The lowdown on Upstate New York

Manhattan's concrete canyons may be a marvel but head upstate to be wowed by a New York that's wild, green and, increasingly, home to riverside and mountain towns where revamped motels, hipster diners and edgy art galleries abound.

By Mark C. O'Flaherty
Published 29 Nov 2014, 10:00 GMT, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 15:01 BST

It's always hard to leave New York. There are more restaurants here than you could eat your way through in a lifetime, and despite the ruthless rent-driven gentrification that has swept bohemia off the island of Manhattan, the city is still a hub for cutting-edge arts and culture. But, as great as it still is, sometimes you want to escape its concrete-and-steel canyons and head to the lakes, mountains, bears, green, golden eagles and fresh air of Upstate New York. And this is where it gets tricky. I've driven off-road in the mountains of Salta, had my car pulled from a swamp in an alligator farm by a tractor, taken a wrong turn in the Alps and been involved in a 15-point turn to backtrack on an ice-covered goat track with a sheer drop to one side. But none of these things are as terrifying as driving a rental car from downtown Manhattan, through the city and out over the George Washington Bridge. As a New Yorker friend of mine puts it: "it's like being in a video game, but with no rules."

I'm relieved at making it as far as north Harlem without hitting any of the numerous yellow cab drivers whose conviction in reincarnation is apparently so strong that their day-to-day road safety is of minor importance. And I afford myself a broad smile as I pay the bridge toll to a woman in a booth, dancing exuberantly to Lipps Inc's Funkytown. I've escaped from New York! But, halfway across, my car becomes hemmed in between two terrifyingly large trucks, driving at a thunderous pace either side of me. They're getting closer, closer, closer… until I let out a full-throated scream, and floor the accelerator.

An hour and a half later, I've escaped the terror of the freeways and the banality of New Jersey's strip malls, with their endless branches of Subway, Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, and made it to Beacon. After the journey here, the idyllic rural town seemed aptly named. Most people come here for one reason — Dia:Beacon, the vast contemporary art museum housed in a converted print factory, set within acres of beautiful landscaped gardens. This industrial bunker-like building contains some of the greats of modern art: there are halls full of Richard Serra's thrilling, ominous and playful curved steel maze-like interior spaces, and Louise Bourgeois' spider sculptures. There are rooms full of Fred Sandback's curious, disorientating, coloured cord and acrylic yarn pieces, delineating forms that aren't actually there and trick the senses. And there are walls covered in Sol LeWitt's obsessive and astounding conceptual graphs and graphics.

Apart from its scale and location, Dia:Beacon's other main draw is that its exhibitions are all lit by natural daylight. Seeing Serra's work in a soft ambient gloaming changes and accentuates its mood. It's an incredible, moving experience.

From Beacon I drive further north, to Hudson, or 'Upstate's downtown' as Scott Baldinger, the editor and writer behind the blog, puts it. While the rest of Upstate New York suffers from the same issue as much of America — the railways are abysmal, if there are railways at all — you can arrive here on a train in two hours from Penn Station. Which is why, over the past 20 years, it's developed into a remote backyard for city dwellers, or 'our own little St Tropez', as US GQ has christened it.

Reservations required

Modern Hudson is defined by farm-to-table restaurants, farmers' markets and hipsters hunting for mid-century northern European furniture for their nearby weekend homes. It's rumoured the Ace Hotel team are looking to open an outpost here to add to branches in LA, Seattle, Portland, New York City and London.

Right now, reservations are hard to come by at Fish & Game, which is only open four nights a week in a former 19th-century blacksmith's shop, and features a constantly changing $68 (£42) tasting menu that might include pig cheeks and green strawberries, depending on what's available at the market on a given day. Elsewhere, Swoon Kitchenbar, which has a similarly flexible menu, has established itself as the locals' favourite dining room, with the meat on the charcuterie plate sourced from local farms.

Things become more offbeat as I check out of the handsome, historic 'boutique inn' Hudson Merchant House and head into the West Catskills. In the 1960s, this area was the place to go for middle class staycation family holidays. Before that, it rose to popularity as an escape for urbanites in the days before apartments came fully equipped with mod cons.

