Secretly combining education with entertainment, and scoring a sweet parenting win!
Sometimes we struggle to find things to do with teenagers, especially that you’d enjoy as grown-ups. “Family friendly” often means an event good for people with kids who are ten and under. Face paint or singalongs would be met with eye rolls and OMG’s. But when we had a beautiful, early spring afternoon, we tried something different: a creepy tunnel adjacent to a beautiful view of the Wachusett Reservoir and dam.
The Wachusett Reservoir was built at the beginning of the twentieth century, and forced changes upon the community. In this case, it also required that the Boston & Maine Railroad re-route its tracks. A 0.2-mile tunnel was created adjacent to the dam that now sits abandoned but open to the public.
who experience ghostly encounters report an accompanying temperature drop. As they yelled at me to shut up, I heard the fear in their voices over the sound of my own laughter.
Flashlights are a must, or at least an iPhone, and waterproof boots are ideal. As a parent, I did worry a little about whether there were any people in this tunnel who weren’t just there to explore. But we found we were alone and I felt more comfortable as we set off.
The girls checked out graffiti running the length of the tunnel, which had an optical illusion of being never-ending despite our progress. They freaked each other out, and had to step carefully amidst mud, puddles, and ice. I secretly added to it by making some occasional creepy sounds as I walked ahead, but didn’t admit to it as they tried to figure out what it could possibly be. The eastern end was too wet for us to continue outside, but we got close. Returning wasn’t as spooky, and was quicker. But they stayed on high alert for ghosts, creatures, and any odd sounds. Luckily, no spirits or monsters or clowns appeared, and we emerged about a half-hour after we started. All three declared this place to be a little unnerving, but fascinating.
We passed our car and spent some time at the Wachusett Reservoir to let them burn off their adrenaline. This beautiful location was also fun for them as well. It was built over a century ago, as Massachusetts faced an issue with its water supply for many of its eastern residents. Luckily, forcibly moving 1,700 people and demolishing their homes allowed the state to build this massive structure and avert a body odor crisis, as residents were then able to happily shower to their heart’s content.
The dam itself is impressive, and you start off at its highest point. It extends down 115 feet, and then underground another 115 feet. Random trivia to impress or bore people with: it’s the largest, hand-dug dam in the world, built in the early-1900s by African Americans and Italians who lived in squalor during its construction. You can picnic, admire the waters it holds back, or stroll either side of it. Or, like me, you can goad your youngest one into trying to roll all the way down the grassy slope. But be prepared for some dirt and grass stains… and for the 192 stairs you’ll have to climb back up afterwards.
If you pack a picnic to extend the time a little, this can be a great way to explore a creepy place, take in scenic views, get some casual exercise, and learn a little bit about your surroundings and its history. Tip: if your teens are taking photos and posting them to their social media, it’s not a sign of disengagement, it’s a sign that you scored a parenting win. Another tip: if you later acknowledge with a smile that you were the one making creepy sounds and they pretend to be furious with you, it’s considered bonus points.
What you need to know:
Making the most of a snowy day
In the central Massachusetts town of Shrewsbury lies Prospect Park. It was once a town jewel and is now slowly succumbing to time, with nature increasingly taking over the property.
In 1912, it was known as Juniper Hall, home to an international carpet manufacturer, complete with magnificent buildings, formal gardens, a reflecting pool, and views as far as Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. Its gardens were open to the public, who toured it often, and made this one of Worcester County's show places. President Calvin Coolidge even visited this renowned property.
After the owner passed away, his widow named the pergola "The Garden of Sweet Remembrance". She then deeded the property to the Masons, who operated it as a Masonic Hospital. Some 50 years later, it was in disrepair and sold to the town, which demolished the buildings.
The reflecting pool is now overgrown, as are much of the grounds. Some of the foundations and stone walls and steps still remain, providing hints of its former glory. But although The Garden of Sweet Remembrance is gradually falling apart, it still stands, providing a serene spot despite the graffiti. In season, wild wisteria remains and has grown enough that during its bloom, there is a beautiful aroma. But after a snowstorm, the silence is intimate and peaceful.
The whole place is a quick walk and a reminder of how many interesting places are around us when we seek them out. A visit would last under an hour, with an easy loop walk from the parking lot. So, this place is worth a visit but more so if you live nearby or you're in the area for other reasons and can incorporate this pit stop.
