Roadside America: Hudson Valley, New York

For many New Yorkers, it’s a fall rite of passage. Rent car. Book bed-n-breakfast. Drive somewhere with trees. Indulge in pastoral pleasures like hay rides, apple-picking, hiking, canoeing, etc. Return, wondering faintly if you should ditch city life to renovate a colonial home and take up beekeeping.

But often, planning a New York City getaway is a bit more complicated than that. First, there’s the cost of getting out of the city; a weekly car rental from Manhattan can often cost more than a flight to Europe. Then there’s figuring out where to go. The Adirondacks? The Catskills? Pennsylvania? Maine? And once you finally arrive at your destination, there’s the long process of disconnecting from city life. By the time you’re no longer checking your phone every half hour, it’s time to go home.

Thankfully, there is one getaway that is relatively easy to plan: a trip to the Hudson Valley, a region of upstate New York about two to three hours from Manhattan.The main town of Hudson is accessible either by car, which is more expensive but offers greater flexibility, or by Amtrak train. If you do decide to go with a car rental, try taking the PATH train from Manhattan to Hoboken, New Jersey. An Enterprise Rent-a-Car is walking distance from the train station, and rates are about 50 percent cheaper than in the city.

Accommodation-wise, Hudson is overflowing with charming bed-and-breakfasts. For cheaper accommodations with more privacy, try booking a homestay in a nearby town. I recently found a lovely two-bedroom townhouse in nearby Athens for just $125 per night, which is comparable to the cost for a single room in the region.

Apart from the stunning scenery, river views and fresh air, the town of Hudson offers a number of charming cafes, galleries, antiques shops and historic sights, which can easily be explored by foot. The food options are also top-notch. Head to Olde Hudson Specialty Food to peruse the selection of regional artisanal foodstuffs, like fresh eggs, cheeses and charcuterie. A few doors down, Hudson Wine Merchants offers a wide array of wines and liquors, including locally distilled whiskeys and spirits. The staff is familiar with the selection at Olde Hudson and can provide excellent pairing suggestions. Protip: the Hudson Red with the Chilean shiraz is pure bliss.

Cap off your artisanal picnic basket with a baguette from Café Le Perche, which also has an incredible French Roast coffee. And if you have a car, don’t miss a trip to Black Horse Farms in Athens, which sells fresh seasonal produce and gourmet grocery items from nearby producers.

Indulge carefully, though. You may never leave.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user eleephotographay]

An off-season weekend getaway to Cape May, New Jersey

off-season cape may

A few weeks ago I felt the urgent, desperate need to flee New York City.

There was something about the city’s noise, its attitude, its frenetic pace that was driving me out of my mind. I felt caged in by the narrow tenement buildings of my Lower East Side streets. A taxi driver honked unnecessarily and I felt the irrepressible urge to slam on his front hood and yell “WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO THAT FOR?”

It was clear that I needed a break.

My requirements were simple: a place outside of the city where I could unwind with a good book, a fireplace and maybe a bottle of Pinot Noir. My top priority was silence.

I found what I was looking for in Cape May, New Jersey. While in the summer it’s a hotspot for vacationing tri-staters, in the winter it’s close to deserted. I recruited my boyfriend, rented a car for the three-and-a-half hour drive and booked a room at Congress Hall, a charming Victorian hotel that once served as the summer residence for presidents Pierce, Buchanan, Grant and Harrison. With a friendly yellow exterior, a tiled lobby reminiscent of Havana and a daily schedule of events, the Congress Hall had the look of a coastal resort and the feel of a grown-up summer camp.

But most importantly, in a section of the hotel called the Brown Room, Congress Hall had a fireplace and in front of that fireplace were a scattering of leather armchairs and a bar with an extensive wine list. Behold, the resting place I’d been dreaming of.

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Turns out, the Brown Room and adjoining Blue Pig Tavern are among Cape May’s only hotspots during the off-season months of October-March, and by 5pm the area was bustling with locals taking advantage of happy hour. After a relaxing evening of reading, wining and dining on delicious mussels, I fell into one of the most restful sleeps I’d had in months.



The next morning, we woke early to explore the town. The streets were dead silent, except for the sounds of waves crashing on the shore. Further inland, quaint multi-colored storefronts advertised shop names from a different time: Good Scents, Just For Laughs, Whale’s Tale, the Cape May Popcorn Factory.



The only store open at 9am on a Monday was the Original Fudge Kitchen, where I picked out a selection of salt-water taffy and gulped what tasted like stale Folger’s coffee (even though it was a retreat, I am still a New Yorker, and I was desperate).



After the pit stop, we continued our stroll. The roads were deliciously devoid of cars, and only a handful of pedestrians shared the sidewalks. After ascertaining that nearly every shop had closed for the season, and that there was in fact very little to do, we made our way to the waterfront. The late winter day was fresh, and we had the beach entirely to ourselves. After tiring of splashing in the surf, we headed back to the hotel. A fireplace was waiting.


