Just a couple of hours from New York City in the Hudson Valley, all manner of creative types are relocating to small towns like Tivoli and Catskill in search of an alternative to big-city life—and reinvigorating their adopted homes along the way.
Coasting along the Taconic State Parkway, a 170-kilometer stretch of highway running north from New York City, it’s easy to see what inspired early American landscape painters like Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. Each break between the rolling hills and granite peaks reveals a beguilingly bucolic scene: the cerulean-blue waters of a rambling creek; a tilting clapboard grain silo; the delicate, pink-slippered petals of a copse of magnolia trees.
Extending from Westchester County to the limits of Albany along the banks of its eponymous river, the Hudson Valley has seen its fortunes rise and fall under many banners since the English explorer Henry Hudson arrived on the scene in 1609. During the American Revolution it became a whaling hub, at a time when the British were terrorizing the New England coast. After the decline of whaling in the mid 19th century, cotton mills arrived, followed by brickworks and cement plants and the summer retreats built by New York City’s elite. More recently, the valley has been welcoming a wave of creative and entrepreneurial-minded city-dwellers in search of an alternative to urban life—and who are reinvigorating local communities with art studios, sophisticated farm-to-table restaurants, and stylish places to stay.
Urging my not-so-sophisticated rental car up one more crest of the Taconic, I land at the former estate of the region’s most cherished artistic luminary, Frederic Edwin Church. Now a state historical site, the 100-hectare grounds are capped by Church’s wildly eclectic residence, Olana, built in a mix of Persian, Moorish, and Victorian styles with idyllic views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. Walking through each dimly lit room, I spot one treasure after another: embroidered costumes from Beirut and Damascus; short-bristled paint brushes in a green-glazed jug; and, of course, numerous canvases by Church himself—luminous, large-scale landscapes depicting American pastoral settings as well as subjects from his travels through Persia and South America.
The Hudson Valley has always been a magnet for artists, and I’m due to meet some of its current crop at a lunch arranged by friends of mine, Shannon Greer and Charlotta Janssen, at their dapper new guesthouse in Catskill. I know the photographer/artist duo from Brooklyn, though they now split their time between here and the city. After converting a 19th-century hat shop into a four-suite inn in the nearby river town of Hudson, the couple’s latest project is The Catskill Milliner, a classic Victorian house that now features a brilliant mix of the modern and vintage—plush memory-foam mattresses nested in antique bed frames; a working 1918 Davenport-Treacy player piano—surrounded by their own art.
“We were blown away by the house’s original bones,” Janssen says between riffs of Ella Fitzgerald’s Summertime on the piano. “It was a bit of a wreck at first, but still so beautiful. Older homes have these curves that newer ones don’t.”
It’ll be my home for the night. But first, our eclectic group of local artists arrive: Jackie Thomas, a lighting designer and owner of the Tiny Loft Studio bed and breakfast in Hudson; Ella Loudon, an actress and performer; Kris Perry, who creates kinetic sculptures out of metal; Laleh Khorramian, a mixed and multi-media artist; and painter and installation artist Tom Taylor.
They’re all friends of Greer and Janssen’s, and what is evident from the get-go is the sense of community among them. “It’s really great here, trustworthy,” says Taylor, a Floridian who moved to New York more than a decade ago. “It’s easy to get a sense of somebody and invite them in to explore a collaboration or a friendship.”
“I left Oakland and was looking for work space around New York,” adds Perry. “Brooklyn didn’t offer anything that was attractive, then somebody said to check out this empty factory next to the train station in Hudson.” A corner of that factory is now his studio, where he assembles large-scale sculptures out of salvaged industrial equipment. Many of his creations are installed around town. “I’m really interested in creating public work, in taking art out of the galleries and making it accessible to everybody. Kinetic sculptures encourage people to sit and observe rather than just pass by.”
There’s no definitive answer to what brought these artists here; they each have a different story to tell. But what is clear over the course of our long lunch, as we bounce between eating and singing choruses at the Davenport-Treacy, is their deep love of the region and all its peculiarities and small-town character.
I’m plucked from a melody by the buzz of an incoming text message. My fiancé Laura’s train has arrived from Penn Station. Our own love affair with the Hudson Valley began years ago on a similar trip. We’ve since happily donned the cap of “weekenders,” as locals call the hordes of end-of-week urbanites from New York City.
I say my goodbyes and sweep through the double doors for the 10-minute drive to Hudson. Scooping up Laura at the train station, we head across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and climb west up winding mountain roads for Scribner’s Catskill Lodge. Once an ailing 1960s inn, the hotel reopened in 2016 following a major makeover by Brooklyn-based design agency Studio Tack. Its chalet-chic interiors have brought a whole new level of all-season style to the ski town of Hunter (the lifts, quiet now, are just across the street).
