Escape to New York's Hudson Valley
Published: September 2010
By Gary Shteyngart
This longtime retreat for harried New Yorkers has emerged as a destination where small-town charm meets quiet sophistication.
My favorite days of the year are ones when the Amtrak train pulls me up to Hudson, New York. I’m being slowly chugged out of Manhattan, past the sun-dappled Hudson River, past some of America’s most storied suburbs with their spotless platforms. When the train arrives in the small, historic city of Hudson after only a two-hour ride upriver, city slickers do a double take. There are no platforms here. Baggage in hand, I leap onto a footstool and then onto the asphalt and gravel lining the tracks, the tired hulk of the massive silver train shuddering behind me. Nothing makes me happier than that loose track gravel banging on my city shoes, the feeling of entering one of nature’s privileged strongholds. Welcome to the Land of Rip Van Winkle says a sign on a nearby bridge, and the profitable sleepiness of Washington Irving’s hero infects my soul. These days there are many things to do (and see and buy and, especially, eat) in the upper Hudson Valley, so close to New York City’s bustling insanity. But, thankfully, there are just as many things not to do.
This is a part of the world where teenagers passing on bikes (with all this exercise, where do they find the time to play video games?) will shout out, “How you doing?” and “Hey, the cut grass smells like watermelon!” Which it does. Settled by the Dutch, the Palatine Germans, and, now, in the city of Hudson itself, many Bangladeshi families, this part of the Hudson River Valley reminds new settlers of their ancestral homes centuries past. “It’s like an old country road in Austro-Hungary!” “It’s like the clouds massing over Aberdeen!” Indeed, for me, the wide birch floors of my Swedish landlady’s rented cabin speak of warm summers near my childhood home of St. Petersburg, Russia, the sunlight white and piercing, the mosquitoes out for blood. Wherever you’re from, bring your own nostalgia. This countryside is still primordially country.
The first thing I want to do when I get off the train is get close to the river. Not too far from the city of Hudson, tiny Cheviot Landing, in Germantown, opens out onto the water. Here the landscape is clear and dramatic. Clouds, thick and determined, crash into the peaks of the Catskill Mountains, which wind down into foothills as lush as the promise of the New World. The Hudson is still a busy, workmanlike river. A necklace of cement plants along the western shores mars her beauty, but one is quick to forgive civilization when a thick-hulled red barge glides gracefully mid-river. The eyes close easily. There is the reassuring honk of an Amtrak speeding silver-bullet-like past a riot of vegetation choking the banks. As the tides roll in, a meadowlark begins to speak.
My Hudson River Valley stretches north from the villages of Red Hook and Tivoli, with their Bard College–accented youthfulness, up through the antiques center of Hudson, over the river to the sleepy village of Athens, back through Hudson, and then east toward Philmont and Hillsdale, where the relatively manicured communities of the Berkshires are close, and yet so far. Come summertime, it’s hard not to soak up Tanglewood and the other delights of western Massachusetts, but crossing the border to New York State presents a scruffier, more true-to-life reality. Here’s a hair salon open just five hours a week and only on Mondays, there’s a ramshackle church advising, “Satan wants you to believe that Jesus is optional.” Between the aspens and drooping willows flashing by the road you’ll see fantastical-sounding businesses with names like Mrs. Sew ’N’ Sew Repairs & Minor Alterations. But there’s new blood in these towns and villages. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American lives is disproved here every day, with each new restaurant or shop opened by a former New Yorker or Bostonian who’s traded his Bimmer for a Subaru Forester and said enough’s enough.
Max Dannis, a former management consultant, and his wife, architect Linda Gatter, opened the restaurant Local 111 in Philmont in 2006. Max’s first reaction to Philmont, a town that can be most generously described as up-and-coming, was “what a dump.” Gradually that view changed to “what a charming village!” Philmont is, shall we say, transitional, its crime blotter reportedly a thing to behold, but where else in prime Columbia County can you find a 3,600-square-foot Victorian manor for $350,000? Linda and Max, both detail-oriented MIT grads, wanted their restaurant to be completely accessible yet sophisticated, a place where the local volunteer firefighters could have a great time. The couple turned a former two-bay service station in the middle of town into a stunner of a contemporary dining space. They updated the concrete floors, the bay doors, and flashes of metal, but turned them oddly homey and inviting through a series of little touches: a vibrantly colored landscape on one wall; an original fan; a 1940’s Coke ad recovered from underneath someone’s floorboards. I’ve yet to encounter any firefighters in my four years of eating here; indeed, on some nights the place seems like an extension of the local Democratic club, those besieged second-home owners squaring off against the deeply rooted local Republicans (Oliver North, of Iran-Contra fame, grew up in Philmont).
