The shopping, the shows, the perfectly manicured parks, the coffee shops and restaurants that stay open thrillingly late are what defines New York.
That said, it’s not called the city that never sleeps for anything, and sometimes all that hubbub – from the taxis that view pedestrians as a minor inconvenience to the neon onslaught of Times Square – can be overwhelming.
So for a little calm, we went upstate to the Hudson Valley, which stretches from Manhattan’s West Side to the state capital at Albany and beyond.
Crossing the George Washington Bridge (the view from here is amazing) we veered briefly into New Jersey, heading north, past the suburbs of Westchester, the West Point military academy, and scattered locales with names recalling early Dutch settlers.
One of the earliest areas to be settled by Europeans in the 17th century, the Hudson Valley stood at the forefront of American trade and the advance westward. Today it’s known as an area of genuine natural splendor; dense forest with looming mountains and clear water below.
Just an hour from Manhattan by car or train (the Metro-North from Grand Central station follows this route) was the tiny riverside town of Cold Spring, immortalized by 19th Century landscape painters from the Hudson River School, and as picture-perfect a pastoral scene as those canvases make out. The town is all clapboard houses and coffee shops and antique stores in which to while away the time. Hardly a hub of activity, but an ideal spot to take in the gorgeous landscape, which includes the Catskill Mountains – of Dirty Dancing fame – across the water.
This part of the Hudson is ideal for cyclists, hikers, watersports lovers, and wildlife-spotters, especially at Bear Mountain State Park. We headed further upstate, towards Hyde Park, a place, it transpired, on a par with its namesake in London.
Back in the day, the Hudson was lined with grand estates home to the East Coast upper-classes. Among them were the Roosevelts, and Hyde Park – a grand colonial house set in seemingly infinite greenery – was the lifelong home of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Given its resemblance to the actual White House, it’s easy to see how FDR’s political ambitions fermented there.
Hyde Park as a child brought his indomitable wife Eleanor there and allegedly entertained his mistress in the same residence, later using it as a refuge from Washington DC.
Aside from the stunning views, it’s a fascinating glimpse into how the early American upper classes took on European ways yet simultaneously differentiated themselves from European society, and also into the psyche of one of America’s most formidable leaders. You see, for example, the lift he had built so he could maintain the pretense that he was able to walk, despite having been unable to do so since being stricken with polio.
A few miles south is the Vanderbilt Mansion, a Beaux-Arts era relic in a whopping 211 acres, with the walls still whispering of the luxury of the Gilded Age; “the time before income taxes came in,” our guide explained wistfully, indoor bathrooms and electricity – it is so well preserved that you can imagine being a guest at one of the intimate gatherings put on by the railroad tycoon Frederick Vanderbilt and his wife Louise.
They say that if they were alive today, the couple would be richer than Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined. They were American royalty – their antics transfixing the country. The Mansion is a stone’s throw from the Culinary Institute of America, the Cordon Bleu of the US, and with several restaurants open to visitors.
From there we went east, crossing the Massachusetts state line into the Berkshires, in search of America immortalized by American painter Norman Rockwell.