"Air conditioning and cheap jet travel killed the area," says Greg Henderson, the co-owner of the extraordinary Roxbury, a property that goes by the description 'motel' but is so much more. Since 2004, Greg and his partner, Joseph, have transformed a mothballed waterside inn into a hallucinogenic thrill ride through vintage US TV culture. I've been to themed hotels before, but not like this. There's a luxury three-bedroom suite inspired by the Indiana Jones movies, with bullwhips on the ceiling, a fish tank set into a gold-tiled shower and a secret corridor hidden behind a bookshelf. There are rooms decked out in homage to Charlie's Angels, Star Trek and I Dream of Jeannie, and there's a Gilligan's Island room with a ceiling that's one giant inverted coconut cream pie (a visual reference lost on most Europeans but immediately recognisable to Americans — the character Mary Ann baked the pie, time and time again in the cult TV show). Some spaces transform whimsical kitsch into a fine art installation: there's a Sound of Music room that takes the pattern from the curtains that Julie Andrews' character uses to make the Von Trapp children's play clothes and spreads it across most of the surfaces.

The town of Roxbury is a snapshot of much of the Catskills: once-grand properties that now look positively haunted sit next to once-grand properties that have been renovated and energised. There is obvious poverty at the same time as a burgeoning, previously unseen, urbane kind of industry introduced by newcomers from the city. Apart from the difficulty in sourcing anything you might consider real coffee, these new developments sit quite well.

The first night I stay at the Roxbury Motel. Exhausted from a day spent driving through sleepy towns with abandoned movie theatres, wild-looking neon motel signs and roadside curiosities straight out of an episode of The Simpsons ('the world's largest kaleidoscope!'), I opt for dinner just a few steps from the front door at the Public Lounge. There's nothing fancy about it — the light fittings crafted from jam jars aren't a design affectation, they're just neat and thrifty. But you'll get a burger or a flatiron steak as good as any you'll find at a white-hot no-reservations restaurant in Brooklyn, for a fraction of the price.

The following night I go upscale, or as upscale as you get in the West Catskills. Peekamoose is a restaurant and tap room run by Greg and Joseph's friend Marybeth Mills, who set up shop a decade ago and has seen the surrounding area transformed by Brooklynites buying up cheap second homes. Her restaurant serves up farm-to-table food and locally produced craft beers, and is kitted out with taxidermy and furniture that looks like it's been partially enchanted — much of it crafted from bits of forest, or logs found floating down the East River back in the city. A corporate start-up would spend a million to get the same effect. "Instead, we scavenged everything from dumpsters and friends," explains Marybeth.

Similarly ramshackle and chic is Table on Ten — not so much a restaurant with rooms as a cafe with accommodation. It was opened by former model Inez Valk-Kempthorne and her carpenter husband, Justus Kempthorne. They call it a 'gathering place in Bloomville'. It's like your coolest friend's Instagram feed come to life.

Into the hills

Much of what's going on in the Catskills looks art directed to the nth degree. The small town of Phoenicia, with its buckled, long-retired railroad and railway museum, and bears wandering in and out of the surrounding woodland, is straight out of Twin Peaks. The main street is a classic slice of Americana, with drug store, grocers and restaurants with dimly lit booths. But there's also the Graham & Co, an old motel that was recently given a high-design, purposely low-fi makeover. There are Edison bulbs dangling close to the floors, whitewashed walls, military-issue blankets, matt-black bicycles and smartly designed graphics everywhere, including on the front of the 'Catskills vs Hamptons' T-shirts for sale at the front desk.

From the Graham & Co it's just a short walk along the highway to the Phoenicia Diner, a revamped 1960s landmark (less American Graffiti, more Wes Anderson). The owner of the Phoenicia Diner, Mike Cioffi, has masterminded a respectful refresh and make-under of the original 1962 building, and operates a menu that does away with anything that might involve frozen ingredients. Instead, just about everything is locally sourced — from the baked goods to the trout that was, until it became breakfast, jumping in the local river. There are venetian blinds on the windows, casting just the right cinematic ambience across the all-booth space — complete with green leatherette and chrome-finished stools and seats, and the perfect rounded counter, which runs the whole length of the room.

