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Gown town

A museum and arts on campus, as well as year-round trails, make the home of the Ephs a choice destination in winter

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / December 31, 2006
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WILLIAMSTOWN -- St. Pierre's Barbershop sits near the head of Spring Street, nestled in the heart of the Williams College campus. It's also, as a sign by the door proclaims, "Only 3 hours from Fenway Park."

"Roger made that up," says Denise LaBelle, who works with owner Roger St. Pierre in the tidy three-chair shop. "But he's really a Yankees fan," she shrugs.

Actually, St. Pierre reserves his strongest allegiance for the Williams College football team. It's tradition for the players to parade up Spring Street in full gear to celebrate homecoming victories in the shop. Photos of what Sports Illustrated dubbed the "Best Post-Game Tradition in America" line the walls. "We don't have TV, so people look at the memorabilia," says St. Pierre.

During the academic year, that town-gown vibe makes Williamstown even more interesting than during the summer, when theater is the main attraction. Winter transforms the rolling greens into snow-covered hummocks punctuated by the sentinel trunks of tall oaks and maples: groves of academe , indeed.

A stroll down Spring Street, the chief shopping arcade of the town, is an immersion in the color purple. At the Williams Store, all manner of athletic gear carries the grapey hue. The must-have souvenir is a squishy purple cow, the school's official mascot for reasons lost to the mists of history. Not so obscure is the "Eph" nickname for the students and all the sports teams -- a nod to Colonel Ephraim Williams, the founding benefactor of the college, which was established in 1793.

The local convenience store is called the Ephporium and it stocks Madhouse Munchies and all manner of healthy snack foods for guilt-free, late-night study breaks. Images Cinema, the de rigeur college-town independent movie house , serves organic popcorn only. Good dietary intentions meet their match, however, in the pastry cases at Tunnel City Coffee. On Saturday afternoons, any student who isn't sipping latte and nibbling a pumpkin whoopee pie in front of a laptop is probably nursing a pot of tea and a slice of Sacher torte with his or her nose buried in a book.

On weekdays, free student-led walking tours of the campus offer a little insight on undergraduate life along with a recitation of architectural highlights. Last time we visited, we overheard two students debate the merits of urban versus rural campuses. "[In Boston] , at least one kid a year gets killed crossing the street," one said, tacitly favoring his own pastoral environs.

But rural here does not mean sleepy. Free concerts by students, faculty, and visiting artists are offered by the music department, and there's no charge for the men's and women's varsity games . It's worth checking to see if anything is planned in the college's performing arts series at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, the modernist architectural landmark that opened in 2005.

The Williams College Museum of Art, off Spring Street, has the kind of globe-spanning collection expected of top teaching facilities. An introductory gallery neatly summarizes the scope with works that range from a bold Robert Motherwell canvas to a wooden figure on a bicycle by an anonymous carver from the Republic of Benin.

The museum is noted for its large collection of works by relentlessly cheerful Maurice and Charles Prendergast, but the more enigmatic "Morning in a City" by Edward Hopper is a perennial favorite with visitors. Through mid-April, the recently conserved canvas is displayed with a series of Hopper's original sketches and stunning large-scale photographs by contemporary photographer Gregory Crewdson that are both inspired by Hopper and uncannily evocative of his forlorn subjects and expressionist lighting.

The museum would be enough to put the town of just over 8,000 residents on any art lover's map, but one of the country's finest small independent museums, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, is a short drive outside of town. Museum founders Robert Sterling Clark and his wife , Francine , were especially fond of the sweet visions of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and viewing their collection of vibrant Impressionist canvases in a large skylit gallery is the perfect antidote to the dim light of New England winter.

Sometimes, though, it's better to simply embrace the season. The hiking trails on the 140-acre Clark estate remain open all winter. "Even in the dead of winter, people are tobogganing and walking dogs in the beautiful white landscape," says Peter Mehlin , who was manning the information desk at the Clark, handing out a gallery guide with a trail map.

The Pasture Loop trail wanders through the edge of the woods to the high pasture above the Clark for sweeping views of Williamstown and the Greylock Range. It's a lazy half-hour stroll. The Stone Bench Loop, about twice as long, ascends Stone Hill through old-growth forest for a great westward view to the Adirondacks. Conditions permitting, there's also free ice- skating on the lily pond.

For leads on other good trails for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, check with the staff at The Mountain Goat outdoor outfitters. "I climbed Mount Greylock in the winter when I was a Girl Scout," Christie Palmer says of the state's highest peak, "so it can't be too hard." Probably the best bet for a more realistic workout is Hopkins Memorial Forest, just northwest of town off Bulkley Street. The 2,500-acre tract is managed by the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies.

Hopkins is a research forest, stresses forest manager Drew Jones, but Williams lets hikers, snowshoers, and skiers use the 15-mile trail system for free. Pick up a trail map at the Rosenburg Center at the trailhead on Northwest Hill Road. "The Lower Loop is the classic, one-hour easy hike," Jones says. "You do climb about 200 feet over a mile and a half. Look closely and you'll see some of the research plots, the weather station, and the canopy walkway. " Dogs are allowed but must be leashed. "If there's good snow, the Upper Loop Trail is great for intermediate to advanced skiers," he adds.

By the end of the day, visitors and locals alike gravitate back to Spring Street and start thinking about dinner at spots like Mezze Bistro and Bar, which has been serving sophisticated regional cuisine since 1996. "That's what we do on Saturday," laughs Joan Marie Marks at The Library Antiques. "We tell people what our favorite restaurants are."

The shop draws bibliophiles for its extraordinary collection of antique and collectible bookends. "We had some books, so the owner got some bookends," Marks says. "They flew out of the store." Thus a specialty was born. Look for sea lions, Indian chiefs, elephants, flappers, and penguins.

But no purple cows.

Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, writers in Cambridge, at harris.lyon@verizon.net .

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