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.
Killing four birds with one stone (history, exercise, food, and scenery)
The Fort Hill historic district in the Cape Cod town of Eastham is a small attraction. But it has several activities that can easily evolve into a full afternoon of enjoyment.
The area was originally settled by English colonists in 1644 amidst worries against an invasion by the Dutch. Over time, it developed an agricultural focus. Soon, the natural resources were over-consumed and scarce, leaving a largely barren landscape. Life was challenging, and drove many young men to the sea for work.
Now, the Fort Hill district offers one of its best attractions right from one of the two small parking lots. It’s perched on a rise, overlooking Nauset Marsh. The amazing, panoramic view includes inlets, marshes, the beach, and the ocean beyond, as well as fields of flowers sloping towards the water. Plenty of boats can be seen on the main waterways, with kayakers weaving through the marshes. Whether taking in the view at sunrise without even leaving your car, or picnicking with family in the small field next to the parking lot, the scenery is spectacular and easily accessible.
Fort Hill’s parking lot is also a trailhead. A sandy trail gently works its way down from the rise and weaves along the edge of the marsh. Views constantly change, giving a feeling of variety despite the easy hike. Several routes exist, allowing for shorter or longer walks. Despite choosing one of the lengthier routes, our walk was still under two miles, lasted about an hour, and was easily managed even by the younger children in our group. Markers and a brochure educated on some of the plant life and historical significance of the area. Also, the Red Maple Swamp Trail includes a long, meandering boardwalk through the swamp that created further diversity to the hike.
The district’s last attraction is the Edward Penniman House. Penniman, like many young men, was driven to the sea. He returned in 1868, a successful 35-year-old, and built an impressive house. He raised the land several feet to afford views of the ocean and bay. The house itself featured hot and cold water and an indoor bathroom – both rarities for the day, and was decadently furnished.
The house is routinely open to the public and the ranger and volunteer during our visit were very knowledgeable about the house, family, and time period during our visit. The barn behind the house is currently undergoing renovations. Once open, it will offer even more antiques and places to explore.
The combination of the views, hikes, and tour offer something for everyone: they can capture the imagination of children or the interest of a history buff or environmentalist; they can deliver a unique trail run for the athlete, a casual walk for a family, or a bench for those looking to sit and relax.
Witnessing the evolution of a place over three centuries
Sometimes, great things are easy to go unnoticed. So was the case with Armeno Coffee Roasters, on the border of Northborough and Westborough, Massachusetts. Tucked away in a small building on a side road, it’s easy to drive past without a second glance. But if you stop and go inside, you’ll be quickly rewarded.
The site itself has a long history, stretching back almost three hundred years. The store is on the site of a mill dating back to 1727, adjacent to Smith Pond. Over the centuries, the site operated first as a saw mill before evolving into a grist mill. The namesake stemmed from the next incarnation of the site, into Armeno Cereal Company, before its current iteration as Armeno Coffee Roasters began in 1994.
The store has a great ambiance, with many signs of its past. These range from the original Armeno Cereal Company sign and equipment to storage bins and equipment used in separating wheat from chafe during its earlier years. Beyond the front room where coffee is sold, the middle of the building where the roasting takes place can be seen; you can walk around, checking out the burlap coffee bags from around the world, lots of old wood, and equipment supporting the roasting operation.
The coffee business was the brainchild of Paul Kalenian, who sold it a half-dozen years ago to loyal and trusted employees Chuck Coffman and John Parks. But they’ve continued to grow the business. At this point, there are typically about 50 coffees to choose from, sourced from around the globe and fresh roasted daily to maximize the quality and flavor. These are available for in-store or mail order purchases.
The owners have also diversified; beyond the roasting operations is a temperature- and humidity-controlled room filled with a small but enticing wine selection. Wines are sourced from the world over, while also including local, boutique wineries such as Broken Creek, Zoll Cellars, and Turtle Creek. Armeno’s holds wine tastings most Saturdays (monthly during the quieter summer days), from 1:00-4:00, and offers attendees discounts from 10-20% on individual, half-case, and case purchases.
Also, across the street is the Berberian farm stand, with local produce; combing the two into a single stop can allow for a quiet, fragrant break in an historic building, followed by enjoyably searching for just the right local wine and food for a nice dinner on a Saturday night, all of which supports local businesses and farm-to-table concepts.
The tasting room itself is in a renovated barn from the late 1800’s. It’s kept a lot of the old wood and so much character, making it a uniquely interesting building. However, you can sit outside or stroll the grounds if you choose but don’t go too far. Down the hill sits one of the older homes in the area, which is still a private residence to this day. They also host live jazz every Saturday afternoon from May to November.
Greenvale Vineyards itself was founded in 1982, so the oldest vines have matured over the course of 36 years. They produce about 3,500 cases (all estate grown) per year from 27 acres of grapes. While they lost a lot of grape leaves in a storm a few years ago, which hurt the yield that year, the vines all bounced back with even better production since then. The tastings covered seven wines and a vermouth, with an eighth wine being sold out. What was great about the tastings was that they covered the entirety of the wines produced. Sampling the full range offered a broader understanding of the winery and left no opportunity for buyer’s remorse.
Like other vineyards in the area, there were more whites than reds due to the climate and soil. However, over five whites and two reds, we found a nice variety, and wines that would combine to cover any occasion and pair with any food. The chardonnay was particularly interesting, with two versions. One paired newer vines with reused oak barrels; the other combined the oldest chardonnay vines with new barrels. Vermouth was their bigger experiment, which was unexpected but fun to try. The cabernet franc topped our list, with a classic taste – flavorful but light, good for any season. With springtime beginning and barbecue season not far away, this wine will pair very well with grilled meats.
Greenvale Vineyards is quiet and off the beaten path. But with the live jazz and historic feel, it’s a great location for functions, or bachelorette parties, a couple of which we saw during our stay. However, it likely wouldn’t ever feel crowded and cramped. The staff also were excellent: knowledgeable of the product, friendly and attentive, and they truly hustled hard and went out of their way to make sure our experience was as great as possible.
Given our overall experience, Greenvale Vineyards is absolutely worth your time and money, and deserving of the successes they’re accumulating.
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.