This Unspoiled Region Offers More Than Meets the Eye
The Shetucket River Valley in south-central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut is a blank spot on the map—and that’s entirely a positive, not an indictment. Look at a night image of the East Coast taken from space, and it's a constellation of artificial light from Washington, D.C., to Boston… except for this mysterious dark void: one of the largest, unbroken tracts of wilderness in coastal New England.
Dubbed the "Last Green Valley," it’s somewhat ironically colocated with one of Massachusetts’ most-visited and best-known tourist attractions: Old Sturbridge Village. The 230-room Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center was our base for exploring both. This full-service hotel, built around a handsome former optical factory, mainly caters to meeting groups during the week, but it offers some nice package deals to leisure travelers, as well, especially on weekends.
Storybook New England Awaits
Even travelers familiar with the Berkshires may not be aware of all there is to explore along the stretch of the Mass Pike (I-90) between Springfield and Boston. That’s because this region is decidedly low-key, with its rolling hills and gentle valleys, stony farmlands and sleepy former mill towns—the essence, to many eyes, of storybook New England. For harried New Yorkers and Bostonians, it’s a great place to unwind just a few hours’ drive from the urban bustle.
Within a few miles' drive along scenic country roads, you’ll find thousands of acres of parkland including the Nipmuck State Forest, the Yale Meyer Forest, Bigelow Hollow State Park and the Natchaug State Forest, offering an impressive variety of outdoor activities including camping, hiking, boating, fishing, biking, hunting, horseback riding and night-sky programs. All are part of the Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, a federal-state partnership that includes 35 towns in south-central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut.
Among those towns is Southbridge, Massachusetts: a former center for optical manufacturing with a compact but lively downtown. Red-brick former factory buildings have been converted to hotels and museums, notably the Optical Heritage Museum. It's home to "one of the largest collections of spectacle frames and ophthalmic optics items in the world," and… it’s more interesting than it sounds. Exhibits feature antique eyeglasses, vintage ads and precision manufacturing tools—many invented by local companies like American Optical, ZEISS and SOLA.
Tempting Tastes and Bygone Times in the Last Green Valley
Getting into the spirit of fall, we stopped at Brookfield Orchards in Brookfield, Connecticut, to pick apples and sample their famous apple dumplings—a whole, cored apple inside a flaky pastry served with a side of vanilla ice cream. An old barn houses a country store and gift shop, as well as a working apple washer that you can see in action.
If you want to go the full New England, this region offers ample choices to dine in traditional country inns like The Duck in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, or grab a communal breakfast at a locals’ spot like Annie’s Country Kitchen, also in Sturbridge. But there’s fine dining to be had in these hills, too. We had great sushi at 85 Main in charming Putnam, Connecticut, followed by adult beverages and live music at the neighboring Stomping Ground bar. And we lunched the next day on chef Brian Treitman’s divine dry-rub barbecue at B.T.'s Smokehouse in Sturbridge.
Brewpubs and wineries are also part of the local mix in the Last Green Valley. Check out Sharpe Hill Vineyard in Pomfret, Connecticut, for fine dining and tastings including their delightful Ballet of Angels white table wine. When you’re ready to indulge, the Farmer’s Cow “Calfe” and Creamery in Mansfield, Connecticut, serves award-winning ice cream made from fresh, local milk.
A New England Must-See
Not to be overlooked, of course, is Old Sturbridge Village: a 200-acre living-history museum that’s intriguing to visit any time of year and especially beautiful in the fall, when we dropped in for an afternoon of strolling the pastoral grounds. The attraction is always alive with demonstrations of everyday life in the 1830s including cooking (mind the flies!), blacksmithing and weaving. We especially enjoyed the interactive aspects of the village—a carriage ride or short river cruise will give you a different perspective on the landscape—and appreciated Old Sturbridge Village’s efforts to liven up the experience by hosting a variety of special events. An antique car rally is held in June, a craft beer festival in September and the hugely popular Christmas Traditions by Candlelight program on select nights in December.