When a city hasn't renovated one section to be marked-off and marketed for the masses -- think Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston -- you've got to find your own way through the good, the bad, and the urban.
That's the attitude my wife, 6-year-old daughter, and I take into Holyoke, which is not the likely travel destination of, say, Northampton, just 8 miles north. Holyoke has no theater, no neat mix of downtown restaurants. It had an amusement park, but that closed in 1987. It has shopping, but it's on the outskirts, along Route 91, at the Holyoke Mall.
What it has -- if you know where to look -- are reflections of the city's past, present, and hoped-for future.
We begin in Old San Juan. That's the name of the downtown bakery on High Street, three doors from Latin Spot, a club whose three red awnings advertise "salsa merengue bachata reggae hip hop pool tables catering." Inside the bakery, the primary language is Spanish, reflecting the city's large Puerto Rican population.
Being an outsider is part of the fun -- as long as you are let in. But the greatest alienation comes from the unfortunate proliferation of New York Yankees caps, as the petite young woman behind the counter patiently answers our pastry identification questions (and, on request, gently corrects my tortured pronunciation of ''pastelillos"). Confident that I can eat it better than I can say it, I choose one -- a large square of phyllo dough holding some guava jam and blanketed by powdered sugar. My wife tries a very cakey muffin with guava; our daughter entertains a clown cupcake.
The pastries are light and sweet, the room decorated with colorful platters and gallos. Old San Juan is a popular destination: by 11:30 a.m., 15 people wait in line while we enjoy our pastries and drink, eyeing the lunch menu that includes seafood salads and sandwiches.
I ask a panhandler for directions to Fernandez Family Restaurant, a High Street eatery recommended by some Holyoke friends. . I walk ahead of our dawdling daughter and my wife, and when I see the lighted "open" sign outside the restaurant I rush back with the good news that makes us suddenly hungry.
Inside the restaurant, I ask for a tour of the 20 or so dishes in the glass-enclosed case before me. We choose roast pork, plus seven side dishes: arroz con gandules (yellow rice with pigeon beans), fried plantains, surullitos (sweet corn meal with cheese), a boquito(crabmeat fritter), mofongo (a mound of plantains, garlic, and bacon), and -- for our daughter -- lasagna, and white rice. With one soda, our bill is under $14, and we won't finish everything. The pork is a little dry, but comes to life when mixed with the yellow rice, my wife goes mad over mofongo, and Julia loves the lasagna.
Outside, a simple picture of Holyoke's cultural past and present is represented by Fernandez Family Restaurant and Nick O'Neil's (a basic -- not polished brass -- Irish bar) standing two doors apart. In any city, and many towns, it's not hard to earn strange looks walking into a neighborhood bar or even bus stop, but our morning in Holyoke suggests that the city can be a welcoming place.
We head down Dwight Street past City Hall, an apparent cathedral in high Victorian Gothic style, to Heritage Park. It's somewhat ironic that Holyoke has no elaborate tourist mecca, for the city was planned by a group of Boston industrialists and it thrived in the 19th century as the "Queen of Industrial Cities."
Today, Heritage Park is a modest collection of attractions located along one of the city's three canals -- waterways that were a key part of that planned city and which still help provide electrical power to businesses. We head for the Children's Museum, but a sign on a locked door informs us that this is one of two weeks in the year when it is closed. Inside awaits, among other activities, a health exhibit called ''The Body Playground," which includes a climbing structure representing the digestive and respiratory systems.
Denied the educational, we settle for the rotational: several rides on the 76-year-old Holyoke Merry-Go-Round, rescued from the now-closed Mountain Park. The merry-go-round is an obvious winner. The Volleyball Hall of Fame is something else. In a sense, it is Holyoke in microcosm: unimpressive at first glance, strapped financially (its ambitious plans to expand into a much larger facility have been stalled by a funding delay), ultimately intriguing. The whole hall is one 4,500-square foot room, and we are the day's first customers. With the $3.50 adult admission and no inherent interest in volleyball, my wife waits while my daughter and I step in.
The place grows on me, in part from the interesting historical facts: volleyball is the second-most popular team sport in the world, it was first played in a Holyoke YMCA with a basketball (and was called ''Mintonette"), and YMCA missionaries spread the word overseas about both volleyball and Christianity.
"Wow!" exclaims Julia at the interactive database, witnessing on videotape her first spike (a move that was invented in the Philippines, by the way -- at your next party, you can impress people with that historical tidbit).
In the 15-year-old Canal Gallery, owner David Scher, like others who have staked a claim in Holyoke, speaks hopefully of the city's future. "I think the potential for Holyoke is great because of the water," says Scher. "We're going to push it every which way we can."
Appropriately, the downstairs exhibit favors the avant-garde. Take the work called "Opera." When you flip a switch and pull a rope, you resurrect a jangly, jumbly "puppet" (made of fencing, colorful disks, and large plastic beads) while an old recording of a dead tenor echoes through the low-ceilinged structure.
A budding art critic and sometimes-spooked 6-year-old, our daughter immediately exits the building. I call her back and switch off the "puppet," which resembles a recycling project gone bad. After touring the upstairs and the studio of a metal sculptor (whose sunflowers are refreshingly representational/lovely, not presentational/creepy), we head to the Wistariahurst Museum, probably the best-known historical attraction in Holyoke.
Somehow its music room reminds me of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. My wife voices the same thought, noting that Mrs. Gardner lived about the same time as Belle Skinner, the woman responsible for the look of Wistariahurst.
Belle died in 1928, "Mrs. Jack" in 1925. By then, Belle had transformed her parents' home from its Victorian identity to a Renaissance Revival/Beaux Art style. The house is a mix of the impressive (the music room's Tuscan-style faux marble columns, and the curving, red-carpeted stairway) and the peculiar (the bathroom showers with eight jet sprays -- it's a hygiene thing, according to our guide -- and the leather wallpaper of the study, the room where patriarch William Skinner died in 1902).
Other historical sites include old mill buildings, still in use. Parsons Paper Co., the oldest operating paper mill (since 1853) in a city once known as the Paper City, offers group tours by appointment. Paper City Brewery, a newer business in an old building, gives free tours on weekdays and beer tastings on Friday evenings.
Although the biggest crowds in Holyoke are miles away at the mall, we still welcome the chance to check out the city's least-urban setting, and so head north on Route 5 to Mount Tom State Reservation. Its 1,800 acres include hiking trails, canoeing and fishing on Lake Bray, and the occasional man-made structure like the 40-foot Bray Tower, a vantage for watching migrating hawks. Though it is migration season (mid-August until the first snowfall), we see no hawks this day; the best times are after a storm or when winds are out of the west/northwest.
An even better view waits at the end of Christopher Clark Road. Green fields, the winding Connecticut River, and glimpses of Northampton as well as Holyoke, backgrounded by foggy hills, make for a mix of textures, colors and moods. Turn around and out the Eyrie House ruins -- it was a summit house resort until it burned in 1901 -- or take in the brighter vista of the distant present.