Our road trip through the Litchfield Hills, the Berkshires, the Hudson Valley and the Catskills explored one of the most historically significant areas of the country. Along the way, these were some of the places that we most enjoyed.
New Britain, Connecticut
From the Mayflower Inn & Spa in Washington, it is a 55-minute drive to New Britain, Connecticut, on the western edge of the state capital, Hartford. We made this slight detour to the east in order to visit the New Britain Museum of American Art. The relative obscurity of this institution is surprising, given that when it opened in 1903, it became the first museum in the country exclusively dedicated to American painting. A century later, a striking new building was opened with 43,000 square feet of exhibition space. Today, the permanent collection includes notable works from the Hudson River school and American impressionists. Also on display are works by luminaries such as Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth. (While in the vicinity, we also paid a visit to the Hill-Stead Museum in the lovely colonial town of Farmington, 8 miles away, which houses a collection of French and American impressionist paintings. Nothing in the house has been altered or moved since the Edwardian period.)
It is a five-minute drive from Blantyre to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s enormous country house. Wharton designed the 42-room mansion herself and lived there from 1902 until 1911, writing two of her most famous novels, “The House of Mirth” and “Ethan Frome.” (It is a little-known fact — or at least it was unknown to me — that Wharton’s first literary success was “The Decoration of Houses,” published in 1897, a manual of interior design.) The huge, white-stuccoed, three-story house is topped by a balustrade and cupola, and is surrounded by formal gardens, an Italian walled garden and grass terraces. Once the base of the theater group Shakespeare & Company, the Mount is now a literary center. Although Wharton’s furniture has gone, most of her books are still in the magnificent library, including her personal copy of “The House of Mirth.” Excellent docents bring the place to life, and it is still just about possible to conjure up the shade of Henry James, one of Wharton’s frequent guests. Strolling through the gardens is a delight.
Although COVID restricted our access to several places that we wanted to visit, in one instance the virus was perversely helpful. The Hancock Shaker Village is a popular tourist attraction in Massachusetts, and on normal summer days, hundreds of people come to explore the surviving barns and houses of this remarkable religious group. During the two hours that we spent at the village on a sunny late summer day, we encountered fewer than 10 other people, despite the fact that this is largely an open-air museum. The Shakers were 18th-century dissident Christians, led by Ann Lee, whose visions had taught her that salvation could only be achieved by sexual abstinence. Her followers lived a communal life in which men and women enjoyed complete equality. The Shakers created a graceful minimalist style of architecture, and believed that the craftsmanship that went into their exquisite furniture, as well as domestic objects like intricate wooden boxes, was a form of practical worship. Active workshops remain, even though the last Shakers left the Hancock village in 1960. The highlight of our visit was the astonishing circular barn, built in 1826, which some regard as one of the finest and most original buildings in the United States. Inside, the extraordinarily complex structure of wooden beams is a near perfect synthesis of form and utility.
Greenport, New York
Despite being just 315 miles long, the Hudson is one of the grandest rivers in the world. Whenever I come to Manhattan from the north, I always try to enter the city along the Henry Hudson Parkway, from which the immense river and the Palisades provide a scenic prelude of appropriate grandeur. The Hudson River school of painters, originally inspired by European masters of Romanticism like Claude Lorrain and J.M.W. Turner, created dramatic landscapes in the Adirondacks and the Catskills, as well as the Hudson Valley itself. Some later traveled far afield in search of epic scenery that, in their view, revealed the face of the divine. Frederic Edwin Church, who was born in Hartford, traveled to Egypt, the Levant, Greece and later South America. (His exotic and powerful painting of the snowcapped 20,000-foot Cotapaxi volcano in Ecuador is on display in the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has long been a personal favorite.) Church’s huge Orientalist residence, Olana, named for a fortress in what is now Armenia, is situated close to the city of Hudson, a 55-minute drive to the west of Lenox, overlooking the river valley and the distant Catskill mountains. The interior remains much as it was during Church’s lifetime, furnished and decorated with objects from his travels. And the house is surrounded by a 250-acre estate that Church designed himself in accordance with the principles of Picturesque landscape.
Mountainville, New York
This year is the 60th anniversary of the Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre sculpture park in the Hudson Valley, which contains one of the largest collections of contemporary outdoor sculptures in the United States. Wandering in the fresh air among works by masters such as Alexander Calder, Mark di Suvero, Henry Moore, Anthony Caro, Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Lieberman and Maya Lin proved extremely therapeutic. The permanent collection is situated in four main areas: North Woods, a wooded section at the northeast of the property; Museum Hill, an elevated portion along the Moodna Creek; Meadows, at the western edge of the park; and South Fields, an open expanse in the southwest. In normal times, bicycles are available for rent but, alas, not at present. Tickets must be reserved in advance; the Museum Building (designed in imitation of a Norman château) and Visitor Center are currently closed.
Livingston Manor, New York
The Catskills are widely regarded as the birthplace of American dry fly fishing, thanks to 19th-century pioneers like the naturalist John Burroughs and writer Theodore Gordon. Streams such as the Beaverkill, the Neversink, the Esopus and the Willowemoc are inseparable from the history of trout fishing in the United States. Just 6 miles west of The DeBruce hotel, the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum is a fascinating celebration of that heritage. The museum is located on a mile-long stretch of the Willowemoc and is surrounded by 53 acres. As well as exhibits illustrating the history of fly-fishing over more than a century, the center contains a bamboo rodmaking workshop, and hosts events presented by fly tyers, rodmakers and environmentalists. The museum is the home of the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame.
West Point, New York
Situated on a strategic high ground at a point where the vast sweep of the Hudson River briefly narrows, the West Point Military Academy would be worth visiting for its magnificent setting alone. Founded at the direction of President Thomas Jefferson in 1802, the campus comprises numerous Norman-style buildings constructed from gray and black granite. Public access to the grounds is only by guided tour from the Visitor Center in the nearby village of Highland Falls. This is also the location of the fascinating West Point Museum, the oldest federal museum, which opened to the public in 1854. Among the collection’s more sensational exhibits are George Washington’s pistols, one of Napoleon’s swords, Hermann Göring’s dagger and revolver, and Adolf Hitler’s gold-plated pistol. The museum also contains paintings by artists as diverse as James Whistler and Fredric Remington.
A few places we planned to visit were closed due to COVID but should be open next year. Among them are Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, as well as the first presidential library nearby, and Kykuit, the John D. Rockefeller estate, farther downstream. Other places — the Dia Beacon art museum among them — are accessible with timed tickets purchased in advance from their websites.