Is this the next Hamptons? We rather hope not

Old money, liberal values (well, arty ones) - that's the Hudson Valley. Sarah Barrell heads upriver to hang with the A-list
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The Independent Travel

The Hamptons, darling, they're so last summer. Those in the know don't close their beach houses, because they don't have beach houses. Nothing so St Tropez tacky graces the property portfolio of New York's second-home savants. The place to be, particularly during fall, with its oh-so-idyllic landscape of pumpkins and autumn leaves, is the Hudson Valley.

The buzz in New York about rural boltholes centres on the Hudson Valley and neighbouring Catskill Mountains. Writers from food and travel magazines are making pilgrimages upstate and the property pages are asking of towns in the valley's Dutchess County "is this the next Hamptons?" It's not. It's more like Gloucestershire: understated, rural with old-money credentials that stretch back centuries. And unlike the Hamptons, visitors don't need well-connected friends to get a bed. Six hotels opened in Dutchess County last year and there's no lack of venerable old inns. Rhinebeck, a pretty market town in central Dutchess, is home to The Beekman Arms, the "oldest inn in America".

This is where the blueprint for America's "aristocracy" was made, as the fortunes of Gold Rush families were invested in property. One of the best places to begin an autumn tour of the numerous Gilded Age homes is Mill's Mansion (aka Staatsburg State Historic Site). This Greek Revival mansion overlooking the Hudson from the hamlet of Staatsburg remains as it was when the Mills family lived there.

The country seat of Californian financier Ogden Mills, the estate was put on the society map by his wife, Ruth Livingston Mills. Ruth modelled her parties on those of the 19th-century European élite. A tour reveals 16th-century Belgian tapestries, a rifle owned by Napoleon and countless oil paintings of English loyalist ancestors. Our guidelet us in with an oversized key as if showing us round the house of absent friends - albeit friends with a genealogy that reaches across aristocratic Europe and features in most chapters of America's Who's Who.

This area of the Hudson Valley is littered with such museum-piece homes - country residences of the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. These mansions were built to be visible from the river. There, where the deep granite gorges and wooded banks of the Hudson are so dramatically picturesque as to have inspired a movement of landscape painting (the 19th-century Hudson River School), the wealthy chose to build.

At Wilderstein, the 19th-century estate of the Suckley family, just outside Rhinebeck, it's the grounds that amaze, laid out in American Romantic Landscape style, by Calvert Vaux, co-designer of Central Park. The house is a Germanic-style wooden castle on stilts with stained-glass windows designed by Joseph Burr Tiffany. Its last resident, Daisy Suckley, died a few years ago and her possessions remain, including many gifts from long-time confidant (some say lover) Franklin D Roosevelt.

America's best-loved president brought a dose of liberalism to this Republican area. Down the road from Wilderstein, in Hyde Park, parts of FDR's 600-acre estate are open to visitors. The exhibits in the Presidential Library alone - first drafts of his wartime speeches, furnishings from the Oval Office and the Ford Phaeton car he had adapted so he could drive despite his polio disability - are worth amorning.

These days upstate is the favoured retreat of a certain calibre of " celebrity". We're talking classy not brassy, and almost always arty. Rock'n'roll photographer Annie Leibovitz has a home in northern Dutchess County as does the understatedsinger, Natalie Merchant. Natasha Richardson and husband Liam Neeson live in Rhinebeck's environs, as does TV actress Mary Tyler Moore.

In Rhinebeck stands the old post office; a colonial-style building built in the 1930s with local fieldstone, painted by local artists, one of the legacies of FDR's Works Progress Administration, a New Deal programme to help unemployed creative types. Today, a disproportionate amount of upstate arts and artists spring from this area. Upstate Films, the town's art house cinema, is a showcase for the region's independent film festivals, often graced with pre-show talks from locals Joel Cohen and John Sayles. Nearby Bard College, Annandale, has opened a vast theatre designed by Frank Gehry.

But perhaps nowhere has the arts been more integral to development than in Beacon. The Dia:Beacon gallery, in a disused biscuit factory, opened in 2003, bringing this depressed industrial town back to life. Besides the gallery itself, full of pieces by Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, and Donald Judd, the town has several contemporary art galleries, craft and sculpture studios and retro furniture stores.

