Once an important paper-manufacturing center, Holyoke has suffered a long economic slide since World War II and is nearly all rough edges today, with abandoned factories and a dissolute air. Fans of industrial architecture, however, may well find the city visually intriguing: Canals dug during the city's mid-19th-century heyday still cut through town, and the skyline is bleakly atmospheric.
To take it in, make Heritage State Park (tel. 413/534-1723; www.mass.gov) a destination. The small park runs along a canal, and you'll pass by many of the old mills on the drive there. Follow signs for Main Street (a nondescript commercial road) and turn left onto Appleton Street. The entrance and parking lot is at 221 Appleton St., across from the police station. An interpretive center offers walking tours and exhibits, and there's a restored antique merry-go-round. Just beyond the center is the Volleyball Hall of Fame (tel. 413/536-0926; www.volleyhall.org).
The essential reason that this stately town pops up on Route 116 amid the farming and working-class communities that are its neighbors is Mount Holyoke College. Pioneer educator Mary Lyon founded the school (then a seminary) in 1837, and the college is the oldest of the "Seven Sisters" schools for women.
On the college campus is a worthy Art Museum (tel. 413/538-2245; www.mtholyoke.edu), which focuses on art of Asia, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. Renovation and expansion has brought more of the collection into regular view. Hours are Tuesday through Friday from 11am to 5pm, Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5pm. Admission is free.
Joseph A. Skinner State Park (tel. 413/586-0350; www.mass.gov) straddles the border between South Hadley and Hadley. On its 400 acres are picnic grounds, miles of trails, and the historic Summit House (May-Oct Sat-Sun 10am to 5pm), with panoramic views of the valley. The 1 1/2-mile road to the summit is open to cars from mid-April to mid-November and to walkers year-round. The park entrance is on Mountain Road, off Route 47, in Hadley.
Smith College, with its campus sprawling along Main Street just west of the commercial center, is Northampton's dominating physical and spiritual presence. Another of the "Seven Sisters," Smith is now the largest female liberal arts college in the United States.
Northampton, known locally as "Noho," is the cultural center of the valley, with events that range from chamber music to art exhibitions to an independent film festival (www.niff.org) each November. The number and diversity of restaurants are far greater than most cities its size can flaunt, and its many stores are as kicky as any devout shopper might ask. Try to allow at least a long day and overnight in the area.
The city has a large gay and lesbian population, and a Pride March is held every May (www.northamptonpride.org). A well-received book by Tracy Kidder, Home Town (Random House, 1999), profiled Northampton and a number of its citizens.
Tip: The city has a strong tradition of crosswalk courtesy: Once a pedestrian puts a toe into a crosswalk, cars in both directions stop. Take note when you're driving.
Yet another Pioneer Valley town defined by its educational institutions, this one has an even larger student population than most, with distinguished Amherst College occupying much of its center, the large University of Massachusetts campus to its immediate northwest, and Hampshire College off South Pleasant Street.
On the edge of the town green is a seasonal information booth. Its hours vary, but if it's closed, visitors can call the Chamber of Commerce (tel. 413/253-0700).
Meadows cleared and plowed more than 330 years ago still surround this historic town between the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers. Every morning, tobacco and dairy farmers head out from here to work their land nearby.
Follow the signs to "Old Deerfield" or "Historic Deerfield," a turn-off of Route 5. This small neighborhood has more than 80 homes built in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Most are private, but 13 can be visited through tours conducted by Historic Deerfield, a local tourism organization. On either side of the main street, students attend the distinguished prep school, Deerfield Academy, founded in 1797.
Deerfield is an invaluable fragment of American history (and has been designated a National Historic Landmark village). Massacres of Deerfield's English settlers by the French and Indian enemies of the British nearly wiped out the town in 1675 and again in 1704. In the latter raid, 47 people were killed and another 112 were taken prisoner and marched to French Quebec.
Special celebrations in the town are held on Patriot's Day (the third Mon in Apr), Washington's Birthday, Thanksgiving, and the Christmas holidays. Call the information center in Hall Tavern (tel. 413/774-5581) for details.
The village of Turners Falls was built in the 1860s as a mill town along the Connecticut River, and immigrants from Germany, French Canada, Lithuania, and Ireland all came to chase their dreams. As with other spots in the region, the village began a long economic slide when the mills started closing in the 1940s.
The profile of Turners Falls has begun to rise in recent years, however, thanks to new artistic programming and an active partnership among cultural and commercial groups. Together they're pumping new life in a town that still looks much like it must have 70 years ago, and cafes and boutiques now rub elbows with more modest shops on Avenue A, the main drag.
Start a visit at the new Great Falls Discovery Center, 2 Ave. A (tel. 413/863-3221; www.greatfallsma.org), which has dioramas of the shoreline and birding culture along the Connecticut River. It's open Tuesday through Sunday June through mid-October, Friday and Saturday the rest of the year. A useful brochure produced by Turners Falls River Culture (www.turnersfallsriverculture.org) details a 20-site walking tour that takes in the 19th-century brick buildings that still line the old-fashioned main street. Bicyclists also can park here and take a ride along the new Franklin County Bikeway's Canalside Trail, a 4-mile path that opened in early 2008. It starts a block closer to the canal and heads off to the left, to Deerfield.
The Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography, 52/56 and 85 Ave. A (tel. 413/863-0009; www.hmcp.org), opened one gallery in January 2006 and added more snazzy space on the other side of the street in January 2008. Its detailed calendar features a full schedule of openings and public artist talks. The Shea Theater, 71 Ave. A (tel. 413/863-2281; www.theshea.org), in the Colle Opera House building, was renovated in 2004 and now hosts music, community theater, and dance programs.
For snacks, the 2nd Street Baking Co., 69 2nd St. (tel. 413/863-4455), makes its own whoopie pies and enormous vegan cookies.
The jewel of the area is about 5 miles away. The Montague Mill, 440 Greenfield Rd. (Rte. 47), Montague, is a red gristmill from 1834 that has been repurposed into several small businesses. They include the trim and comfortable Montague Book Mill (tel. 413/367-9206; www.montaguebookmill.com), whose tagline is "Books you don't need in a place you can't find"; and The Lady Killigrew Cafe and Pub (tel. 413/367-9666; www.theladykilligrew.com), a cozy oasis of healthy snacks (brown rice salad, peanut-ginger udon noodles), a choice of wines, and free Wi-Fi (no espresso drinks, however). Its nine tables are perched nearly on top of the small Sawmill River and have spectacularly lovely views -- not that all the people working on laptop computers appear to notice. From Turners Falls, head out on 3rd Street and take the right fork; the road turns into Route 47 and the mill comes up on your right after about 4 1/2 miles.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.