RHINEBECK, New York — It’s only about 100 kilometres up the Hudson Valley from Tarrytown, half an hour north of New York City, to Rhinebeck and you could drive it in two hours.
But it’s well worth making it a full day’s outing, especially if you’re interested in how the other half lived in the days before the Entertainment Tonight cameras rolled into the bedrooms, bathrooms and gardens of the rich and famous.
For the tycoons of the 18th and, especially, the 19th centuries, Manhattan was fine for making their millions, but it got crowded and damnably hot in the summer. They wanted space and fresh air.
At about that time, painters known as the Hudson River School were showing off the beautiful landscapes within a day’s reach of the city. So the robber barons followed the river north and built their summer homes amid the lush scenery.
Fortunately, some of these homes have survived and are now open to the public, giving those of us who once wouldn’t have got past the front gate of a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt estate a look at the beds they slept in, the gardens they lounged in and the kitchens in which chefs created 10-course meals for the rich owners and their well-heeled guests.
This stretch of the east bank of the Hudson River, mostly on or near U.S. Highway 9, is often called Millionaires’ Row.
On the first half of the drive you can visit Lyndhurst, the home of “the Wizard of Wall Street,” railway tycoon Jay Gould; Philipsburg Manor, built by Frederick Philipse, once the richest man in the state; Kykuit, where four generations of the Rockefellers spent their summers; and Van Courtlandt Manor, the family seat, in the 19th century, of Pierre Van Courtlandt, New York State’s lieutenant governor.
Also on view, although its owner wasn’t in the same dollar league as his neighbours, is Sunnyside, where author Washington Irving wrote, among others, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. (The former village of North Tarrytown was renamed Sleepy Hollow some years ago.)
For a change of pace, you might stop in Ossining where the visitors’ centre shows off the old electric chair from the nearby Sing Sing prison.
On the second leg of the drive you’ll marvel at Louisa Vanderbilt’s bedroom in the Vanderbilt Mansion: It’s a replica of Marie Antoinette’s boudoir in Versailles.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought his bride, Eleanor, to Springwood, the family mansion in Hyde Park many years before, as president, he led America out of the Great Depression and through the Second World War. You’ll see his fedora, his wheelchair, his wire-rimmed glasses and that famous cigarette holder.
In picture-perfect Rhinebeck you might want to drop by for a snack or a drink at the Beekman Arms, where Roosevelt used to wind up every campaign with an address from the porch.
He wasn’t the first president to grace the Beekman: George Washington really did sleep there. And Bill and Hillary Clinton hosted the rehearsal dinner in the Beekman for daughter Chelsea’s wedding at nearby Astor Courts in 2010.
For more information, visit the Historic Hudson River Towns website at hudsonriver.com/node/49.
For information on travel in New York State, visit the New York State Tourism website at www.iloveny.com.