In 1609, Dutch explorer Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name, looking for passage to the Orient’s riches. He didn’t find it, but he did uncover what turned out to be one of the most scenic waterways in the world.
Although not very long at 314 miles, the Hudson River is one of the nation’s most commercially important and most historic—the Hudson Valley has been home to literary figures such as Washington Irving (his “Rip Van Winkle,” and “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” were set here) and was the site of ninety-two Revolutionary War battles between New York City and Saratoga. Known to Native Americans as the “two-way river” because salty ocean tides are felt as far north as Albany, the Hudson and its towns were among the country’s first tourist destinations. Take a drive on back roads past manicured horse farms, dairy farms, and pick-your-own orchards, then stop for lunch and antiquing in 18th- and 19th-century riverside towns such as Nyack, Cold Spring, Kingston, and Hudson, the latter with its 1869 lighthouse-cum-bed-and-breakfast.
Industry has obscured some of the natural beauty that inspired Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and other landscape painters of the 19th-century Hudson River School—the first truly American art movement—but much along the waterline remains surprisingly unsullied. Church would find the vast views from Olana, his 1872 hilltop Moorish mansion, little changed. Arrive in time for sunset to see why Church claimed that this was “the center of the world.” This open, rolling, farm country landscape is also home to one of America’s oldest inns, Rhinebeck’s Beekman Arms, first opened in 1776. Book in advance at its award-winning restaurant, the country outpost of New York City chef Larry Forgione, an alum of nearby Hyde Park’s prestigious Culinary Institute of America. Widely known in international food circles as “the other CIA,” it was founded in 1946 and remains the nation’s first and foremost, housed in a former seminary with four student-staffed restaurants open to the public.
Hyde Park is also home to Springwood, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 290-acre lifelong home, whose river views inspired the man who would serve four terms as president of the United States. The FDR Presidential Library and Museum is also on the site, and a fifty-four-room Vanderbilt mansion lies nearby.
The valley has drawn artists and art lovers over time. Just north of West Point (the nation’s oldest military academy and certainly its most beautifully sited), the hillside Storm King Art Center, one of the country’s leading outdoor sculpture parks, invites picnicking among its 500 acres of landscaped grounds. More than 120 internationally recognized artists are represented from the post-1945 period, with works that are often monumental in size.
Across the river in the east bank town of Beacon (home of folksinger Pete Seeger), the valley’s newest arts addition is Dia:Beacon, a branch of the New York City-based foundation that opened in May 2003. Occupying a dignified 1929 building that was formerly an industrial printing facility, it exhibits major (and often oversized) works from the 1960s to the present, including pieces by Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, and Cy Twombly.