Along with the arts, food draws Manhattan's great and good upstate. The Hudson Valley has been dubbed "the Napa of the east" complete with medal-winning wines and artisan cheeses. Even livestock seem to dine well. A flick through The Country and Abroad, a local free glossy magazine, reveals an advert for "gourmet hay and premium straw". But for humans, the best place to feedis the Culinary Institute of America (known as the CIA).

A world leader in culinary education (alumni include Anthony Bourdain, Todd English and Alfred Portale), the CIA has five on-site restaurants. After a tour of thenumerous kitchens, it was off to lunch in the Italian Ristorante Caterina de' Medici. Students cooked and served mozzarella and prosciutto, with herbs grown in the gardens, followed by handmade Orecchiette pasta with Italian sausage and local broccoli rabe. And as always in the Hudson Valley these rustic pleasures were oh-so-perfectly refined.

Give me the facts

How to get there

The writer travelled as a guest of Dutchess County Tourism (001 845 463 4000; www.dutchesstourism.com) and Carrentals (0845 225 0845; www.carrentals.co.uk), which offers car hire from £36 per day.

British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), offers return flights from London to New York from £310. Amtrak ( www.amtrak.com) operates services from New York's Penn station to several locations in the Hudson Valley.

Where to stay

Doubles at The Beekman Arms (001 845 876 7077; www.beekmandelamaterinn.com) in Rhinebeck start at $157 (£82) with breakfast.

What to do

Staatsburgh State Historic Site (001 845 889 8851; www.staatsburgh.org). Open 10am to 5pm, Tuesday to Saturday, Sundays noon-5pm until end of October. Entrance and tour costs $5 (£2.60) per adult.

Wilderstein (001 845 876 4818; www.wilderstein.org).

Franklin D Roosevelt National Historic Site (001 845 229 9115; www.nps.gov/hofr). Open Monday to Sunday 9am to 5pm. Various entrance costs apply for the different estate buildings.

Dia: Beacon (001 845 440 0100; www.diabeacon.org) is open from Thursday to Monday, 11am to 4pm, mid October-mid April. Entrance $10 (£5.30).

The Culinary Institute of America (001 845 452 9600; www.ciachef.edu) offers tours and dining along with various non-residential cookery courses.

Further information

Hudson Valley Tourism (001 914 631 8200; www.travelhudsonvalley.org). New York State Division of Tourism (0207-629 6891; www.iloveny.state.ny.us).

While you're in the area...

The Catskills

David Bowie, Moby and Bob Dylan have followed in the footsteps of the Woodstock musical masses and chosen the Catskill Mountains, on the west bank of the Hudson, for their rural retreats. The latest musician to make a bolt for the hills is Kate Pierson of the B-52s. Pierson's new Lazy Meadow Motel (001 845 688 7200; www. lazymeadow.com), like her band, is dressed 1950s-style with retro furnishings and colours. Designs are by Phillip Maberry and Scott Walker, the team who built the set for the B-52s' "Love Shack" video. Doubles from $150 (£79) per night with a minimum stay of two nights at weekends.

On the southern edge of the Catskills, Storm King (001 845 534 3115; www.stormking.org) is a 500-acre sculpture park with vast, abstract, welded steel pieces by artists including Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Mark di Suvero. 11am-5.30pm, Wednesday to Sunday, until 13 November 2005, $10 (£5.30).

Formerly housed in the Storm King theatre, Painters (001 845 534 2109; www.painters-restaurant.com) has moved a short walk away to the little town of Cornwall on Hudson. With chefs from the CIA, walls papered with local art and seven bright and artily decorated rooms above the restaurant, this a great base for exploring. Doubles from $80 (£42).

Centres of food excellence

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (001 914 366 6200; www.stonebarnscenter.org) just outside New York City in Westchester County, grows all the food used in the on-site Blue Hill restaurant. Take a free tour and then dine on the produce. Tours are available from 10am to 5pm Wednesday to Sunday.

There are several upstate farms where you can muck in with the gourmet food-making process. Sprout Creek Farm (001 845 48uj5 8438; www.sproutcreekfarm.org) in Poughkeepsie offers lessons in cheese-making. Just north of Rhinebeck, near the town of Red Hook, Greig Farm Market (001 845758-1234; www.greigfarm.com) is a pick-your-own outfit with a different harvest every month, May to December.

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