The locale: A five-hour drive southeast through the Finger Lakes and Catskills to the western Hudson Valley.
The scoop: Many New York state residents know it principally as the college-town home of SUNY New Paltz. A definite university vibe suffuses the town of 14,000, where peace signs, rainbow flags, used bookstores, live music and patio beer gardens abound. Expect to be approached by friendly locals and travelers, from peaceniks hitchhiking west to strangers inviting you to smell some of their potent incense.
As appealing as the free-spiritedness of New Paltz’s surface can be, look beneath to find added layers of history and interest. The town’s founding dates back to 1678, when French Huguenots fleeing the Counter-Reformation settled here for greater religious freedom. They built homes along the peaceful Wallkill River. Today the riverside not only hosts their surviving settlement but also serves as a gateway to nature-loving New Paltz’s many outdoor pursuits, including hiking, cycling, kayaking and rock-climbing. At the river crossing on the town’s western edge, town buildings give sudden way to a weathered-steel bridge, trails, cornfields and the dramatic Shawangunk Ridge, signaling scenic adventure ahead.
Where to stay
Mohonk Mountain House—Founded in 1869, this grand resort remains the undisputed queen of the Shawangunk Ridge. Despite its woodsy-summer-camp feel, Mohonk hosts presidential-caliber guests, so overnighting here is a splurge. You can still get a taste by making dinner reservations, which come with a day pass to hike the thousands of acres around the resort that offer magnificent five-state views.
Watergrasshill Bed & Breakfast—A few chain motels have set up in New Paltz, but this four-bedroom home on 15 acres of farmland offers a more personal alternative, with farm-fresh breakfasts daily and cooking and painting classes often offered. No cloying Victorian lace doilies here—expect contemporary decor with pops of color.
Places to eat
Karma Road Organic Cafe—This scruffy breakfast and lunch spot—with its cheerful paint, scuffed wooden floor and crookedly hung photos of barnyard animals—has been a local favorite for more than a decade. Outgoing college students in T-shirts and baseball caps serve up smoothies, juices, veggie salads and sandwiches like the hearty baked tofu, satisfying with pesto and roasted red pepper on whole-grain bread.
Garvan’s—It calls itself a gastropub, but that hardly does justice to the white-tablecloth experience of dining in an elegant 1759 home set among ample flowers and locust trees. The food by executive chef Josh Paige—roast chicken, grilled ribeye, vegetable napoleon—is traditional, comforting and current at the same time.
What to do
Historic Huguenot Street—Six solid stone houses built by New Paltz’s founders before 1720 still stand together in what is now a peaceful historic district along the Wallkill River. Tours of the area and furnished homes cover the full range of its history, from Native American days to the Gilded Age and beyond.
Wallkill Rail Trail—A former railroad line has become one of New Paltz’s most beloved respites for getting out in nature. The 22-mile gravelly path chugs straight along the placid, north-flowing Wallkill, hosting runners, walkers and cyclists plus wildlife from barred owls to wild turkeys to black bears.
Water Street Market—A rambling collection of shingled buildings, plus an antiques barn, has become an inviting area to shop boutiques and linger among the sculptures, fountains, Adirondack chairs and outdoor chess sets. For a bragging-rights bite as you wander, snag one of Kosiner Bros. Dohnut Shop’s ice cream sandwiches, which bracket the extra-rich ice cream with one of their cinnamon-sugar doughnuts.
Lagusta’s Luscious Commissary—Yes, you can get soups, pickle plates and other light fare at this sweet little mint-and-white coffee and tea shop. But its most unique offerings are wrapped chocolates in some of the most unique varieties you’ll find anywhere, like Smoky Corn on the Cob or Four Grain Bourbon Chile. Small wonder Lagusta’s also has a location in New York City, but this is its manufacturing location and flagship store.