Another draw is Scribner’s signature restaurant, Prospect. Here, Philippine-born chef Joseph Buenconsejo, who cut his teeth at Nobu and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s V Steakhouse in Manhattan, presents a “playful twist on mountain cuisine” that makes the most of foraged ingredients and locally sourced produce. There’s a tender poached chicken basted in a creamy mushroom sauce, and salmon served with buttermilk, horseradish, and smoked trout roe. Yet the dish that impresses me most is a precisely arranged bowl of green and white asparagus. On top, caps of yellowfoot chanterelles, trout lily, and bunches of reindeer moss; below, an infusion of smoked cream and pine oil. Having eaten a fair number of pine needles as a boy growing up in rural New Hampshire, I’m surprised by how refreshing it tastes—not bitter at all, but rather fragrant and floral. It’s obvious Buenconsejo is onto something here: mountain-to-table cuisine?
Mornings begin at a different pace in upstate New York. They’re for strolling, not the mad dash across subway platforms we’re used to. Still, it’s hard to break city habits, and even our meander along Warren Street in Hudson has a purpose.
The early-spring sunshine is perfect for a picnic, especially one complete with flowers and fromage. So our first stop is Flowerkraut, where floral designer Mairead Travins prepares a bouquet of purple chamelaucium and yellow ranunculus. Then we walk down the street to Talbott & Arding Cheese and Provisions, partners Mona Talbott and Kate Arding’s ode to dairy and viands.
“We have everything you need for a really luxurious picnic,” Talbott assures me as I grab some charcuterie. As for its cheeses, the place is a turophile’s dream. Arding recommends some of her seasonal favorites: Barkeater Buche, a soft-ripened, ashed goat’s-milk cheese from Asgard Farm in the Adirondacks; and “a lovely Camembert-style bloomy rind” from Hudson’s own Churchtown Dairy. In the basket they go, along with a loaf of focaccia and ginger cake slathered with lemon icing. We’re set for the road.
A languid 45-minute drive through lush farmlands brings us to Troutbeck. Situated near the New York–Connecticut border in the town of Amenia, the 250-year-old estate has worn many hats over its storied history. Country inn and tavern. Haunt of literary giants Mark Twain, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as the naturalist John Burroughs. Host to two critical meetings of the NAACP. I imagine Burroughs penned the phrase, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order,” while ensconced here. The stone-banked streams and flowering dogwoods of the front lawn are sublime, and provide an ideal setting for our picnic.
Troutbeck’s 37 individually styled guest rooms are the work of renowned hospitality designer Alexandra Champalimaud, who bought the estate in 2016 together with her son and daughter-in-law. The best are in the original stone and shingled manor house, where minimalist furnishings and understated decor allow the historical character of the architecture to shine through.
Settling into our suite is as easy as donning a favorite cap. Or one of the plush Frette robes in our closet. I’ve never been one to enrobe, but sipping an espresso and flipping through the room’s copy of J.E. Spingarn’s The Large Flowered Clematis Hybrids as the fading light floods our attached sleeping porch, I found it impossible to resist. The next 24 hours pass in a blur of strolls through the forested grounds and slumbering in our four-poster bed.
We set off for Rhinebeck later the next day to meet another couple involved in the Hudson Valley revival: Howard and Chris Jacobs, the husband-and-wife proprietors of the hottest new restaurant in town, The Amsterdam.
“We were up for our anniversary 10 years ago and heard that Rhinebeck was a charming little town,” Howard says. “We were really impressed with the community’s soul and the friendliness, and with being around all the agriculture. It was definitely the place for our hospitality dream.”
The Jacobses are the quintessential urbanite-turned-upstater story: boy and girl visit Hudson Valley on weekends; boy and girl fall in love with the region; boy and girl quit lucrative city jobs to transform a late-18th-century Dutch townhouse into a homey and stylishly decorated restaurant to rave reviews. Okay, so it’s not everyone’s story. But sitting in The Amsterdam’s high-ceilinged dining room between bites of pink-hued Arctic char and scoops of arborio risotto with fresh arugula pesto, I sure wish it was.
Lunch leaves us swooning, so it’s a relief that our roost for the night is an easy 15-minute drive north in the pleasant village of Tivoli. It’s the epitome of the small upstate town, perfectly laid out by developer John Watts de Peyster in the late 1800s and lined with wood-trimmed Victorian houses. Just up the road from artsy Bard College, you’d think to call Tivoli a university town, but that’s not quite right. There’s so much more happening here.
No small part of that is thanks to the art-bedecked Hotel Tivoli, which rises from the village’s only four-way intersection. It’s a labor of love by painters and art world royalty Helen and Brice Marden. Brice has been hailed by The New Yorker as “the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades” and was the subject of a MoMA retrospective in 2006.
