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A Romantic Trip to Italy

updated September 29, 2021
The small towns and hills of the Chianti region
Italian Government Tourist Board
After serving overseas in the air force, Richard Farrow is planning to take his wife, Andrea, on a whirlwind vacation.

What you'll find in this story: Italian travel, Italian culture, Italian attractions, Italy train schedules, Florence travel, Rome travel

"Two years ago, my husband got activated with the military," Andrea Farrow, of Murrieta, Calif., wrote to us last summer. "While he has been all over the world, he has actually 'seen' very little of it other than military bases." Andrea was planning on dropping off her three sons with Grandma and taking a two-week trip to Europe in late March with her husband, Richard, a member of the Air Force Reserves, soon after he was released from duty. She wasn't sure where to go, listing Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Ireland, and Scotland among the places that interested them. When pressed for specifics, Andrea named Pompeii and Venice, and it became clear that we should help them focus on Italy.

A short while after agreeing to coach the Farrows, we got an e-mail from Richard: "My wife doesn't think that we're going, because of some money issues. If she e-mails you about it, just ignore her. I guess this vacation is now going to be a surprise." Andrea never told us they were canceling the trip outright, but after a few weeks we stopped hearing from her. Richard stayed in touch with us between missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we managed to keep the planning a secret. At one point, worried that Andrea was "getting a little snoopy," Richard even switched e-mail addresses to throw her off. "Andrea thinks we can't afford this,"  Richard wrote, "but we'll manage. I will sell my car if I have to."

The Farrows wanted to travel primarily by train, and we told them to research routes and schedules at trenitalia.com. After plotting out a rough itinerary according to their requests--a mix of Italy's major attractions with some off-the-beaten-path fun--we suggested that they spend $564 on a second-class, two-person Italy Rail 'n Drive pass, which comes with four days of train travel and a two-day compact-car rental.

"I'm a history teacher," Andrea had said, "so castles, ruins, and historical sites are a must." The Farrows' first glimpse of Italy is in Rome, where their tight schedule allows for three days. Although they want to see the city's big-name attractions, we told them not to get bogged down with a checklist of sights. There are a number of ways to enjoy Rome, such as window-shopping the fashion boutiques of Via dei Condotti, tasting the creamy gelato at Giolitti, and wasting an afternoon at a café on Piazza Navona (so that Andrea can engage in an activity that she had requested--"sitting outside and watching people as they move about their daily lives.")

The Farrows are using the first day of their rail pass to head two hours south to Naples, where they'll switch to a private rail line not covered by their pass (Circumvesuviana, $3) for a 40-minute ride to Pompeii. We pointed out to the Farrows that to be most efficient, before they leave Napoli Centrale station for Pompeii they should place their luggage in a storage room and reserve a sleeping berth, or couchette, on an overnight train to Venice that evening (roughly a $20 supplement to their rail pass). 

Wandering around the dusty streets, crumbling temples, vacant houses, intact bakeries, and amphitheater of Pompeii--all frozen in time (a.d. 79, to be precise) by the hot ash of a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius--should eat up five or six hours. Snack trucks lining the road to Pompeii provide a simple lunch, and gift shops sell excellent illustrated guides to help navigate the ruins. If they limit themselves to three hours in Pompeii, they may be able to squeeze in Herculaneum, the less crowded and in many ways more evocative victim of Vesuvius. They just need to hop out at the Ercolano stop on the return to Naples.

The overnight train arrives in Venice at 5:31 a.m., a great opportunity to watch the sun rise over the city of canals. We instructed the Farrows to drop their bags at their hotel--the family-run Hotel Bernardi Semenzato--and head directly to the famed Piazza San Marco, which will be wonderfully empty at that time of day. The Secret Itineraries tour of the Doge's Palace, adjacent to St. Mark's, is up next, and guides give an overview of the 1,000-year history of the Venetian Republic while bringing visitors through cramped wooden chambers hidden behind tapestries in the lavish palace.

As part of the special tour, Richard and Andrea will even get to clamber up to "the leads," the attic prison cells from which Casanova once escaped.

