Follow the call of the north in upstate New York

Escape the glare of the bright lights to visit upstate New York.

The Catskill Mountains in New York State. Getty Images
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Music and dance festivals. Endless hikes. Boutique hotels, antique stores and farm-fresh cuisine. Upstate New York is the new bohemian and celebrity refuge, just two hours from the city.

Lately, New York City has been feeling a little uninspiring, with constant banter about real-estate spikes, immigration laws and, well, money. Even Brooklyn, once an escape for those in search of space and creativity, is filling up with “luxury” towers, chain brands and supermarkets. More and more artists, hipsters and celebrities are being pushed out, unable to pay outrageous rents.

Where are they moving next? They're falling for the pastoral charms of upstate New York, with its cow fields, steep snaking roads, fragrant woods and vertiginous mountaintops. Jim Jarmusch told me 10 years ago that he'd written his tragicomedy Broken Flowers locked in his Catskills cabin soundtracked by the Ethio-jazz of Mulatu Astatke.

Melissa Auf der Maur, the feisty Canadian musician, moved to Hudson in 2007, and set up Basilica (, a cultural centre that hosts cutting-edge performances, film projections and art festivals in a massive 19th-century factory. Then there's Marina Abramovic's new radical MAI (, another old brick building being redesigned by Rem Koolhaas.

The hotel whizz André Balazs took over a mansion a couple of years ago and transformed it in to Locusts-on-Hudson (, a posh rental frequented by the likes of Abramovic and the gallerist Jack Shainman, the latter of whom also owns The School (, a large art gallery in nearby Kinderhook.

When Ann Marie Gardner, the former editor of Monocle, launched a glamorous farming glossy, Modern Farmer, it became clear that upstate was the new trendy place to be, and that hunting, composting and foraging were new trends.

A new bohemia emerged, with its celebrities, farmers, artists, lumberjacks, writers and foragers. Galleries, antique stores, boutique hotels, culture festivals and chic restaurants started sprouting up everywhere. Minimalism was out; the Adirondack look was in. Wooden cabins, Pendleton blankets and deer heads became cool. Suddenly, everyone was buying a house upstate. Naturally, prices began to spike.

Intrigued, I follow the call of the north and embarked on a journey across the great lakes, rocky mountaintops and misty waterfalls at the edge of New York City to trace this rural exodus. We speed past the crowded highways and honks, leaving Brooklyn behind, the roadside becoming greener and greener as we enter the lower Hudson Valley. We cross small towns, with their quaint pastel homes, white churches and farm stands.

First stop: the Storm King Art Center's 500-acre outdoor sculpture park off Route 9W ( We wander among Andy Goldsworthy's long, sinuous rock sculpture, Alexander Calder mobiles and abstract Mark di Suvero steel structures.

Dia: Beacon ( in the nearby Beacon is also a destination for minimalist art – a former factory filled with masterpieces of land art, including, in the garden, Richard Serra's monumental iron labyrinths. Beacon itself is a quaint riverside town with a community of earnest young professionals who moved here and opened shops, art galleries and cute cafes. Perched on the Fishkill Creek, flanked by the Beacon Falls, the Roundhouse boutique hotel (; rooms from Dh700 per night, including taxes) has taken over an old roundhouse, with striking views on the surrounding landscape and a rustic decor. The restaurant, which serves fresh seasonal snacks, is a nice place to stop for a bite.

After lunch, we follow the road up the Hudson Valley towards the city of Poughkeepsie, home to the venerable Vassar girls' college. Its 65-metre-tall, 2-kilometre-long former railway track has been transformed into the Walkway over the Hudson (, the longest pedestrian bridge in the world. Suspended between the glimmering river and its liners, the crisp northern sky and verdant park, it's an incredibly peaceful place to exercise or contemplate.

On the road again, we cross Hyde Park, the swankiest town in the region, home to the Roosevelts’ estate, the Beaux-Arts Vanderbilt mansion and the Culinary Institute of America. We follow the banks of the river all the way to Hudson, the artists’ hub where Abramovic has been building her “long-durational” performance-art centre, following the pioneer Auf der Maur.

