Tips for First Years: How to Get Off Campus and Where to Go

Tips for First Years: How to Get Off Campus and Where to Go

An important part of keeping one’s sanity while at Amherst is remembering to get away from everything every once in a while. It’s easy to get consumed in the “Amherst Bubble,” especially in your first year. While the Office of Student Life and our plethora of student groups do provide many fun activities to do on weekends, there’s a lot of other options provided by the Five College Consortium as well as the Pioneer Valley in general. After three years at Amherst, here are some of the places I’ve frequented and some general advice on how to adventure outside of campus:

The PVTA Bus System
As you’ve hopefully learned already, your Amherst College ID will give you access to any of the PVTA bus lines. All you have to do is show it to the driver and he’ll beep you in. Some of the bus lines, such as the 38, are exclusively shuttles between the colleges and therefore don’t require money from anyone. Personally, I’m never sure which ones are which so sometimes there will just be awkward moments where I show the bus driver my ID and he stares at me like an idiot.

Usually choosing the public transit option of Google Maps will let me know which bus line to take to get where I want to go. However, in my experience the times google maps will tell you on when the bus comes aren’t the same as the bus schedule. Either way, don’t expect the PVTA to arrive on time. Although guaranteed to be punctual the day you’re only a minute late and watch it drive away as you run to the stop, the PVTA is not very different from any other bus system that way. Make sure you check the bus time charts, despite their inaccuracy, before trying to catch one, and take note that the weekday and weekend schedules are different. The Amherst College App (if no one’s told you about that yet, you’re welcome) will have links to the bus line schedules, which can also be found on the “My Amherst” page of the website.

The bus line I’ve used most frequently, and which is probably the most frequented by Amherst and UMass students, is the B43. This bus will pick you up at the Amherst College bus stop and take you through UMass, to the Hampshire Mall and even down to Smith College in Northampton, the latter two of which are some of my most frequented places.

Hampshire Mall
Located down Route 9 about half a mile away from campus is a pretty bare-bones mall containing a Target, JCPenney and a movie theater along with some smaller stores. The bus from campus to the mall bus stop takes around 20-30 minutes and goes through UMass both ways. There may not be much shopping to be done in this mall, but I guarantee you will end up going on no less than a dozen Target runs by the end of your junior year. The bigger appeal to the Hampshire mall is the fun non-mall things to do, such as the brand new go-cart course, the roller-skating rink, the laser tag place and even an escape room. You may run into a 12-year-old’s birthday party while there but it’s important to live like a kid every once in a while.

From the mall’s bus stop, you’re walking distance from the other shopping center with the Walmart, Whole Foods and Bed Bath ‘N Beyond, but those are a bit more out of the way. If you manage to cross Route 9, a challenging but not impossible feat, you can access all the fast food restaurants you want with Chipotle, McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Fair warning, it’s extra treacherous to do this in the winter when the snow is piled up on the sidewalks and you’re forced to walk in the street. If you can get a hold of a car (more info on that later), do it.

If you stay on the B43 after passing the mall you’ll reach my favorite area in the Pioneer Valley, the city of Northampton. Here you will find Smith College’s historic campus as well as many great restaurants and shops to peruse. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, walking around the city and popping into the little boutiques is a refreshing change of pace. Everyone I’ve met from Northhampton is extremely kind, and the town is known to be very active on social justice issues. Last January I marched in Northampton’s Women’s March with thousands of people from the area, and it was an amazing experience. They also have a cool music scene and have hosted popular artists such as Jenny Louis, The Mountain Goats and Daughters. Tickets are usually fairly cheap and easy to obtain. To stay updated on artists coming to the area check out the Northampton box office website and sign up for their newsletter. I could write a whole other article on places to visit, eat and shop in Northampton but for now here’s some of my favorites:

Faces is a classic novelty store to peruse for dorm décor as well as other fun knick-knacks. Harold’s ice cream is a staple of any Northampton trip, located in the mini mall inside of the city. My favorite place to grab brunch is Jake’s or the vegetarian Hay Market Café, which is a café on the first floor and a restaurant in the basement. There’s also Local Burger, a popular gourmet burger dive. And for the over-21 crowd, Tunnel Bar is a must do if you like cocktails. I can’t say I’ve been to all the restaurants and bars in Northampton simply because there are so many, but it’s definitely worth exploring one weekend before it gets too cold to stroll outside comfortably.

