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Like much of the Hudson Valley, Columbia County takes pride in its historic heritage. Kinderhook is home to the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, where the eighth US president was born and retired, and Steepletop, the Austerlitz home of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Visitors to the area learn about the American Shakers at Old Chatham's Shaker Museum/Mount Lebanon, the notable Livingston family at the Clermont State Historic Site in Germantown, or Greenport's 250-acre Olana estate of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. The rural landscape isn't shy of entertainment, either; each October, Chatham hosts the five-day FilmColumbia festival at the Crandell Theater.
For the adventurous type, Hillsdale's Catamount doubles as a ski resort and aerial adventure park. Hiking and biking tend to draw attention to the county, whether on the beautiful trails or back country roads. Visitors can spot bald eagles and other diverse wildlife while walking along the Hudson River, says Columbia County Land Conservancy Director of Outreach & Resource Development Thomas Crowell. "Columbia County is unique in that we're at the crossroads of habitat types [from the] northern end of southern species and southern end of northern species," says Crowell, which creates a rare overlap of birds.
"Agriculture is one of the defining features of our community in terms of the overall land use in the county,"Crowell says. "There's been a resurgence of young farmers in the county. Most of them are recent college grads or in their 30s and wanting to get back to things local, which includes a desire for eating fresh, locally raised food." Slightly northeast of Hudson is Ghent, home to the Hawthorne Valley Association. Turn down County Route 21C to discover the association's dual purpose: the experiential Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School sits on one side of the street and a 438-acre biodynamic farm and locally and regionally sourced grocery store rests on the other. Self-guided tours are recommended, just watch out for tractors, says Karen Preuss, director of marketing for the Hawthorne Valley Association. The farm and store keep a strong focus on organic and nonGMO products as well as supporting other farms in the county and farther, similar to the small but loved Chatham Real Food Market Co-op. "When (people) are here they can really feel the spirit of community, it's not isolated," says Preuss. "How can you come here right now and not fall in love with Columbia County? It's so beautiful."
Apple orchards trickle throughout Columbia County, including Love Apple Farm in Ghent, White Oak Farm in Hillsdale, and Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook, among many others. Yet Valatie's Golden Harvest Farms has been hitting the headlines with its famous apple cider donuts. "I've seen people almost crash their car because they couldn't wait to eat their donut before they left the property," says Peter Upstill of Harvest Spirits, which ferments hard apple cider, among other varieties, from the orchard's unused crop.
Other county breweries also stick to using the farm-to-table method. In Ancram, Hillrock Estate Distillery creates 100-percent barley, rye, and bourbon whiskey through the incredibly rare field-to-glass operation, using organic rye and barley straight from its land. The brand new distillery is also known for its solera-aged bourbon, which is unlike any other bourbon in the world, says Hillrock's director of operations, Timothy Welly. Hillrock also hands some of its bourbon barrels over to the Chatham Brewery, which makes its own barrel-aged beers.
For a daily visit or to follow an urge to escape the city life, Columbia County is worth the visit. "It may be this idyllic dream people have, but it's realized here," says Preuss. "It's buccolic, pretty. There's enough going on around here where you don't get bored."Resources Classic Country (518) 392-2211 Columbia County Tourism Columbiacountytourism.org Copake Country Club Copakecountryclub.com De Marchin (518) 828-3918 Lea’s Clothing, Jewelry, Gifts (518) 392-4666 Valley Variety Valleyvariety.com Winter Walk Hudsonoperahouse.org