Rhinebeck: Have a drink at George Washington's local

By David S. Potts

Less than two hours' drive north of Manhattan is the beautiful and historic Hudson Valley - home to America's oldest continuously operated inn.

The Beekman Arms Inn at Rhinebeck in New York State is said to be the oldest continuously operating inn in America. Photo / AAP
The Beekman Arms Inn at Rhinebeck in New York State is said to be the oldest continuously operating inn in America. Photo / AAP

I'm sitting at the bar where George Washington and his fellow American revolutionaries doubtless plotted military strategy over an ale or two.

George would drink here in 1775 after drilling his troops of the 4th Regiment on the square outside to fight against the British colonisers. All that's missing are George's initials carved into the bar.

This is the Beekman Arms, which claims to be America's oldest continuously operated inn and George Washington's local at Rhinebeck in the beautiful and historic Hudson Valley in New York State, less than two hours' drive north of Manhattan.

Washington's drinking companions would have included Benedict Arnold, the American general and traitor who later joined forces with the British, and Alexander Hamilton, Washington's aide-de-camp and confidant.

They not only drank here but no doubt would have argued, laughed and plotted during the Revolutionary War against the British. They also slept in the inn.

And here, too, American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose huge estate is just down the road towards New York, would have downed a beer or two. He ended every one of his four presidential campaigns talking from the inn's front porch.

The fabulously wealthy Vanderbilts and Rockefellers were neighbours of the Roosevelts.

The inn was built in 1766. It is a classic country inn set in the centre of the historic Rhinebeck village. The parade ground in front where Washington drilled his troops is now a quiet, tree-lined road.

The colonial tap room has kept its original wide plank floors, dark wood trim and authentic decor. Strong oak beams support low ceilings and a huge brick fireplace fills one wall. The bar is worn and chipped. Around are memorabilia collected over centuries. A long-outdated sign outside advertises $1 dinners at the inn.

It takes little to imagine the history this inn has seen. Upstairs has been restored meticulously. We have a four-poster bed in a room restored with only superficial acknowledgement to modern facilities, such as an ensuite bathroom.

The sturdy timber and stone building was originally built to withstand possible Indian attacks.

Today the only invasion is from the many locals and summertime tourists who head for the area to enjoy its history and to sample the area's famed farm-fresh cuisine. So this evening there is much revelry at the inn as we make new best friends among some of the locals.

The village of Rhinebeck, population 8000, is nestled in the lush, rolling hills of Dutchess County, named for the Dutch settlers who traded the site with the local Indian tribes in 1686.

It's the centre of one of the largest historic districts in America - 272 sites on the national historic register. Among them is a corridor of large riverfront estates associated with the valley's wealthy landed aristocracy.

In the middle of the valley is the mighty Hudson River which empties into the sea at New York city. To the west are the Catskill Mountains. To the east, the Berkshires.

The region offers a glimpse into not only some of America's most important history but also some of its varied architectural styles. The region's beauty has also inspired writers and artists.

Writer Washington Irving, who lived in the valley's Tarrytown, set many of his stories here, including the classic Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Artist Andy Warhol also found inspiration here.

For the visitors, it's an immersion in the historic inns, bed-and-breakfasts, antiques and artworks, architecturally bold and barn-like theatres, vintage aviation and earlier-century aristocratic estate life of the region.

Along the river are palatial historic homes - including two of Roosevelt and wife Eleanor in Hyde Park - and quaint villages. Both homes are open to visits.

The best way to appreciate the intensely historic Rhinebeck is to walk it. You'll see evidence of local history, like hitching posts, period fences, locally quarried bluestone walkways and carriage stepping stones as well as stables.

Like the region around it, the village has strong links to the Dutch origin of its pioneers. It is rich in interesting shops - antique shops (there's a great one in a barn just behind the Beekman Arms) and art galleries, many housed in historic buildings.

Today is a quiet Sunday. Church bells peel out a hymn. We walk the tree-lined streets past a cigar shop, with the inevitable Indian in the window. Nearby is an ice cream shop. And here is a coffee shop called Bread Alone.

In a land starved of good coffee we find some genuine Italian coffee. We've taken a rental car to explore the area and heading out of town we pass the Dutchess County Fairgrounds which host one of the state's biggest and best county fairs.

Also nearby in Red Hook is the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome known worldwide for its dazzling daredevil air shows and a museum of World War I aircraft and antique automobiles. It provides a time portal into the barnstorming era of aviation.

Entering into the spirit of the era, guides are in Victorian, Edwardian and 1920s dress and cruise the museum in vintage vehicles. Spread out across the museum is one of the world's greatest collections of flying pioneer, World War I and Lindbergh-era aeroplanes.

It features numerous aircraft ranging from Wright-era reconstructions to the biplanes and monoplanes of the 1930s. Started over a half century ago, it lives on as a volunteer-run, not-for-profit aerodrome, museum and air show and offers thrilling biplane rides.

The season starts in early June and runs until October, with air shows held every weekend, weather permitting. Biplane rides are also available during the week by appointment.

The air shows themselves feature some daring treetop-high sprints in the pioneer aircraft and sometimes aerobatics, dogfights, bomb raids, balloon bursts, and parachutists. Straight out of Those Daring Young Men In Their Flying Machines.

Roosevelt's lifelong home, Springwood at Hyde Park, is on Route 9 south of Rhinebeck and well worth a visit. A tour of the home (US$14) gives an insight into a US president who was wheelchair-bound for most of his life following childhood polio.

Rooms are comfortably furnished, much as he and Eleanor had them. One of his wheelchairs is on display. A Presidential Library and Museum in the grounds hold memorabilia of the Roosevelt era, including 17 million pages of manuscript and 51,000 books.

I find Roosevelt's original speech to the US Congress following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour which brought America into World War II. It shows his handwritten corrections.

From here President Roosevelt also gave his famous radio 'fireside chats'. The Roosevelts are buried in the grounds of Springwood. Alongside them is President Roosevelt's famous dog, a Scottish terrier named Fala. The dog accompanied Roosevelt everywhere on official duties. He was even 'enlisted' as a private in the US Army.

You could easily spend several days in the Rheinbeck area, visiting not only the historic homes but also places like the Culinary Institute of America (try the cafe for some terrific cakes), the United States Military Academy and Museum at West Point and plenty of other museums, antique and local craft shops.

If you are here in the summer you'll likely be able to see some great concerts and theatre in this culturally-conscious region. You must also visit one of the many farmers' markets.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: The village of Rhinebeck is 160km north of Manhattan. By car, it's accessible via the Taconic State Parkway, Route 9, Route 9W and the New York Thruway.

Where to stay: Rooms at the Beekman Arms start at US$150, plus taxes.

Further information: See rhinebeckchamber.com.

- AAP

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