It happened as we drove one evening across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in New York’s Hudson Valley. As the sun slipped behind the jagged edge of the Catskill Mountains to the west, the clouds lit up, making a pink-and-golden canopy over our heads. The river sparkled beneath us. We were inside a Hudson River School painting. And, at the risk of waxing rhapsodic about the romantic landscapes created by 19th-century painters, we felt, for a moment, as if the great artists were looking down and smiling on us, their modern-day kindred spirits. After all, we were halfway between Olana, the stunning Persian-style home of Frederic Edwin Church, and Cedar Grove, Thomas Cole’s estate near the western banks of the river. We were in the heart of the countryside that inspired them and their contemporaries, leading to the first truly American school of art. Hudson Valley was to them the “center of the universe,” according to Church and the other landscape painters who lived there and celebrated its natural beauty. “All nature here is new to art,” Cole wrote in 1836.
This is a great time to visit that center, as the middle stretch of the Hudson Valley digs deeper into its long history and adds a modern twist. The region, in fact, has become a hipster mecca of sorts, kind of a Brooklyn-on-the-Hudson, with a burgeoning farm-to-table restaurant movement, vineyards, art and gay-friendly communities.
At Olana, in the town of Hudson, the grounds are newly landscaped to re-create Church’s vision for his property. He wanted visitors strolling or riding in a carriage through it to be entertained by tree-framed vistas. After rheumatoid arthritis made it difficult for Church to paint in the last 10 years of his life, the land itself became his large-scale palette.
Now visitors can imagine themselves once again guests of the Churches, arriving at points in the landscape where panoramas of lake, mountains, river and trees made living art. At 10 points along the trails on the 250-acre estate, not only can you see 19th-century photographs of the way the land looked at the time, but you can also compare them to reproductions of the art that Church created from those scenes.
Church “wanted you to feel that you are going through a three-dimensional work of art when you were going through the property,” says Melanie Hasbrook, marketing communications manager at Olana.
Add that to a visit to the Persian-style castle that Church created, with its Moorish tiles, amber windows and paintings in every room, and a visitor feels as if the man himself is just around the corner in the next room.
Just across the river in Catskill lies Cole’s home. Cedar Grove is now also the home of a new building: a reconstruction of Cole’s studio, which he designed himself and which was torn down in 1973. (In addition to being one of the most significant American painters of the 19th century, Cole was an architect who had a role in the design of the Greek Revival-style Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.)
The new building, in the 19th-century Italianate style with gingerbread woodwork, will have museum-quality fire-prevention systems, lighting and display elements, says Executive Director Elizabeth Jacks. It’s set to open May 1 with the exhibit “Thomas Cole: The Artist as Architect,” featuring his 53-by-84-inch painting “The Architect’s Dream,” “one of the most beloved Thomas Cole paintings of all time,” Jacks says. Normally on display at the Toledo Museum of Art, it has been called “one of the most famous paintings people have never seen,” she says.
Inside Cedar Grove, restorers are painstakingly uncovering bits of wall that reveal even more about the artist. Last year, workers discovered that Cole had painted borders on the walls of his home’s two front parlors, perhaps as a decorative frame to the paintings he would hang, Jacks says. “They’re quite beautiful and elaborate,” she says. The goal is to have both rooms restored by 2017.
At the house, you can pick up a brochure to go hike or drive to some of the vistas that appear in many paintings by Cole and other regional artists. The Hudson River School Art Trail includes places in Connecticut and New Hampshire’s White Mountains, as well as nearby spots. The iconic Kaaterskill Falls hike — a tough half-mile scramble through forest and over boulders — takes pilgrims to the base of a tiered waterfall over jagged slate painted by Cole and a number of other Hudson River School painters. An easier option is to drive to North Lake, site of the former Catskill Mountain House, a favorite subject for Cole and Church. From there, visitors can look east over the Hudson Valley, an image that Church also loved and painted.
About an hour south on the Hudson, we found another center of the universe: the home and presidential library of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park. Roosevelt, whose Dutch ancestors owned land all throughout this section of the Hudson Valley, grew up on this estate, says museum director Paul Sparrow. Visitors “can see how this location really shaped the person FDR became,” including his sense of the “balance of nature.”
This was the first presidential library, and FDR “really set the model for all presidential libraries that came afterwards,” Sparrow says.
It helped that FDR was a passionate collector from an early age. The library and museum include items such as the hobbyhorse belonging to a young Franklin, a family Bible, his lucky campaign fedora and a charming setup of a farmhouse kitchen where Americans would have listened to his fireside chats, with buttons allowing visitors to hear the one on ending the bank crisis and another defending the New Deal. Older visitors are transported to a time when the country was in crisis, and the rest of us get a sense — through a huge collection of photographs and artifacts — of a nation undergoing bread lines and suffering.
The FDR Presidential Library and Museum finished a $35 million renovation in 2013, with a giant visitor center and an extensive museum that not only traces FDR’s life and influence but also gives more generous attention to Eleanor Roosevelt, including her role as an advocate for civil rights. There are vivid details of her championing the cause of singer Marian Anderson.
“She was such a strong force,” Sparrow says. After FDR’s death, Eleanor’s work “cemented her reputation as this great humanitarian.” Although for many years she was “unarguably the most famous woman in the world,” she lived very modestly, he says. The FDR site is also just two miles west of Val-Kill, Eleanor’s home after the death of her husband.
Visitors can buy tickets to both the museum and the FDR home, even though the National Park Service operates the home and grounds. The hundreds of acres on the site include hiking trails that can lead visitors down to the Hudson River.
