Monday, June 15, 2015

Poughkeepsie - Who’d a Thunk?

Locust Grove - Samuel Morse's Home in Poughkeepsie, NY Credit: Bill Rockwell
Foodie that I am, a visit to the Culinary Institute of America had been on my list of must-do things for quite a while. When the opportunity arose, I jumped in a rental car and headed to Hyde Park, home to not only the CIA but several Roosevelt sites as well.
Before signing on to a guided tour of the buildings and grounds of the stellar institute that turns out many of nation’s finest chefs and enjoying a leisurely meal at its high end Caterina de Medici restaurant, I plunked myself into the Holiday Inn Express in Poughkeepsie, just down river from Hyde Park, the river being the majestic Hudson.
In between visits to the CIA, Springwood (FDR’s life-long home), Val-Kill (Eleanor’s nearby retreat) and Top Cottage (FDR’s own hilltop retreat where he hosted King George VI during the Second World War), I managed to explore the delights of Poughkeepsie. Who’d a thunk there’d be such interesting ones?
A fun first start, Walkway over the Hudson, the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, started out as a railroad bridge circa 1888. After opening to the public in October 2009, the bridge has hosted some 700,000 people annually to enjoy its magnificent views some 212 feet above the river.
Windy on the day of my visit, the bridge was perfect for exercise and people watching. On my hike to the halfway point (the entire length of the bridge is 1.28 miles), I saw hikers, joggers, bicyclists, dog walkers and an occasional skater - a colorful panoply of ages, dress codes, sexes, personalities, even handicapped people riding motorized scooters and wheelchairs
Walkway over the Hudson Credit: Bill Rockwell
While parking lots are located on both ends of the bridge, a 21-story elevator completed last year transports people from Upper Landing Park on Water Street to an access point on the bridge. Which ever way you choose to get there, be sure to bring along a camera for some spectacular shots of the river valley.
Poughkeepsie is also home to Vassar College, a 1,000 acre campus maintained as an arboretum. Among its 100 buildings, the college boasts an outdoor amphitheater, a 1904 Norman style Chapel (its 15 stained glass windows are created from six drawings by John La Farge, four by Robert L. Dodge and five by Louis Comfort Tiffany), an observatory, a 500-seat recital hall, three theaters and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, designed by Cesar Pelli.
The art center collection began with a gift from Matthew Vassar of 3,800 works, including an important group of Hudson River School paintings and English watercolors. The current collection has grown to over 18,000 works from antiquity through the present day.
Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints and works by major European and American 20th century artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol.

Avery Hall Performance Center at Vassar College

Because it was such a beautiful day when I visited, I didn’t spend as much time as I’d have liked in the art gallery because I wanted to explore the grounds and gardens. Planted in 1916 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Shakespeare Garden is designed to resemble the Renaissance gardens of the Bard’s era and includes many plants named in his plays and poetry.
Further on, raised wooden walkways wind their way through a plant and ecological reserve through which a small stream flows, watering a lush and dense landscape of trees, bushes and interesting plants.
I found another Poughkeepsie gem almost directly across the street and down a block from my hotel. I don’t know what impressed me most about Locust Grove, the 40-room Italianate mansion of artist and inventor of the telegraph and the Morse code, Samuel Morse, or its wonderful flower and vegetable gardens. Morse had the financial wherewithal to build the magnificent and expansive 1851 manse on 200 acres of property on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson.
The house features 15,000 pieces of original furnishings, paintings and decorative art works of the Young-Innes families who lived in the house after Morse. The estate opened to the public in 1975 and offers daily tours from April through December and Monday through Friday the rest of the year.
While the flower gardens are a treat for the eye and senses, the enclosed Heritage Vegetable Garden s a learning tool for anyone wanting to put in edible plants for home consumption. Not only do the gardens hold just about every edible vegetable known to grow in New York’s temperate northern climate, they are also healthy and  thriving specimens that are obviously carefully cultivated and nurtured.
A 20-mile drive upriver from Poughkeepsie, Rhinebeck is a charming, tree-lined town with a Dutch heritage and a penchant for the arts. I arrived at a magical moment when the sun had just gone down and the street light came up glimmering over the string of quaint boutiques and restaurants that lined the main thoroughfare.
The Beekman Arms Inn was especially inviting in a pleasant, old fashioned way. Dating back to the 18th century, the two story inn bills itself as America’s oldest continuously operating hotel.
For a town of its size, Rhinebeck has an abundance of eateries, and I settled in for dinner at Gigi’s Trattoria, 6422 Montgomery Street, where the culinary style is best described as Hudson Valley Mediterranean.
Interior of Gigi Trattoria Credit: Bill Rockwell

The kitchen features locally-sourced foods as much as possible to prepare its home made pastas, super-thin, flat bread pizzas called skizza topped with tasty ingredients, savory appetizers, an array of inventive entrees and desserts such as chocolate hazelnut cake, tiramisu and gelato.
For more information on Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County, phone 800-445-3131 or www.

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