There is no finer iteration of the art of living well than life as it is lived in a classic Hudson Valley village. And there is no better way to experience the beauty of that art than by getting to know Rhinebeck, Red Hook, and Tivoli.
The northwestern corner of Dutchess County, from rolling inland farm country to the enchanted wetlands of Tivoli Bays, is splendid countryside, once favored by the wealthy and tenderly preserved through the multilayered history of 400 years of European settlement. Yet one wonders if, beneath that gorgeous surface, some convergence of especially fascinating ley lines isn't operating, drawing together quirky genius and singular endeavors. This part of the Hudson Valley is far, far from just another pretty place.
Rockstar Rhinebeck is perhaps the best-known population center in the region, noted ever since the Revolutionary era for hospitality and elegance. Rhinebeck, where the fairgrounds throb steadily with celebrations of good living: Food, drink, music, antiques, vintage vehicles, and livestock are feted from spring through fall, along with fundraising fun and the actual county fair (best midway in the valley, yo.) Rhinebeck, where they've reconstructed Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis at the Aerodrome. Rhinebeck, where the children are quite literally the stars of the community's own artistic, theatrical, and love-filled Sinterklaas festival.
Take all of that and blend well, add in a double handful of Zagat-rated eateries of varied genres (Hudson Valley Food Tours has begun sponsoring "Culinary Crawls" round the village) and the top-ranking farmers' market in the Hudson Valley, shops overflowing with artwork and finery of every sort, and a world-famous institute where they study a wide range of enlightened healing modalities (Omega), and you begin to glimpse the miracle that is Rhinebeck.
There's more. There's a top-notch community hospital in Northern Dutchess Hospital and Izlind, a relatively new holistic health institute. There is a new craft beer outpost, From the Ground Brewery, located out in the very field where the barley is grown. There are art galleries and salons and spas and the venerable indie filmhouse Upstate Films. Rhinebeck just keeps getting better, while somehow retaining its own particular flavor of Hudson Valley small-town sweetness. No matter how many visitors Rhinebeck may get, they will always be glad to see you and make you very much at home.
Five miles north lies Red Hook, a bit more of a best-kept secret, which is why you should establish a beachhead of familiarity and friendship in Red Hook before the secret gets out. Red Hook village was known as "Hardscrabble" until around 1800; just a crossroads, an inn, and a couple of houses. The villagers still celebrate Hardscrabble Day each September, but these days it means fun all day long and music from noon until the folks at the afterparty get tired, and there's a whole lot more to see any day of the year.
For some time, Red Hook led something of a double life. Solidly agrarian and working class for decades, it became an IBM bedroom community around the middle of the 20th century—and a retreat where household-name creatives could truly relax. "Steve Seagal, Carol Goodman, Liza Donnelly, Michael Maslin, Mary Stuart Masterson, Pieter Estersohn, Brice Marden, Natalie Merchant, Dar Williams—I know there are more," says Juliet Harrison, owner of the Equis Art Gallery, listing some of her better-known neighbors. "Red Hook has held the interest of all of them simply for the wealth of good living you can find here. I moved here right after grad school and raised my son here, and when IBM folded up shop, a lot of us sort of ventured out of our hideaways and started applying ourselves to creative placemaking," Harrison says.
Harrison has been a Red Hook resident for 25 years, while working as a fine art photographer specializing in equine images, and in recent years she's watched the village liven up. "If I want to eat out, I'm within five minutes of upscale Mexican at a charming little bar with outdoor seating, gourmet deli, Italian, brick oven pizza, delicious Indian curry, artisanal bread and antipasto, inventive New American, mouthwatering sweets. Places where you linger over every morsel because it's just so good, places where you can order a $10 meal and take some home for later. If I want to eat in, we're surrounded by boutique farms and CSAs. There are open mikes and author nights and bluegrass and local art openings. And part of the magic is, we still have a very vibrant working-class town here right along with the telecommuters and commuters. You can go anywhere you want in Red Hook in your Carhartt jacket and fit right in."
The Red Hook Community Arts Network (RHCAN) got started in a rented storefront on Route 9 that Harrison describes as "a rabbit warren of little rooms" that quickly filled to bursting with musical events, workshops, and affordable gallery and studio space. In 2006, the parent company of Hannaford's donated a languishing historic building—an Italian-style villa that had once been an orphan asylum for girls run by Margaret Astor—to the town, and the Arts Network folks stepped up with some ideas for what to do there. It's now the RHCAN Gallery, home base for the artists' collective and the site of musical events and changing exhibits every weekend from May through late fall.
Red Hook is also home to a fair trade and humanely sourced gift shop, Living Eden. And it's home to Harrison's own gallery. "I have 38 contemporary equine artists with me," Harrison says. "It's a niche, but a very established niche. When I first spoke about opening a space, people said, 'You'll have to go to Rhinebeck.' I said, 'No, I'm a Red Hook person. This is home.' I'm glad I did that. I have people who find me on the Web and come from all over; people spot the big horsehead sign and just have to come in."
Moving west to the Hudson, the magic most definitely continues. It would be unfair and impossible to catalogue this area's charms without mentioning Bard College, home to the nonstop Fisher Center for the Performing Arts and its exuberant Summerscape series of opera, music, theater, dance, film, and cabaret happenings.
Red Hook's western boundary is Scenic Hudson's Poets' Walk, a path through a visionary work of landscape architecture commissioned by Astors and Delanos and now open to the likes of you and me for free.
North of Poets' Walk, you'll find Tivoli. The tiniest village of the three, Tivoli could be forgiven if it had nothing much going on. But those aforementioned ley lines are still at full magnetic strength here: Tivoli is home to the Tangent Theatre Company, born in New York City and raised on the fresh Tivoli air around its Carpenter Shop Theater into a highly regarded venue for unique, gripping, character-driven productions. And nothing goes with a Tangent show like a meal at The Corner, also in the heart of tiny Tivoli, where you'll find Mediterranean fare lovingly handcrafted by Chef Devon Gilroy from local and imported ingredients, fine wine, and fresh-ingredient cocktails.
But don't just go to Tivoli for the evening. Start in daylight and explore Tivoli Bays, a network of coves, creeks, pools, and marshes where you can hike, canoe, and birdwatch to your heart's content—in a whole different world from the "sophisticated four-corner village" that is Rhinebeck, yet a scant 15 minutes away.