What’s Happening in LGBT Northampton, Amherst, & Holyoke in Massachusetts’ Upper Pioneer Valley

Country Landscape, Credit: Alfred Lascia

by Dan Allen

Who says small-town America can’t be exceedingly gay-friendly? Nestled in gorgeous Western Massachusetts just above Springfield, the upper Pioneer Valley is a hip and laidback enclave with a long history of LGBT-inclusivity. Here, the so-called “Five Colleges” (Amherst, UMass Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith) give the area a distinctive arty and educated flair. In Northampton you’ll find the longtime proudly feminist Smith College (alma mater of both Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan), which has been called both the Lesbian Capital of America and the Best Small Arts Town in America. Across the river, Amherst, and its three colleges, has an even bigger student population, giving it an especially young, vibrant, and gay-positive vibe. Just to the south lies Holyoke, where openly gay Mayor Alex B. Morse has presided since 2011.

WHERE TO STAY

The historic Hotel Northampton (36 King St., Northampton. Tel: 413-584-3100. www.hotelnorthampton.com) is the grand dame of the Northampton hotel scene. Situated at the heart of town and just an eight-minute walk from Smith College, it was built in 1927, and its 106 rooms feature antique reproductions. Over in Amherst, the regal Lord Jeffery Inn (30 Boltwood Ave., Amherst. Tel: 413-256-8200. www.lordjefferyinn.com) sits right on the maple-lined border of Amherst College, offering 49 unique rooms and a classic New England experience. The Lord Jeffery’s elegant farm-to-table restaurant, 30Boltwood, is one of the town’s best.

Dining Room, Emily Dickinson Museum - Amherst
Dining Room, Emily Dickinson Museum – Amherst

For a foray even deeper into campus territory, Hotel UMass (1 Campus Center Way, Amherst. Tel: 877-822-2110. www.hotelumass.com) is located literally at the center of UMass Amherst’s grounds, but the hotel’s contemporary style, excellent service, and great views attract more than just parents and alumni. Down in Holyoke (right on the edge of the beautiful Mount Tom State Reservation), D. Hotel & Suites (1 Country Club Rd., Holyoke. Tel: 413-533-2100. www.stayatthed.com) offers modern and rather manly styling (some rooms even have fireplaces), and two of the town’s top restaurants, Delaney’s Grill steakhouse and the casual The Mick, are both conveniently attached to the hotel.

Picturesque North Amherst’s Black Walnut Inn (1184 North Pleasant St., Amherst. Tel: 413-549-5649. www.blackwalnutinn.com) offers a cozier accommodation experience, with just ten rooms located on a walnut-shaded property dating to 1745, fronted by a very handsome 1820 Federal-style brick home. Just south of Northampton proper, Greens Treat Suites (1236 Florence Rd., Northampton. Tel: 413-586-5755. www.greenstreat.com) is a gay-owned rural retreat with spectacular hilltop views, and is itself situated within the view that inspired Thomas Cole’s painting “The Oxbow.” The property has just two rooms: the 1,200-square-foot Mountain View Suite and the 600-square-foot Bamboo Suite.

CULINARY TREATS

Though it serves a wide clientele, lesbian comic Kate Clinton reportedly once called American-style pub FitzWilly’s (23 Main St., Northampton. Tel: 413-584-8666. www.fitzwillys.com) one of her favorite gay hangouts, and for more than four decades it’s been a big local favorite for its affordable (and huge) lineup of tasty comfort food served up in a low-key and friendly atmosphere. For a grander evening, nearby Bistro Les Gras (25 West St., Northampton. Tel: 413-320-4666. www.bistrolesgras.com) can’t be beat, with its fantastic menu of fine French fare crafted from the choicest of small-farm local ingredients—”a hyper-local cuisine with worldly accent prepared with modern technique,” as they themselves put it. For breakfast or weekend brunch, Sylvester’s (111 Pleasant St., Northampton. Tel: 413-586-5343. www.sylvestersrestaurant.com) is a beloved area tradition—readers of the local Valley Advocate newspaper even picked it as the best breakfast restaurant and best Sunday brunch restaurant in the entire Pioneer Valley. For healthier fare (and an especially lesbian-rich crowd), check out The Green Bean (241 Main St., Northampton. Tel: 413-584-2326. www.greenbeannorthampton.com), which serves up all sorts of organic, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free goodness.

