When people hear New York, they tend to think of Manhattan. They associate it with the skyscrapers, crowded streets and historic monuments of the state’s most famed city. I’m guilty of this, too. However, there’s much more to New York than just the 22-square-mile island.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit Dutchess County, which consists of cities such as Poughkeepsie, Pleasant Valley and Hyde Park. I knew little about this area; despite the major role it has played in our country’s history. Hyde Park is most famous for being the hometown of our 32nd President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as many other members of the political and business elite of the early 20th century.
Throw in an elite culinary scene, beautiful landscapes, quaint local farms and great breweries and wineries, and Dutchess County makes for a great escape from the big city—or wherever you’re coming from. I left pleasantly surprised and disappointed that I didn’t have more time to explore (the only downside of visiting for a wedding). I was bummed I couldn’t make it to the Culinary Institute, along with many other items that were on my list. I’ll add those to my many reasons to return. And if you’ve never thought about venturing to this part of the country, I highly recommend it.
Top Historic Sites – What You Should See
Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site or Val-Kill Cottage – Said to be one of the only places the former first lady could call her own, Val-Kill is located about two miles from FDR’s “big house.” The historical site includes the Val-Kill Cottage and the Stone Cottage, the former of which was originally built as a factory that housed Val-Kill Industries, but soon became Eleanor’s home. The land was named a national historic site in 1977 to commemorate the “life and work of an outstanding women in American history.” The site is open daily May-October from 9am-5pm. Between Nov. and April, it’s closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Tours of both cottages are available, and those include an entrance fee.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Home National Historic Site – Springwood
is the place FDR called home. The family estate is located on the Hudson River, and it’s where FDR was born in 1882, where he spent his youth, and is where he is buried. The home now belongs to the U.S. National Park Service, but remains mostly unchanged since he passed. Also on the grounds is the Presidential Library and Museum, which was created by Roosevelt before he died. We only visited the library and museum, but didn’t have time to make it to Springwood, or to Top Cottage, FDR’s personal retreat. You can sign up for self-guided tours of the library and museum, as well as ranger-led tours of the historic house. There’s a lot to see, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time.
Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site – Probably the best example of America’s country palaces, the Vanderbilt Mansion is truly impressive. The mansion sits on a 211-acre park filled with formal gardens and century-old trees. The house itself, purchased by Frederick William Vandebilt in 1895, features 54 rooms (can you even imagine?) and includes a variety of antiques and period designs that truly showcase the life of the wealthy industrialists during that time. The mansion is open every day, but only to those who take a guided tour. The grounds are free and open to all until sunset. Once again, time didn’t permit us to take a tour of this magnificent house, but just standing in front of it was enough to give me a pretty good idea about how these people lived back in the day.
Montgomery Place – Another beautiful example of early 19th century American architecture is Montgomery Place, now owned by Bard College. The neo-classically designed mansion sits on an estate with lush gardens, an arboretum and stunning views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. Tours of the house are available by appointment on Saturdays from June to early September, so unfortunately, we couldn’t take one since our only free day was Sunday. If you’re not into historic house tours, you could enjoy a nice walk one of the hiking trails on the estate, and those are free of charge.
Lesser-Known Historic Sites
Saint James Church – If I was just visiting Dutchess County on my own time, I would have never thought to go to this small, beautifully simple church. Luckily, the wedding I was standing in held the ceremony here, to my delight. This Episcopal church dates back to 1811 and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their family worshiped here. Some of the family relatives are even buried in the cemetery. Next to the church is Hyde Park’s earliest surviving school, built back in 1833. Inside, you’ll find many historical plaques dedicated to parishioners past.
Locust Grove Estate – Yet another spot I possibly would have missed had it not been the location of the wedding reception. The 200-acre estate is another unique mansion overlooking the river. It includes an Italianate villa designed in 1851 for Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and Morse code. It was taken over by the Young family in 1895, and not much of Morse’s belongings remain. The house serves as a museum showcasing the Young family’s possessions. There is an exhibit dedicated to Morse in the Museum Pavilion, where original art work and reproductions of the telegraph can be seen. Another great part about this estate is the beautiful gardens that cover a large portion of the grounds.
Carnwath Farms Historic Site & Park – Considered a bit of a hidden jewel, Carnwath is a great recreational retreat in the Wheeler Hill Historic District. I know, that probably doesn’t mean anything to you, but that’s where it’s located, and now you know. The grounds are filled with hiking trails, perfect for running, walking and exploring. The property also includes the 1850 Carnwath Manor, a carriage house, administrative building that is now home to the Wappinger Museum & Visitor Center, and the Frances Reese Cultural Center, which houses the Sports Museum of Dutchess County.