While the Catskills are enjoying a renaissance, the Adirondacks, further Upstate, never really stopped enjoying anything. As the locals are proud to tell you, the Adirondack Park is bigger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and the Great Smokies national parks combined. The net worth of a certain percentage of its residents is also greater than the GDP of many small countries. The Adirondacks are defined by copious amounts of discreet old money, while offering the ability to dispose of a hell of a lot of new money at the same time. The lakes of the region are where the wealthiest New York families of the 20th century built their great camps, and where Manhattan high society still returns for holiday seasons.

The Rockefellers built a huge home on picturesque Saranac Lake, which was transformed into The Point, an ultra-exclusive all-inclusive Relais & Châteaux resort with 11 rooms, where fashion designers like Thom Browne and Zang Toi rub shoulders with high-powered lawyers and CEOs. There's a Great Hall, stuffed with wall-mounted antlers, star-spangled mountain-life Americana and gigantic fireplaces straight out of Citizen Kane. Dinners are en famille, with black tie de rigeur twice a week. I've visited some of the most luxurious hotels and resorts in the world, and nothing quite compares to The Point, with its free-flowing Champagne, woodland walks, sunset cocktail cruises, Goldilocks beds and unique sense of rustic fantasy.

Of course, you don't have to be a part of the 1% to visit the Adirondacks. Lake Placid Lodge is another Relais & Châteaux property nearby, which offers luxury at a more affordable price point. And there are cheaper options still: after touring around the area, and preparing for the six-hour drive to our finishing point at Niagara Falls, I feel compelled to bed down for at least one night, for the sheer classic Americana of it, at the Adirondack Motel — more Martha Stewart on a budget than Norman Bates, and all the better, if less kitsch, for it.

The next day, after some routinely dreadful coffee and a marginally better bagel, I make my way to the border. The Falls will always be one of North America's most iconic tourist attractions — even though all the heart-shaped waterbeds and cheesy waxwork museums have largely disappeared (and were largely gathered around the Canadian side in any case). You can tour Upstate New York in all manner of styles, but Niagara is the great leveller — everyone sails the Maid of the Mist and there's no first class, just the thrilling sensation of being in such close proximity to 150,000 gallons of water thundering down every second so close to you. It sails from the NY State Falls Observation Tower and works its way around the basin of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. It's an overwhelming experience. And yes, of course, you exit through the gift shop.


Getting there
Virgin Atlantic and British Airways fly from Heathrow to JFK and Newark; Delta flies from Heathrow to JFK; American Airlines from Heathrow and Manchester to JFK; and United from Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchester to Newark. Norwegian flies from Gatwick to JFK.
Average flight time: 8h.

Getting around
The best option is car rental. New York State is poorly served by rail but useful routes include the regular service from Penn Station to Hudson (2h17m), and to Albany (2h30m). Beacon is also served by regular trains from NYC.

Other options include the Amtrak Empire Service from New York to Niagara Falls, taking in Hudson, Syracuse and Buffalo (7h20m). The Adirondack service (10h) takes in Poughkeepsie, Saratoga Springs and ends in Montreal.

There are regular buses from Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City to the Catskills and beyond with Trailways of New York and Short Line Bus.

When to go
Autumn is peak season — much of the 'leaf peeping' — is as dramatic as in neighbouring Vermont.

Need to know
Visa: UK visitors can travel for up to three months under the Visa Waiver Program.
Currency: Dollar ($). £1 = $1.6.
Time difference: GMT-5.
International dial code: 00 1.

How to do it
Wexas Travel has the 10-night, self-drive New York State — An Outdoor Adventure tour from £1,295 per person, with stops in NYC, Kingston, Lake George, Plattsburg, Lake Placid, 1000 Islands and the Catskills.

Audley Travel offers a 13-day self-drive, New York State Discovered from £2,060 per person, with stops in Ithaca, Niagra Falls, Rochester, Lake Placid and Saratoga Springs.

Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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