That brief rendezvous with destiny made us hungry. Luckily, the area is not only digging into its cultural and political past; it’s also digging into its culinary traditions. We continued 15 minutes south of the Roosevelt property to pay a visit to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park. The enormous campus houses a cooking school, a new beer-brewing facility and a collection of restaurants, all staffed by the school’s future chefs and restaurateurs.
Open until mid-June is the CIA’s new pop-up restaurant, Pangea, a “plant-forward” restaurant serving such items as pressed-tomato sushi rolls and chia rice pudding with whiskey marmalade. “The idea is to use products that are more sustainable, more healthful and more globally sourced,” institute spokesman Stephan Hengst says.
For those with the foresight to make a reservation for lunch or dinner, there are also a few more traditional restaurants, including the Italian Caterina de’ Medici, the classic French Bocuse Restaurant and American Bounty, featuring food from the Hudson Valley.
We opted instead for a casual lunch at the no-reservation Apple Pie Bakery, which features soups, salads, sandwiches, beef bourguignon, crab cakes, beer, wine and sumptuous pastry desserts. We tried crab cakes, a prosciutto-and-cheese sandwich and an almond croissant, washed down with glasses of robust California cabernet sauvignon.
To walk off that repast, we headed over to the town of Poughkeepsie. Walkway Over the Hudson, the world’s longest elevated pedestrian walkway, was created in 2009 from a disused 19th-century railroad bridge that spans the river for a mile and a quarter, starting over town rooftops and roads and then reaching out over a wide part of the Hudson.
On a sunny day, the 22-foot-wide walkway was filled with strollers, joggers, dog-walkers, roller skaters and curious tourists. In 2014, a 21-story glass elevator opened, which takes visitors from a park on the Poughkeepsie side of the river to the middle span of the bridge.
“It’s one of the best views of the Hudson,” Walkway marketing manager Ellen Henneberry says.
The bridge is most popular in autumn when the leaves change and around July 4, when barges in the river light fireworks for viewing at eye level by thousands standing on the walkway. On June 12, there’s also a marathon, half-marathon and 5K in which participants cross the walkway and follow verdant riverside trails. That weekend is the main weekend for celebrating Gay Pride Month in Poughkeepsie, and the city celebrates its nickname — Queen City — with a series of events that include dances, barbecues, picnics and “queen-pin” bowling.
We circled back north, ending our journey at one of the best breweries in the Hudson Valley, about an hour outside Poughkeepsie.
Situated in the town of Athens’s former opera house, Crossroads Brewing names its beers after local landmarks. Brady’s Bay Cream Ale, Brick Row Red Ale and Lighthouse Wheat all paired deliciously with a cheese plate, hamburger and empire salad. The valley might not be the center of the universe, but it had been a supremely satisfying place to spend a long day.
Bruno, a freelance writer in the District, grew up in the Hudson Valley.
More from Travel:
Mount Merino Manor
4317 State Route 23, Hudson
The former home of Frederic Edwin Church’s physician, Gustavus A. Sabine, this elegant 1870 B&B has seven guest rooms and suites on a 100-acre property a short distance from Olana. Rooms range from $195-$425.
2 N. Water St., Athens
The restored 1887 building overlooking the Hudson, also used in the movie “Ironweed,” touts a “Meryl Streep room,” where the actress’s character died. Rooms range from $199-$349.
21 Second St., Athens
Crossroads wins awards for its craft beers, but it’s also becoming known for its food, including its mac and cheese served in individual cast-iron dishes and handmade pretzels with “hopped honey mustard.” Entrees $14-$22.
333 Warren St., Hudson
The restaurant on the main drag of Warren Street in Hudson mixes traditional Italian classics with more innovative offerings. Try the Mediterranean salad with smoked salmon and roasted butternut squash ($13) or the limoncello tartela ($8) while you sit in the front of the restaurant and watch the pedestrian traffic. In warmer weather, the brick courtyard is cozy with boxwoods. Entrees $19-$29.
Culinary Institute of America
1946 Campus Dr., Hyde Park
Besides trying the restaurants, visitors can take tours guided by student chefs or pick up a specialty cookbook or nifty zester in the gift shop. There’s no tipping at any of the five restaurants, but a 17 percent surcharge is added to the bill, which funds scholarships and student activities. At the main restaurants, entree prices are $20-$36.
5720 State Route 9G, Hudson
In addition to tours of the home and grounds, visitors can sign up for nighttime walks to look at meteor showers, art workshops and even a lecture series on what the Church family ate for dinner.
Thomas Cole National Historic Site
218 Spring St., Catskill
After you visit the site, pick up a brochure and find the closest locations of the Hudson River School Art Trail (hudsonriverschool.org), including the parking lot of Italian restaurant Tatiana’s, where you can see Catskill Creek, a spot that Cole painted at least 10 times.
Take an excursion to the 1874 lighthouse, a charming brick cottage in the middle of the river where lighthouse keeper Emil Brunner once lived with his family.
Hudson Opera House
327 Warren St., Hudson
The restored opera house is a cultural center with exhibits, music, workshops and lectures year-round.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
4079 Albany Post Rd., Hyde Park
Visitors can get a joint ticket to the library-museum complex as well as to the FDR home, which is operated by the National Park Service. To tour the home, you must sign up for a group tour.
Walkway Over the Hudson
82 Washington St., Poughkeepsie
The walkway is free, though some nearby parking lots charge $5 during peak visiting season. The entrance on the east side is less than a half-mile from the Poughkeepsie Amtrak/Metro-North train station. Signboards on the walkway detail the history of the railroad bridge. Open daily 7 a.m. to sunset.