By: Nicole Pensiero
I’ll admit: I was nervous about traveling out of state during 2020 – the year when the world was turned upside down because of the coronavirus pandemic. But I kept my eyes peeled for possible, drivable getaways to relatively nearby destinations with low numbers of COVID-19 infections.
Along with a fantastic getaway to Jim Thorpe, Pa., in the Poconos, by early autumn, plans were underway for a girlfriends’ getaway to New York State. We had a pretty clear idea of what we were looking for: a road trip to somewhere easy to get it to, with plenty of outdoor activities and a nice, clean place to stay.
We decided on Ulster County, New York, a region between the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains. Rustic, and filled with amazing natural beauty, this not-too-far destination proved the perfect anecdote to all that had been disappointing about 2020. (Be sure to check on the CDC website for any potential restrictions when you travel domestically).
Our home base was the charming town of Saugerties, on the west bank of the Hudson River. This historic village – which, in the 1800s had a booming mill industry – now has a downtown area filled with boutiques, bookstores, and fun restaurants. Saugerties has some great outdoor attractions, too, including a unique sculpture park called Opus 40 that proved a highlight of our visit.
The drive to Saugerties took less than three hours, but we felt far from South Jersey in this region of New York State that’s filled with mountains and waterfalls. Our Airbnb apartment was clean and spacious; we were especially thrilled with the privacy, and built-in social distancing it afforded us.
Interestingly, we found that everywhere we went during our three-night stay, masks were a routine thing, even worn outside. It actually made us feel very safe, which was our top concern when planning the trip.
While Saugerties’ famed 1869 lighthouse is currently out of commission because of upgrades to its surrounding walkways, there is plenty else to see and do. From the hip Inquiring Minds bookstore to upscale boutique Bosco’s Mercantile, and the popular Alleyway Ice Cream, downtown Saugerties offers many food and shopping options for visitors.
Shortly after arriving in town, we enjoyed our first lunch at Miss Lucy’s Kitchen, a popular eatery that offered what can only be described as “soul food” – in our case, fantastic pulled pork sandwiches. Our first dinner was at the popular Dutch Ale House, where we enjoyed a tasty meal in the warmly lit, seasonally decorated, heated tent.
A true highlight of our getaway was a visit to Saugerties’ artistic masterpiece, Opus 40. Created by the late pioneering artist Harvey Fite – who purchased what had been an abandoned rock quarry in the 1930s – Opus 40 got its name from the number of years he expected it would take to complete this astounding structure. The product of Fite’s own vision and labor, Opus 40 even has a nine-ton monolith that Fite apparently installed own his own, using ancient Egyptian methods. That evening, we opted for another outdoor dining experience in Saugerties, at the beautiful 4-star boutique hotel, Diamond Mills. There, on the terrace overlooking the gentle, illuminated waterfalls of the Esopus Creek, we enjoyed a delicious farm-to-table meal.
On our last full day, we decided to just explore and see what we could find. First stop: the nearby recreational Ashkokan Rail Trail, which we’d heard is a great place to walk or hike. Opened to the public in the fall of 2019, and accessible from sunrise to sunset year-round, this 11-mile, ADA-compliant trail is popular with everyone from dog walkers to runners. And the scenery it afforded during our stroll was spectacular – a sparkling reservoir of water nestled amid the Catskill Mountains.
Another fun option for walking or biking the Walkway Over the Hudson, a former railroad bridge that spans the river from Ulster County’s town of Highland to Poughkeepsie on the east bank. Originally opened as a railroad bridge in 1899, it sat unused for decades, until it was renovated and reopened in 2009. On a clear day, there is no better place to get a fantastic view of the Hudson River Valley from above. And if waterfalls are your thing, the breathtaking Kaaterskill Falls are only about a half-hour drive from Saugerties.
We also enjoyed a fantastic lunch at the Phoenicia Diner (which put out own cookbook earlier this year to rave reviews). Originally opened in the early 1960s on Long Island, NY, the retro glass and chrome building was moved Phoenicia, NY, not far from Saugerties, in the 1980s. It was pretty much a traditional diner until it reopened under new ownership in 2012. The menu is now hip and diverse – with more gourmet than grub on the menu, but still at traditional diner prices. It is currently offering heated outdoor dining and take-out.
Our visit to Saugerties and its surrounding communities was both relaxing and fun. It was definitely a highlight of this most unique year.
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey-based freelance writer and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NAJTA). You can follow her on Twitter @NicoleWrytr
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