Wending our way to the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, we cross a creek, meander down a country road, then come to a farm with red barns, split-rail fences and flocks of sheep grazing in the green pastures.
We walk past the cream-colored sheep with their pink noses and pink ears — joined by a few mules and an occasional black sheep — and come to the Cheese Store, a wooden sign hanging over two glass-door refrigerators built into a red wall outside the barn. In those refrigerators sit some of the creamiest cheeses we’ll ever taste. Old Chatham’s Hudson Valley Camembert recently garnered first place in the 2014 American Cheese Society competition, the Pulitzer Prize for cheese-makers.
The store doesn’t have any shopkeepers. Just a price list with arrows that point to the slot where we put in our money. A sign posted on the barn wall reads: “Our Self Serve Store Operates on ‘The Honor System’ And Is Monitored By ‘Video Surveillance.’ ’’
Simplicity shadowed by sophistication. Yes, that’s the Hudson Valley, a land of artisan farmers, artists and small towns that boast centuries-old history, art galleries, antiques shops, award-winning restaurants, cozy B&Bs, farm stands, a famed culinary school, hiking, biking and pottery trails, wineries, breweries — all hugging the Hudson River and hillsides of the Catskills.
In the autumn, it’s absolutely glorious, with its rolling hills of red, orange and gold-tipped leaves framing the Hudson and nearby farms with their corn fields, apple orchards, pumpkin patches and pastures of horses, cows, sheep and an alpaca or two.
My husband, Ken, and I have been coming up here for the past several years, visiting our oldest son, Cooper, at Bard College in Annandale-on-the-Hudson.
Albany is at the northern tip of the Valley. The heart of it — around Rhinebeck, Hyde Park, Woodstock — is about an hour south, a jaunt down the New York State Thruway (Interstate 87) or the more picturesque Route 9.
Over the years, we have stayed in and around Rhinebeck, a storybook village whose roots go back to the Dutch settlers of the 1600s. Its most recent claim to fame? It’s where Chelsea Clinton wed, with many of the A-list guests staying at the Beekman Arms, a white-porch grande dame hotel that dates to 1766.
Rhinebeck is chock-full of inns and B&Bs. Among my favorite: WhistleWood Farm Bed & Breakfast, a working farm about three miles outside of town. Maggie, the proprietress, serves scrumptious breakfasts with homemade jams, breads, buttermilk pancakes and herb omelets made fresh with her hens’ eggs. I’ve stayed in the Wyoming room, aptly named with chaps hanging from the pine-paneled walls, a red vintage canoe suspended from the ceiling, and a persimmon-tiled fireplace that gives the room a warm, cozy glow.
Rhinebeck is a sophisticated, four-corner town. Shops are filled with goods made by local artisans, from hand-dipped chocolates at Krause’s Chocolates, to homemade crafts at Periwinkle’s. A.L. Stickle, a five-and-dime store from 1946, has branched into lush, locally milled yarns at its Knitting Garage.
The town also hosts a farmers market from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays in the municipal parking lot at 61 E. Market St. Here, you’ll find a bounty of fresh fruits, veggies, cheeses, meats, breads, wines, ciders, local yarns and the famed Hudson Valley foie gras — all from farms (many organic) in the Valley or nearby Berkshires in Massachusetts. The market runs every Sunday from Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving, then moves inside in the winter and runs every other Sunday. I’ve transported many foods from the market to South Florida with an ice pack and lunchbox cooler.
For aviation fans, nearby Red Hook boasts the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, a trove of planes, automobiles and motorcycles from the turn of the last century. Through mid-October, the Aerodrome features bi-plane rides over the Hudson, much like the barnstormers of the 1920s, who were immortalized in the film classic Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.
If you want to explore the Valley by foot or bicycle, one of the best spots to do so is the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, which you can get to from either the Poughkeepsie or Highland entrances. At 212 feet tall and 1.28 miles long, it is the longest, elevated pedestrian bridge in the world — and it is wheelchair accessible.
After a day of hiking or cycling, check out the local dining scene. Befitting its proximity to Manhattan — about 90 miles north of the city — and its farming roots, the Hudson Valley is a foodie’s delight. Many a Manhattan chef has left the city for the Valley’s genteel way of life, bringing a sophistication to farm-to-table menus.
