Explore the bounty of the Dutchess County, just a short drive from NYC.
The future world's most famous chef may have just cooked me a pork chop. Or it might be the young man hand-churning gelato with liquid nitrogen at our table. Perhaps it's the woman who made my second dessert (don't judge me): an unusual melange of apricot cake, avocado sorbet, peaches and guacamole.
Seated in prime position beside Bocuse's open kitchen, I can watch 15 chefs-in-training chopping, whisking, grilling and presenting plates with the precision of surgeons. These are students completing their final courses at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA), where Anthony Bourdain studied in the 1970s. From Tuesday to Saturday, they cook for the public at this onsite French restaurant on the Hudson River in upstate New York. A refreshing change for America, tipping is not permitted.
Founded in 1946, the college has trained more than 50,000 people from 30 countries, sparking dozens of Michelin stars around the world. A few alumni can be found in Australia: Sara Colon, the pastry chef at Matt Moran's Rekodo; Ashish Kumar, sous chef at Hyatt Regency Sydney; and Brian Peebles, assistant manager of the widely acclaimed Brae in regional Victoria.
They cherish the fresh produce from farms and orchards, and the calming atmosphere.
But many graduates fall in love with the surrounding area of Dutchess County, choosing to stay and work in local restaurants or open their own cafes and bakeries. They cherish the fresh produce from farms and orchards, and the calming atmosphere of the valley, while still being close enough to New York City.
I get my bearings and a knockout view on the Walkway Over The Hudson, the world's longest elevated pedestrian bridge, spanning two kilometres across the river. Part of the Empire State Trail, which runs to the US-Canadian border, it links to cycling and hiking hotspots such as the Catskills, Adirondack Park and the Appalachian Trail.
Locally, the bridge connects two National Historic Landmarks: the former homes and studios of 19th-century artists Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, who were central figures in America's first arts movement, known as the Hudson River School. Church's hilltop house is on the east bank at Olana State Historic Site, where visitors can stroll around his gardens and see the inspiring landscape that he often painted.
Among other places to marvel at the natural beauty is Minnewaska State Park Preserve on the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge. Sheer cliffs open to sublime scenes of forest, waterfalls, streams and lakes. At Bard College is a walled Italianate garden, Blithewood, on a steeply sloping bluff of the riverside campus in Annandale-on-Hudson. This is also the site of the Fisher Center, a performing arts hub designed by Frank Gehry.
Some travellers come to the region for Dia Beacon, one of the most distinguished collections of contemporary art. Others come to fly in a 1929 open-cockpit biplane, taking off from the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome ($US100 or $153). On weekends, check out the air show of vintage aircraft (adults $US28, kids $US13) and the hangars with more than 100 antique planes and cars.
Dutchess County is blessed with gorgeous villages to roam around. Rhinebeck, settled by Dutch colonials in 1686, has more than 40 speciality stores and 30 pubs and eateries along its tree-lined streets. The Beekman Arms, America's oldest continuously operated hotel, is perfect for a pint in its cosy bar featuring overhead beams and a fireplace. Samuel's Sweet Shop - co-owned by actors Paul Rudd, Hilarie Burton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Andy Ostroy - sells lollies and cookies printed with Rudd's face.
Terrapin is set in a converted 200-year-old church with original woodwork and vaulted ceilings. Chef Josh Kroner is a leader in farm-to-table dining in the Hudson Valley, blending Asian, Italian, French and American Southwest cuisines. Try the macadamia-nut tempura calamari with pineapple dipping sauce or the truffled fig, brie and shallot quesadilla. Market Street is another great restaurant that partners with farmers and purveyors to source the best meats, organic vegetables and cheeses. Beverage makers have an earth-to-bottle approach to wine, beer, cider and spirits. A craft beverage trail includes 13 venues to discover in the valley. Lasting Joy Brewery sits between crop fields in Tivoli, showcasing the agricultural heritage. Relax outdoors on the reclined Adirondack chairs (invented by a local) to enjoy its pumpkin ale or pastry stout made in collaboration with a doughnut company.
Millbrook Vineyards & Winery welcomes guests for daily tastings. With views of the Catskill Mountains, this is the only winery allowed to use the famous I Love NY logo (with the red heart) on their labels - making a bottle of wine a justifiable souvenir.
Every evening is a pleasure to return to Hotel Tivoli, a century-old property owned by painters who selected the eclectic art, furniture and lighting. The Corner, its casual bar and restaurant, serves a Mediterranean-inspired menu, European wines and fresh-ingredient cocktails. Wrapping around the street corner, the covered patio is the kind of drinking, dining and people-watching spot that makes you wish you lived here.
Read more on Explore:
Getting there: Dutchess County is a 90-minute drive from Manhattan. Alternatively, catch a train from Grand Central Terminal to Poughkeepsie or Beacon; to reach Rhinebeck, take the Amtrak train from Penn Station. See mta.info; amtrak.com
Staying there: Hotel Tivoli has large rooms priced from about $US250 ($380) per night, see hoteltivoli.org
Dining there: Choose a restaurant using the app, CIA Chef Finder, or follow the beverage trail with the Taste Finder pass. Bookings are essential at Bocuse. See ciachef.edu/cia-new-york'
Explore more: dutchesstourism.com
The writer was a guest of Dutchess Tourism.
Pictures: Shutterstock; Getty Images