Another place you can get to on the bus is the Mount Holyoke mall. It’s a lot farther than the Hampshire mall and takes about 25 minutes to get there by car, but if you want a real mall with all the traditional stores you can take the R29 from the Amherst town bus stop and take an hour ride to Holyoke.

One more popular location that’s surprisingly accessible by bus through Route 31 is Puffer’s Pond, a small lake that’s fun to visit on a warm day.

How to get a car
Obviously the easiest way to get around the expansive Pioneer Valley is by car. But if you’re obeying the first-year car ban or simply do not have a car of your own like most of us, there is a way to get in a car, provided you’re a licensed driver. As soon as you get on campus, register to drive the AAS vans. It’s completely free and a deal too good to be true. As long as you reserve the car in advance, you can take one of the vans for any club activity. They even come with a gas card so you don’t have to pay a cent.

For a bit more flexibility you can register for Zipcar, an on-demand car rental service that has its own lot across the street from the Amherst College Police station, where the AAS vans are also parked. If you’re registered with Zipcar, then you have a special card that can get you into any of these cars, which you reserve on your phone. The card unlocks and locks these cars, and the keys are already inside. There is a monthly charge for the subscription as well as an hourly charge for when you have the car, but when you want to make a spontaneous food run and your one friend with a car is unavailable, Zipcar comes in handy. So if you have a license and the money for it, do it and you won’t regret it. Just maybe don’t tell a lot of people you have it because they will start asking for rides.

Once you have your hands on a car you’re free to go anywhere. We’re only two hours away from Boston and three from New York. But a fun time doesn’t have to involve a day trip to a whole new city. Here are a couple of popular favorites that are pretty much only accessible by car:

The Montague Book Mill, located in Montague Mass., is a good place to go when you need to get away from Amherst, but you still have a lot of work to do. This unique book store offers a relaxing environment for you to unwind. On your way back you can swing by Flayvors ice cream in Hadley, not too far from campus. At this ice cream shop you can sample from tons of flavors and meet the cows that produce your ice cream up close and personal. It’s the sort small town experience you can’t find in a city. Similarly, in the fall you can make your way down to the apple orchards and pick apples. A lot of freshman dorms organize trips to do this as well so keep an eye out for that.

There are also a lot of independent diners in the area such as the Route 9 diner (which you could also get to from the B43) or Whately diner in Whately, Mass. I also recommend Quarters, an old-style arcade/bar in Hadley that allows underage people to go before midnight. Another must do, in my opinion, is to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the South Hadley Tower Theatre by Mount Holyoke College. If you’ve never seen the movie, or been to a show of it, find someone who has in order to prepare you for the ordeal. But if you love people being silly on a stage and yelling at a movie screen, I’d give “Rocky Horror” a try. And if you’re interested in being a part of it, they have open casting year round.

Disclaimer: These are all one Californian senior’s findings around Amherst. If you ask any professor or staff member (the librarians are especially kind and knowledgeable people) for recommendations on things to do in the area, they will have much more information. Hopefully this article just gives you a taste of what the world outside of Amherst College contains.

Keep an eye out for posters about community events from the five colleges and the town of Amherst. Many events hosted by one of the other five colleges, such as parties and plays, will be either free or discounted for five college students, just remember to bring your ID. The town of Amherst also has community events that college students are welcome to attend, such as dessert crawls and parties. These Amherst town events may not always be advertised on campus, but take a look at the community board next time you’re at the Starbucks or Subway in town.

It’s important to take advantage of all the options we have here in the Pioneer Valley that our rival schools do not. Whenever it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere, just remember that our version of off-campus Friday night fun doesn’t involve cow tipping.