Visit the Cape May National Historic Landmark, New Jersey

[Flickr image via Alan Kotok]

The Abbey Resort and Spa: A surprise foodie retreat in the Midwest

When you stay at a resort like The Abbey Resort and Spa on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, chances are that you’ll eat many of your meals at the property’s on-site restaurant. This can sometimes mean dining on uninspired dishes like rubbery “hotel chicken” or resigning yourself to the fact that you’ll be spending a fortune on each meal in order to avoid heading offsite in search of better or cheaper food.

So one of the things that impressed me most about The Abbey Resort was the clear dedication to quality food at affordable prices. Over the course of my stay, I had the chance to sample several of their signature dishes, from a hearty dinner that included grilled scallops, tender beef filet and rich espresso creme brulee to a light meal from the spa menu that featured an Asian chicken salad, fresh veggies and a dessert of grilled pound cake with strawberry puree. I’m a picky eater with a former chef for a husband, so I can be hard to please. But there was not one dish I tried that I did not like. Even more impressive: almost everything served at The Abbey is made from scratch.

The Abbey’s foodie focus extends beyond the kitchen walls though. On summer Sunday afternoons (Memorial Day to Labor Day), the resort hosts “Burning Down the Docks” -an all-day celebration of “brews, blues and BBQ”. Nearly 200 people attend each event and indulge in $2 Leinenkugel beers and BBQ straight from the onsite smoker while listing to live performances from local (and local to Chicago) blues bands.

With the season for outdoor barbecues behind them, The Abbey has moved on to a new series of culinary events for the Fall. For three weekends in October and November, The Abbey will host their third “Great Chefs at the Lake” series. Guests who pay for the package ($219 per person for two nights) will arrive on Friday for a welcome reception with that weekend’s featured chef. On Saturday, they’ll watch that chef prepare some of his or her signature meals and then enjoy a four-course dinner, with wine pairing, created by the chef specifically for the event.

The Abbey has pulled in some pretty big names in Chicago dining for the series. October 23-25 will feature the cuisine of award-winning chef Todd Stein from cibo matto and the trendy ROOF bar at The Wit hotel (and formerly of acclaimed restaurant MK). November 6-8 they’ll welcome Dudley Nieto from tapas restaurant, Eivissa. The last weekend, November 13-15, food from Coobah, helmed by chef Jimmy Madla (who is also the drummer for the band Veruca Salt), will be served.

To find out more about the strategy behind the food focus at The Abbey, I talked with Director of Operations, Michael Lucero, who previously worked as Food and Beverage Director of House of Blues in Chicago. Here’s what he had to say:

How did working at the House of Blues prepare you to run operations at The Abbey:
When first interviewing at the House of Blues, I realized that [with multiple venues in one] the operations were very similar to a resort, without the guest rooms. The main reason I joined the House of Blues [was] because of their dedication and commitment to the culture. . . They never wavered from the quality and service standards that helped build their brand. This is where I realized broader benefits of “scratch cooking.” Although it costs more to do so, the quality is always better and more consistent. It also allows creativity and this is where chefs thrive.

When I joined The Abbey, I wanted to bring that aspect to a resort setting. When compared to stand-alone restaurants, customer perceptions of hotel food tends to be lower – too expensive, inferior food, and relatively “staid” menus. We are changing those perceptions here at The Abbey. It started with our philosophy of “hiring the smile-training the skill” – bringing back service dedicated people. Then we focused on the food. Well over 70% of the menu is prepared with raw ingredients.

A great example would be our new BBQ menu in the Waterfront (restaurant). All meats and fish are butchered by our Chef, mixed with home-made ingredients, and smoked by our Pit Master on our outdoor smoker. The Pit Master is certified with the Kansas BBQ Society. This is as good as it gets. This philosophy extends throughout the kitchens in all food preparations.

Speaking of your Pit Master, Matt Whiteford, how did you select him as The Abbey’s BBQ master?
Matt was the perfect person to do the grilling. Our goal was to create a menu and an experience unique to our dockside location, a destination that locals can enjoy frequently, and a dining scenario where all guests would share in the gospel of great BBQ. We realized a great opportunity to align the resort with an award-winning Pit Master. [Matt] has competed for the last five years nationally. . his process was exactly what we were looking for. His “layers of flavors” technique, applying spice rubs and various marinades and glazes during the cooking process, followed by one of Whiteford’s gourmet BBQ sauces [which the resort sells], delivers exceptionally tender and delicious BBQ. He truly has a passion for BBQ and his personality is perfect, always interacting with the guests as they enjoy their food.

