TRAVEL AND LEISURE is a nice name for a magazine, but for most of us leisurely travel doesn't exist. We may take our leisure when we arrive at a destination, but the coming and going generally is done as fast as possible.
What I proposed requires adopting the pace of an earlier era while going to or returning from New England; taking two days or more to use a tank of gas while meandering through a portion of one of the most historic regions of our country, the Hudson River Valley. The course I am about to chart is reversible. Simply read from the bottom up, or scramble the paragraphs and move in a pattern of your own making.
Our focal point is the central region of the valley, two hours and a bit more north of New York City.
There are three principal routes into the region from the city. The most scenic is the Palisades Parkway, which runs up the west bank of the Hudson from the George Washington Bridge. Located several miles back from the east bank is the Taconic State Parkway, a winding, somewhat narrow divided highway more suited to daytime than nighttime driving. A toll road, the New York State Thruway, crosses the river at Tarrytown.
my objective on a recent Friday was Hyde park and something known as the C.I.A. It's not a branch of the intelligence headquarters alongside the Potomac, but the Culinary Insitute of America, this country's leading school for training chefs, with an enrollment of more than 2,000. "The Culinary" (as it's known in the local argot) has a highly praised restaurant, the Escoffier, which overlooks the Hudson. Staffed by students, it is open to the public for luncheon and dinner. Reservations are suggested (914-452-9600), particularly for weekend evenings, which may be booked two months or more in advance.
An alternative goal for a night's lodging and/or dinner could be the Beekman Arms (914-876-7077), a few miles further north on the east bank in the pretty town of Rhinebeck. This hotel, first opened around 1700, claims to be the oldest in the country in continous operation. It has an attractive, period dining room.
Having determined the site for dinner (if each day must have a focal point, let it be the major meal), the curious traveler will discover manifest opportunities. The Palisades Parkway, if that is the route followed, leads one into Rte. 9W just south of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Visitors are welcome.
On the other bank, which can be reached via the Bear Mountain, Newburg-beacon or Mid-Hudson Bridge, is a parallel road, Rte. 9. Follow it north into Poughkeepsie, whose downtown is being reborn - heroically, if not beautifully. A brief drive from downtown leads to the campus of Vassar College, founded in 1861 and said to be the first college to offer women equipment and resources men. The college has been coeducational for nearly a decade.
Hyde Park is only three miles further on. After the Culinary Institute, nary, the road leads past two fascinating houses, both maintained by the U.S. Park Service. The first is the family home of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The second is a country home of one branch of the Vanderbilt family.
FDR'S home is a 35-room mansion that manages to be warm and folksy. It (supported by the fine Roosevelt Museum on the grounds) evokes an era and a style of life that seem further away than a mere three or four decades. The Vanderbilt place is more life-sized than the Italian palaces that served as a model for it. The live-in domestic staff here numbered only 17. There is beauty and overstatement. What eventually gets you is the realization that the marble and carved wood, the tapestripes, art and furnishings - so often copies elsewhere - all are genuine.
A full day.
If your day wasn't so full, backtrack the next morning, from the Beekman Arms or one of the adequate but undistinguished motels that can be found Mid-Hudson Bridge and drove south on 9W to visit the best known of several working wineries in the valley, Benmarl. The Miller family, enterprising and affable, runs this enterprise, which is just outside Marlboro. (Turn right at the bank, take the fifth left and drive to a four-way stop. Take the third driveway on the left into a long dirt road.) Call 914-236-7271 to learn if a tour and/or tasting is being offered that day.
From Benmarl, and other points along the road on either bank, there are fine vistas over the Hudson. The river was first navigated in a sailing ship by Henry Hudson in 1609. The Dutch settled Fort Orange (Albany) in 1624 and New Amsterdam (New York) in 1625. Under the Dutch and the English, the valley was a trade route. Farming and manufacturing both prospered after the Revolutionary War and during much of the 19th century it provided inspiration for Thoma Cole, George Inness and other landscape painters of the Hudson River School.
My eventual goal on the second day was a restored tavern, the DePuy (DePEW) Canal House, which stands on Rte. 123 next to a lock of the now-abandoned Delaware and Hudson Canal at High Falls. The owner, John Novi, is a young man whose fine cooking and skill at restoration brought the Canal House (914-687-7700) a four-star rating from The New York Times several years ago. It is open only Thursday through Sunday, however.
Novi and his associates have since renovated and redecorated Brodhead House, an old home across the road. There are three bedrooms, done in superb Victorian style, and a communal bath on the second floor. The nightly charge for a room is $20. Reservations may be made through the restaurant.
There isn't much else to High Falls or nearby Rosedale these days, though Novi would like to change that through the efforts of a preservation group he has founded called American Revival. He'll talk to you about it if you ask while you tour - as you should - his beautiful kitchen. If the day of the week is wrong, or Brodhead and the Canal House are full, there are alternatives in the immediate vicinity. Woodstock, scene of the famous rock festival and now a less crowded arts center, is only a few miles to the north. The extraordinary 19th century hotel-resort, Mohonk Mountain House (914-255-1000), is less than 15 minutes from High Falls. There are museums in stone houses from the 17th and early 18th centuries in Hurley, Kingston and New Paltz.
In the latter town, a university community, Dutch and German influence has given way - in food at least - to Italian. You drive through it en route west from the a remarkable Italian delicatessen, Toscani's; a sandwich shop called "My Hero," and other ethnic places including one in a home called "That Lovely Mexican Restaurant" and "The Quilted Giragge," where the ambitious menu is country French.
On the third day, I retraced my path to New Paltz, turned onto the Thruway breifly and disembarked at Interstate 84 to recross the Hudson at beacon. Connecticut lay only 35 miles ahead, and in easy reach beyond the border is Litchfield, a pre-Revolutionary town of magnificient houses. A bit of overland travel brings you into beautiful, sparsely settle countryside near Riverton. This tiny town has several attractions: The Farmington River Valley here is woodsy and peaceful, the restored Hitchcock chair factory and museum are open to visitors, and there is a lovely place to stay. It is the Old Riverton Inn, founded in 1796, which offers good food and charming rooms (203-379-8678).
As I registered during a trip last fall, I was told somewhat apologetically that the room charge had gone from $8 per night to $9. "Of course that includes breakfast." Welcome to Old England.