By Kitty Pilgrim
When people spend the weekend at my house in Rhinebeck, they always come down the stairs on Sunday morning – usually around noon – and remark, “I haven’t slept like that in years.”
There’s something about the oxygen in the Hudson Valley that does that to you. Sleep is heavy, the way it used to be when you were a child – dreamless. You are drugged by the rich purity of the air and wake up feeling fully refreshed.
Think of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle who falls asleep for twenty years in the mountains and wakes to find he has missed out on the American Revolution. That’s the way it feels when you are in Rhinebeck. Worldly events fall away.
The Hudson River school painters got it right: sunlight falls in a golden shimmer like a scene painted by Thomas Cole. Or sometimes a light haze fills the atmosphere over the river, reminiscent of the misty, dreamy landscapes of Asher Durand. Over the mountains you can see the mysticism of Frederick Church in the sunset (his magnificent painting “Heart of the Andes” hangs in his home in nearby Hudson New York). The glory of nature is all around, filled with what can only be described as otherworldly peace.
I have been coming to Rhinebeck all my life. My family, descended from Dutch settlers, arrived in this area in the mid 1600’s. So it was no surprise, after roaming the world as a journalist for several decades, that I decided to call this home base. I can attest that not much has changed here in thirty years. Rhinebeck remains unspoiled, which cannot be said of other popular resorts within two-hour driving distance of the city.
The village of Rhinebeck is quaint, yet sophisticated. Sufficient numbers of Manhattanites pass through and keep the village on its toes in terms of style. The Upstate Film Theater in the center of town always shows the same art flicks as the Angelica in Manhattan. The local restaurants are top notch, from the glorious colonial-era tavern of the Beekman Arms, to the breezy casual feel of Terapin, or Gigi’s on Montgomery Street. Local chefs often are recruited from the nearby Culinary Institute of America, and even the local diners can boast five-star grilled cheese sandwiches.
Rhinebeck is a perfect shopping town. An afternoon stroll takes you from one end of the main street to the other, with plenty of time to browse all the antique shops and boutiques in between.
A classic cigar store stands on the corner, complete with wooden Indian. There is an old-fashioned five and dime, A.L. Sickle Variety Store, that sells yard goods, hardware, kites, sewing notions, pool toys, board games, and electric fans – like someplace you would have visited with your grandmother to buy “notions” in another lifetime.
There are old-fashioned ice-cream parlors and boutiques selling chic handmade jewelry and one-of-a-kind dresses. Oblong Books has the latest best sellers, and a kids’ corner book nook that a six-year-old would take an entire afternoon to browse. The Hammertown Country Living furniture store makes you crave a makeover for your country cottage. And then there are the antiques. The Red Barn behind the Beekman Arms hotel offers a continuously changing bounty from the local estate sales. Beautiful objects are arrayed throughout two floors of a wood-framed barn.
Rhinebeck is a convenient starting point for visiting great estates. The glorious Vanderbilt mansion stands like a white wedding cake on the crest of the hill above the Hudson. Nearby, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home and library take a full day to tour. There is a line of elm trees where the president used to walk on his crutches, futilely attempting to rehabilitate his legs, atrophied from polio. His home, Springwood, is a museum of original furnishings, including his beautiful touring car, a Plymouth PA Phaeton, specially outfitted with hand controls instead of foot pedals. The presidential library is also on the site, with a wonderful multi-media presentation about the Roosevelt years. I have spent hours immersing myself in the history of a fascinating period.
Smaller estates like the Ogden Mills Mansion, Montgomery Place and Wilderstein give a glimpse of the life of the local gentry. With only a short drive up the Hudson River you can tour the whimsical Moroccan idyll of Olana, the home of painter Frederick Church. This is the perfect spot to take a picnic. The grounds were designed with a landscape painter’s sensitivity for sweeping vistas; the view from the house extends for 60 miles downriver.
One of the seminal events of the summer season is the Duchess County Fair at the Rhinebeck Fairgrounds. Here blue ribbons are awarded for the best cakes and cookies, cows and pigs. There is a milkshake stand so renowned that people drive from Manhattan every year to sample the creamy vanilla and chocolate drinks. There are rides and games and Ferris wheels, and the bright lights burn well into the night for several days at the end of August.
Also during summer, the Rhinebeck Aerodrome is in full swing. With a county fair kind of atmosphere, you can tour several barns full of vintage planes dating from the dawn of flight. The airshow on Saturday and Sunday is worth seeing. In classic Red Baron style, a white-scarfed hero in a biplane engages in a dogfight against an evil villain. The planes loop around as fragile as dragonflies—something that is breathtaking to watch. For people without a fear of heights, it is possible to go up in an antique biplane. Once after watching the film, The English Patient, I wanted to experience the lovely poetry of flying over the verdant patchwork of fields and farms, the wind in my face.
Which brings me to the utter romanticism of the Rhinebeck. As a novelist, I look for the poetry in every setting. Daily life is dreary enough with cancelled flights and cable repair appointments. Very little time is spent in inspirational and romantic settings with fascinating people. Rhinebeck is a world peopled with wonderful figures, all visible if you seek them out: dashing aviators, elegant Gilded Age matrons, Dutch patroons, and a legendary president FDR. Time doesn’t often stand still; but it does in Rhinebeck. •