Washington Irving wrote the famous short story" The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" almost 200 years ago, telling the fearsome tale of the gangly and superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane being menaced by a mighty headless horseman on a lonely night ride. Ever since, it has captured the imaginations of millions.
Readers of Irving’s evocative prose will be pleased to learn that the lush landscape of the Hudson Valley Irving once described still exists. Heading north across the Tappan Zee Bridge (I-287) over the Hudson River, the spectacular views are what Dutch explorers gazed upon almost 400 years ago.
Journeying along the majestic Hudson River is like time traveling through America's history. You follow the trails of Native Americans, sailing ships, and George Washington's Continental Army. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point dominates the western banks, while the eastern shore boasts the opulent Vanderbilt Mansion and many of the grandest estates of the Gilded Age.
Flanked by the Catskill Mountains, the valley’s rolling countryside drew artists to its beauty and inspired America’s first great art movement, the Hudson River School of Art, in the early years of the 19th century. Sharp mountain peaks, deep valleys, spreading woodlands and a patchwork of farms divide the artsy and gentrified communities. Just 90 miles north of Manhattan, the region is celebrated for its plentiful mom-and-pop organic farm stands, “u-pick” apple, berry and wildflower fields.
Dubbed the "Jewel of the Hudson," Rhinebeck is a four corner town with just one stoplight. Founded in 1686, the influence of earlier times is present in the Victorian, Greek Revival, colonial, and other architectural treasures scattered throughout the village. Some two dozen, including the early Dutch-style post office, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
During the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, politicians, artists, businessmen and socialites built fabulous estates up and down the Hudson's banks, each adding their own unique contributions to the area's collective history.
The Vanderbilt and Mills families were at the center of New York society life. Frederick Vanderbilt’s neoclassic style mansion (completed in 1899) is furnished with fabulous foreign artifacts mixed with period reproductions. From the columned porch at the rear of the mansion, visitors take in one of the most stunning river views in the valley. Centuries old trees grace the grounds, and formal gardens on the property have been lovingly restored to their former splendor.
The Staatsburg estate, the 65-room autumn residence of the Ogden Mills family, showcases Beaux Arts styling adorned with elaborate French and English furnishings. Its paintings and artwork reflect the family's deep pride in its heritage.
Springwood in Hyde Park is the home of America's 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was born and lived much of his life here. Built in Georgian Colonial style in the early 1800's, several renovations to the mansion have brought it to its current state. The burial site of Franklin (1945) and Eleanor Roosevelt (1962) is graced with a simple monument in a lovely rose garden. Also on the grounds is the reinvigorated F.D.R. Library and Museum, a stronghold for many historic documents and belongings of the President and First Lady.
Hungry? It’s lunch time. Five minutes south of Springwood we pulled into the world-renowned Culinary Institute of America. CIA students cap their education with real-world experience in the college’s five food operations prepared to the highest standards. Its American Bounty Restaurant offers contemporary and traditional dishes brought to life in an honest and flavorful way. It is bright and attractive, a perfect spot to take a breather in the middle of a day of touring. Best bet: ask your waiter (a student) for recommendations. Trust them. Who knows, they could be the next Mario Batali or David Chang.
Back in Rhinebeck we dined at Terrapin, a restaurant housed in a reclaimed Baptist church built in 1825. Shingle-clad parapets cut a striking silhouette against the evening sky. Enormous arched windows grace the space lit by a constellation of sleek modern lanterns. It offers a warm and inviting feeling. We settled on the seared red snapper over cashew-tomato sauce and the house specialty, the maple brined double-thick pork chop with calvados-apple demi-glace. Representing the Hudson Valley wine region in all of its colors, the wine list offers a tasting tray of five different varieties sourced from the surrounding villages.
A warm sense of community permeates Rhinebeck, from the shopkeepers' friendly greetings to the groups of locals who gather every morning for coffee and the latest news. Enjoy a stroll around the quaint town stopping in antique shops, art galleries, eateries, even a classic movie theater.
We chose The Rhinecliff Inn as our home base. Set at the base of a steep hill with gorgeous river views, it was designed by the architect George Veitch in 1854 as a hotel that served travelers riding the Kingston ferry and the new Hudson River Railroad through Dutchess County. The Queen Anne-style building was given a sparkling restoration by the Brit brothers James and David Chapman, who salvaged many original materials including the bar, wooden beams, a historic ice cooler and the hand-crafted oak pocket doors.
Rent a mountain bike from Rhinebeck Bicycle Shop and ride eight miles north on the heavily wooded River Road. Follow the trail onto the leafy campus of Bard College and check out the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, a sculptural building of undulating silver canopies designed by Frank Gehry, one of America’s premier contemporary architects. The 800-seat main recital hall is home to the Bard Music Festival.
Our final evening was spent at the Rhinecliff Inn at their seasonal gastro pub bar. A fireplace warms one end of the clubby room during winter. We relaxed on the rambling riverside bluestone patio and dined on grilled hangar steaks with seared potatoes and pickled mustard seeds and seared salmon with charred leek vinaigrette and grilled radicchio with preserved lemon. We topped it off with their award winning sticky toffee pudding. A nice touch is the note of thanks on the menu listing local food purveyors.
Each of the inn's nine trendy, natural rooms sports burnished wide plank floors, travertine baths, glass showers and French doors opening onto a balcony where we gazed out upon a few boats at sunset, their sails set wide, slicing across the magnificent Hudson.