We all have that neighbor who lives across the street that we politely say hello to every day when we take out the garbage or retrieve the mail, about whom we know very little. Sure, you know they drive a beat up Subaru, and that they just painted their shutters green, but that’s about it. Yet there is more to this neighbor than you thought you knew. You can tell by the smell of French cuisine coming out of their kitchen in the evening, the montage of ski equipment that falls into the drive way every time the automatic garage door opens, the eclectic paintings hung on their walls you spy from your garden. To the surrounding counties in the Hudson Valley, this neighbor is Greene County—a destination that is familiar, yet its charm often overlooked, unnoticed, or just simply unexplored.
Greene County has always had something to offer its visitors, according to Daniela Marino, director of promotions for Greene County Tourism. The county was one of America’s first vacationlands for the wealthy, and a stop for traveling sailors, she said. Come the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the middle class, more people flocked to the area. “The area is renowned for its clean air, outdoors, the paintings by Frederick Church—all publicity that combined to made Greene County a vacation destination,” explains Marino.
Marino admits that there has been a change in perception from a family place “to a more artistic and trendy destination. But we still are a family place,” she said. In fact, Budget Travel recently selected Catskill for its September issue as one the “10 Coolest Towns,” of less than 10,000 people, that “rival larger cities when it comes to good food, culture, and quality of life.” The magazine noted that “after a period of neglect in the 1980s and ‘90s, Catskill is attracting artists again.” This reawakening can be attributed to “a huge synergy” said Marino. “If you start with Catskill, you have grants that helped beautify Main Street. Gallery owners followed with buildings and facades. It started as a depressed area, which made way for businesses to come move in,” Marino elaborated.
But the area has always had a strong tradition of inspiring artists. As a young painter, Thomas Cole, creator of the Hudson River School, made this first trip up the Hudson River to Catskill in 1825, and his paintings of landscapes created a sensation in the New York art world. The Thomas Cole Historic Site, including Cole’s home, Cedar Grove, and his studio, is located in Catskill at the river’s edge. (Cole’s apprentice, Frederick Church, perched his Moorish villa, Olana, on a bluff above the Hudson River in Columbia County with stunning views of Greene County’s Catskill peaks.) “Greene County is the home of the first American landscape,” explains Victoria Alten, Windham Fine Arts gallery director. “Greene County has some really astounding landscape. It has unusual lighting. There’s a really not a bad view from anywhere—every curve in the road has something to paint. Some of our artists come from all over the country to paint here.”
Since its opening in 2001, the Windham Fine Arts Gallery has been featuring work by dozens of artists, with over 400 paintings in the gallery at a time. Though the gallery is often noted for its paintings of landscapes, Alten explains that those paintings fill only half of the collection, not all. “We have a great cross-section of work,” she clarifies. Today, the Windham Fine Arts Gallery houses some of Thomas Cole’s original landscape paintings, as well as abstract paintings from the late Edward Arcenio Chavez and Ethel Magafan. The gallery also contains the work of many current-practicing artists, including Kevin Cook and James Coe.
In addition to attracting artists again, Greene County has been become a hot spot for hip eateries. One cafe that’s capitalized on the revitalization of Greene County is MOD Café in Catskill, where the motto is “make love, not processed food.” “Everyone was speculating that things were changing for the better [in Catskill] and we believed that we could make a positive impact,” explains Mary Distefano, who co-owns the café with her business partner Dana Wegener. “We took the chance when so many of the storefronts were still dark. We put our best foot forward and the response has been fantastic.” The eight-table breakfast and lunch spot has sought to serve their customers food that is diverse as well as organic. “We make everything from scratch, from the dressings that are on our salads to the meats for our sandwiches. All of our herbs and many of our seasonal vegetables are grown in the gardens behind the café,” Distefano explained. Wegener and Distefano seek to keep Greene County green in their practice of composting and recycling in their business—even their to-go containers are completely biodegradable, as requested by their customers. Breakfast menu items contain the straightforward (eggs and home fries) to the decadent Bananas Fosters French toast, and lunch items are salad platters, soups, and sandwiches with whimsical names such as Mr. Rogers Wrapper-Hood and Leonardo d’Veggie.
In addition to the hip cafes in Greene County, there is no shortage of restaurants that embrace fine dining, as well as the historical character of the area, such as Bistro Brie and Bordeaux in Windham. The restaurant, opened in 2006, is housed in a building built in 1875 that was the original home to the Windham Journal newspaper. Old photographs were used to aid accurate restoration of the gable roof, clapboard siding, and wooden beam supports inside. But it’s doubtful that people come to the bistro with their primary intention of admiring period architecture. Menu items include smoked trout salad, wild mushroom risotto, and of course, French onion soup. But owner Claudia Desgaches insists that despite the menu of classic French cuisine created by her classically trained French chef husband Stephan Desgaches, they are “in no way a stuffy French restaurant.” “We’re casual, which is very indicative of Greene County.”
Greene County is usually associated with skiing, and why not? Seeing that some of the mountains in the county rise beyond 3,500 feet, the county contains two ski destinations, Hunter Mountain and Windham Mountain. And these resorts’ main claim to a business is no longer just skiing and chair lifts anymore. As Windham Mountain proceeds with its plans of expanding into a four-season resort, some of the activities they offer can be experienced year round. Windham has built four terrain parks for skateboarders and freestyle bikers that contain a quarter pipe, a launch ramp, and a 600-foot long half pipe. They also offer mountain biking trails, a rock-climbing wall, a golf school, and paintball. And Hunter Mountain has long been known for the range of festivals it offers, including the WDST Mountain Jam Fest, German Alps Festival, International Celtic Festival, Microbrew and Wine Festival, and this month’s two weekend’s of Oktoberfest, October 4-5 and October 11-12.
There’s no shortage of things to do in Greene County. Next time you find yourself driving past your picturesque neighbor, allow yourself to be invited in for a beer, and maybe a hiking trip up a mountain. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself greene with envy.
This is the first article in a six-part series exploring Greene County.
For more information on Greene County
Greene County Tourism
Windham Fine Arts Gallery
Bistro Brie and Bordeaux
- Thomas Cole, falls of the Kaaterskill, oil on canvas, 43â€ x 46â€, 1826(Courtesy of the warner collection of gulf states paper corporation, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.)The Kaaterskill Falls, near the Greene County town of Palenville, were a favorite subject of the Hudson River school.
- Fall foliage in Greene County