by Anne Pyburn Craig
A traveler in the Hudson Valley in the 1770s would have been very glad to reach the Traphagen Tavern in what was then called Ryn Beck. Within its stone walls lay safety, a bed for the night, dinner, and a rum toddy. Inns and taverns, or public houses, were not just important to travelers—they were the first community living rooms, where people gathered to conduct public business. Renamed the Bogardus, the tavern hosted George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and Alexander Hamilton back when they were living, breathing travelers on Revolutionary business.
Today known as the Beekman Arms, holding the record as the longest continuously operating hotel in existence, the place continues to host boldface names: a pre-wedding party for Chelsea Clinton happened there in 2010.
As one of the oldest European-settled parts of the United States, with a major waterway in its midst, the Hudson Valley was always destined to have company. Lots of it. As of 2012, tourism pumped $3.1 billion into the regional economy and accounted for 6.4 percent of all employment.
That, of course, was the year before National Geographic named the Hudson Valley one of the top 20 places to visit on its “Best of the World” list—only one of many such accolades, if perhaps the most prestigious. A huge amount of the credit goes to innkeepers—be they hoteliers, bed-and-breakfast owners, operators of funky little motels, or homeowners sharing space through AirBnB.
Cold Spring Resort in Tannersville, NY. Photo by Liz Cooke, courtesy of AbandonedHudsonValley.com.
“The Hudson Valley has finally been branded, and it has made a tremendous difference,” says Diane DiNapoli, administrator for the Hudson Valley Lodging Association and original owner of the Journey Inn Bed and Breakfast in Hyde Park. “It’s emerged as a destination, not just a weekend getaway for folks from New York City. There’s so much to see and do—too much for just one trip.”
DiNapoli is right that the branding has intensified in recent years; it’s impossible to miss. But the region has been a standout place to visit—with standout places to stay—for a long time.
In 1869, brothers Albert and Alfred Smiley fell in love with and purchased a ten-room inn beside a lake on the Shawangunk Ridge and began transforming it into a veritable castle (Mohonk Mountain House) that has hosted five presidents, won a long list of national and international rewards, and spun off an 8,500-acre nonprofit nature preserve and environmental research organization. Another spin-off, Mohonk Consultations, hosted internationally renowned conferences on topics such as Native American affairs and arbitration as an alternative to war, and continues to do important work in sustainability and local agriculture.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, vagabond artists and writers explored, bringing glimpses of paradise to their fans. They knew the best views, such as the Pine Orchard atop Kaaterskill High Peak. A coalition of businessmen from Catskill opened the Catskill Mountain House there in 1824, correctly believing that people would take a five-hour uphill stagecoach ride if the view and the food at the end were spectacular.
The Mountain House would dominate for decades, beloved by creatives such as James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole, hosting three US presidents.
Alas its preeminence declined after the invention of the automobile, as the Adirondacks became the new go-to playground for the wealthy of Manhattan. It dwindled until the start of World War II, closed, and was demolished in the early ‘60s. Its nearest competitor, the Hotel Kaaterskill, had burned to the ground in 1924. Today, visitors to the North/South Lake Campground managed by the DEC hike up the hill to enjoy the spectacular views, and smaller retreats continue to take advantage of the spectacular beauty of the Kaaterskill.
As the 20th century ramped up, the automobile offered increased access to places no train or stagecoach reached, and people who weren’t welcome in the lily-white Adirondacks or able to afford the grand castles began crafting their own chunks of paradise.
Resorts in Sullivan, Orange, and Ulster counties pioneered the concept of the all-inclusive resort, a Yiddish-infused retreat where you could park the wife and kids for two weeks and come up to join them on weekends, enjoying lawn games, swimming, banquets, and nightclub talent. Consequently coined the Borscht Belt, the area was a refuge for vacationing Jews who were often denied accommodations in an era of pervasive antisemitism.
Also affectionately called the “Jewish Alps,” the region was home to more than 1,000 hotels, resorts, summer camps, and bungalow colonies, characterized by a comedic legacy that saw performances by big names such Billy Crystal, Woody Allen, The Three Stooges, and Rodney Dangerfield.