"We'd like to go to some out-of-the-way places that most tourists don't see," Andrea had insisted, prompting us to recommend that on their second day in town they explore Venice's outlying islands by ferry, or vaporetto. The glass factories at Murano, a mini-Venice with canals and cathedrals but no crowds, are fascinating. The fishing village of Burano is known for its brightly colored houses, and then there's also the largely abandoned island of Torcello. It was a former haunt of Ernest Hemingway and is home to little more than some weedy canals, a couple of restaurants, and a 1,000-year-old church glittering with mosaics.

Limiting Venice to two days may seem like sacrilege, but the Farrows demanded a fast pace. Andrea had said she wanted to see as many things as possible, concerned that they'd never take a similar trip again. We told them to hop a morning train that by early afternoon would land them in Pisa for mandatory photo ops of the Leaning Tower. A couple of hours is plenty. They'll continue on to the seaside village of Riomaggiore, where brothers Roberto and Luciano Fazioli rent fantastic apartments for $65 to $130 double. Riomaggiore is the southernmost of five villages along the cliffs of the Riviera known as the Cinque Terre. The villages are connected by a series of ancient goat paths that are scenic and great for hiking.

Next is Florence and two days of sightseeing, followed by a day of cycling through the small towns and hills of the Chianti region with an outfit called I Bike Italy. The Farrows pick up their car in Florence for a final two days, heading south to San Gimignano, a kind of medieval Manhattan with 14 stone towers atop a hill. After lunch at La Mangiatoia--with a bottle of the local white wine, Vernaccia--they drive on to Siena, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world. The Campo, Siena's sloping, scallop-shaped central square, is a stone's throw from the place we recommended the Farrows stay, the Piccolo Hotel Etruria.

Before returning to Rome, the Farrows have one last stop. Along the back road from Scansano to Manciano, at a sharp bend just beyond a bridge, they'll see cars parked on the shoulder. Across the field is Saturnia's Cascata del Gorello, hot mineral waters that spill down the hillside in a series of relaxing pools. 

The total cost of the couple's trip should be about $4,500--well within the budget Richard gave us. "My wife has done an outstanding job raising our three sons and taking care of our house while I've been away," he said. "She deserves this." Now they know they can afford it. We just wish we could see the look on Andrea's face when she finds out.