Joann and Sam Cohen, owners of The Matchbox Cafe, operated a wholesale bakery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for two decades before opening their cafe in a cozy, stone cottage about a mile south of town on Route 9. Their red awning with white letters says it all: Comfort Food & Cookies. Grass-fed beef burgers, tuna and chicken salad sandwiches served with a side of homemade potato chips that are thin, crunchy and redolent of russet potatoes. And the cookies? Well, you have to taste them yourself (Hint: Try the Schmoogie, two dark chocolate cake-like cookies filled with chocolate ganache.).
At Gigi Trattoria, owner Laura Pensiero has made a name for herself with her Hudson Valley Mediterranean style. Pensiero has partnered with local farmers to serve fresh fare at her popular outdoor cafe. The crowd favorite? Skizzas, super thin-crust pizzas that include toppings such as locally sourced goat cheese, preserved figs, arugula and truffle oil.
Farming has long been central to the Valley, with its fertile fields and flocks of game, attracting Dutch settlers as far back as the 1600s. Autumn is a splendid time to explore the farms and orchards. In fact, the second-oldest family farm in the country, Saunderskill Farms, can be found about 30 minutes south of Rhinebeck, in Accord, New York. The farm has a lineage that goes back to Peter Stuyvesant, circa 1680. Today, the family farms 450 acres of vegetables, flowers and orchards. Grandma Alice and Grandpa Jack still live in the old stone house built in 1770.
In the autumn, you can pick your own pumpkins, make your way through the corn maze, stock up at the farm store and go on a horse-drawn hayride.
If you want to absorb a bit of art and counterculture, head north to Woodstock. No, it’s not the site of the famed music festival — that was Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in nearby Bethel. But Woodstock takes its cue from the counterculture. A walk through downtown gives you a clue: Eco-friendly gifts at Heart of Woodstock, and Buddhist books at Namse Bangdzo Bookstore. The town also has quite a collection of galleries; make sure to stop by the Center for Photography on Tinker Street.
And on weekend mornings through November, Mower’s Saturday Market, a giant flea market, crafts fair and antiques/collectibles market, takes place a block from the Village Green on Maple Street, a Woodstock tradition for more than 35 years. You may even spot Natalie Merchant, the former front woman of 10,000 Maniacs, who has made her home in and around Woodstock for 25 years.
“I love the sense of home and place I have in the Hudson Valley,’’ she recently told Ulster magazine, the region’s lifestyle magazine.
Another aficionado of the Valley was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose childhood home, a Victorian fieldstone mansion known as Springwood, is in Hyde Park (The Valley is known for its Gilded Age — the Vanderbilt Mansion is a few blocks away.).
At Springwood, you can stand on the terrace where Roosevelt stood every Election Night during his 12 years as president, greeting well wishers. Tour the mansion and you’ll find the bed in which Roosevelt’s mother, Sara, gave birth; the bedroom where British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stayed while devising a strategy with Roosevelt to defeat the Nazis; and the Rose Garden, the burial place of Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. Eleanor Roosevelt’s nearby childhood home, Val-Kill, is also a National Historic Site, the only first lady’s home to be designated as such.
The impact that FDR and Eleanor had on American history can be explored at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. Plan to spend a few hours here as Roosevelt’s presidency spanned 12 years of extraordinary events, from the depths of the Depression to the rise of Adolf Hitler to the attack on Pearl Harbor. One of the most interesting artifacts is FDR’s address to Congress after Pearl Harbor. Dated Dec. 7, 1941, the typed speech contains FDR’s handwritten editing marks, including his insertion of the word “infamy’’ when describing the events of that day.
All that history will make you hungry and there’s no better spot for dinner than the Culinary Institute of America, just down the road from FDR’s home (If you want to dine here, make reservations in advance.).
Last fall, my sister, my son, Cooper, and I had dinner at The Bocuse Restaurant, the school’s newest restaurant, inspired by the legendary French chef Paul Bocuse.
It’s one of three restaurants at the school, the other two being American Bounty and Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici, plus the Apple Pie Bakery Cafe.
Student chefs whip up the delectable dishes, from starters such as butter-poached lobster and black truffle soup to entrees like poached halibut and breast of Long Island duck with hazelnut puree. Desserts will break your resolve with temptations such as warm chocolate and black currant tart, exotic nougat glace or a fresh take on a lemon bar, complete with crème fraiche cake, lemon curd, coconut ice cream and tamarind sauce.
The presentation was stunning, the food was delightful and the setting lovely. It was a meal to remember, just like our many outings throughout the Hudson Valley.
Going to the Hudson Valley
WHAT TO DO
WHERE TO EAT
WHERE TO STAY