Amherst, Northampton, & South Hadley, Central Massachusetts

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Five superb colleges, three stimulating towns, in a bucolic New England setting-a memorable, affordable feast for both mind and body

The "Five College" area of central Massachusetts combines the buzz of one of America's most stimulating intellectual and artistic centers with the serenity of New England's wooded hills and a genteel aura of yesteryear. The closely clustered campuses of Amherst College, Hampshire College, the University of Massachusetts, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College offer a smorgasbord of free and low-cost (under $10) lectures, readings, plays, film screenings, and events, not to mention galleries and museums where you can view works by such masters as Claude Monet and Thomas Eakins. Truly world-class performances of orchestral and chamber music, jazz, opera, musical theater, and dance at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center (800/999-8627, fineartscenter.com) cost $15 or less - a third of what you'd pay in the big city. Fortunately, the intellectual and cultural offerings at the five colleges are scheduled mostly during the week, so you can avoid the hassle of getting (and paying double for) weekend reservations and waiting outside crowded restaurants. If you can't visit during the week and don't want to reserve your room long in advance, you should at least aim for a weekend out of foliage season, when there are no graduations, homecomings, parents' weekends, or big conferences (most of the more accessible weekends are between late November and mid-April, so pack that extra sweater!).

These campuses are all within ten miles of each other, and here's a nifty budget secret: the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (413/545-0056, umass.edu/campus_services/transit). For more than 30 years, students from Smith (in Northampton); Amherst, Hampshire, and UMass (in Amherst);and Mount Holyoke (in South Hadley) have been taking classes at each other's institutions, mixing socially, attending each other's demonstrations, and performing together onstage. This led to the development of the PVTA, which runs buses at convenient intervals between all of the colleges and nearby towns, free of charge for students, visitors, and locals alike during the nine months of the academic year.

However you decide to get around, you will want to visit the campuses - they all welcome visitors, so you shouldn't feel like a trespasser. Think of them, rather, as parks where you can picnic by a waterfall or read beneath a tree, stroll meditatively through gardens, and become a little intoxicated by the atmosphere that emanates from those classic stone towers and ivy-covered walls.

College highlights

Spend an hour or a day in the main reading room of the Mount Holyoke College Library, which, with its upholstered chairs and tall leaded-glass windows, will make you feel as if you were at Oxford or Cambridge. Although as a visitor you will not be allowed to check out books, there are about six million titles for you to browse, as well as special-collections exhibits where you can view rare illustrated books and original manuscripts and letters by Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost (both Amherst poets).

Other free indoor attractions at the Five College campuses include the National Yiddish Book Center at Hampshire College (the world's largest collection of Jewish literature from the last 1,000 years), free concerts and lectures, the flowering banana trees and other exotics at Smith College's Lyman Plant Conservatory (413/585-2740, smith.edu/garden), and the mounted skeleton of a duckbill dinosaur at Amherst College's Pratt Museum of Natural History (413/542-2165, amherst.edu/pratt).

By far the largest of the five colleges is UMass, Amherst. Although it may look like nothing more than an overcrowded, high-rise cement-slab public institution, you would be missing a great deal if you never explored its 28-story W.E.B. DuBois Library (one of the world's tallest), its Fine Arts Center and University Gallery (contemporary art), and the Augusta Savage Gallery (multicultural art). You could also attend a practice or game involving one of UMass's several regionally and nationally prominent Division I athletic teams.

The very best thing about UMass is its academic vitality. Although you may not be permitted to attend classes, you should still feel free to snoop around hallways and peek unobtrusively into laboratories or lecture halls. You just might get invited in or at least get a peek at Lynn Margulis, the preeminent evolutionary biologist and presidential scholar, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Tate, or O. Henry Award-winning author John Edgar Wideman.

The charms of Northampton

In spite of its population of only 30,000, the town of Northampton is often compared to San Francisco. That may sound farfetched, but less so if you were standing amidst Northampton's numerous galleries, fine jewelry and crafts stores, cafes, theaters, clubs, and restaurants, all frequented by the area's many artists, writers, activists, academics, and professionals.

The town's crown jewel, however, is Smith College, founded in 1875 as one of the first institutions for young women to provide an education that was equal in every way to the best offered to young men. This idea undoubtedly provided the soil for Northampton's highly visible feminist culture (which has rippled out to the rest of us - Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Sylvia Plath all graduated from Smith. All right, so did Nancy Reagan).

