Glance at a map of Massachusetts and you might think you’ve picked up one of England by mistake.
There’s Boston, of course, and its arguably highly appropriate that Harvard University is located, just across the river from the state’s largest city, in a place called Cambridge.
Dotted across that map you’ll also find such familiar place names as Plymouth, Worcester, Weymouth, Leominster, Northampton, Marlborough, Northampton, Braintree and, yes, Oxford too.
There isn’t just an enormous English influence at work. The Boston Irish are renowned while there are also thriving Italian and Greek ethnic communities.
Go to the intriguing Skywalk observatory and exhibition (001 617 859 0648, topofthehub.com) atop the towering downtown Prudential Center and you’ll find time lines for Boston’s kaleidoscopic past and the waves of immigration which have made it such a melting pot of cultures.
Some 30 displays walk you through the city’s history, highlighting famous residents – from Paul Revere to Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith – iconic buildings and history making events. You can even learn the secret recipe for Boston baked beans!
Here, some 50 storeys u, you’ll also get a 360-degree panorama of the city and there’s a restaurant too.
Take a fascinating – and mouth-watering – guided walking tour with super-foodie Michele Topor (001 617 5523 6032. Foodtoursofbston.com) through Boston’s bustling North End Market area and you might imagine yourself deep in southern Italy as you visit delis and wine stores, market stalls and tiny food shops brimming with breads, cheeses, meats and Mediterranean veg.
But beneath this European veneer there’s lifestyle and culture that, to quote the cliché, is as American as apple pie. Massachusetts was, after all, home turf to Norman Rockwell, whose iconic artwork for the Saturday Evening Post so evocatively captured the all-American idyll.
Head, as so many Boston weekenders do, for the picturesque rolling hills of the Berkshires, just a couple of hours easy drive westwards, and you’ll find tiny Stockbridge – yes, another spot named after an English town – which is the location or the heart-warming Rockwell Museum (001 413 298 4100, nrm.org) where more than 700 of the artist’s paintings are on display, along with drawings and studies and a collection of more than 150,000 photographs, letters and other materials.
Step outside the imposingly modern museum and you pass straight into one of the small-town scenes that so inspired the artist – ‘Main Street Stockbridge at Christmas’ looks today just as Rockwell painted it.
Lenox is the place to stay in these parts. The site of Tanglewood – summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra – it’s the inland alternative to the Hamptons for the rich and famous yet is affordable and unpretentious.
I’d recommend the delightfully renovated 1897 Hampton Terrace (001 413 637 1773. Hamptonterrace.com), a welcoming and elegant B&B whose ebullient proprietor, Stan Rosen, is an entertaining former jazz impresario who counts many of that music’s greats among his personal friends. Style and service are both impeccable here.
Sitting atop a nearby hill you’ll find Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club (001 413 637 1364. Cranwell.com), the Berkshires’ only Four Diamond property.
Built during the area’s so-called ‘Gilded Age’, which ran from 1890 to 1920, this spacious mansion offers wintertime cross-country skiing as well as summer golf.
Dine or stay at Stockbridge’s 18th Century Red Lion Inn (001 413 298 5545) and you’ll find real New England cuisine and hospitality. Good food is also of the essence at Lenox’s Firefly (001 413 637 2700. Fireflylenox.com) where talented chef Laura Shack blends comfort foods like meatloaf and baby back ribs into her more sophisticated repertoire.
Also in Lenox you might recognise Ventfort Hall (001 413 637 3206. Gildedage.com) a gracious mansion built for banker JP Morgan’s sister and featured in several recent movies.
In Williamstown you’ll find the beautifully landscaped Clark Art Institute (001 413 458 2303) one of America’s major collections, including works from many of the world’s greatest artists including the French impressionists Monet, Degas, Renoir and Pissarro, as well as Constable, Turner Sargent and other icons.
Set in 140 acres of woodlands, meadows and hiking trails, the facility was endowed in 1955 by Singer sewing machine heir SterlIng Clark and his wife Francine.
An altogether more contemporary take on the art world can be found at MASS MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts) (001 413 662 2111. massmoca.org) established in North Adams in 1999 on a 13 acre industrial site and housing the USA’s largest collection of contemporary works.
Boston has some great galleries and museums too, Don’t miss the splendid Institute of Contemporary Art (001 617 478 3100, icaboston.org) down on the waterfront while the Museum of Fine Arts (001 617 267 9300. Mfa.org) has a collection of more than 450,000 objects.
If art on a plate is more your taste, Boston has a wonderfully eclectic culinary offering. At the top end I would thoroughly recommend L’Espalier (001 617 3023. Lespalier.com) where Englishman James Hackney is chef de cuisine and the style is contemporary fine dining. If you love your meat then head for The Butcher Shop (001 617 4800. thebutchershopboston.com) for marbled steaks, succulent sausages and generous helpings of charcuterie in a shop cum wine bar.
Equally recommended is Sel de la Terre (001 617 720 1300. seldelaterre.com) which subtly matches Southern French cuisine to the freshest of local New England produce. You’ll also –inevitably – want to find the Bull & Finch pub, the original for TV’s Cheers: it’s set on Beacon Hill (001 617 227 9605. Cheersboston.com). And, for a taste of Boston Irish try Clery’s (001 617 262 9874. Irishconnection.com) with its 16 draught beers and title wins as ‘Best Neighbourhood Bar’.
Finally, two “don’t miss” items. Take a great fun but highly informative and free student-led ‘Unofficial Tour’ of Harvard University (001 617 674 7788. Unofficialtours.com) and view the city from land and water on a Duck tour (001 617 267 6327. Bostonducktours.com) aboard a converted World War Two landing craft.
As for somewhere to stay, you couldn’t do better than the grand old dame Fairmont Copley Plaza (001 267 5300. fairmont.com/copleyplaza) – elegance personified. Or, if you prefer something thoroughly of the moment, try the brand new 30-room Hotel Veritas boutique property in Cambridge (001 617 520 5000. thehotelveriotas.com).
Best time to go? Well, get your booking in quick because August15-20 and 22-27 are Boston’s summer restaurant weeks, with lots of events and special deals.