Hungry, we stop at the local pizza place Baba Louie's ( to feast on large pies topped with garden-fresh herbs, next to the local resident – and renowned sociologist and public intellectual – Malcolm Gladwell. We walk out as the sun sets and take a stroll along the town's narrow streets, filled with vintage shops, organic beauty boutiques, yoga studios and art galleries. There's also a lovely, Vogue-endorsed B&B, The Hudson Milliner (; rooms from Dh900 per night, including taxes), where the spacious rooms are filled with vintage furniture from around the world. Young men in checked shirts and beards are pushing strollers or carrying organic local vegetables. I imagine them preparing joyful, abundant, fireplace-lit dinner parties.

The next day is nature-themed. We start with a trip to the farmers’ market, where the stalls overflow with tomatoes in all shapes and colours, fresh eggs, apple cider, berries and baked goods. Next stop: the Appalachian Trail, a 3,500km footpath that extends from Georgia to Maine. We ascend the damp, abrupt tracks, aromatic with the scent of pine sap and birch wood. Heavy streams flow through the rocky mounds. We lie on massive stones looking onto a waterfall, and stare at the spotless sky.

American artists have long been fascinated by the dramatic wilderness of the Catskills, on the west side of the Hudson. In A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning, the English-born artist Thomas Cole painted the mountains in rich ochre tones, the dense forest kissed by golden dusk, with pink clouds streaking the sky. Cole took a steamship up the Hudson in autumn 1825 when the Erie Canal opened. He hiked up the Catskills to paint the first landscapes of the area, establishing the foundations of the Hudson River School. He led the way for many artists who followed, including Frederic Edwin Church and the Maverick Colony, a group of bohemians and artists who created a utopian commune in Woodstock in 1905.

Today, the Catskills remain a bohemian and artistic enclave, and many well-known filmmakers, musicians and writers retire into its abundant forests for inspiration. Because the mountainous region is so spread out, there’s no single concentration for this creative community; isolation is part of the appeal.

I go into Woodstock hoping to find a vivacious neo-hippie town, but I’m disappointed. The city now feels like a museum for tourists, with souvenir shops selling tie-dye and dreamcatchers, swollen prices and a few original hippies whose feathered hair and ragged clothes make them seem like relics themselves.

There are still a few excellent spots, however, such as the independent bookstore Golden Notebook (, which offers a thorough selection of books focusing on the history and nature of the region, and a couple of cute vintage stores and record shops. Nearby, at the beginning of the road, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery sits atop the mountain range. Facing it is the trail up to Overlook Mountain, with its striking views of the Hudson Valley.

It turns out that the hipsters, including the model Helena Christensen, have actually found refuge in the nearby Phoenicia and Kingston, both a scenic drive from Woodstock. At The Graham and Co (; rooms from Dh550 per night, including taxes), a trendy B&B run by New York fashion professionals, a heavily bearded man with braided hair welcomes me. He's tending to a bonfire outside, at the foot of the majestic mountain; young, well-dressed couples chatter around the flames. The hotel doesn't serve food, but is surrounded by several restaurants, including the Phoenicia Diner (, a local favourite since the 1980s that offers farmers' cuisine: egg dishes, locally smoked trout and waffles for breakfast, and grass-fed beef short ribs and duck confit for lunch and dinner.

After-hours, the long-haired man, who is a musician, drives me in his vintage car to Kingston. Its uptown Stockade District is filled with vintage-style parlours, music venues, artisanal shops and restaurants.

Kingston, established by the Dutch as a trading post in the 17th century, was the first capital of New York in 1777, and was burnt by the British that year after the Battles of Saratoga. It later became an important transportation centre, with rail and canal connections. It has three historic districts, where the architecture spans early Dutch, Federalist, Georgian, Greek revival, Victorian, Romanesque, Italianate, neoclassical, art deco and contemporary. Uptown Kingston, where the Dutch originally settled, still has the outline of the original stockade built against the Indians, the Ulster County Courthouse, Senate House and Old Dutch Church.

The hippest spot here is the Stockade Tavern (, a prohibition-style lounge in an 1880s Singer sewing machine factory, where mustachioed and tattooed waiters in pinstripe aprons whip up elegant craft drinks with house-made syrups accompanied by plates of delicious nibbles – freshly baked pretzels and bread, olives, pickles and sardines. Nearby, BSP (, built in 1900 as a vaudeville and theatre house, is where the best indie-rock bands and DJs perform.

Here, surrounded by nature, history, culture and earnest, charming country hipsters, I didn’t miss Brooklyn too much.

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