CHATHAM, N.Y. -- If you pull over in a neighboring town to ask for directions to Chatham, be prepared for the question, "Which one?" Is it Old Chatham you want, or Chatham proper? East Chatham or North Chatham? Or maybe you're thinking of Chatham Center?
There is at least numerical consistency with the five Chathams, which are clustered within about 5 miles of one another, about 5 miles from the Massachusetts-New York border. Still, the Chathams, each with a distinct character, present more variety than confusion for visitors, who can opt for a rambling drive through old farm country, a stroll along sidewalks of a reviving railroad town, or a hike in the hills on the edge of the Hudson Valley.This part of New York State -- about a four-hour drive from Boston -- shares the Taconic Range with Berkshire County in Massachusetts and much of the Berkshires' bucolic scenery. Only Old Chatham, though, with its upscale country store and its horse farms, echoes the aura of neighboring Lenox and Stockbridge. East Chatham boasts farm stands and its own fine country store -- decidedly upscale but not as far up as Old Chatham.
North Chatham and Chatham Center comprise clusters of Victorian and Colonial homes, offering fine views from the car window but not much reason to stop.
Chatham, with the only downtown in the bunch, is home to the Mac-Haydn Theatre, a professional musical theater-in-the-round, and an old-fashioned Main Street. Spencertown Academy, five or so miles east, hosts vintage movies, art exhibits, and small-ensemble performances.
By serendipity, my husband and I stumbled upon a splendid bed-and-breakfast in East Chatham, the Milk & Honey, a renovated 18th-century farmhouse with 21st-century amenities. Owner Jean Dickason moved here from Manhattan in 1992 and poured her heart into fixing up the property. Her guest rooms are outfitted with the same fluffy bathrobes and superb mattresses as in high-end country inns, yet her summer rate of $95 was considerably cheaper. She serves elegant breakfasts on the rear deck overlooking her gardens, pond, and wetlands. One started with fresh orange juice, French-roast coffee, and two kinds of local strawberries. A basket of homemade cheese biscuits followed, served with Chatham honey. The meal peaked with a scrambled-eggs-and-cheese croissant, accompanied by sauteed asparagus with a light sesame-soy sauce. It was hard to leave the yard.
Nonetheless, we ventured out, cruising northwest to Old Chatham on the old Albany Turnpike. Stately maples lining the country road signaled the approach to the village center. A 1930s gas station that evoked an Edward Hopper painting looked more quaint than run down among stout clapboard farmhouses. At the junction with Route 13, the Old Chatham Country Store and Cafe presents an affluent slice of country life. Provisions in the store run to the luxury end of the retail spectrum, perfect for an elegant country picnic. The cafe serves casual breakfast and lunch in a dining room with oiled-wood tabletops and big windows. Dinners also can be boxed up to go.
From the crossroads in Old Chatham, Shaker Museum Road leads to the Shaker Museum and Library, with a vast collection of Shaker artifacts in a compound of farm buildings. Mount Lebanon, a few miles to the east, where the museum is relocating this fall, was the center of the Shaker world. From there, Shakers dispersed throughout New England and as far west as Indiana after the Civil War.
We rambled on to North Chatham, breezed through this pretty blink-and-it's-gone settlement, and headed south on Route 17 to Chatham Center, another clump of Victorian houses surrounded by farm country. From here, Route 66 drops due south to Chatham proper.
The parking on Chatham's Main Street was ample on a summer Saturday. It's possible to walk the two main thoroughfares in minutes, provided a store or cafe doesn't pull you in. There is plenty to lure the passerby in the brick storefronts, which date from the prosperous railroad days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Chatham saw more than 100 trains rumble by each day. Today, some trains still pass through, but they no longer keep the economy humming.
Though the sidewalks could use repairing, other indicators, such as a host of reasonably priced restaurants, point to a renaissance. Lunch destinations include the Daily Bread Cafe, serving coffee and sandwiches on crusty European-style bread baked on the premises; exotic brews and bar fare at Peint O Gwrw (Welsh for "a pint of beer"), a gargoyle-bedecked pub; Lipperas Restaurant & Bistro, with pressed-tin ceilings and sumptuous sandwiches; Ralph's Summit Cafe, an espresso shop with light fare; and the Dog House, a self-described "gourmet hot-dog grill" with sidewalk tables and a sheltering garden. Lipperas, serving classic Italian and American dishes, and the Blue Plate, with stylish comfort food like meat loaf and crab cakes, are the hot dinner spots.
Elsewhere on the main drag, a dozen or so shop windows show off art glass, jewelry, and clothing fit for a West Side dinner party. An independent bookstore occupies an inviting old Main Street storefront. Even more encouraging is the presence of a first-run movie theater. The lush landscape, however, is the big attraction here. To survey the countryside from above, we drove to the Wilson M. Powell Wildlife Sanctuary off Shaker Museum Road in Old Chatham and hiked the mile or so up to Dodson's Rocks.
There, we looked down on cloud-shadowed slopes. Tiny houses dotted a pencil-line road, a clump of settlement shimmered in the distance, and to the east, another. The five Chathams, knit together by undulating fields, suddenly seemed all of a piece.
Jane Roy Brown is a writer in Western Massachusetts.