Day Trip: Beacon, New York

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Main Street in Beacon
Main Street in Beacon

My first visit to Beacon, around 12 years ago, was to see the new art museum, Dia:Beacon. Afterward we stopped to watch glass-blowing at Hudson Beach Glass and left; there appeared to be nothing else to see or do in the down-and-out town. But we kept returning to the astonishing museum and witnessed Beacon’s transformation as first artists and craftspeople and musicians, and then galleries and restaurants have made the town their own.

Beacon is definitely a great choice for a day trip or weekend away.

First on your must-do list is DIA: Beacon. This is installation art at its finest, three-dimensional works that are site-specific and designed to transform your perception of a space. The museum is housed in what was a Nabisco printing plant and each gallery was created specifically for the art it contains.

My two favorites, that still startle me and bring out a visceral response every time I see them, are Fred Sandback’s yarn sculptures and Michael Heizer’s pits. I first came upon Sandback’s work as I rounded a corner in one of the wide corridors. I stopped short thinking I was going to walk into a pane of glass. Closer inspection showed that what I thought was glass was empty space. Sandback had strung yarn to create a narrow rectangle and my eye filled in the glass. And Heizer’s four pits, innocently called “North, East, South, West,” are terrifying negative space sculptures that dig 20 feet down into the museum floor. When I peered down into the last pit, I felt as if I was looking into hell. This is a dangerous exhibit and you need to sign up in advance to see it.

Beer tasting at 2Way Brewing Company
Beer tasting at 2Way Brewing Company

Happily, Hudson Beach Glass is still in Beacon. This glass blowing studio/gallery is located in a restored firehouse and you can watch the artists at work. For those who want to learn a bit about the craft hands-on, there are classes for making ornaments, paperweights and beads.

If you’re in Beacon on the second Saturday of the month, you can enjoy “Second Saturday,” a city-wide celebration where galleries and shops stay open until 9 p.m. Many are located along Main Street. Main Street leads toward Mt. Beacon, the name derived from the fact that during the Revolutionary War soldiers lit signal fires to let people know the British were coming. Beacon Mountain is on the New York State seal.

Where there are people making art, there are also people making music and Beacon is now the home of the Town Crier Café, a folk music and blues haven. In 1972, Town Crier’s founder, Phil Ciganer, began bringing music to audiences at his alternate lifestyle boutique in Brooklyn. He moved upstate first to Beekman and then Pawling, and now, three years ago, landed in Beacon, an appropriate place since Beacon was the hometown of Pete Seeger who was a friend of Ciganer. Make sure you order one of Mary Ciganer’s delicious desserts at the end of your meal or just come in for coffee and cake.

These days there are numerous places to eat in and around Beacon and we enjoyed an elegant brunch at The Roundhouse, a boutique hotel and restaurant housed in an industrial building (it once was the nation’s first lawnmower factory) that looks out toward Beacon Falls. There is outdoor dining from spring until October.

Michael Heizer North East South West, 1967/2002 Installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York Collection Dia Art Foundation Gift of Lannan Foundation Photo: Tom Vinetz
Michael Heizer—North East South West, 1967/2002 installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, NY; collection Dia Art Foundation; gift of Lannan Foundation (Photo by Tom Vinetz)

A brewery and distillery both opened in Beacon in 2014, 2Way Brewing Company and Denning’s Point Distillery, both endeavoring to use locally grown crops for their products. Brewer Michael O’Herron says some of the product he uses are from his family’s farm. O’Herron is fascinated with yeast: “Keep it alive and make it happy—70 percent of the character of beer is from the yeast.” Just a bit out of town, 2Way Brewing is a great place to “chill and relax,” said O’Herron. In town, Denning’s Point Distillery is making whiskey. The place is so new that their bourbon has yet to mature. “Bourbon matures when it feels like it,” says distiller Kyran Tompkins.

Speaking of bourbon, a great find was the bourbon maple syrup at Crown Maple at Madava Farms, a bit out of town but a lovely ride through farm country. We were there during tapping season (January through April) when the maple sap flows and were amazed to see modern production with 330 miles of tubing, all oozing toward a central processing area. There are 90,000 taps each producing one gallon per day of the four types of syrup—amber, dark, very dark and bourbon. The beautiful visitors’ center is a good place to taste the syrup (which is for sale) and to lunch in their café on maple-inspired foods such as maple roasted chicken salad and NY cheddar grilled cheese drizzled with syrup.

Brunch at Round House
Brunch at Round House

Hiking, climbing, kayaking, and a variety of water sports are available if that’s your fancy. Mountain Tops Outdoors Kayak Company is based in Beacon, with a seasonal rental pavilion at the Hudson Valley’s premier kayak beach and facility at Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park. Very often, kayakers go around nearby Bannerman Castle Island. It’s a half hour boat ride to the island, then you can walk/hike around the island. Bannerman Island Trust also offers tours. Scenic Hudson, an advocacy group, has cleaned up riverfront property and many riverfront parks and opened up access to the Hudson River for all for fishing, boating and swimming; all of their parks are now free. And there’s always Mt. Beacon for a strenuous hike.

A special treat was the guided tour of the historic house, Mount Gulian. This is a slice of American history beginning with the arrival of the Dutch Verplanck family in 1633. The house, built in the 1720s, was the headquarters of a Revolutionary War general and where America’s first veterans’ organization was formed in 1783. James F. Brown, a fugitive slave whose freedom was purchased by the Verplanck family in the 1820s, was the estate’s master gardener.

We read the letters that Robert Newlin Verplank, who served as an officer of “Colored Troops” for the Union Army in the Civil War, wrote to his mother. In a letter dated April 19, 1865: “Dear Mother, The death of the President has had a most depressing effect on the army, a few days ago everyone was in the highest spirits, today all is sad and gloomy.” If the Verplank name is familiar, it might be because there is a Verplank Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with furnishings from the house.

So go and give Beacon a try. In the words of distiller Kyran Thompson: “Every month something new is opening up here.”

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Lyn Dobrin is a writer for Long Island Weekly, specializing in food and travel features.

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