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Escape to New York's Hudson Valley

Fall foliage en route to Hillsdale in the Hudson River Valley.

Photo: Anna Wolf

Food has been the great engine in the region’s revival, and the Hudson River Valley, blessed with some of the best agricultural land in the Northeast, has now gone thoroughly locavore, its cuisine based on fresh, seasonal, locally farmed ingredients. Or, as Max put it in three words: “No sea urchin.” Chef Josephine Proul, who is all of 25, makes consistently soothing, sometimes downright surprising food—one of my favorite dishes is an appetizer of anchovies, toasted pecans, a little lemon and olive oil, and blue cheese from the area’s noted Old Chatham Sheepherding Company. Sitting by the enormous bay doors watching kids skateboard in the parking lot of the nearby Stewart’s convenience store, you feel a party to village life, but also distinctly secluded from it and cosseted by the restaurant’s real warmth.

Bookworms headed this way will do well to stop by Rodgers Book Barn, in nearby Hillsdale (harness a good GPS system—this thing is in the middle of nowhere). Rodgers has more than 50,000 items, including record albums in mint condition, crammed into every cranny of the place and guarded by a sleepy spaniel. Opened in 1972 at the crux of two never-traveled roads, the barn feels like a temple for America’s remaining readers, and the best place to spend a rainy country afternoon. Here I leaf through strange and forgotten volumes on Antarctica, Schubert, and long-haired dachshunds. The Russian section produces a 1956 copy of Today on the Bolshoi Stage in a delightfully red Soviet color—a perfect gift for my father.

Books rumbling in the trunk, it is time to head west of Hillsdale to this region’s center of it all. Zipping past svelte Yankee cows and lonely barn silos, one can feel the urban excitement approaching. Excitement, one should say, in small, manageable doses. The seat of Columbia County, the city of Hudson missed out on becoming the capital of New York State by just one vote, and it’s been missing out on things ever since. Whaling, shipbuilding, ironworks, all sorts of fashionable industries once seduced this colorful riverside city, and collectively left it on its deathbed by the early 1900’s. More recently, Hudson has been transformed by a wave of antiques dealers and other entrepreneurs. Today, stretches of its main drag, Warren Street, often seem like a haven for tolerant middle-aged people airlifted directly from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; kids on bikes popping wheelies; and Bangladeshi women passing by in embroidered saris. Hudson has been called “a dictionary of American architecture,” and Warren Street alone runs the gamut from gorgeously tasteful 18th-century Nantucket-style houses not far from the Hudson River waterfront to more elaborate Victorian and Italianate concoctions up the street. Architecturally speaking, the closer you are to the river, the further you have traveled back in time.

On a weeknight, behind the long marble of a great tapas bar called P.M., a friend and I are quaffing Tempranillo and that bubbly, addictive Raventos cava with a big, happy woman who has just traded in Chicago for a brownstone across the street. “We get wild here in a middle-aged kind of way!” she tells us, as we’re warned that the adorable Trixie Starr, a reigning presence in this town, will soon be appearing with her magic bingo-ball spinner. “I am so into Lady Gaga,” someone shouts, while the men’s-room graffiti in this progressive silver-fox paradise asks: “Who is the prettiest boy in Hudson?”

Whoever he may be, daytime may find him furnishing his country house at Neven & Neven Moderne, on Warren Street, where he may rightly drool over a gleaming Bruskbo rosewood bench or a 1940’s upright Vornado fan that looks all power and chrome. Across the street at Historical Materialism, there’s a breathtaking Edwardian-period high-backed sofa, an Arts and Crafts hanging lantern that screams upstate second home, and some sehr elegant prewar German silver candleholders. “Half off,” an owner whispers as I gaze longingly at a $3,500 settee. The Great Recession may have hit Hudson where it hurts, but the new transplants are holding firm. “We’ve been here eight years,” the owner says. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Of the more than a dozen galleries scattered up and down Warren Street, I’m partial to Carrie Haddad Photographs. Haddad was a Hudson pioneer, planting Hudson’s first gallery on Warren Street in 1991. The photography outpost never fails to surprise or amuse me. In the summer of 2009 I gawked for a full hour at Gary Schneider’s intimate and mildly disturbing full-length nudes, the bodies of his subjects glowing with an odd quasi-transparency, an effect accomplished by using lengthy exposures and handheld flashlights. Last fall Canadian wunderkind David Trautrimas made me laugh (and nervously pat my wallet) with his Ontario-gray Hole Punch Flats, one of his “Habitat Machines,” made by disassembling domestic items and repurposing them into truly insane yet striking miniature architectural buildings.

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