I escaped N.J. for an early autumn getaway to New York State and it cured my COVID-19 blues

By Nicole Pensiero | For NJ.com

Saugerties Aerial of Main St

It was late summer – having spent almost all my free time chilling out on various New Jersey beaches – when the idea of an out-of-state vacation took hold. The coronavirus pandemic had squelched mine (and millions of other people’s) tentative 2020 overseas and island-hopping plans. But, as various East Coast states started opening up again, the idea of a road trip became a real possibility.

The more my wanderlust grew, the clearer my criteria became: I wanted to go somewhere easily drivable; somewhere with plenty of outdoor activities; and somewhere with a nice, clean place to stay. (An Airbnb rental apartment, as it turned out.)

After a little research that included the number of COVID cases in areas we were considering, we set our sights on Ulster County, New York, a region I’d not yet explored, nestled between the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains.

This was before New York announced that New Jersey met the criteria for the Empire State’s travel advisory. While Garden State residents don’t have to quarantine if traveling to our neighboring state, New York officials “highly discourage” non-essential travel right now, until our coronavirus caseload decreases.

Luckily, I was able to fit our trip in before that was a concern. Rustic, relaxing and filled with breathtaking natural beauty, this easy getaway proved the perfect anecdote to the various stressors of 2020. Our early autumn getaway provided relaxation and beautiful scenery, with the changing fall foliage.

The charming town of Saugerties – with 400 less confirmed cases of COVID-19 than my own South Jersey community – held special appeal. Located on the west bank of the Hudson, this historic community – which, in the 1800s had a booming mill industry – now has a delightful downtown area filled with boutiques, bookstores, coffee shops, and fun restaurants. Located in the northeast corner of Ulster County, Saugerties has some great outdoor attractions, too - including the mind-blowing sculpture park called Opus 40 that proved a highlight of our visit.

Less than three hours by car, the drive to Saugerties was easy and only one rest stop away. We were thrilled to find our two-bedroom Airbnb – located right on Main Street – to be as beautiful as the online photos showed. Reasonably priced and far larger than a hotel room, we could relax, stretch out, and feel decidedly safe. While I’d only stayed in Airbnb’s twice before, both at the Jersey shore, I especially liked the built-in concept of social distancing: there would be no people to pass in a lobby or stand apart from in a hotel breakfast room.

With a full kitchen and spacious living room, we could (and did on occasion) stay in to eat, but mostly enjoyed meals at area restaurants with outdoor seating and set guidelines for social distancing. We found that everywhere we went during our stay, people wore masks, even outside. In fact, only once did we come across people – two hikers –unmasked during our four-day trip. We appreciated the extra effort to keep everyone safe.

Saugerties, hometown of famed comedian Jimmy Fallon, is known to many Hudson Valley visitors for its dramatic1869 lighthouse, which, unfortunately, remains closed due to ongoing construction of its pathways. Still, we found the town itself has plenty to offer. There was the expansive, privately owned Inquiring Minds bookstore, with its impressive collection of vintage vinyl records; the upscale Bosco’s Mercantile; and the popular Alleyway Ice Cream – located in, yes, an alleyway, and named by EatThis.com as New York State’s best ice cream. There are also a few art galleries and antique shops worth perusing.

Shortly after arriving in Saugerties, we enjoyed our first lunch at Miss Lucy’s Kitchen,, a popular eatery that offered fantastic pulled pork and rib sandwiches – along with the best tomato bisque soup I’ve had in ages. A bit more shopping, some time to relax in our home-away-from home and then, for our first dinner, the popular Dutch Ale House. The “Dutch,” as locals call it, offers socially-distanced dining inside and, in July, installed a massive tent behind the building for outdoor dining. On a cool late September evening, we enjoyed a tasty meal - a burger for me and highly rated fish & chips for my English friend – in the warmly lit, seasonally decorated, heated tent.

