Cheap travel: The Hudson Valley and the world's largest kaleidoscope

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Years ago, my littlest sister and I used to go on summer vacations together. Although we usually ended up with family on Cape Cod or friends in New York City, we would generally plan our routes around out-of-the-way places that we wanted to explore. One year, attracted by its weird name, we decided to visit Poughkeepsie. It was a bust.

The trip, though, was a lot of fun, and we discovered New York's amazing Hudson Valley. We returned a few times that summer and over the ensuing years, and have never failed to be awed by the amazing array of beautiful vistas, outstanding shopping, and wonderful little tourist attractions that lay just off the beaten path. Best of all, the area isn't a major travel destination, which means that it is still relatively inexpensive and not too crowded.

Hyde Park: Ella and I were never all that great at getting an early start, so we reached Poughkeepsie long after dark. We decided to bypass the city and continued to travel north on Route 9. When I saw a sign for Hyde Park, I thought it sounded familiar, so that's where we stopped for the night. The next morning, I walked out to discover that my motel was across the street from Springwood, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's mansion. My sister and I spent a leisurely morning wandering all over the place, checking out the Presidential library, the stables, and the extensive grounds.

Springwood isn't the only mansion in Hyde Park. There's also Eleanor Roosevelt's retreat, Val-Kill, and the Vanderbilt Mansion, both of which are only a few miles from Springwood. Val-Kill is intimate, while the Vanderbilt home is a huge, beautiful Beaux-Arts masterpiece, designed by McKim, Mead, and White. On the other hand, if mansions aren't your thing, you could always try visiting the Culinary Institute of America, which is also located in Hyde Park. In addition to an impressive bookstore, it has four amazing, incredibly well-priced gourmet restaurants.

Woodstock: Although Ella and I refrained from visiting the big field where the famous festival was once held, we couldn't resist the pull of Woodstock. The little town, located sixty miles from the site of the show, isn't really all that exciting, but it has a nice, mellow feel. There are some good bookstores (I particularly liked The Golden Notebook), a couple of homey restaurants, some decent boutiques, and a neat little open-air market. In fact, the only really weird thing about the place was the huge number of six-toed cats that we found. Overall, it was a fun, relaxed place to spend a couple of hours.

The World's Largest Kaleidoscope: Okay, I'll admit that I'm a sucker for cheesy tourist traps. While I'm at it, I also admit that I usually find myself disappointed by their substandard offerings. That having been said, I love the World's Largest Kaleidoscope. Located in Mount Tremper, it is pure, wonderful cheese. Essentially a huge silo outfitted with a kaleidoscope inside, the attraction is surrounded by a hippie-styled mini-mall, filled with scented candles, t-shirts, kaleidoscopes, and assorted other souvenirs. While the marketing is a little heavy-handed, the kaleidoscope itself is fun and somewhat disorienting, and the whole thing smacks of imagination and whimsy.

Hudson: On the other end of the spectrum, the small, dignified town of Hudson is full of little antique shops, charming restaurants, and a museum dedicated to firefighting. Being of a somewhat perverse nature, my sister and I made sure to visit the famous Columbia Street, formerly Diamond Street. Although this now appears to be a sedate, respectable area, it once was among the most famous red-light districts in the world. The town was a well-known center of carnal vice in the 1920's and 1930's, but its role as a military staging center during World War II pushed it into a whole other realm. Seedy, scintillating tales of Diamond Street were swapped across the battlefields of Europe by nostalgic GIs, forever cementing it as a sort of khaki-colored wonderland. By the mid-1950's, however, the New York State Police had targeted the street and the brothels were shuttered.

I've only scratched the surface of the Hudson Valley. It is filled with beautiful small towns, bizarre sights, music festivals, and all sorts of other attractions. If you decide to go, I strongly encourage you to pick up the New York State Moon Handbook by Christiane Bird, a wonderful guide to the area. Most important of all, leave yourself plenty of time to enjoy the sights!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He once traveled 20 miles out of his way just to pick up a t-shirt that read "Coxsackie, New York."

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