) 413-528-5244
Pearl's (best steak in town), 413-528-7767
Martin's (for an Egg McMartin), 413-528-5455.

Don't Miss
The coffee at Uncommon Ground—stay or go, the best Joe in town; 413-528-0858.

Information 800-269-4825; greatbarrington.org.

pulation 7,288; elevation 721 feet; median price of a single-family home $252,500; property tax $15.62 per assessed $1,000; main businesses: tourism, construction, education; public school population 1,519 (K—12) from Great Barrington, Stockbridge & West Stockbridge. Local ski areas: Ski Butternut (1,000 vertical feet, 110 skiable acres, 100 annual inches, $199 per season, $45 per day), Catamount (1,000 vertical feet, 150 skiable acres, 90 annual inches, $199 per season, $45 per day)

Lodging
Wainwright Inn, $100—$275; 413-528-2062; wainwrightinn.com.
Thornewood Inn, $75—$250; 413-637-1469; thornewood.com.
Cranwell Resort Spa, $165—$415; 413-637-1662; cranwell.com.

Dining
Castle Street Café (adventurous American in Casablanca-cool digs) 413-528-5244
Pearl's (best steak in town), 413-528-7767
Martin's (for an Egg McMartin), 413-528-5455.

Don't Miss
The coffee at Uncommon Ground—stay or go, the best Joe in town; 413-528-0858.

Information 800-269-4825; greatbarrington.org.

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