Bannerman Castle – Located on Pollepel Island, Bannerman Castle was built by Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman in 1901. The island was used to store equipment and ammunition for the Bannerman’s business, while the house was a place where the family spent summers. The castle has experienced some difficult times over the years, and much of the foundation and original structure have crumbled. Still, it’s a special place, filled with beauty and mystery. The downside is that it’s only reachable by boat. You can take the Estuary Steward over to the island for a 2.5-hour walking tour of the property and surrounding gardens. If you’re more adventurous, try a kayak tour to Pollepel. Sadly, time didn’t permit a visit to this place, but as I said before, I have another reason to go back.
Explore this Spot
Walkway over the Hudson – As the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, Walkway over the Hudson is hard to miss. And yet, we still had a bit of a tough time finding the spot where it starts. Our GPS was not helpful, so we just had to follow the bridge to the end point. Once we parked, we joined hundreds of people traversing the 1.28-mile long bridge that stands 212 feet above the water. Since it’s super wide, there’s really no concern about running into anyone or it feeling overly crowded. All along the bridge you’ll see signs and plaques with historic facts about the bridge, as well as about the Hudson River itself. Guided tours are available, but we preferred to just saunter along at our own pace, taking in the scenery around us. If you’re looking for a nice path for a run, this is probably the best place to go, as it connects to nearly 18 miles of trails in Dutchess County.
Culinary Institute of America – While not exactly a testament to American royalty, the Institute (as it’s fondly called) demonstrates the influence Dutchess County has had on not just politics and history, but also on our food. The Institute was founded in 1946, and has been educating aspiring chefs through varying courses of study, including culinary sciences, applied food studies, baking and pastry arts, and much more. It counts famed chefs like Anthony Bourdain, Grant Achatz, and Roy Choi among its some 49,000 alumni. Basically, this is the ultimate foodie destination. The campus features five restaurants, open to the public; public tours for visitors led by current students; one-day courses for budding cooks and those who just love food; and a decked out gift shop filled with cookbooks, kitchen equipment and much more.
The Dutchess County food scene doesn’t stop here, though. The campus is surrounded by dozens of local farms, artisan cheese makers, wineries and more, supplying students with the freshest ingredients imaginable. At Sprout Creek Farm, you can purchase cow and goat cheeses made onsite, along with seasonal vegetables, meat, eggs and milk. An historic, family-owned establishment, Rose Hill Farms is a pick-your-own fruit farm that grows everything from cherries and blueberries to apples and pumpkins. Looking for the best maple syrup around, you might just find it at Madava Farms, home to Crown Maple.
Dutchess County is home to many wineries, breweries and distilleries, so if you’re a fan of delicious libations, you’re in luck. Millbrook Vineyards & Winery is one of the more well-known wineries of the region. It’s been part of the landscape since 1982, and includes plantings of pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet franc, riesling and an Italian varietal known as Tocai Friulano. For those who like German-style beers, like I do, try Hyde Park Brewing. This brewery has been around for 20 years, and takes a note from the 19th century German brewing techniques. Sip on something light like a Big Easy Blonde or something with a little more oomph like the Von Schtupp’s Black Lager.
Of course, there is much more to Dutchess County than what I’ve covered so far . In fact, you’d be surprised at all the little hidden jewels sprinkled throughout the region. Some of the best samples of local life are the farms and everyday homes. I had the pleasure of visiting one such place, Sugar Maple Farm, a lovely 5-acre property with a home that dates back over 100 years. The land features a perfectly aged barn that should be put in a farm lifestyle magazine; a beautiful vegetable garden and shed; fire pit; mini gazebo (ideal for wedding photos); a tennis court; and plenty of open acreage for children to explore.
Even if you can’t actually visit one of these homes when you come to Dutchess County, you can get a taste of them by just taking a drive along some of the winding roads through the regions quiet neighborhoods.
I could go on and on about Dutchess County, but I won’t bore you with more talk. I encourage you to experience it for yourself. Maybe it’s because I live so far west, but I feel this area of New York is not given the credit and attention it deserves. Sure, I had heard of Poughkeepsie (mostly because of a Friends episode), but I never really knew what this place had to offer. Now that I know, I’m happy to say I’ve experienced at least some of it, and I can’t wait to return to see the rest.