Coming Home to Ulster County, NY

You Can Go Home Again: Our travel editor returns to his roots in upstate New York

By Kent E. St. John
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor

History is never far away in Ulster County, NY. (Kent E. St. John photo)
History is never far away in Ulster County, NY. (Kent E. St. John photo)

The Native Americans called it the lovely land; I now call it home once again. I have returned to my birthplace of Kingston, NewYork. on the banks of the majestic Hudson River.

After twelve years of living in the Arizona desert, the lush greenery of Ulster County is as welcome as a cool drink of spring water found in the surrounding Catskill Mountains. Ulster County, located just 90 miles up the Hudson River, has a mix of history, geography, and activities that will beguile any nomad.

Kingston, the first capital of New York State, is celebrating its 350th birthday and events are planned yearlong. Pack your sack and enjoy a magical destination.

Historical Heart

Hearty Dutch trappers were the first visitors to the area in 1614. By 1652 settlers brought over by the Dutch West Indies Company settled into what then called Esopus. In 1658 then Colonial Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered the 70 European settlers to build a stockade and move their dwellings within.

To this day the streets of the original village remain laid out as they were in 1658. Within the uptown area, 21 pre-revolutionary buildings still exist, many built out of stone and found only in the area. The Stockade District enjoys designated protected status by the National Historic Register and is a National Historic District.

Pick up a brochure of the area at the Kingston Heritage Center located at 308 Clinton Ave. A map and background of the buildings will enhance your visit. Start on the corners of John and Crown streets, the only place in America that has a pre-revolutionary building on all four corners.

Some other standouts are the Abraham Van Gaasbeck building, called the Senate House, and the courthouse; both reminders of the birth of New York State in 1777. The other buildings date from the early 19th century and house shops and restaurants.  Visit the Senate House Museum and the Old Dutch Church or just stroll under the leafy trees.

From May to October on Saturdays, the district’s Main Street is closed for a farmer’s market. Eclectic restaurants make the Stockade District a great stop for dining.

Downtown Kingston is a visit back to the 19th century and the days of life in a major port on the Hudson River. From small kayaks to ocean-going tugs, boating is a major part of the scene.

The Rondout District is also the setting for the Hudson River Maritime Museum. Inside the museum are artifacts and displays that show the evolution of life along the Hudson. Outside on the museum’s pier are actual boats from various periods. Tours to the Rondout Lighthouse are available by boat from the museum. West Strand Street has a row of 19th-century buildings that are filled with shops and restaurants.

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Summertime dining is a visual treat, and live entertainment is commonplace on weekends in the West Strand Waterfront Park. The area is a National, State and Local Historic District and should not be missed.

Mountain Pursuits

Nature has a profound impact on Ulster County, and the Catskill Mountains offer every kind of outdoor activity. 98 mountain peaks over 3,000 feet high form scenic beauty that will captivate the explorer. The Catskills are also known as America’s First Wilderness because scholars can trace the beginnings of the environmental conservation movement to this area.

Since 1885 the Catskill Park has grown from 34,000 to 700,000 acres. Wilderness, cascading waterfalls, trout-filled streams, and historic villages can all be enjoyed within the park.

Hiking trails are extensive and range from easy to some of the most difficult in the country. Many will lead you to old growth forest, meadows, and remnants of old farmsteads and lakes and streams. One standout set of falls is the Kaaterskill Falls, the highest (even higher than Niagara) in New York.

The falls are snugly tucked in a crevice and cascading waters start with a 175-foot drop into a small pool then fall another 85 feet to the Katterskill stream. Mountain views and stream-fueled breezes make it a great picnic spot. It’s an easy hike just a half-mile from state highway 23-A, in between the charming villages of Palenville and Haines Falls.

The Catskills also offer some great winter options. Downhill skiing is well represented with areas such as Hunter, Belleayre, and Windham. All offer a variety of lodgings to suit any budget.

If you’re looking for some adrenalin rushes try climbing the cliff faces of the “Gunks”. The Shawangunk Mountains are located near the Village of New Paltz and are designated by the Nature Conservancy as one of the “75 Last Great Places on Earth”.

Within the mountain range lies New York’s largest privately funded nature preserve, the Mohonk Preserve. Natural ice caves, sky lakes, ravines and virgin forests provide endless exploring.

Cultural Havens

Little villages in Ulster County are becoming home bases for some of the world’s best artists, writers, and entertainers. The combination of history, beauty, and character provide a setting conducive to creativity. Stone Ridge, High Falls, and Woodstock are just of these three villages.

Stone Ridge offers farm stands, cornfields, and mountain vistas. Turn of the century churches are interspaced with stone homes and this makes for a wonderful stroll.

High Falls offers a 19th century feel complete with a trail along the locks of the D&H canal. It is also home to the DePuy Canal house, a world-class restaurant run by John Novi. Its setting in an old canal tavern is unbeatable. Restorations such as the High Ridge Farm are making the small village well known. For anglers, try the well-hidden Medicine Lake; bass pond fished by the Indians centuries ago.

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Woodstock’s fame spread with the Woodstock concert in 1969. Its artistic reputation, however, started with the founding of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony in 1902. Today the village is home to many galleries and studios. Music is still a big part of the community and Bearsville Studios is home away from home to many top performers.

Ulster County’s proximity to New York City makes it a wonderful addition to any trip to the Big Apple. It also offers visitors a glimpse into some of the state’s best natural parks and country lifestyle. For me it once again offers a place to call home. Drop by for a visit. You’ll be glad you did.

Kent’s Dining Picks

Kingston has a wonderful choice of restaurants and each has its own unique style.

My own personal favorites:

Le Canard Enchaine, 267 Fair Street, 845 339-2003
Wonderful French cuisine in a bistro setting and live music on weekends make the bar area an oasis.

Ugly Gus’s Café, 11 Main Street,
A hub of local activity and continental dishes complete any visit to the city.

Hoffman House Tavern, 94 North Front Street, 845 338-2626
This stone building has a colorful past and is truly a step back in time. The large fireplaces in winter offer welcoming warmth matched by the friendly owners.

Portobello, 39 John Street, 845 338-3000
Flavorful Italian dishes combined with a sleek modern look.
In the Rondout District

Ship To Shore, 15 West Strand Street, 845 334-8887
An Old New York steakhouse with progressive American cuisine-quaint cozy and delicious.

Mariner’s Harbor, 1-9 Broadway, 845 340-8051
Seafood with an eye on the water. Great deck seating.

Farm stands

On route 209 are two outstanding farm stands, both run by local farming dynasties. The Gills and Davenports both operate two of the largest farms in the state. The bounty available at their stands will attest to the area’s fertile soil.

Kent St John

Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.