Would've paid more attention in high school science class if they taught about distilling!
During a day trip out to the Berkshires in southwestern Massachusetts, we took a break from visiting antique shops and museums to visit the Berkshire Mountain Distillers (BMD). Having read that was rated as having the best craft gin in the country, it seemed worth checking out.
A few years back, they grew and consolidated their operations to their current location. Their store is large, casual, with a diverse set of offerings between their large lineup of spirits, bitters, swag, and some added items from local businesses. The display’s theme of rustic wood and whiskey barrels remind you that this is a distillery in the mountains.
We found a decent-sized group sampling at the counter, along with other couples. We had signed up for a tour, and found that we were the only ones for that hour, so we headed out back with Michael to begin our personalized session.
Michael, one of the distillers, walked us through a progression of BMD’s spirits, from rum to vodka to gin to whiskey. He explained the science and terminology behind distilling. Since BMD also has an ever-evolving setoff infused gins, Michael discussed how they limit these to a single release and challenge themselves to constantly finding new options. Current examples include one with hibiscus, lime, and lavender; to one adding cubeb and allspice; to one aged over a year in whiskey barrels. The diversity of the ethereal gins allows any gin fan to find an unusual version for their own preference. Since these are routinely rotating, it further makes for a version to be savored and appreciated while it lasts.
Similarly, they use scotch barrels to diversify their rum and whiskey lineups as well. BMD’s bourbon also has several options using beer casks from craft brewers, to add an interesting twist on an already-high quality product.
After Michael had finished the tour, answering a number of our questions along the way about the science, the production process, and the growth of the business, we adjourned to the tasting room. This allowed us to consider which ethereal gin and which bourbon worked best for us. The woman helping us was as knowledgeable as Michael, and helpful in filling in some additional details; other than the rum that requires sugarcane from down south, they source all they can from local farmers and their own garden. We wound up choosing one of the ethereal gins along with their bourbon. Their regular bourbon was so deliciously smooth, with great vanilla, caramel, and rye notes, so we opted for it over their cask-flavored choices. Perhaps it was so great because it sources water from a protected granite spring that served as a health attraction to city dwellers a century ago. Or, maybe after a decade in business, they’ve perfected their craft. But we can honestly say that the combination of taste and cleanliness led to BMD’s bourbon passing a couple of other brands as our preferred bourbon. Coupled with their coffee bitters, we were walking out already looking forward to an Old Fashioned that night.
Berkshire Mountain Distillers is definitely a fun, interesting place to visit, and you’ll likely walk away with at least one souvenir. Some of their more standard products are available in larger liquor stores near us, so you may find an ability to re-stock, depending on what you’re looking for. Between the tour and sampling, our visit lasted about ninety minutes. So if you’re not local to that area, it may be best visited as part of a day filled with a few stops. However you choose to do it, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy your time there.
Berkshire Mountain Distillers
Hours: 12pm-5pm (Mondays close at 4pm, Saturdays open at 11am)
Tours: $10/person, plan for an hour
Happily chipping away at visiting the New England wineries
Sharpe Hill produces a number of wines, with a mix of whites and reds, as well as rose and dessert wine. There is also a mix of grapes, from more traditional Chardonnay and Riesling to less common St. Croix and Dornfelder. Offering some as blends allows for a more diverse lineup, and all grapes are estate except for what’s obtained in nearby Rhode Island.
The tastings can be done based on your choice of six wines, or you can try the entire suite of wines. The summaries of the wines helpfully lists how many awards each wine has garnered, as well as the food that pairs well. This very helpfully allows you to think about the wine in the context of broader meals that you might be creating.
Each wine was presented very knowledgeably, not just repeating the details on the write-ups, but with added information about the vineyard, grape, and winemaking process. Those conversations provided a deeper understanding of the wine and its unique production, and details on grapes with which we were less familiar were helpful in growing our knowledge.
Our favorites were the Ballet of Angels, an interesting white wine comprised of ten different grapes. It was light, but with a nice mix of citrus flavors that would be particularly delicious on a summer’s day, but was still great even in the dead of winter. While we also enjoyed the Cabernet Franc, a medium bodied wine more flavorful than many we’ve sampled in New England, our favorite red was the Red Syraph. We found this to be unusual and wonderful, building on the Cabernet Franc with Dornfelder and Gamay grapes for a complex wine. It was unlike most wines we’ve had, particularly for a New England red. While it would pair well with meats or Italian, it’s unique enough that we’d expect to savor it by itself.
