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Discover what drew artists, writers and presidents to New York’s Hudson Valley

Spectacular foliage awaits fall visitors to New York’s Catskill Mountains. (iStock)
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Where: Hudson Valley

Why to go: The region is rich in timeless scenery and American history, and as more downstate New Yorkers have moved to the area, all kinds of places to go and things to do have opened up or expanded: new restaurants, well-marked hiking trails, river cruises, art galleries and museums that celebrate the Hudson River School painters. Craft beer breweries have been popping up like mad. A recent article in Hudson Valley Magazine listed 34 — new or more established, in the mountains or along the river. The region also has vineyards, some of which seem to tout their views of the mountains as much as their wines.

When to go: In summer, the Hudson Valley provides an escape from the heat. While a northern spring takes slightly longer to arrive, it’s also a pretty time of year, with apple blossoms and the Albany Tulip Festival celebrating the area’s Dutch heritage. Then again, one of the most spectacular times of year is the fall, when the Catskill Mountains’ maple trees hit their stride. (Check out the fall foliage reports at iloveny.com.) And winter has decent East Coast skiing in the towns of Hunter and Windham.

Logistics: The Hudson Valley meanders due north from New York City, and the options for getting there are both easy and scenic. Hitting the New York State Thruway just past the New Jersey line, drivers from the south will get their first glimpse of the mountains. Coming east from the Massachusetts Turnpike, they can reach the Hudson Valley by way of the Berkshire Connector through West Stockbridge. Another option is to arrive by train from the south: Amtrak’s Empire Service, Maple Leaf and Ethan Allen Express trains all trace the river’s edge. Yet another option is to fly into Albany International Airport, a small and friendly hub, and rent a car.

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Prevailing myths: It’s not all Ichabod Crane and Sleepy Hollow, although, yes, Washington Irving’s stories still resonate, from Tarrytown north to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, between mountains and river, Catskills and Hudson. The upper Hudson Valley was once a bit of a backwater, or as one urbanite put it: “Sleepy in the summer, dismal in the winter.” Today, the area is vibrant and packed with the traditional (county fairs, farm stands, antique shops) and the new (theater companies, coffee shops, outdoor sculpture parks).

Itinerary for first-timers: Pay your respects to Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. FDR was a New York history buff, and his library’s collection on state history has few rivals. And don’t forget about his wife, Eleanor. The Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site is situated at her Val-Kill Cottage, about three miles away. A few miles south, check out Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, a repurposed railroad bridge that’s a pedestrian favorite. And now that you’ve worked up an appetite, try a meal at one of the Culinary Institute of America’s student-run restaurants. (As of press time, American Bounty and the Bocuse Restaurant were open, along with the no-reservation Apple Pie Bakery Café.) Begin a new day with a trip about 35 miles north, to Olana, the Persian-style mountaintop home of painter Frederic Church, then cross the Hudson River Skywalk to visit the home of Church’s mentor, Thomas Cole, which includes Cole’s house and two studios.

Itineraries for repeat visitors: Explore the smaller towns and hamlets on both sides of the river. Fans of the Band and Bob Dylan might want to stay at Big Pink, the legendary house (now a Vrbo property) in West Saugerties where “The Basement Tapes” was recorded. Then head over to Woodstock, where the Band’s Levon Helm is buried in Woodstock Cemetery. The 1835 Saugerties Lighthouse, which was a very popular bed-and-breakfast (but is currently open for existing reservations only), is worth an outdoor visit, by way of a half-mile boardwalk and sandy flats trail. The brave can rent a kayak and try navigating the currents and tides of the Hudson, which Native Americans called “the river that runs two ways.”

Eat this: The upper Hudson Valley was home to many Italian immigrants who passed through Ellis Island and headed upriver to work in the brick factories and icehouses. That history makes for a tradition of pizza and other Italian food that’s as good as you’d find in Brooklyn, such as the lunchtime pizza at the Athens Rooster in Athens, N.Y. Add to the region’s interesting food options farm-to-table spots such as Wm. Farmer & Sons (yes, run by the Farmer family), specializing in country ham, lamb and the ubiquitous duck dishes, and Swoon Kitchenbar, with its local cheeses, fun cocktails and, of course, duck. Finish up at Jane’s Ice Cream, out of Kingston.

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Special events: Legoland in Goshen, toward the southern end of the Hudson Valley, just opened this summer. Like so many theme parks, it’s pricey and crowded, but if you want to see miniature cities made out of Legos or ride a dragon roller coaster that looks like an assemblage of giant Lego pieces, this is your place. Summer and early fall is the season of county fairs, and music festivals include bluegrass and classical symphony. The Rip Van Winkle Wine, Brew and Beverage Festival in Catskill is scheduled for late August. Boat tours to the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse operate (currently on a limited basis) from August through October, and there’s plenty of strawberry picking in the summer and apple picking in the fall.

Reading list: “World’s End,” historical fiction by T.C. Boyle, traces several Hudson Valley families from the 1600s to the 1970s and helps to explain why the area, to this day, feels a little haunted. Washington Irving’s “The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent” includes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” It’s true that Irving was nowhere near the Hudson Valley when he created his famous Dutch tales, but that doesn’t get in the way of a good story. “Kaaterskill Falls” by Allegra Goodman imagines ultra-Orthodox families summering in the Catskills. “A Mercy” by Toni Morrison tells a haunting story of early slavery in New York state.

Playlist: Start way back with “A Canadian Boat Song,” performed by Jim Krause. Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole notes in his diary that he sang the song while paddling on North Lake, in what is now the Catskill Forest Preserve, in the late 1820s. There’s also “My Dirty Stream (the Hudson River Song)” by Pete Seeger. And although the Band was originally based in Canada, much of its music from about 1966 was written in West Saugerties, including “The Weight.” Update the list somewhat with “Give Me Color” by Ian Flanigan, a finalist on “The Voice” and a native of Saugerties.

Souvenirs: Apple products, including apple butter, applesauce, dried apple potpourri and, well, apples; maple syrup; chocolate chip cookies or crumb coffee cake from Albany-based Freihofer’s; and furniture inspired by the Shaker communities that lived in the Hudson Valley.

Fun quote: Jack Kerouac wrote in “On the Road”: “If you drop a rose in the Hudson River at its mysterious source in the Adirondacks, think of all the places it journeys as it goes out to sea forever — think of that wonderful Hudson Valley.”

Bruno is a writer based in D.C.

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