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Clinton Wedding Site Rhinebeck Just One Jewel of Hudson Valley

Rhinebeck, the 324-year-old New York State town where Chelsea Clinton staged the overhyped "wedding of the millennium" July 31, is certainly a gentrified charmer these days, with its bistros and Victorian architecture. But apart from being the area where I grew up (in pleasant and not-quite-so-twee Red Hook, part of Rhinebeck till 1812), the rest of the gently rolling Hudson Valley in which it's centrally located is also a trove unto itself, historic enough that I think of it as "America's Loire" -- one of the more historic concentrations of grand architecture, from neo-Gothic to Federal, in the United States.

The corridor leading 130 miles (209 km) up the east side of the Hudson River from New York City toward state capital Albany (mostly along Route 9, aka Albany Post Road) boasts an impressive pedigree indeed: George Washington set up his most famous HQ here; Robert Fulton debuted the steamboat; U.S. prez Franklin D. Roosevelt grew up; Rockefellers, Astors, and Vanderbilts spent their summers and weekends; and famous landscape painter Frederick Church parked his easel. The area is also home to the Culinary Institute of America and highly regarded colleges Vassar and Bard; but above all else, the valley of the mighty Hudson is the site of the grand mansions of America's elite, from the 17th-century Dutch patroons through the late 20th-century. With plenty of good (and often superb) eats and sleeps along the way, the Hudson Valley makes for a splendid drive, from day trip to one-weeker -- with spectacular foliage an autumnal lagniappe.

Following are the key (not remotely exhaustive) highlights open to the public, more or less from south to north; you'll see why this could easily take a week. Welcome to my world:

Sunnyside The patroon-era, riverside homestead of Washington Irving, author of Tales of Sleepy Hollow (remember Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman?), in the pretty village of Tarrytown. Irving expanded and gussied it up beginning in 1835, and it's a romantic window into the 19th century.

Tarrytown, NY: The Neo-Gothic Lyndhurst mansionLyndhurst Also romantic and also in Tarrytown, the United States' top example of Gothic revival is a marble-clad castle (right) with a lovely interior featuring lots of neat-o trompe l'œil plasterwork.

Kykuit An elaborate stone manse and estate built for world-changing robber baron John D. Rockefeller in 1913, it includes an impressive classic car collection, gardens, views and art collection (check out former U.S. veep Nelson Rockefeller's A-list 20th-century lawn sculptures).

Boscobel A Federal-style frame house built in Garrison by a former Revolutionary-era Royalist in 1808, it's simpler than other historic area abodes but still has some cool touches, like the floor in the vestibule, a textile painted to look like marble, described by a guide as something like "an early form of linoleum."

Storm King Art Center Pop over the Tappan Zee bridge to Mountainville on the west side of the Hudson for one of the world's most distinguished modern sculpture parks, marking a half-century this year. Its 500 acres are dotted with works by Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, Henry Moore, Nam June Paik, Louise Bourgeois, and Roy Liechtenstein, as well as some more recent stars.

United States Military Academy at West Point Also on the west bank a bit north of Storm King, established in 1802, West Point offers guided tours and an interesting museum, as well as a fine repast and night's sleep at the historic, 149-room Hotel Thayer (from US$159 per night).

Mohonk Mountain House One of the most spectacular old resorts in the eastern U.S., also on the Hudson's west side, outside New Paltz. Even if you don't stay here it's well worth a visit for killer Shawnagunk Mountain views and sprawling Victorian splendor (built 1869, 297 rooms, from US$320 a night).

Cold Spring An east-bank town with a cute downtown full of boutiques, antiques shops, and eateries, definitely worth a peek.

Washington's Headquarters The longest-running HQ of America's Revolutionary-era titan and first president (in 1782-83) is a seven-acre, three-building site in the west-bank town of Newburgh which determined the future shape of the U.S. government; the interpretive guides are excellent.

Culinary Institute of America Back on the east side, the tastier, less covert CIA is a sprawling pile in the town of Hyde Park, open for tours and offering several fine student-staffed restaurants. There are also periodic cooking classes for the public. Delish.

Hyde Park, NY, Vanderbilt mansionFranklin D. Roosevelt Home A personal favorite of mine for its museum of early-to-mid-20th-century U.S. history, the Hyde Park spread called Springwood includes FDR's restored family home. You can also visit nearby Val-Kill, the house where Eleanor Roosevelt later lived.

Vanderbilt Mansion Just up the road apiece, railroad magnate Frederick Vanderbilt's 211-acre (85-hectare) estate (left) stars a 54-room Beaux-Arts manse that's positively eye-popping in parts (a tad over the top, actually, in my humble opinion), and offers a fascinating informative tour.

Mills Mansion Almost as elaborate as the Vanderbilt, this 19th-century Greek Revival 25-roomer in Staatsburg (just north of Hyde Park) also boasts an extravagant Beaux-Arts interior and great river views.

Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, one of this town's coolest attractions is a museum and air show featuring working World War I biplanes; it's open mid-June through mid-October. Curse you, Red Baron! (For a historic place to stay locally, the Beekman Arms, which claims to be America's oldest inn, is unbeatable; for more on Rhinebeck, click here.)

Montgomery Place In my hometown of Red Hook (actually the hamlet of Barrytown), Montgomery Place is a petite, ornate home of the early 19th century connected to the Livingston family and war hero General Richard Montgomery. Open mid-May through October, it's beautifully kept, has a great garden, and hosts a cool antique car show each September.

Bard College Just up from Montgomery Place in the hamlet of Annandale-on Hudson (also part of the town of Red Hook), Bard is a small, ivy-covered liberal arts college with a sterling lefty reputation, great cultural program, and a shout-out in the Steely Dan tune "My Old School." The current jewel in the crown here is the seven-year-old Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, designed by big friggin' deal Frank Gehry in his typical twisty, shimmery idiom.

Olana, Hudson Valley estate of painter Frederick Church Clermont One of my favorite historic homes due to its colonial-flavored simplicity, this landmark in Germantown was built by Robert Livingston in the mid 18th century. They became an illustrious family indeed; his son Robert R. signed the Declaration of Independence and administered Washington's oath of office, and later helped Robert Fulton invent the first steamboat, named after this estate.

Hudson I'll be honest: This town used to be a depressing dump when I was growing up, but is now sort of like Cold Spring, filled with chic Manhattan refugees, antiques shops, and other fancy boutiques and restos.

Olana Just south of Hudson, the estate (right) of famed painter Frederick Church is another quirky masterpiece, built in quasi-classical-Persian style in 1871-90 and flaunting sumptuous river views you'll recognize in Church's paintings.

More info: HudsonValley.org.

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