up country by Robert Ryan

here’s the third piece in my special guest edits, Robert Ryan is an acclaimed author and journalist – one of his specialities is travel writing.

UP COUNTRY

 

I would wager that most visitors from the UK to New York rarely leave Manhattan, except maybe to check out some unbearably smug place to eat in Brooklyn. I was one of them until recently, when I decided it was time to head north into NY State, up the Hudson Valley and (eventually) to Woodstock and the Catskills. But you don’t have go that far to have a good time away from the city – a short train ride will bring you to good food, fine beers, lovely landscapes and, perhaps surprisingly, great art.

You might think there is enough art on Manhattan to keep you going for decades, and you would probably be right, but there are a couple of unusual galleries that are worth a day’s excursion. And one of them comes with the bonus of catching the Metro North train from Grand Central Station up the Hudson Valley – the same line used in the (lame) movie version of Girl on a Train. For views of the mighty river, sit on the left hand side on the carriage going up, right on the return.

Your first destination should be Beacon, which was once a local byword for industrial decline. Although still rough around the edges, Beacon is now yet another example of the power of contemporary art to inject life back into a decaying urban corpse.

The Dia:Beacon gallery (001 845 440 0100, http://www.diaart.org; £12) is accessed by shuttle bus (not Sundays) from the Beacon Metro North station, a stop on the Poughkeepsie line. Dia is housed in an old Nabisco factory on the banks of the Hudson and its closest equivalent is probably Tate Modern, although to be fair it has nothing to match the Turbine Hall. What it does have is light, lots of light. With its capacious galleries bathed in only that natural light, it is filled with the kind of works – especially the white-on-whites of Robert Ryman, the grey mirrors of Gerhard Richter and Robert Morris’s pile of muck, called Untitled (Dirt) – that will confirm your view of modern art as either inspirationally challenging or emperor’s-new-clothes fraudulent. I’m of the former persuasion and I am hardly alone – Dia pulls in enough visitors that once moribund Beacon has become a thriving little town of galleries, restaurants, hotels (the old mill that is The Roundhouse at Beacon Falls being the best – 001 845 765 8369, http://www.roundhousebeacon.com, doubles from £145 B&B) and bars (try The Hop at 554 Main St for excellent craft beers).

Thirteen miles west of Dia is The Storm King Art Centre in New Windsor (001 845 534 3115, http://www.stormking.org, £14.40). This is the kind of place only a country with vast tracts of land to spare could create. It is a massive outdoor sculpture park, with rolling hills and fields dotted with gargantuan works, many of which, especially Mark di Suvero’s installations, look as if they are the remnants of the industrial artifacts of a race of long-vanished Brobdingnagians. There are more low-key works by dozens of artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Caro, Henry Moore, Richard Serra and, represented by a sinuous dry stone wall that weaves in and out of the trees, landscape specialist Andy Galsworthy.

Storm King is slightly trickier to get to by public transport that Dia, but there are details of coach day trips from the city or train/taxi options from Beacon on the website. One thing is for sure – it’s not the type or scale of art you’ll find back on space-hungry Manhattan.

If you are making a full day of it, there are two things to detain you at Poughkeepsie, just up the river and along the Metro-North line. One is The Walkway Over the Hudson (001 845 454 9649, http://www.walkway.org; free), a restored railway bridge that is like an extra-elevated version of New York’s Highline. It is a stunning platform from which to view the changings seasons, especially as the blaze of autumn creeps down from the Canadian border or the green shoots of spring heads north, but when I last visited it required a rather long detour to reach the start of the ramp that would take you onto the main span. A recently installed glass elevator has solved that problem.

Close by, in Hyde Park, is the CIA. Now, I have to admit a frisson of excitement when it was suggested by a friend that I might like to visit the CIA, which only faded slightly when I was told it was the Culinary Institute of America (001 845 452 9600, http://www.ciachef.edu), not Spooksville (which is of course in Langley, Virginia). Set on a handsome riverside campus, this CIA is one of the most prestigious cookery schools in the USA and it has three restaurants (French, Italian, American) that are open to the public for lunch and dinner. The food in these restaurants is very accomplished; service, maybe not so much – but then everything is prepared and presented by the students, so you have to make allowances for the odd missing piece of flatware. It is also well worth taking a guided tour (£5.25) with a student, because it’s like walking through a vast Masterchef v Bake Off mash up.

I carried on north and eventually to Woodstock, where I came face-to-face with a bear (but that’s another story; trust me, The Revenant it ain’t) and deep into the Catskills, where many formerly moribund towns are being colonised by burnt-out Manhattanites.

Daytrippers, though have a choice of heading back to the city from Poughkeepsie by Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) or Metro North (www.mta.info/mnr). The former is quicker, more comfortable (and expensive) and deposits you at the rather gloomy and depressing Penn Station under Madison Square Garden. The more quotidian MNR is slower, scruffier but you arrive back at the cathedral to rail travel that is Grand Central, maybe in time for oysters downstairs (www.oysterbarny.com or, if you are feeling very flush, the Scandi-Icelandic cooking at easy-to-miss Agern (www.agernrestaurant.com), which is also housed in the terminal. I know which I’d rather do.

 

Robert Ryan

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