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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

The galleries and antiques shops turned Hudson into a destination, but the opening of at least two world-class restaurants has made the city a place to live. When I’m away from Hudson, I dream of DA/BA: chef-owner Daniel Nilsson’s DNA may well be found in the Swedish specials he presents each week, like the toast Skagen, with its judicious use of dill, cold shrimp, and delectable whitefish roe. I like to finish with a “chocolate indulgence” (chocolate four ways, including dehydrated chocolate mousse as thick as blood pudding), which always proves civilized but a little dangerous, just like Hudson itself.

The other danger of a Hudson visit is the shoestring fries at Swoon Kitchenbar. Everyone goes to Swoon, to the point where it’s impossible to imagine the town without its pressed-tin ceilings and tattooed and eyebrow-pierced waiters catering smartly to the patrons whose steady conversations thrum their way from Manhattan’s TriBeCa to Hudson’s Warren Street. As for those ethereally crisp shoestring fries, don’t ask for ketchup. “They don’t believe in ketchup here,” the waitress tells a visiting friend. The “they” in question are co-owners Jeff Gimmel and Nina Bachinsky-Gimmel. Jeff has survived the power lunch scene at New York’s media-buzzy Michael’s Restaurant, where he was the executive chef, and Nina has worked the pastry departments of the Union Square Café and Le Bernardin. Which is to say this is some serious cooking. Every day there is a new surprise, verging on revelation: local zucchini pancakes with duck prosciutto topped with slivers of fresh radish. Or how about a truly flavorful martini from the bar; the secret is in the boutique vermouth. Hold the ketchup, indeed.

And it’s not over yet. The second acts keep on coming. In the back of the Hudson Supermarket, a 7,000-square-foot antiques and vintage accessories emporium, interior designer Chris Hebert, who once ran the furniture shop Toad Hall at New York City’s ABC Carpet & Home, has opened a Mexican-cuisine counter simply called Café at Hudson Supermarket. “Oh, I went to Mexico, learned to cook,” the pleasantly burly and jovial chef tells me. The whole designer-to-cook transformation would be ripe for satire if his mentor weren’t Diana Kennedy, the goddess of Mexican cuisine. I find myself meditating on a complex roasted-poblano pork soup in the back of what began life as a 1950’s supermarket but is now an antiques store offering “unique shopping for the urban nomad.” All in all, just another Hudson afternoon.

Crossing the Rip Van Winkle Bridge over the Hudson is an iconic upstate moment, summer green and river blue-gray as far as the eye can see. The bridge is epic in length, but it perches at just the right height, giving driver and passenger the feeling of levitation over water and earth. Four miles north of the bridge, the village of Athens faces Hudson across the river in Greene County. Athens is a companion volume to Hudson’s dictionary of American architecture, with more than 300 buildings on the national historic register, including splendid examples of Greek Revival and Queen Anne Victorian. Come sunset, the draw of the village is the Athens Hotel at the Stewart House, built in 1883 and in the process of being restored. Mirroring the relaxed, underemployed vibes of this side of the river, the inn’s bar and restaurant feel almost Southern, like something out of a Mark Twain Mississippi tale. Only the sumptuous murals of nearby inlets done in the lush and romantic Hudson River School style remind you where you are. Everyone knows everyone else here. When a man sneezes at the bar, another patron cries out: “You all right, Doogie?” “I’m allergic to beer,” Doogie jokes. Siobhan, the bartender, makes a superior, Tabasco-heavy Bloody Mary and a cocktail with bright Hudson Valley vodka, cranberry, and lime.

The Hudson River Valley has many historically accurate and maniacally restored B&B’s, but for a genuinely rural experience I head down to the Kaaterskill, an inn just outside the village of Catskill, itself about 10 miles south of Athens. The highlight of this animal farm is Apple, the potbellied pig whose bristly coat is an almost meditative pleasure to pet and who may very well try to eat you (in a good-natured piggy way). She certainly chews on my jeans with porcine gusto, and I’m a tad jealous of her beautiful enclosure—the sign reading welcome apple; her bed of hay smelling warm and fresh. Human accommodations are entirely unpretentious, with rooms facing out to the distant peaks. A handy path winding past a talkative brook and some happy-looking goats leads to complete contentment.

Back over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and slightly to the south of Hudson, Olana, the Orientalist-style estate of Frederic Church, a renowned painter of the Hudson River School, offers a close look at the life of this artist, entrepreneur, and all-around hustler. From the hilltop estate, you can see the easy beauty, the clarity of the valley spread below, with its grand but reasonable bursts of nature. “Almost an hour this side of Albany is the Center of the World,” Church said of his Olana, “I own it.” The mega-selling painter owned a lot of other things, too; his Near Eastern bric-a-brac is now scattered in a lovely fashion amid the riotous colors and Persian motifs. Look out for the open Court Hall room used for entertaining beneath a sky-blue painted ceiling, and a reasonable selection of Church’s paintings, among them an arresting one of pink-hued Petra, Jordan.

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