Are you looking for a culturally vibrant, historic, picturesque and elegant getaway at all price points? The Hudson Valley and Capital regions of New York offer views of the Adirondack Mountains, important historical sites from the Colonial through 20th centuries, excellent colleges, fine dining, spas, horseracing, shopping, art, and unusual examples of Dutch architecture.
The Hudson Valley and Albany are different areas, short drives from each other but each with its own vibe. Many people know of Saratoga’s racing heritage from Carly Simon’s song, You’re So Vain, but there’s so much more to the area than that.
What to do
Poughkeepsie’s Waryas Park is steps away from the train station, as are cafés, pubs, and the Empress Cruise Line, a warmer weather dinner and tour boat. The park is also near Walkway Over the Hudson, a state park created from an abandoned railroad bridge. It is wheelchair accessible. People of all ages enjoy the mountain and valley views, watching fireworks over the Hudson River and reading plaques about the history of the area, including folk singer Pete Seeger’s initiative to clean up the river.
The Vassar College campus, also in Poughkeepsie, offers fine examples of the imposing Gothic style of architecture.
Hyde Park was home to some of the most influential Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All within a short walk or drive of each other, you can visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, F.D.R.’s home and grave, the Eleanor Roosevelt historic site and the Vanderbilt Mansion, where you can make arrangements for a role-playing tour as one of the servants.
The best place to start a visit to Albany, the state’s capital, is at the visitor’s center located on historic Clinton Avenue. See an orientation film about the area and shop for local artisan products in the gift shop. Take a free tour of the state capitol: The grand scale and artistry are a testament to the might and the global influence of the Empire State.
The New York State Museum has exhibits on subjects ranging from 9/11 to Sesame Street. It opens onto a courtyard lined with modern art, and featuring ice skating and The Egg. The Egg is the museum’s giant, egg-shaped performing arts venue.
The Albany Institute of History and Art hosts an eclectic collection of things from or influenced by the Hudson Valley. You’ll find everything from Dutch Colonial art to traveling exhibits of toys.
The Saratoga Springs History Museum, in Congress Park, is housed in a luxurious former private casino. Rooms upstairs have been engineered so that recordings of actors speak to you when you enter. Saratoga Spa State Park has many activities, including Roosevelt Baths and Spa, live music, skiing, and over a dozen mineral springs that are free to the public. It also is the site of the historic Gideon Putnam hotel.
Saratoga Race Course, opened in 1863, has thoroughbred horseracing and is the oldest sporting venue in the U.S. Downtown Saratoga is filled with upscale boutiques, equestrian shops, cafés and pubs.
Where to eat
Dutchess County has a unique dining experience at the Culinary Institute of America. This is where food luminaries like Anthony Bourdain, John Besh and Cat Cora went to school. There are several restaurants on campus, including the authentically Italian Caterina de Medici. Caterina de Medici is an appropriate name for a restaurant, as she was the Italian aristocrat who brought advanced culinary techniques to France when she married the man who would become King Henri II.
The tonno di coniglio is rabbit salad with celery, oven roasted tomato and olives. It’s not a salad-salad per se – that comes at the end – but it’s garnished with some greens. The rabbit is mild and tender. It’s an unusual first course, showing diners that the kitchen staff is not just banging out predictable student fare.
It takes a fine chef to make most people interested in mackerel. They serve scombri “in tortiera,“ baked mackerels with potato and aromatic bread crumbs. It’s tender, not fishy, with an interesting tang.
In her magisterial work, The Encyclopedia of Pasta, Oretta Zanini de Vita describes the desperate poverty of many Italian city-states in the Middle Ages. Only the aristocracy could afford traditional wheat flour pasta, and only rarely. Chestnut flour – encouraged around 1077 by Matilde di Canossa, consort to Pope Gregory VII – was used as a substitute. It’s now an authentic Italian flavor. The Pappardelle di Castagne, Ricotta e Broccoletti is chestnut pappardelle with ricotta cheese and broccoli. Chestnut flour makes for a much milder flavor than wheat pasta.
Colavita Olive Oil sponsors Caterina de Medici’s. The restaurant is staffed front and back of the house by students on a two-week rotational basis. A chef-instructor creates the menu, which changes seasonally. A 14% gratuity is added to the check; the IRS frowns on tipping the student staff directly. While reservations are not required, they’re highly recommended. You won’t be able to get in on graduation day, and the CIA graduates a class every 3 weeks. Also, the restaurant is closed Sundays and during the month of July. The dress code is business casual (collared shirt and dress or chino-style slacks).
Caterina serves both lunch and dinner. The menu is a la carte, but a full meal is four courses plus dessert. The final course before dessert – as in Europe – is the salad. It works as a digestif.
Rhinebeck is the site of the Matchbook Café, a cute little brick roadhouse serving homemade pastries, fried chicken, pizza, as well as a rich mac ‘n’ cheese.
Albany’s The Wine Bar and Bistro on Lark is a phenomenal gastropub where you can come as you are, but the food is gourmet. The chef specializes in nose to tail menu items. One of the luxurious starters was their Potted Fois Gras with grilled bread, Maldon sea salt and mostarda. It was real fois gras, not mixed with fillers, served in a wide-mouthed glass jar. If bone marrow is on the menu, that’s also “must-order.” It comes in the bone with a little spoon, very rich and meaty. The Kurabota pork belly was served with maple lacquer, sunny side up egg and with chorizo. This might be the most inventive “bacon and eggs” dish in the world. The sweet and savory, spicy and fatty/mild contrasts are a foodie’s delight.
Saratoga Springs’ Old Bryan Inn serves classic American fare in a tavern that dates from 1774. With a fine selection of whiskey and wine, it’s a very popular place every night of the week. It’s got an up-scale vibe, and you’ll want to order a traditional favorite like their Delmonico steak, named for the classic restaurant in “the City.” The steak is a choice, hand cut, well marbled seasoned Delmonico steak, grilled to your preference and served in a roasted garlic pepper prosciutto cream.
At Saratoga Springs’ Mrs. London’s, you can buy exquisite desserts made with the finest fruits, flower waters, liqueurs and other exotic ingredients starting at 7 am. But if it’s savory that you’re hankering for, they have a fine selection of meat and vegetarian quiches, paninis, sandwiches and the very French croques.