Smith is also an oasis amid the bustle of downtown Northampton. Pass through the wrought-iron gates on West Street at the western end of downtown, and you'll find yourself walking between the small, gabled Victorian structures of the college's original core. Go beyond the quadrangle and library to the hill above the boathouse and Paradise Pond, and you'll feel totally in another world-just as designer Frederick Law Olmsted intended.

Staying smart

Affordable lodgings in Amherst include the Campus Center Hotel (413/549-6000) on the UMass campus, which offers double occupancy rooms and free indoor parking for $89 to $95. A bit more picturesque is Allen House Victorian Inn (599 Main St., 413/253-5000, allenhouse.com), a seven-room inn with museum-quality Victorian furnishings and decor, doubles from $85, and five-course breakfast. The best value is probably the Lord Jeffrey Inn (30 Boltwood Ave., 800/742-0358), next to Amherst College, an excellent full-service hotel with 48 rooms, two restaurants, and cozy colonial-style parlors; doubles from $89; the two-night "Weekend Getaway" is $188 with breakfast in bed for two.

Two other even cheaper local options are on Route 9 between Amherst and Northampton. The Norwottuck Inn in Hadley (877/667-9688) has 23 good clean rooms (doubles from $55) with a nice outdoor pool next to a cornfield. Bikers, take note: there are nearby bike rentals and trails. Not far north, the Country Belle Motel (413/586-0715) is nothing fancy but has clean, tidy rooms, with doubles starting at just $45.

Brainy bargain bites

Both Amherst and Northampton boast a plethora of dining, whether fine or more humble. In Amherst, Pasta e Basta (26 Main St., 413/256-3550) serves a wide selection of pastas and sauces and fire-grilled vegetables, meats, and fish. Meals come in huge portions, with a basket of home-baked breads, and cost from $5 to $11.

Amherst Brewing Company (24 N. Pleasant St., 413/253-4400) has a pub atmosphere with hearty food and eight home brews and Guinness on tap. Try the German-style, home-baked smoked cheddar "Monster" pretzel ($6 to $7), and one might be all you can handle. There's free jazz Sunday nights at nine. La Veracruzana (63 S. Pleasant St., 413/253-6900) offers burritos, enchiladas, a salsa bar, and more. Stuff yourself for under $5. The Graduate Lounge at the Campus Center of UMass (413/545-0111) is a cozy place to get away from undergraduates, have sandwiches for $2.45 to $3.95, read a magazine, and enjoy a draft beer or a cup of coffee. For a student favorite, on the other hand, try the Hangar Pub and Grill (a.k.a. "Wings") at 55 University Drive (413/549-9464), where an order of 15 of its 12 varieties of chicken wings ($7.95) would stuff an NFL lineman.

In Northampton, many of the better deals have an Italian flavor. You'll find the nicest dining room in town and first-class cuisine at incredibly low prices - from just $5 an entree - at Fresh Pasta Company (249 Main St., 413/586-5875). Get large panini sandwiches on home-baked focaccia for $5.50 to $5.75 at Caffe Mezza Luna (7 Strong Ave., 413/584-5040), or the most gargantuan thin-crust pizza slices you'll ever see for just $2 at Nini's La Pazzaria (71 Pleasant St., 413/584-1711). There's admittedly not much seating room, though. For more exotic international flair, head to Amanouz Cafe (44 Main St., 413/585-9128), a haven for students from French-speaking countries which dishes up Moroccan specialties served in traditional crockery for $5 to $10 per entree (pita sandwiches are $3.95 to $5.75).

Coming to college

Online information sources include gazettenet.com, an online newspaper, and the Allen House Victorian Inn's Web site, allenhouse.com, which gives the most comprehensive set of links for visitors to the area. The Five College Calendar (413/256-8316, fivecolleges.edu) is a single master list of events at all of the campuses for each month.

Amtrak (800/872-7245, amtrak.com) stops in Amherst, while Peter Pan Bus Lines (800/237-8747) connects various stops in the area with Boston, Connecticut, and New York City. Valley Transporter (800/872-8752) offers door-to-door service - $32 from Connecticut's Bradley Airport to Amherst or Northampton.

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