The Hudson River Valley boasts a wide array of attractions – historic estates, arts and crafts, wineries, outdoor adventures and gourmet cuisine. During spring break vacation with our daughters, 11 and 15, we visited four completely different estates, Springwood, Val-Kill the Vanderbilt Mansion and Olana. The first three of these attractions plus the Culinary Institute of America and Walkway Over the Hudson are a mere two miles from eachother. The Hudson River Valley is a five and a half hour drive from suburban Maryland.
Our first stop was Springwood, the home where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born and spent most of his life. The Visitor Center has a 20-minute introductory film about FDR. Guided tours start here. Visitors from 7 to 12, receive a Junior Secret Service Manual booklet. After a brief talk, your tour guide takes you into Springwood, the two-story Victorian mansion owned by FDR’s mother. Highlights include FDR’s crib, his personal library, the bedroom that he slept in once he had polio, and a lift to get him to the second floor. The enthusiastic guide not only had information about all the objects but also stories about the entire family. My younger daughter was especially intrigued by a collection of birds shot by FDR as a child. Next, we visited Franklin and Eleanor’s graves.
Note: Top Cottage, a retreat for FDR, was not yet open for the season.
Afterwards, you can tour the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum on your own. Although it does not look large from the outside, it is really huge and took around 3 hours to explore. The exhibition begins with the Depression (before FDR’s election) and ends with Eleanor’s life after her husband’s death. Short films on subjects such as FDR’s battle with polio, the Depression, and World War II are scattered throughout. His triumphs like the New Deal are fully explored and so are more controversial aspects of his presidency. Kids might be disturbed by images of poverty, war, and concentration camp victims.
My daughters and I especially enjoyed the room about Eleanor and Franklin’s early years. Memorabilia included Eleanor’s tiger claw necklace, a gift from her father, and FDR’s rocking horse. An interactive table allows you to explore family scrapbooks and the family tree. We also found the fireside chats available at a push of the button in re-created rooms of the Depression and World War II era fascinating. I showed my daughters how to use the rotary phones. Younger kids will like the display case dedicated to Franklin’s beloved Scottie Fala. Also on view is FDR’s Ford, specially designed so he could drive it just using his hands, and his Oval Office desk. The next room pays tribute to Eleanor, who authored 27 books, wrote a daily column, hosted radio shows, and served as a delegate to the United Nations. We had no idea that she even wrote a guide for teenage girls. The exhibition concludes with a seven-minute film about FDR’s legacy written and narrated by Bill Clinton. Before you leave, take some photos with life-size statues of Eleanor and Franklin directly outside of the Visitor Center.
Admission to the Springwood and the Estate and Library Museum is a joint ticket and is $18 for adults. Children 15 and younger are free. Tickets are valid for two days.
A perfect companion to this house is Val-Kill Cottage, accessible by trail or a short drive away from Springwood. This home was first a retreat for the Roosevelts, then a furniture factory run by Eleanor, and finally, her home after her husband’s death. The guided hour-long tour begins with a 20-minute film about her life. The furnishings of the home are very ordinary but our tour guides entertained us with lively anecdotes about Eleanor’s life. While at Val-Kill, enjoy the grounds, walk the trails, and picnic by the pond. Admission is $10 per person; under 15 free and includes a 45-minute guided tour of the cottage, a 12-minute orientation film and exhibits.
Only 5 minutes away by car is Locust Grove, the home of Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph. The house was closed until the following week but the gift shop, exhibit area, and trails are open 365 days a year. One room had paintings by Morse, who was an accomplished artist, and the other room had telegraph-related memorabilia. We enjoyed walking the trails behind the house.
Note: Many of the historic homes in the Hudson Valley were closed until April or May including Lindenwald (Martin Van Buren), Kykuit (Rockefeller), Sunnyside (Washington Irving), and Lyndhurst (Jay Gould). In addition, the gardens would have been far prettier later in the season.
Only 10 minutes away by car is the Vanderbilt Mansion. Built in 1898, this elaborate mansion with European treasures is actually one of the most modest of the entire Vanderbilt family’s 40 plus estates. The hour-long tour, which begins in the Visitors Center emphasizes the story of the Vanderbilt family and the lives of the wealthy during the period, rather than the furnishings or architecture. The house has 54 rooms and 14 bathrooms. Louise’s bedroom was a duplicate of Marie Antoinette’s chamber. Outside, we explored the Italianate Garden and Rose garden. They must be exquisite when in full bloom.
Admission to the Vanderbilt Mansion is $10 and is good for the one hour guided tour.
Apple Pie Bakery Cafe, a casual cafe, next door to Springwood and run by the Culinary Institute of America, is the perfect breakfast/lunch spot for families. It offers a wide variety of pastries, sandwiches, and desserts. Outside the cafe, are fun exhibits on the history of ice cream, marzipan, chocolate and much more. The bookstore has a huge collection of kitchen gadgets and cookbooks. We spent so long there that breakfast turned to lunch. The CIA also has more formal and expensive restaurants for a real splurge for dinner.
A half hour away, but well worth the trip is Olana, home of 19th century landscape painter Frederick Church. Originally meant to be a French chateau, Church was inspired by his vacation in Beirut, Jerusalem and Damascus. He collaborated with architect Calvert Vaux and created an eccentric Persian-style mansion. Church even designed his own stencils for the house. The guided tour includes his studio, the enclosed courtyard, and many of his paintings. Church used the views from Olana in many of his paintings. Had the weather been better, we would have walked to the pond.
Admission to Olana is $9 for adults and free to children up to 12 years old in the off-season. From May to October admission jumps to $12/adult. There are guided and self-guided tours available.
For a change of pace, literally, hike Walkway Over the Hudson, the longest elevated pedestrian bridge in the nation. At either end are conveniently located water machines and Jiffy Johns. Along the 1.78 mile bridge, you will find signage explaining the history of the area, the wildlife, and the mechanics of the bridge. Benches for breaks are scattered throughout. Strollers, bikers, joggers, roller skaters, and dog walkers were all out and about to see the panoramic views of the Hudson. This attraction is free.
If you want to take a shopping break, the town of Rhinebeck has a number of nice shops including a chocolate shop, bookstore with kids toys and books, maternity and toddler shop, the Paper Trail with kids toys and art supplies, and a home and garden store with an interactive play kitchen for kids.
We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott, right next door to Locust Grove. We liked the location, large rooms, fitness center, and pool but our daughters complained about the extremely uncomfortable pull-out sofa bed. Although many attractions were closed, there was plenty to do for a long weekend and we plan to return one day to explore the other sites.
Note: All of the estates, let you visit the grounds and gardens for free. You can only enter the houses as part of a guided tour. Request a free visitor guide here.
Photos by Larry Meyer and Sarah Meyer.