The Mardens have owned an estate outside Tivoli since 2002 and regularly frequented the restaurant at the village’s Madalin Hotel. When that shuttered six years ago, the couple decided to take over the century-old building. “I couldn’t bear driving by and seeing this dark corner,” Helen says of the former Madalin. “Brice and I looked at it for maybe a year, a year and a half. I was in India when he finally called and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It just seemed like we needed it for the community.”
Opened in 2014 after a playful renovation, the rechristened Hotel Tivoli is now filled with art and pops of color. A Rauschenberg signed “Happy birthday Brice, love Bob” hangs around the corner from a photograph by Senegalese portrait artist Omar Victor Diop. Upstairs, a Roberto Clemente likeness of Helen Marden is displayed opposite one of her own—an ensemble of pale dried pigments and resin on linen. And the 11 guest rooms are as comfortable as they are visually arresting, accented with colors of every hue: here a lemon yellow blanket, there a pastel-pink bed frame. When I ask Helen how she describes the style of the hotel, she simply says, “Ours.”
Downstairs, the restaurant where the Mardens used to hang out is now The Corner, serving Mediterranean-inspired food by yet another city chef gone country, Devon Gilroy, formerly of Manhattan favorites Chanterelle and A Voce. I swear, the chicken tagine here is better than any I’ve eaten in Morocco. Laura’s agreement is apparent from the way she’s rolling forkfuls of fresh mafaldine pasta with black morels into her mouth. For dessert, we split a strawberry-rhubarb tart with lemon gelato and candied ginger; the taste lingers in my dreams that night.
“We like to think of ourselves as the lobby of Tivoli,” says Jake Stortini, one half of the couple (both Bard alumni) behind the Brooklyn-hip breakfast and lunch café Murray’s Tivoli. Given all the students plugging away on laptops while sipping espresso tonics and chicory maple lattes, it’s also a fixture of the Bard scene.
In 2015, Stortini and his partner Jesse Feldmus meticulously renovated Tivoli’s long-vacant Methodist church after the café outgrew its original premises in a tiny storefront across the street. “The timing worked out, where we had the opportunity to awaken this building that had been sleeping for so long,” says Feldmus.
Above the ground-floor café, the church proper is preserved as a luminous events space called The Sanctuary, complete with dark wooden roof beams and stained-glass windows. Back downstairs, Laura and I join the Sunday brunch crowd, sampling chef Jess Turtch’s perfectly cooked eggs and a Savory Oat Bowl supplemented by oyster mushrooms, cheese, and sesame oil. After one bite, it becomes clear why the place is so popular.
Later, before joining the rush of homeward-bound weekenders, we stop in Stone Ridge for one last meal. Our destination is Butterfield restaurant at Hasbrouck House, a mid-18th century Dutch-colonial country estate that operated as the Inn at Stone Ridge until its renovation and reopening under new ownership in 2016.
I settle in at the bar as Laura browses volumes in the adjoining library. We’re on the early side, but the place is already thronging with patrons. No wonder, I think, when we finally sample chef Aaron Abramson’s terroir-driven cuisine—dishes like rutabaga carbonara and venison with rhubarb foie gras jus. The desserts, by pastry chef Tiffany Verney, are a draw in themselves. Who knew you could reconstruct beets in so many ways? Beet chips, beet meringue, beet sorbet, and beet puree all play wonderfully together around accents of honey and goat cheese. The challenge, says Verney, is making something delicious while abiding by the restaurant’s mission to use only local, seasonal ingredients.
“I worked in the city where we were getting passion fruits and pears from Patagonia. Here, over winter, we have beets. So you make it work.”
It’s definitely working, as are the creative efforts of the diverse group of chefs, artists, hoteliers, and designers flocking to the region. And like them, Laura and I find ourselves unable to resist its charms. So we’ll tie the knot under the stained-glass windows of The Sanctuary at Murray’s, host our rehearsal dinner at The Amsterdam, and spend the first nights of wedded bliss at Hotel Tivoli. And if we’re lucky, one day we might join the ever-growing migration of city folk and craft our very own Hudson Valley story.
Butterfield at Hasbrouck House
3805 Main St., Stone Ridge; 1-845/687-0887.
722 Warren St., Hudson; 1-518/821-6716.
53 Broadway, Tivoli; 1-845/757-2100; doubles from US$229.
73 Broadway, Tivoli; 1-845/757-6003.
Scribner’s Lodge, 13 Scribner Hollow, Hudson; 1-518/628-5150.
Talbott & Arding Cheese and Provisions
323 Warren St., Hudson; 1-518/828-3558.
6380 Mill St., Rhinebeck; 1-845/516-5033.
The Catskill Milliner
78 Spring St., Catskill; 1-917/930-4302; exlusive rental US$800.
Leedsville Rd., Amenia; 1-845/789-1555; doubles from US$260.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“At Home At The Hudson”).