A ramble up the noble Hudson

Some days I have to remind myself that the gentle Thames, the castellated Rhine, and the romantic Loire have nothing on the river that flows past my apartment window, the noble Hudson.

I suppose there's nothing noble about the rotting piers that jut into the Hudson from both the New York and New Jersey flanks; nobility begins to reign a few miles upriver, where the Palisades tower above the west bank like Colorado canyon walls. For the next 150 miles, the Hudson is a collection of historic river towns, 19th-century mansions of Rhine-like proportions, endless apple orchards, and misty landscapes straight from the canvases of the Hudson River School artists of 125 to 150 years ago.

There are a number of ways to follow the Hudson, which begins as a modest trout stream flowing out of a lake in the Adirondacks. You can take a day cruise from Manhattan to Bear Mountain, a train from Grand Central along the east bank, or a car twisting along river roads on either side.

On a recent river ramble, I concentrated on the mid-Hudson about 100 miles north of the city. Poughkeepsie, just under two hours by train from New York, is a few miles from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Hyde Park. The town of Hyde Park is nothing to remember, but the Roosevelt house and 220-acre grounds are a compelling stop, despite a fire that badly damaged the house last January, just days before FDR's 100th birthday observance. The roof is blackened, some windows are boarded up, and most of the 35-room house is now off-limits.

With a $1.50 ticket, however, you can peek into the Roosevelt study and enter the living room on one end of the house, undamaged by the fire. It is full of books, stamps, campaign buttons, coins, and medallions that Mr. Roosevelt collected over the years.

''Could be two years before the house is ready,'' said Bill Temple, a National Park volunteer guide. ''We hope to get the work underway in October.''

What you have to appreciate about the shuttered two-story house is its modest scale compared, for example, to the Vanderbilt mansion just down the road (which can be seen on the same $1.50 ticket). You can sit on a bluff beside the house and look down on the silvery Hudson; walk through the rose gardens where President and Mrs. Roosevelt and their dog Fala, that veteran campaigner, are buried; and tour a museum full of FDR memorabilia - his White House desk, a sack of golf clubs, a camera and tripod from his Groton days.

West of the Hudson, the town of New Paltz brings to mind an eastern Aspen, always full of backpacking and rock-climbing youth. If you follow a back road along a stream that runs through New Paltz, you come to a beautifully restored block of 17th century Huguenot houses - timber and stone buildings shaded by towering walnut trees and surrounded by riotous gardens. The district is so well done that it's hard to tell which are the houses on the tour and which are private residences.

Six miles into the hills stands the remarkable, redoubtable Mohonk Mountain House, symbol of another time, perhaps even another place. The rambling wood and stone hotel seems straight out of the Bavarian Alps between the world wars. Indeed, as I sat down in a rocking chair on the broad porch beside the lake, I heard nothing but German accents around me. Everyone around the hotel and the 2, 000-acre grounds seemed happily occupied - tapping putts on the velvet green, hiking the many carriage trails, swimming in the gemlike lake, or simply enjoying the scenery.

The Hudson Valley's finest hour was the early 19th century, when Washington Irving was weaving his wonderful tales, Andrew Jackson Downing was building highly decorative houses in the Hudson River style, and the Hudson River School of artists - Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, John Kensett, and Frederick Edwin Church - were painting their powerfully romantic landscapes. Church's restored house, Olana, a state historic site, is just across the river from the town of Catskill, where Thomas Cole, the founder of the school, settled in 1826.

Olana, which sits high above the winding river, is open to the public May 29 to Oct. 31. It was built in the 1870s in Victorian-Persian style, full of fancy tile- and brickwork. I was too late to join the last tour at 4 p.m., so I contented myself with peeking in the windows, walking the large, sloping lawn, and gazing at the meandering Hudson which looked like five rivers in one.

Last stop on the river ramble was Rhinebeck, a handsome, leafy east-bank village just north of Hyde Park. At the heart of town stands the white-columned, black-shuttered Beekman Arms that calls itself America's oldest hotel, dating to 1766 ($38-$40 for a double room). The Beekman, looking better than when I last saw it, has spruced up its front garden and added a glassed-in cafe. The hotel has lived through a lot of history. The Revolutionary War surged through the valley, Horace Greeley and William Jennings Bryan stayed here, and President Roosevelt customarily wound up his campaign trail with an informal talk on the porch. If the old hotel could talk, you'd learn all you'd ever want to know about my noble Hudson.

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