In central and northern Ulster County, tourism helped Rosendale survive as the cement industry declined, hosting blue-collar families along the rockin’ rollin’ Main Street of what was still a mining town, and the Williams family created their own much-loved version of the inclusive family resort just up the road.
Mid-century, Clayton “Peg-Leg” Bates opened a Kerhonkson resort catering to an African American clientele. A charismatic man who danced on Broadway and made 22 appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, Bates built his country club from four units to 110, offering outdoor fun and nightlife in a welcoming, safe environment, bringing day trippers up from the city by the busload.
As air travel got less expensive and overt discrimination less acceptable, Jewish and African-American travelers had more choices. Borscht Belt hotels, and Peg Leg’s country club, found it increasingly hard to keep pace with changing times and to draw in a clientele outside of their core constituencies. They were “branded,” and at that point, it was a problem.
“Here is the rough part,” Bates told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “Whites come to the Peg Leg Bates Country Club to see my nightclub show. They’ll drink at my bar. But not one white will stay in my rooms. Integration? I love integration. But it hurt the black businessman.”
Under-capitalized, most of the hotels and resorts were unable to keep pace with the sophisticated mass-market options in more exotic-sounding places. Little did the hosts know, as they made the hard choice to close their doors, the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st would bring a resurgence in popularity.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the number of owner-occupied bed-and-breakfast accommodations and a revival of small inns and boutique hotels. BedAndBreakfast.com lists 98 choices in the Hudson Valley, as owners of historic or especially charming properties have thrown open their doors to travelers from around the world. Choices run the gamut, from Victorian deluxe to down-home farmy to ultra-chic to hipster funky and more. In some cases, what’s old is new: the Astoria on Main Street in Rosendale is now a suave boutique “microtel,” The 1850 House.
An abandoned pool at the Pines Resort in South Fallsburg, Sullivan County. Photo by Andy Milford, courtesy of AbandonedHudsonValley.com.
Setting up a B&B may not require the millions it takes to open an all-inclusive resort; owners can rely on the myriad standout local attractions for entertainment. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy money. “It’s like having company every day, that special company, like when you were a child and mom said, ‘Clean up and get ready because they’re coming!’” says DiNapoli. “People are paying you and there are expectations. Everything has to be pristine and fresh; that and comfortable beds are paramount. You try to be creative with breakfast; people expect something beyond what you’d fix at home or find at the diner: fruit, fancy entree, scones, or muffins. Innkeepers are generally at the forefront of using small, local, indie everything; we’re among the farmer’s best friends. And coffee is so important; it had better be good, and strong.”
One step past the find-your-niche quality of the B&Bs and small inns you’ll find the hyper-individual AirBnB market. There are over 600 choices in Ulster and Dutchess counties alone; valley-wide, they range from five-bedroom historic homes with acreage where a night will cost you several hundred dollars to tiny houses, yurts, spare bedrooms, couches, and even a pool float advertised in Poughkeepsie.
“Many homeowners are looking for ways to monetize their property, and AirBnB short-term rental seems to be working for many,” says Helen Coyle Bergstein, broker and owner at Nest Realty, “especially those who have multiple buildings or a primary home to go to when guests are there. The features that help a homeowner stand out, beyond the overall feeling of being in the country, are things like fireplaces or woodstoves, built-in pools, hot tubs, outdoor showers, and cozy firepits.” Also good, she says, are fresh herbs and flowers, especially grown on-site. One popular AirBnB, a tiny house in a Cottekill backyard, has rave reviews for its fresh free-range eggs and eco-fabulous composting toilet.
“Right now you have a mishegoss of everything,” says DiNapoli, “but it’s all good. We need more. We are desperate for lodging of all kinds in the Hudson Valley. And it would be wonderful to have a true five-star hotel. Different kinds of lodging bring in different kinds of people, and all of us build on one another.
“The people who favor B&Bs tend to be people who like people and love to share what they know, so if you have a shared meal and a common area, your repeat guests become great sources of local knowledge for newcomers. And we have people from all over the world—Europeans, Africans, people from Australia and Japan—having breakfast with people from Kansas or New Jersey. Talk about six degrees of separation—I have seen the most amazing coincidences, been part of the most amazing conversations.”