A Guide to Northampton

This once-quiet college town has been dubbed “Lesbianville, USA”

One wonders what Calvin Coolidge, were he alive today, would think of Northampton, Massachusetts. Long before his unremarkable ascent to the nation’s presidency, Coolidge practiced law and local politics in this once-quiet college town on the fringes of Western Massachusetts’ picturesque Berkshire hills. Northampton’s not so quiet these days. Some years back the community was dubbed “Lesbianville, USA” in a typically subtle headline run by America’s popular tabloid, the National Enquirer. The article’s subtitle, “10,000 cuddling, kissing lesbians” suggested, with near apocalyptic urgency, a town overwhelmed by sapphic swarms of these affectionate face-sucking creatures.

Of course, a good many of the lesbians in town got a kick out of the momentary stir created both by the tabloid article and a feature on TV’s 20/20, which also investigated this mind-boggling phenomenon: Many, many lesbians living more or less harmoniously together in a seemingly ordinary New England town. In fact, a walk through downtown Northampton reveals a pleasant enclave of trendy restaurants, urbane shops, and worldly denizens. Same-sex couples and rainbow bumper stickers are commonplace, but lesbians are not quite the formidable army dreamt up in the pages of the Enquirer.

Northampton continues to evolve from merely a great place to live to one of New England’s top gay and lesbian vacation destinations. It’s in the heart of central Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, a region rich with history, outdoors activities, culture, and fine shopping and dining. And it’s just 30 miles east of the Berkshires, a region famous for its art galleries, music festivals, and chichi restaurants and country inns. The town and the surrounding area are also home to a sizable population of gay men – the area truly defies pigeonholing, with one of the most eclectic social scenes you’ll ever find: lesbians and gays, students and professors, empty nesters, artists and musicians, self-employed professionals and telecommuters, and young families.

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The charming campus of Smith College, one of five institutions of higher learning in the immediate area, is poised on a hill above the Northampton’s historic commercial district. Smith, and nearby Mt. Holyoke, admit only women; the college’s presence in Northampton has clearly helped foster a climate where feminism, enlightened politics, and tolerance prevail (Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan are among Smith’s most distinguished alums).

Visitors typically take advantage of the community’s outstanding, and often queer-oriented, fine- and performing-arts offerings, including myriad galleries and live-music venues, excellent regional theater, and one of the oldest opera houses in the country, the Academy of Music, which presents art films and live music and theater. In winter there’s cross-country and downhill skiing just minutes away; in fall you can view splendid foliage; and in spring and summer there’s hiking, horseback riding, and swimming throughout the region. Locals also blade, pedal, or jog along the 8-mile Norwottuck Rail trail, a paved-over railroad bed that passes through town.

Another great diversion is wandering around Smith’s campus, perhaps admiring the Lyman Plant House and the glorious botanic gardens, or rocking back and forth on the rope swing featured in the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – it was shot on campus in 1966 (much of The Cider House Rules was also filmed around town). Definitely check out the magnificent Smith College Museum of Art, a striking contemporary facility that was completely redesigned in 2003. This is a first-rate museum with a permanent collection that includes works by Picasso, Cezanne, Copley, Cassatt, and many other notables.

Most of the great restaurants and shops fall within the walkable downtown – be sure to stop by Pride & Joy, which offers a full range of Pride items, books, gifts, and the like. And also browse the many funky shops inside Thorne’s Marketplace, a multistory former department store that now houses about two dozen offbeat boutiques and shops. In the building’s basement level, Herrell’s has received countless praise and awards for its gooey, rich homemade ice cream that’s offered in all kinds of unusual flavors, from malted vanilla to cinnamon-nutmeg to “Elvis’s Favorite” (banana ice cream with peanut-butter swirl).

Virtually every restaurant in town is queer-friendly to some degree, and there are more standouts than can be named here. At the high end, consider Del Ray Bar and Grill, a snazzy bistro with delicious contemporary American food – try the cumin-and-coriander-dusted ahi tuna or goat-cheese topped portobello-mushroom “steak,” and note the impressive wine list. The same owners run the successful Italian eatery, Spoleto, as well as a fantastic pizza joint called Pizzeria Paradiso, where you can sample pies with such tasty toppings as fennel sausage, calamari, and artichoke hearts. The Green Street Cafe specializes in cutting-edge contemporary fare served in a warm, romantic atmosphere – it’s steps from Smith’s campus and serves a fine Sunday brunch, too.

For excellent regional southwestern and Mexican food that’s far superior to what you’ll often find in the Northeast, check out La Cazuela. Try Paul and Elizabeth’s if you’re seeking gourmet veggie and seafood cuisine, and for hearty comfort food and tasty microbrews, head to the Northampton Brewery, which is also a lively place to drink and people-watch. As with any cool college town, Northampton has a few excellent coffeehouses, with the Haymarket Cafe among the best. Here you can nosh on chocolate-cream-cheese cupcakes, butterscotch creme brulee, and goat cheese and black olive tapenade sandwiches, and sip lattes or tea while pecking away on your laptop or reading a good book.

Northampton isn’t a huge hub of gay nightlife, but the one gay club in town, Diva’s, is quite popular with students and a mostly 35-and-under crowd, and several of the mainstream nightspots in town have a strong community following. Diva’s is a large second-floor space on the outskirts of downtown – there’s a decent-size dance floor, and in good weather you can relax on the spacious patio. Queer-popular performers often play at the Iron Horse or at the larger Calvin Theatre. The popular Pearl Street Nightclub also books great entertainment and is an appealing place in town for drinks or dancing. There are few more convivial places to munch on pub fare and socialize in a totally mixed gay/straight setting than Fitzwilly’s, an old-fashioned tavern that’s been a fixture downtown for decades.

As Northampton’s cachet with tourists grows, new accommodations continue to pop up, both in town and elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley. Among larger properties, the Hotel Northampton occupies a stately 1927 building in the heart of downtown – it’s the most opulent accommodation in the area, with an excellent on-site restaurant, too. A short drive from town, the gay-friendly Clarion Hotel & Conference Center has clean, comfortable rooms, a reputable steak house, and indoor and outdoor pools.

In nearby Easthampton, you’ll find two charmingly furnished rooms at the gay-friendly McKinley House Bed and Breakfast, an attractive turn-of-the-20th-century house on a peaceful residential street. A tempting full breakfast is served in the morning. About 20 miles north of town, the gay-owned Brandt House is a luxurious white Colonial Revival estate on a bluff in historic Greenfield. It contains a mix of cushy suites and standard rooms, all with massive featherbeds and museum-quality antiques; a couple of rooms have working fireplaces and many have whirlpool tubs. Stroll the tree-shaded grounds, relax on the rear terrace, or take to the clay tennis court – this place is bliss defined.

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