To the visitor it appears as if stately Williamstown (pop. 4,754) is simply a nickname for the immaculate and graceful campus of Williams College—even the main commercial block is basically the corridor between dorms and gym. From their common 18th-century benefactor, Ephraim Williams (who insisted the town’s name be changed from its original West Hoosuck), to the large number of alumni who return in their retirement, “Billsville” and its college are nearly inseparable. The town-gown symbiosis has spawned an enviable array of visual, performing, and edible arts, yet fresh contingents of ingenuous youth keep all the wealth and refinement from becoming too cloying.
Singer Sewing Machine heir Robert Sterling Clark’s huge art collection ended up in Williamstown in part because of the Cold War. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the threat of a Russian nuclear attack seemed real enough that being as distant as possible from likely bomb targets was a critical factor in choosing a permanent repository. Today Clark Art Institute (225 South St., 413/458-2303, daily July-mid-Oct., closed Mon. mid-Oct.-June, $20), in a pastoral setting, is the town’s jewel, displaying paintings by Winslow Homer and an extraordinary collection of Impressionist works, including more than 30 Renoirs. Special exhibitions are held in a gorgeous, Tadao Ando-designed gallery built into a nearby hillside. Also worth a look in Williamstown is the excellent and wide-ranging Williams College Museum of Art (daily June-Aug., closed Wed. rest of the year, free) on Main Street opposite Thompson Memorial Chapel (that mini-Westminster Abbey).
Williamstown can claim another gem, this time in the natural art of relaxation. Luxurious Cunard Lines used to serve its ocean-going passengers water exclusively from Williamstown’s Sand Springs (158 Sand Springs Rd., 413/458-6026, Memorial Day-Labor Day, $10). A family-friendly swimming pool has been open every summer since the 1950s on the site, on the north side of town, but the complex was for sale at the time of writing.
For breakfast, head to US-7 on the north side of town, where the popular Chef’s Hat (905 Simonds Rd., 413/458-5120) preserves a 100-year-old counter and other parts of its original diner incarnation. The hands-down best takeout pizza joint is Hot Tomatoes (100 Water St., 413/458-2722), and in mild weather the nearby stream-side park is well suited to lolling picnickers. Also good: the Indian-inspired food at Spice Root (23 Spring St., 413/458-5200).
Tony continental dining suitable for starched alumni banquets abounds in Williamstown. But if you’re looking for truly fresh, interesting food, skip the inns and go to Mezze Bistro and Bar (413/458-0123), which outgrew its original downtown home and moved to more spacious digs along US-7 a mile southwest of town. Here the very best locally-sourced produce, meats, and fish are featured on a stylish, dinner-only menu.
A drive along Main Street (Route 2) will give you a view of most of Williamstown’s accommodations, including many small motels out on the eastern edge of town, like the friendly and clean Maple Terrace Motel (555 Main St., 413/458-9677, $126 and up). For a real treat, consider The Guest House at Field Farm (554 Sloan Rd., 413/458-3135, $195 and up) in South Williamstown, five miles south along either Route 7 or scenic Water Street (Route 43). Occupying the 316-acre former estate of Pacific Northwest lumber tycoon Lawrence Bloedel, the main house, designed in 1948, is a striking example of American mid-20th-century modern architecture. If you have any love of Frank Lloyd Wright or Charles and Ray Eames, you’ll be delighted by this live-in museum of contemporary design, with its huge picture windows, proto-Scandinavian furniture, and meadow-side swimming pool.