Over in Amherst, the eclectic home-style American fare at Judie’s (51 North Pleasant St., Amherst. Tel: 413-253-3491. www.judiesrestaurant.com)—including some very famous New England–style popovers—has been satiating local palates since 1977. Just a little younger (founded in 1986) is the Black Sheep Deli (79 Main St., Amherst. Tel: 413-253-3442. www.blacksheepdeli.com), one of the town’s best go-to places for overstuffed sandwiches, delicious deli meats and cheeses, and fabulously fresh baked goods. If it’s just a quick slice you’re after, conveniently bar-adjacent Antonio’s (31 North Pleasant St., Amherst. Tel: 413-253-0808. www.antoniospizza.com) is hands down the best around, with a unique gourmet approach to the classic pie. Born here in Amherst in 1991, Antonio’s has now spread to seven other towns across New England, the Midwest, and the South.

Hampshire County Dirty Truth Photo Credit: Lynne Graves
Hampshire County Dirty Truth Photo Credit: Lynne Graves

As might be expected in such a college-heavy area, coffeehouses are plentiful in the upper Pioneer Valley. Northampton’s cozy Haymarket Cafe (185 Main St., Northampton. Tel: 413-586-9969. www.haymarketcafe.com) is one of the most gay-popular around, offering delicious juices, breakfast and snack items, and even a full (and very affordable) lunch and dinner menu until 9 P.M. Woodstar Café (60 Masonic St., Northampton. Tel: 413-585-9777. www.woodstarcafe.com) is another great option, serving a range of fresh sandwiches and baked goods—using ingredients from their own nearby family farm—alongside their popular coffees and espressos. Across the river in Amherst, the aptly named Amherst Coffee (28 Amity St., Amherst. Tel: 413-256-8987. www.amherstcoffee.com) is one of the most popular in town, very possibly due to the fact that it’s also a whiskey bar (serving wine and other spirits too) from 3 P.M, daily.

NIGHTLIFE

At least until Fall 2016 when it’s sadly scheduled to close, Diva’s Nightclub (492 Pleasant St., Northampton. Tel: 413-586-8161. www.divasofnoho.com) serves as the upper Pioneer Valley’s biggest and best-known gay bar and club, as it has for more than 15 years. It pulls in a mix of all shades from the LGBT spectrum, and others have always been welcome too. Diva’s features drag shows, special theme nights, and a big dance floor with DJs most nights of the week.

Many of Northampton’s other numerous bars are also frequented by LGBT locals, including the hipster-heavy The Dirty Truth (29 Main St., Northampton. Tel: 413-585-5999), which serves craft beers on tap and boasts a surprisingly good pub menu. Bishop’s Lounge (41 Strong Ave., Northampton. Tel: 413-586-8900) draws an even scene-ier mixed crowd, who come for the great DJs and live music. (Bishop’s also sporadically hosts specifically gay parties; see their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Bishops-Lounge-194529767277558 for details.) Ye Ol’ Watering Hole (287 Pleasant St., Northampton. Tel: 413-585-0990. www.yeolwateringhole.com) has a fun dive-y atmosphere (think pool, darts and board games) that attracts hoards of the local unfussy, including a decent number of gays and lesbians. It’s also home the Beer Can Museum, with a massive collection of some 4,000 of the brew containers.

Over in Amherst, Lit Lounge & Nightclub (41 Boltwood Walk, Amherst. Tel: 413-320-6322, www.litlike.me) may not generally be as mixed as a Northampton bar, but it’s one of the most fun spots in town — just don’t try to go during the summer, when the club shuts down for the college off-season.

Northeast Dormitories, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Northeast Dormitories, University of Massachusetts Amherst

ART & CULTURE

Amherst’s most famous native gets her proper due at the town’s most popular attraction, the Emily Dickinson Museum (280 Main St., Amherst. Tel: 413-542-8161. www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org). Spanning two houses — the Homestead, where Emily was born and lived, and the next door Evergreens, where her brother and his family dwelled — the museum serves both as a historical site and a living center for promoting broader appreciation of the poet’s unique work. Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum (41 Quadrangle Dr., Amherst. Tel: 413-542-2335. www.amherst.edu/museums/mead) is another of the town’s best cultural gems, home to more than 19,000 objects spanning 5,000 years of global civilization, including a particularly strong collection of American art that includes notable works from the Hudson River School.

In Northampton, the Smith College Museum of Art (20 Elm St., Northampton. Tel: 413-585-2760. www.smith.edu/artmuseum) boasts even more works—nearly 25,000, with an especially good concentration of European art from the 19th and 20th centuries, including superb pieces by Edgar Degas, Gustave Courbet, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat. The nearby Botanic Garden of Smith College (College Lane, Northampton. Tel: 413-585-2740. www.smith.edu/garden) is another Smith delight, covering more than 125 acres and containing some 7,000 different labeled and mapped plants, both under glass at the Lyman Conservatory and outdoors in the campus arboretum.

