Off The Beaten Path in New England

Travelers exploring the Northeast corridor from New York to New England shouldn’t miss an off the beaten path halfway-point in central Massachusetts. Encompassing the towns of Southbridge and Sturbridge, this area is conveniently located at the intersection of highways I-90 and I-84, about an hour’s drive from airports in Boston and Providence. Perfect for multi-gen groups, the comfortable and reasonably-priced Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center is a great value and a great vantage point from which to explore authentic American history and enjoy surprisingly tasty local food and drink. South bridge Hotel, Southbridge MA

The small town of Southbridge is more interesting than it looks, particularly for history buffs. Once the optical capital of the world, it was home to The American Optical Company’s main manufacturing plant beginning in the early 1900’s—providing glasses to everyone from John F. Kennedy to the first men on the  moon. In 2002, the building was renovated into the 203-room Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center, keeping the historic exterior intact and transforming the interior into modern hotel space. Until recently, the facility was used mainly for U.S. government conferences but it is now available for leisure travelers. The vibe here is casual and inviting, with easy (free) parking, a spacious gym and pool, and expansive public spaces conducive to multi-generational dining and mingling. Southbridge Hotel lobbyThe spacious guest rooms have generic style but 5-star comfort, with premium bedding and free wi-fi. Throughout the hotel, there are touches of original architecture and design nods to the building’s optical past. I especially liked the housekeeping notice that guests attach to the door knob, which includes metal eyeglass frames and the message “too tired to focus.”

In town, the Optical Heritage Museum is a fascinating journey into optical and Southbridge  history—free and open to the public by appointment or at selected hours.

The world that existed in rural New England 200 years ago is recreated in Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum  and popular attraction located 15 minutes from Southbridge. Visitors of all ages get a fascinating immersion into the lives of America’s early settlers when exploring the more than 40 historic buildings and 300 acres of pastures and farmlands, first opened in 1946. Dozens of costumed historians and artisans staff the buildings and enthusiastically converse with visitors. The skilled craftspeople working in the trade shops make iron tools, tinware, and coopered buckets and barrels. Tin maker Sturbridge villageIt’s easy to spend several hours here wandering the beautiful grounds and gardens to experience a time when daily life was dictated by local resources and by the seasons. Old Sturbridge Village is open year-sound, with special festivals ranging from a Sleigh Rally in February to an Antique Car Rally in June and from a Celtic Concert in March to a Redcoats and Rebels reenactment in August.

I loved living local in the Southbridge area, chatting with quirky characters and discovering food and drink that exceeded expectations. Best coffee: Sturbridge Coffee RoastersSouthbridge Coffee Roasters, where all the beans are freshly roasted. Proprietor Elvis Dyer explained that my super-delicious latte tasted so good because dark roast beans make a better cuppa than espresso beans, which can have a burnt taste. Best BBQ: BT’s Smokehouse, a roadside joint where chef/owner Brian Treitman slow cooks perfectly seasoned, dry-rubbed barbecue with locally sourced ingredients.BT Smokehouse BT Smokehouse ribsThe meat is so tender that it falls off the bone—and for vegetarians there’s equally tasty barbecued tofu. Folks from all over the U.S. and Canada line up in queues that stretch out the door for the lip-smacking good food here. Best Brew: The Rapscallion brewery is fun to visit not only for the craft beer (and root beer) tasting and microbrewery tour, but also for the pretty country setting, replete with apple trees. Summer events include summer picnics with live music and in the fall, there’s apple picking and pumpkin picking. rapscallion craft beer tastingBest old-timey farmhouse restaurant: Salem Cross Inn, a family homestead in a bucolic country setting, originally built in the early 1700’s. The Salem family purchased it in 1957, carefully restored the interior and exterior architecture, decorated the rooms with vintage antiques, and opened the restaurant in 1961. With about 200 seats and several charming dining areas, the restaurant is a fine example of early American architecture and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. An extensive menu includes veggies and herbs from the restaurant’s garden and prime rib roasted on a 17th century roasting jack in a fieldstone hearth—the only known operating roasting jack in America. Visitors may want to try one of several Farmers’ Dinners offered in the summer and fall (a long table in the barn is set with food inspired by the farm and gardens); or the Drover’s Roast, a 1700’s feast, offered twice yearly in June and September.Salem Cross Inn

Summer and fall are prime seasons to visit Central Massachusetts and the 11 towns known as the Sturbridge Townships, with many local festivals and events happening often. Click here to learn more.

About Regina Baraban

Regina Baraban is a veteran magazine editor and the author of Successful Restaurant Design (John Wiley & Sons, Third Edition, 2010). She was the founding editor of Hospitality Design magazine; “Best Dressed Restaurants” columnist for Metropolis magazine; and editor of Financial & Insurance Meetings magazine. She writes frequently about travel, design, and the arts and is content editor at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She lives in Newmarket, New Hampshire with a basic black wardrobe of no-iron travel clothes and too many shoes.