Owen Lipstein won’t go so far as to call Tropical Storm Irene a blessing in disguise, because “it wasn’t disguised in the least,” but the storm did cause the owner of the Stewart House a dark night of the soul. The damage left by the storm “was a test of how deep I wanted to go,” he says. He admits he considered walking away, then decided, “I wanted to go deep — very deep.” Or, to quote his true passion, he ventured “once more unto the breach.”
At the time, the Athens hotel and bar, built in 1883, was still somewhat down at the heels, more Western saloon than upscale B&B. Lipstein took the insurance money and added in more of the personal fortune he made in magazine publishing (yes, children, there was a time when that idea wasn’t risible) and totally rebuilt the three-story Victorian hotel he has owned since 2000. Version 2.0 opened this spring, and it is a gem.
While the building’s bones were thoroughly updated, many of the historic features, like the brick chimneys and wide-plank floors, have been brought to the fore. The nine rooms are beautifully decorated in a soothing white-based palette that serves to accent the wood, leather, and fabric furnishings and, most stunningly, the views. If you’re a celebrity name-dropper, ask to be housed in the Meryl Streep room, where her death scene in the movie Ironweed was filmed; or the Dakota Fanning room, where the actress stayed during the making of War of the Worlds. (Tom Cruise lodged here too, but Lipstein only recently learned which room he used and has yet to rechristen it.)
Left: rustic décor in one of the Stewart House’s rooms; at right, the hotel’s warm lobby
The restaurant downstairs is best described as an upscale pub, but when the weather is fine, the River Garden — a patio, outdoor bar, and gazebo across the street that Lipstein helped build himself — is the place to eat. The food — grass-fed beef burgers, blackened string beans, delicately fried calamari, local cheese samplers, and the like — is delicious. And did we mention the view?
While Athens itself is still in the “before” phase of this part of the Hudson Valley’s revitalization, its neighbor across the river, Hudson, is well into the “after” phase, and offers many diversions. But in rooms like these, what with the terrycloth robes, towel warmers, organic bath and body products, and French-press coffee with breakfast, you may not feel like being diverted at all.
Crossroads Brewery, just two blocks from the Stewart House, is Athens’ award-winning contribution to the Valley brewpub scene. Fish and Game, in a renovated 19th-century blacksmith’s shop across the river in Hudson, features the finest locally sourced produce, humanely raised game, and terroir-cultivated wine.
Omi Art Center Sculpture Park in Ghent is less well-known than Storm King, but art outdoors, especially in fall, is sublime. Check out the Artswalk event on October 11.
Drive eight minutes south to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and jump on the Hudson River School Art Trail to see the breathtaking views that inspired famed 19th-century artists such as Cole and his protégé Frederic Church.
Seek out Mona Goede-Wingate, the Stewart House’s hospitality director. The German-born, internationally raised citizen of the world knows the area inside-out. Ask her what to do, and prepare to spend 45 minutes taking notes.
The Stewart House at the Athens Hotel, Athens