Holyoke: 4 miles N of I-90 (via I-91) and 90 miles W of Boston; South Hadley: 5 miles N of I-90; Northampton: 17 miles N of I-90; Amherst: 24 miles N of I-90; Deerfield: 34 miles N of I-90; Turners Falls: 43 miles N of I-90 and 91 miles NW of Boston (via Rte. 2)

Low hills and quilted fields channel the Connecticut River as it runs south toward Long Island Sound, forming the Pioneer Valley. The earliest European settlers came here in the mid-1600s for what proved to be uncommonly fertile soil and were followed in the 19th century by men who harnessed the power of the river and became wealthy textile and paper manufacturers.

These industrialists took the lead in funding the institutions of higher learning that are now the pride of the region. Prestigious Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst are here, as are innovative Hampshire College and the sprawling main campus of the University of Massachusetts, with its 25,600 students. All five contribute mightily to the cultural life of the valley, and the towns of Northampton, Amherst, and South Hadley are invigorated by the vitality of thousands of college-age young people.

In the north, closer to Vermont, the old section in the village of Deerfield preserves the architecture and atmosphere of Colonial New England, while Turners Falls is a town-that-time-forgot that artists are now remaking.

Interstate 91 and the smaller Route 5 traverse the valley from south to north, more or less parallel to each other. On the interstate, the region takes less than an hour to drive from edge to edge, while Route 5 tenders more of the flavor of pastoral vistas and colorful mill towns.

The Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism (tel. 800/227-6277 or 617/973-8500; www.massvacation.com/lodging) website has an easy-to-use search function for lodgings. Note that room rates pop considerably at graduation time (early May) and when parents come through to drop off students (late Aug and early Sept).