Our first full day of exploring got started with a quick, tasty breakfast at Olsen &; Company, which also sells gourmet coffees, cheeses and breads. From there, it was onto Saugerties' artistic masterpiece, Opus 40, which is a sort of “have-to-see-it-to-believe-it” experience. Described on its website as a “sculpture park,” it’s difficult to describe the sweep and beauty of this place. Created by the late pioneering artist Harvey Fite, who purchased an abandoned rock quarry in the 1930s, Opus 40 got its name from the number of years he expected it would take to complete this astounding structure. The product of Fite’s own vision and labor – he worked alone in creating it – Opus 40 seems like shrine to nature itself, inspired by Mayan ruins. There’s even a nine-ton monolith that Fite apparently installed own his own, using ancient Egyptian methods. Opus 40 is unlike anything I had ever seen before and, for $11, is truly worth a visit.

From there, we took a quick drive to nearby Woodstock, which, despite its name, is not the actual location of the famed 1969 music festival. (That would be an hour’s drive west, to Bethel). Woodstock is a fun, funky place, filled with appealing restaurants and boutiques.

That evening, we opted for another outdoor dining experience in Saugerties, at the beautiful 4-star boutique hotel, Diamond Mills. There, on the terrace overlooking the gentle, illuminated waterfalls of the Esopus Creek, we savored farm-to-table meals of French roasted chicken and sirloin steak, with a fantastic apple/pear cobbler for dessert. The hotel, opened in 2011, is located at the site of an 1888 paper mill that stood vacant for nearly 30 years. It is now understandably considered the town’s “jewel.”

Our third day in Ulster County was wide open for whatever exploring we chose. First stop: the Ashokan Rail Trail. Opened to the public in the fall of 2019, and open from sunrise to sunset, year-round, this 11-mile recreational trail runs along the scenic Ashokan Reservoir. Twelve feet wide and surfaced with highly compacted fine crushed stone, the ADA rail trail is popular with everyone from dog walkers to runners. And the scenery it afforded during our stroll was spectacular – glistening water nestled amid the Catskill Mountains.

Another great option for walking or biking is to take the Walkway Over the Hudson, a former railroad bridge that spans the river from Ulster County’s town of Highland to Poughkeepsie on the east bank. Originally opened as a railroad bridge in 1899, it sat unused for decades, until it was renovated and reopened. On a clear day, there is no better place to get a sweeping, dramatic view of the Hudson River Valley.

During the afternoon of our last full day, we headed for lunch at the buzz-worthy Phoenicia Diner (which put out own cookbook earlier this year to rave reviews). More gourmet than grub, the prices are still in line with a traditional diner. Only outside dining is offered currently, but it is an efficiently run operation, and we more than enjoyed our onion-crusted chicken breast sandwiches on ciabatta bread.

Afterward, we made a brief stop at the nearby Brunel Sculpture Garden. A small, community-driven cultural center, Brunel is home to more than a dozen statues, totem poles and other interesting artifacts constructed by the late artist Emile Brunel. Driving back to Saugerties, we did a double take – and turned the car around - when we passed a shop called Fabulous Furniture in the small town of Boiceville. There on the lawn is an array of space-age-themed creations – everything from spaceships to handmade rockets. All made by store owner Steve Heller (whose work has made its way into American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore), these retro sci-fi creations are silly and fun – and we had a great time taking pictures of (and with) Heller’s unique creations.

Heading back to South Jersey, we made a brief stop in Kingston, NY, the county seat, to take a stroll along the Hudson River and hit a few of the upscale boutiques there. The Kingston waterfront is home to Hudson River Cruises, which offers various two-hour, socially distanced cruise packages through the end of October. Prices range from $31 for adults; and $21 for children 4-11.

While Ulster County was only a few hours away from New Jersey, it truly felt like a world way. The scenery is so diverse – from waterfalls to mountains and lakes – and the vibe is laid-back and welcoming. It was the perfect anecdote to my end-of-summer, COVID-still-here blues.

Just make sure you check travel restrictions and quarantine rules before you head out of state.

For more information about this region of New York State, visit www.ulstercountyalive.com; for more information about Saugerties, go to www.saugertiestourism.com.

Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey-based freelance writer and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NAJTA).