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.
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.
As I head farther south, scruffy Columbia County gives way to the better-heeled Dutchess County, as the upper Hudson Valley becomes the mid-Hudson Valley, and as the New York megalopolis draws ever nearer. Along with the deep funk emanating from Bard College and the rich acoustics of its Frank Gehry–designed performing arts center, the area is soaked in the arts. Each July brings the Edible Sculpture Party, organized by Bard College professor Tim Davis and his wife, painter Lisa Sanditz, in the pleasant village of Tivoli. Last summer featured a “Farrah Fawcett quesadilla” that brilliantly captured the recently deceased actress’s likeness, a pizza iPhone, and a sugary Michael Jackson glove. The summer before that, a student created a ham shaped like Kim Jong Il. Walking down Broadway, the Champs-Élysées of Tivoli, one comes across many pompadours that might excite the North Korean leader. Follow them to the divey Black Swan bar, where Bard students dance themselves raw whenever a cool band appears and where the backyard is the perfect place for a noisy, happy summer nightcap.
Those looking for real food should head for Mercato, in the neighboring town of Red Hook. Mercato is an Italian gem, the dining room’s creamy walls full of everyday cheer. Francesco Buitoni, red bandanna–clad descendant of the famed Italian pasta family, makes sweet, almost milky meat ragùs that are to die for, while his house-made spinach pappardelle is the king of green-colored pastas. The place often serves as a high-end canteen for Bard’s faculty. At the nearby table, an older academic declares to his waitress, a Bard student: “I’m the one who has garlic sensitivities.” Whatever one’s sensitivities, it’s hard to ignore the local chicken–liver bruschetta with aged balsamico and fresh sage.
My stay coming to an end, it is time to head farther south toward the inevitability of New York City. Before I run into the feisty village of Rhinebeck, which is another beast altogether (especially after Chelsea Clinton’s wedding), I turn west toward the river. Poets’ Walk, in Red Hook, is a 120-acre park with sparkling views of the Hudson River bisected by the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. The two miles worth of trails take the wanderer from a dark forest into a fiercely lit clearing. One can hear traffic rumbling smoothly across the long span of the bridge, see the humps of the Catskill Mountains in the background, everything sunbaked, abundant, distinctly American. Somewhere horses are whinnying and, strangest of all, jazz is playing. The light is clear, the sound is clear. A train to New York City honks its horn and then clatters into view. This is going to be difficult.
By car, Hudson is two hours from New York City. Amtrak (800/872-7245; amtrak.com) also runs 14 trains daily from New York City’s Penn Station to Hudson, where taxis and Enterprise rental cars (enterprise.com) are available.
Great Value Country Squire B&B Originally built as a rectory, this restored Victorian inn with five guest rooms is within walking distance of Warren Street’s plentiful antiques shops and boutiques. 251 Allen St.; 518/822-9229; countrysquireny.com; doubles from $160, including breakfast.
Great Value Madalin Hotel & Madalin’s Table The turn-of-the-century hotel contains 11 charming rooms furnished with Eastlake antiques. 53 Broadway, Tivoli; 845/757-2100; madalinhotel.com; doubles from $199, including breakfast.
Great Value Mount Merino Manor B&B Set on 100 acres; the seven guest rooms have antique furnishings and some have fireplaces. 4317 Rte. 23, Hudson; 518/828-5583; mountmerinomanor.com; doubles from $175, including breakfast.
Café at Hudson Supermarket 310 Warren St., Hudson; 518/822-0028; lunch for two $50.
DA/BA 225 Warren St., Hudson; 518/249-4631; dinner for two $80.
Local 111 111 Main St., Philmont; 518/672-7801; dinner for two $80.
Mercato 61 E. Market St., Red Hook; 845/758-5879; dinner for two $74.
P.M. 119 Warren St., Hudson; 518/828-2833; tapas for two $36.
Red Dot Restaurant & Bar A diner serving comfort foods such as hamburgers and fish-and-chips. Book a patio table for a quieter setting. 321 Warren St., Hudson; 518/828-3657; lunch for two $25.
Swoon Kitchenbar 340 Warren St., Hudson; 518/822-8938; dinner for two $42.