It was impressive to see so many estate-grown offerings, and helpful to be served by such knowledgeable staff. With a quiet atmosphere and bucolic setting, Sharpe Hill was a delightful visit. This was a good winter alternative to skiing, given it was a rainy day. But in summer or during foliage season, with the beautiful surroundings, it would also be part of a wonderful day. Unless you’re fairly local, it’s probably best to incorporate this into a broader day trip, such as visiting the nearby Putnam Antiques District, and perhaps adding Taylor Brooke Farm’s wine tasting as well. The tasting room is only open Friday through Sunday, but as part of a (long) weekend, that won’t cause a problem for most people. Overall, this is definitely a local winery carving out a well-earned niche for itself.
Appreciating the local coffee and community
Coffee shops of all kinds have exploded nationwide, now estimated at over 50,000. A trade association estimated that almost half of all coffee was consumed outside the home, and over half of that was specialty coffee. The increase in people working from home, with more gourmet coffee being consumed by people under 30 years old than by other age groups, and with specialty drinkers averaging three cups per day now, and you have all the statistics that reinforce the business opportunity. However, that doesn’t work if you can’t develop and execute a business plan that appeals to customers.
Bolton Bean has joined this fray, as a family-run business nestled in the central Massachusetts town of Bolton, with a slew of apple orchards in the surrounding towns. Driving there from almost anywhere can be scenic and coupled with other pit stops along the way. Aside of apple picking and homemade ice cream, some ideas include lunch at Battle Road Brewing, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, intermittent activities at the Bolton Fairgrounds, and kayaking in Concord.
Bolton Bean sits in a newly renovated building, combining a new feeling with classic colonial style. It has a comfortable, fresh, and friendly feel. This is very much in keeping with the broader gourmet coffee movement.
We found the place happily packed when we entered on a rainy day. There were different zones, from leather seats to tables to pub seats lining the front windows, along with the expansive counter and an area with ready-to-go food and drinks. Despite the crowd size, the staff offered cheery smiles and kept the lines moving.
That trend about increasing coffee consumption and more people working from home means that these sorts of places become meaningful as interesting social hubs, part of the communities, or unique settings and producers of gourmet coffee. Bolton Bean certainly meets this need. The mix of couples, friends, and families, from high schoolers to senior citizens, created a diverse crowd. A woman played guitar and sang in the corner of the coffee shop, adding to the enjoyable ambiance.
Back to the foundation of Bolton Bean, they serve George Howell coffee, roasted locally in the nearby town of Acton. Whether drip, cappuccino, espresso, or however you wish to consume it, this small batch coffee will hit the spot. However, the selection of teas, chai, lemonade, iced tea, and smoothies round out their ability to meet the preferences of kids or others who seek to enjoy the vibe but with something aside of coffee.
The food creates further reason to linger: in addition to the baked goods and breakfast sandwiches to start your day, the lunch menu is nicely varied. We saw a variety of salads, such as creative kale or fall harvest options. A large array of paninis offered something for any palate (meatloaf with a jalapeno aioli is worth trying). Interestingly, you can also build your own poke bowl. These are traditional Hawaiian dishes served cold over brown and white rice and two examples include sweet chili chicken and raw Asian tuna along with other toppings such as sprouts, avocado, coconut, wasabi, pineapple, and more. Gluten free lunch options are appreciated, allowing those with dietary restrictions to still have choices.
The only critique is actually a compliment: it closes at 3:00 on Saturdays and isn’t open on Sundays. This precludes some afternoon or weekend opportunities to reinforce its community and social value, and, since I hadn’t looked ahead of time, is why it took a couple of attempts to visit.
That being said, the ambiance, gourmet coffee, quality food, and cheerful service are all reasons why Bolton Bean is establishing itself as a community hub. Those are all reasons for locals to frequent it, and others to visit when in the general area. As always, the disclaimer is that we aren’t getting paid or anything, so when saying that Bolton Bean will be worth your time and money, it’s solely because we very much felt that way from our own time there.
· Website: https://www.boltonbean.com/
· Free wifi
· Open Mon-Fri, 7:00-4:00, Sat 7:00-3:00
The Good Life...
can't exist alone. Places form the setting for your memories. People around us allow experiences to be shared, enriched, and leave us feeling connected and loved.