A road trip through the Hudson Valley can be finished in two or so determined hours. But better to take four days. Or two weeks. Or six months.
The 150 north-south miles between New York City and Albany are so rife with riches that wading into them in any abbreviated fashion quickly seems like a losing effort. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I met Colin Holmes, an Irishman who moved to New York City but soon drifted to Nyack, a peaceful, leafy town at the Hudson Valley's southern edge, where he opened a home-decor shop.
I asked for a few tips for exploring the area. He gasped at the weight of the question. There was no wrong answer, but there was no easy answer. He shrugged.
"Just follow the river and keep going," he said. "There are some great little towns. So many great little towns."
There you have the Hudson Valley in five words: so many great little towns. In their midst is no shortage of things to eat, see and do while crossing back and forth over the mighty Hudson River.
Though it's a relatively convenient and tidy package — roads run along either side of the river, which is crossed by several bridges — the Hudson Valley is no monolith. Within 10 miles it can veer from conservative to progressive, from sophisticated to rurally peaceful. By the end of September, it also boasts a rich palette of autumn color that leads to the Hudson Valley's busiest tourism season of the year.
"You get everything; from wine to peach to all sorts of melon colors — they're almost like food," said Susan Hawvermale, president of Hudson Valley Tourism (travelhudsonvalley.com). "And we get those fall-ish smells, those wonderful harvest aromas. It's a very tactile time of the year. You walk through fall here and you can taste it."
Even without the leaves, there is enough in the Hudson Valley to appease most any traveler. In fall, it's a veritable wonderland. Here are some highlights:
Farm-to-table isn't just a catchphrase in the Hudson Valley.
"In the high season, this is the garden of Eden," said Dwayne LiPuma, a chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America's campus in Hyde Park. "You find everything and anything."
He ticked off five local cheeses that had arrived recently, along with herbs, vegetables and five flats of local strawberries.
The CIA, the nation's foremost cooking school, is a must-stop for hungry travelers, with three full-service restaurants staffed by students in both the kitchens and dining rooms. They're watched and graded by instructors doubling as chefs and managers. The restaurants include French (The Bocuse), modern Americana (American Bounty) and Italian (Ristorante Caterina de' Medici). Reservations are recommended for all (ciarestaurants.com). There's also Apple Pie Bakery Cafe, which doesn't take reservations.
Walk off the meal with a school tour (4 p.m. Monday through Friday and also at 10 a.m. Mondays; $6; reservations required), where harried students who start classes as early as 2 a.m. (it's a breakfast class, naturally) rush around in their chef whites.
Also on the east side of the river, about 40 miles north of Hyde Park, in the town of Hudson, is a perfect burger joint. Grazin' (grazindiner.com) already operated a nearby cattle farm when it launched its classic diner. The meat is remarkably fresh and expertly prepared. I went for the special: a burger topped with feta and red pepper sauce. I dream of it still.
O Lar (tinyurl.com/hudsonolar) is a Spanish-Mediterranean restaurant in the town of Piermont, at the southern end of the Hudson Valley, on the west side of the river. It's revered by locals and New York City day-trippers alike. The tiny, bustling family operation feels like a slice of Europe, and the pizzas, house-made sangria and gorgonzola-serrano ham dates taste like it too.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park (nps.gov/hofr), just 2 miles north of the culinary institute, is a remarkable look into the past. Aside from his time in the White House, our only four-term president lived in the house for most of his life. Explore the grounds, and the reasons he loved the Hudson Valley become obvious: The back of the house faces a lush, green valley where the river flows just beyond the slope. My guide noted that the future president was navigating the river by himself at age 8.
FDR returned often while president — more than 200 times — and hosted Winston Churchill and King George VI among others. We're able to see the rooms where they all slept, often with the original furniture. You can literally smell the history; it's redolent of heavy, musty wood. The museum also is worth 90 minutes of exploration; it chronicles not just FDR's rise but the two prime topics of his presidency: the Great Depression (which got him elected) and World War II (which he navigated).
Poor Martin Van Buren. Our eighth president also called the Hudson Valley home, but his presence is a bit of an afterthought. Still, his Kinderhook home (nps.gov/mava), about 45 miles north of FDR's home, also is worth a visit.