I didn’t get a chance to watch Matt in action (or try his famous pulled pork), but I did chat with him for a few minutes and it’s true, his love for what he does is immediately apparent. It’s that obsession with quality food that I think makes The Abbey stand out among other Midwest resorts. They not only serve delicious meals at a variety of price points, they recognize that their guests have a passion for creative cuisine too.

Disclosure: The Abbey Resort and Spa did cover the cost of my stay, but the views expressed within my post are entirely my own. Gratis or not, the food here was delicious and I’m carrying the extra five pounds to prove it.

Budget vacations from Seattle: Bainbridge Island


I arrived in Seattle on my birthday last week, which just happened to be the city’s hottest day in history. Temperatures across Puget Sound reached 106 degrees! Needless to say, I needed a break from the heat — and a break from long hours of driving up the northern California and Oregon coast. A mini-vacation on Bainbridge Island was an ideal break from both the heat, the car, and the city.

With a resident population of less than 2,000 around 24,000, Bainbridge Island is a unique weekend getaway that is just a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. Ferries leave for the island from Seattle every hour from Pier 52, and downtown Bainbridge is a short 5-minute walk from the terminal. You can walk ($6.80 per person RT), bring your bike, or drive your car ($10 RT) onto the ferry.


Where to stay
There are three places to stay that are conveniently located close to the center of town.

  • Best Western Bainbridge Island Suites (350 High School Road NE; #206.855.9666): This pet-friendly option is nestled among forested hills and quiet harbors, yet is far enough away from the bustle of downtown Bainbridge that you’ll be able to have a little peace and quiet.
  • Island Country Inn (920 Hildebrand Lane NE; #206.842.6861): Escape the “sameness” of chain hotels and experience the casual, yet professional appeal of the island country inn, which is a perfect retreat setting.
  • The Eagle Harbor Inn (291 Madison Ave S; #206.842.1446): The Eagle Harbor Inn offers a unique “petit hotel” experience, with just five one-of-a-kind rooms and three custom town homes — all built around a garden-filled courtyard.


Where to eat

With over a dozen eateries to choose from, you will not be short on food. The most popular restaurants are all within walking distance from the ferry depot.

  • Harbour Public House (231 Parfitt Way SW; #206.842.0969): Its fish and chips are legendary and the patio seating has great views of the harbor. Only the best local brews are on tap.
  • Four Swallows Restaurant (481 Madison Ave N; #206.842.3397): This is the finest dining experience you will get on Bainbridge, but unless you splurge heartily your bill for two will still run you less than $100. The Four Swallows specializes in Northwest cuisine.
  • Town and Country Market (343 Winslow Way E; #206.842.3848): This great little market in the center of downtown Bainbridge has great coffee and other local goods for reasonable prices.

What to see and do
Whether you are walking, biking, or driving around, there is plenty to keep you occupied on Bainbridge for a full weekend.

  • Walking or biking: There’s a helpful Bainbridge Walker and Bicyclist map that you can pick up upon arrival at the ferry terminal that gives you the complete lowdown on things that are withing walking and biking distance. Nearly every month in the spring and summer there are cool walking and biking events on the island.
  • Kayaking: Bainbridge is an ideal size to explore by kayak. There are two outfitters in town that can help you rent water gear: Back of Beyond Boathouse and Exotic Aquatics Scuba & Kayak.
  • Wine tasting: There are at least three wine tasting rooms within the three block along downtown’s main strip. Tasting fees are $5 per person, and all wines are locally harvested.
  • Shopping: There are more than twenty shops and boutiques within downtown Bainbridge, and bargains are easily found!

Check out more budget summer vacations here!

Love stinks (this year), V-Day spending down

Don’t expect an expensive gesture this year. Valentine’s Day spending is expected to drop 4.8 percent this year, after suffering to the tune of 6.8 percent a year ago. The good news is that we’re becoming less romantic at a slower rate this year. Nonetheless, don’t plan on a surprise weekend getaway this year.

According research firm IBISWorld, the passionate are only going to commit $28.6 billion to their fellow lovebirds this year. The reason is simple: Valentine’s Day just isn’t Christmas.

According to George Van Horn, a senior analyst at IBISWorld, events like birthdays and Christmas don’t involve a whole lot of choice. You have to commit some cash. “Valentine’s Day is more of a discretionary occasion,” he says, “which means it will be hit particularly hard by the current economic climate.” As we tighten our belts, this non-day off is among the casualties.

IBISWorld believes that couples are going to swap out trips, dinners out and the like for romantic meals at home, walks on the beach or writing a love letter or poem. Yes, this was actually in the press release! I have to admit, a walk on the beach right now, here in New York, would probably be better than a poem.

So, how does 2009 look? Travel is pretty grim. IBISWorld forecasts that close to $3.45 billion will be spent on romantic getaways this year, compared to $3.58 billion last year. It’s a drop of 3.5 percent.