At the center of town, R. Michelson Galleries (132 Main St., Northampton. Tel: 413-586-3964. www.rmichelson.com) is Western Massachusetts’ largest commercial art gallery. Art originally exhibited here now hangs in many of America’s most prestigious museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Just a few blocks away, the Calvin Theatre (19 King St., Northampton. Tel: 413-586-8686. www.iheg.com/calvin_theater_main.asp) was once the town’s largest movie theater, and now serves as a concert venue for big touring singers and bands. More intimate gigs happen at its sister venue, the Iron Horse Music Hall (20 Center St., Northampton. Tel: 413-586-8686. http://www.iheg.com/iron_horse_main.asp).

ANNUAL EVENTS

Hands down the gayest event on the Pioneer Valley calendar is early May’s Northampton Pride (www.nohopride.org), which draws some 20,000 people every year for its afternoon parade and entertainment. Later in May, the Paradise City Arts Festival (www.festivals.paradisecityarts.com) brings a hodgepodge of visual arts, design, food, and live music to Northampton’s Three County Fairgrounds over the long Memorial Day weekend. Northampton also gets especially arty on the second Friday of every month for the Arts Night Out (www.artsnightout.org) gallery walk.

From early July to early August, the Ko Festival of Performance (www.kofest.com) brings five weeks of original theater works to Amherst College’s Department of Theater and Dance. Then in mid-September, Amherst turns verse-y for its annual Amherst Poetry Festival (www.amherstpoetfest.tumblr.com), with events taking place at the Emily Dickinson Museum and across downtown.

Foliage - Amherst Credit: Lynne Graves
Foliage – Amherst Credit: Lynne Graves

UNIQUE SHOPS

Northampton’s iconic Faces (175 Main St., Northampton. Tel: 413-584-4081. www.facesmainst.com) is everything that a department store should be but usually isn’t, with a unique, fun, and often offbeat array of clothing, gifts, shoes and accessories. Another solid one-stop shopping address is Thornes Marketplace (150 Main St., Northampton. Tel: 413-584-5582. www.thornesmarketplace.com), which houses a nice collection of independently owned shops, selling clothes, shoes, jewelry, gifts, and much more. Broadside Bookshop (247 Main Street, Northampton. Tel: 413-586-4235. www.broadsidebooks.com) is one of the area’s most gay-friendly—and just overall best—booksellers. Head over to Oh My (122 Main St., Northampton. Tel: 413-584-9669. www.ohmysensuality.com) for all of your sex-shop needs — though they prefer the softer term “sensuality,” and are extremely lesbian-friendly.

OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

The upper Pioneer Valley is loaded with easily reachable options for taking in the area’s fantastic natural beauty. Gorgeous Mount Tom State Reservation (125 Reservation Rd., Holyoke. Tel: 413-534-1186. www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/massparks/region-west/mount-tom-state-reservation.html) has 20 miles of hiking trails with fantastic views, plus lovely Lake Bray for canoeing and fishing. Norwottuck Rail Trail (446 Damon Rd., Northampton. Tel: 413-586-8706 ext. 12. (www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dcr/massparks/region-west/norwottuck-rail-trail.html) is a disused 11-mile stretch of Connecticut River-crossing rail line between Northampton and Amherst that’s now a favorite of local joggers, skaters and bikers in the summer, and cross-country skiers in the winter. Puffer’s Pond (www.amherstma.gov/1316/Puffers-Pond) is an Amherst outdoor favorite for swimming, picnicking, kayaking, bird watching, and fishing.

COLLEGE RESOURCES & ORGANIZATIONS

UMass Amherst’s Stonewall Center (Crampton Hall, 256 Sunset Ave., Amherst. Tel: 413-545-4824. www.umass.edu/stonewall) is an extensive and pioneering resource that was only the third of its kind on a college campus when it opened in 1985. For more than three decades it’s served as a center of support and information not just for UMass Amherst students, but for students at the other Five Colleges and surrounding community members as well. Most of UMass Amherst’s many LGBTQIA groups (such as Queer People of Color and Go! Athletes) are based here. Likewise the Amherst College Queer Resource Center (Morrow Dormitory basement, Amherst. Tel: 413-542-5114. www.amherst.edu/campuslife/our-community/queer-resource-center) is home to that school’s many queer student organizations, such as TransActive and Queer Women of Amherst. Smith College’s Resource Center for Sexuality & Gender (Wesley House basement, Northampton. Tel: 413-585-6014. www.smith.edu/ose/rcsg.php) serves all interested students, faculty and staff as a resource and communication center for meetings, programming and educational materials. Hampshire College’s Queer Community Alliance Center (Greenwich Donut 4, Amherst. www.hampshire.edu/qcac/queer-community-alliance-center) offers support and affirmation around gender, sexuality, and intersecting identities. Hampshire College also hosts the Five College Queer Gender & Sexuality Conference every March.

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