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Inspiration

My Paris Is Better Than Yours

What you'll find in this story: Paris restaurants, Paris culture, Paris attractions, Paris neighborhoods, Paris bistros, Paris markets When I left Paris to live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area at the height of the Internet euphoria, there were some things that I expected--sunshine, freeways, a cool job in a start-up company--and some that I didn't. Among the latter was that I'd develop a passionate interest in food and cooking, discovering at age 21 how much fun could be had in the kitchen and how much pleasure at the table. It was also from this new perspective, one continent and one ocean away, that I really saw the beauty, charm, and wealth of my birth city, which had all but eluded me when they were my daily bread. I came home after two years in California, and my love for Paris and gastronomy only burned brighter as I settled in again with intense happiness, hungrily catching up with the City of Light (and Good Food), this time with fresh eyes and alert taste buds. This passion prompted me to create a food blog, Chocolate & Zucchini (chocolateandzucchini.com), where I could share my culinary joys with like-minded readers. I enjoy nothing more than spreading the word about the gems I find, recommending them excitedly and relishing the description of this shop or that restaurant. Of course, there's always a measure of risk in directing someone to go somewhere. When they come back to tell me about it I always get a flutter in my stomach (did they like it?), usually replaced by a sweet tide of relief (the food was fabulous and the service super-kind). What follows is a reflection of my Paris, the one I love so dearly. I can only hope you'll make it yours. Eat One of my greatest pleasures is to walk around with no particular purpose, breezing into shops, exploring little streets, and going just a step farther to see what's beyond the next corner. A welcome side effect of all this walking is that you build up quite an appetite, and it is of utmost importance to know where to stop for a quick and tasty lunch. Cojean is the epitome of hip and healthy fast food in Paris. The tempting menu at the six Paris locations features the three S's (sandwiches, salads, and soups) and changes seasonally, to focus on the freshest products. The toasted veggie and provolone sandwich ($7.75) is bound to win you over. Opened by Alain Ducasse and Eric Kayser, Boulangépicier (a.k.a. Be) is right at the crossroads of a bakery, restaurant, and gourmet store; Kayser's famed bread is baked on the premises and gastronomic goods line the shelves. The sandwiches are among the city's best, and I'll go out of my way for the mini-sandwich skewer ($11), which allows you to sample three sandwiches: pesto and tomato on basil bread, duck fillet on tomato bread, and goat cheese and tapenade on olive bread. Another example of the restaurant/grocery formula, Les Vivres is a cozy, bright room where you can load up your plate with different preparations of seasonal vegetables or choose the daily combination of starter, main course, and dessert. Rose Bakery is owned by an English/French couple, and it offers fabulous salads, cute square quiches, and quality goods from the U.K., including sumptuous cheese. It's enough to make you change your mind about British food. This is the ideal spot for tea and a dessert; I say try the sticky toffee pudding ($5). While you're shopping at Le Bon Marché department store, take a look at Delicabar and its bubblegum interior design on the second floor. The creative menu features savory twists on standard French patisseries (vegetable mille-feuilles with salad, $16) and hard-to-resist pastries. The concept of brunch has taken off here only in recent years. The first to get it right was Le Pain Quotidien . At wooden communal tables, barely awake Parisians are served café au lait, soft-boiled eggs, cheese, and charcuterie (from $25.50). Large trays carry the signature chocolate and praline spreads, to be sampled on artisanal bread. More upscale, A Priori Thé is nested in the Galerie Vivienne, one of the 19th-century shopping passages that drill through whole blocks. This salon de thé, or tea salon, serves a weekend brunch of warm sandwiches, egg dishes, and fruit tarts (from $30). Sit at the indoor terrace and bask in the sunlight shining through the glass arcade. Although frequented mostly during the day, R'Aliment is where I go for dinner with the girls. The menu leans toward organic products and always offers at least one vegetarian option. I recently delighted in a beet and lime soup ($8) followed by a mushroom and chestnut tart ($15.75). La Cave de l'Os à Moëlle started out as an annex to L'Os à Moëlle, across the street, but the wine bar has surpassed the restaurant in popularity. Pick a bottle from the wall compartments and sit with other diners to share a family-style meal of delicious country food. It's as close to an all-you-can-eat buffet as Parisian style will allow and one of the best deals around ($26.25). If you haven't yet explored the Butte-aux-Cailles and its quiet hilltop streets, Café Fusion is the perfect excuse. The bright, modern bistro serves French classics side by side with Asian or Mediterranean dishes--and the beef tartare ($15.75) cohabits beautifully with the salmon grilled in a banana leaf ($14.50). It also boasts an exquisite terrace for warm summer nights. Almost a century after Henri Androuët opened his first cheese shop, his name is emblazoned on some 10 fromageries and, more recently, two casual restaurants named Androuët Sur le Pouce (eating on the run--literally, on the thumb). In addition to marvelous tartines (from $13.75), these cheese bars serve tasting platters (also from $13.75). At dinner, it's quieter, and the knowledgeable staff is more available. Bistros and gastronomy have been a happy couple for more than a decade, and a new adjective--bistronomique--has been coined for restaurants offering expert dishes in a casual atmosphere at a reasonable price. Among the newer ones, perhaps the most interesting is L'Ourcine, joining L'Avant-Goût in the oft-neglected 13th arrondissement. Other favorites are Bistro Vivienne and the bustling Velly. If you're willing to climb a notch on the gastronomical (and price) scale, I recommend the authentic Aux Lyonnais, for its brilliant take on Lyon specialties, and Chez Jean, for the creative simplicity of its dishes and its warm ambience. Superstar dining isn't out of reach! Most high-class restaurants have special lunch menus: same sophisticated food, same fabulous service, in a less intimidating atmosphere and at a gentler price. Lunch at Les Ambassadeurs will cost you $92, plus wine, but it's an experience you will never forget. 10 place de la Concorde, 8th arr., 011-33/1-44-71-16-16.   Cojean 6 rue de Sèze, 9th arr., 011-33/1-40-06-08-80   Boulangépicier 73 bd de Courcelles, 8th arr., 011-33/1-46-22-20-20   Les Vivres 28 rue Pétrelle, 9th arr., 011-33/1-42-80-26-10, lamb $18   Rose Bakery 46 rue des Martyrs, 9th arr., 011-33/1-42-82-12-80   Delicabar 26-38 rue de Sèvres, 7th arr., 011-33/1-42-22-10-12   Le Pain Quotidien 18 place du Marché St-Honoré, 1st arr., 011-33/1-42-96-31-70   A Priori Thé 35-37 Galerie Vivienne, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-97-48-75   R'Aliment 57 rue Charlot, 3rd arr., 011-33/1-48-04-88-28   La Cave de l'Os à Moëlle 181 rue de Lourmel, 15th arr., 011-33/1-45-57-28-28   Café Fusion 12 rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, 13th arr., 011-33/1-45-80-12-02   Androuët sur le Pouce 49 rue St-Roch, 1st arr., 011-33/1-42-97-57-39   L'Ourcine 92 rue Broca, 13th arr., 011-33/1-47-07-13-65, prix fixe $37   L'Avant-Goût 26 rue Bobillot, 13th arr., 011-33/1-53-80-24-00, prix fixe $41   Bistro Vivienne 4 rue des Petits Champs, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-49-27-00-50, veal blanquette $20   Velly 52 rue Lamartine, 9th arr., 011-33/1-48-78-60-05, prix fixe $41   Aux Lyonnais 32 rue St-Marc, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-96-65-04, prix fixe $37   Chez Jean 8 rue St-Lazare, 9th arr., 011-33/1-48-78-62-73, prix fixe $45   ShopIf the idea of purchasing professional-quality pots and pans sends your heart aflutter, an expedition to Les Halles is in order. It was historically Paris's main food market (before it was moved to the outskirts in 1969), and a few age-old stores remain, selling cooking gear at reasonable prices to professionals and amateurs alike. The renowned E. Dehillerin is a must, but so are A. Simon, a block away (the restaurant tableware is simple and affordable) and Mora, selling more baking tools than you and I will ever know how to use. Everyone needs a chocolate-dipping fork, no?   Once your kitchen is fully re-equipped, hop to the nearby G. Detou for supplies. The small shop, which my grandmother recommended to me, has shelves upon shelves of bargain-priced cooking ingredients in bulk (nuts, chocolate, spices-- some impossible to find anywhere else) and a number of gourmet items (jams, condiments, and did I mention chocolate?) that make great gifts for the foodies you love--including yourself.For more of these fine products (and a few more euros), the two temples for the fancy-food hunter are Lafayette Gourmet and La Grande Epicerie de Paris, which carry a dizzying array of the latest in fine- food fashions. If you prefer small stores with someone to advise you, check out the spices and exotic products at Izrael in the Marais and Le Comptoir Colonial in Montmartre.Tea lovers, rejoice: Le Palais des Thés is the place for a wide selection of quality blends from all over the world--including a selection of thés rares--as well as stylish accessories. Perched on top of the Butte-aux-Cailles, Les Abeilles is a tiny shop specializing in beekeeping gear and honey-based products. You'll find everything you need to please your inner bear, including a stupendous honey cake ($7.75 per pound).   Open-air markets are certainly the most uplifting and fun places for food shopping. Saturday mornings often find me walking happily around the organic Marché des Batignolles, filling my basket with lush and uncommon fruits and veggies, not to mention terrific cheeses. It's in the 17th arrondissement, on the Boulevard des Batignolles, outside the Métro Rome. Just one district to the east, but on the opposite end of the social spectrum, the super-crowded Marché de Barbès is held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings (on Boulevard de la Chapelle, outside the Métro Barbès). Elbow through the colorful throngs and buy produce for a steal. You can even haggle if you're so inclined. The roundup of my favorite food shops wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention chocolate. I'd need countless pages to cover this subject, but let me share three current favorites: Jadis et Gourmande, for the tresse, a specialty chocolate with nuts and candied orange peel ($7 for 22 ounces); Cacao et Chocolat, for the hot chocolate bar, pastries, and Impériale line of ganaches ($9.75 for 22 ounces); and L'Atelier du Chocolat de Bayonne, for the rippled sheets of chocolate sold in pretty bouquets ($14.50 for 7.75 ounces). Of course, once you've welcomed all those goodies into your home, you'll need the proper accessories to present them. Head to Habitat for classy and modern tableware, then to Sentou Galerie for a look at the latest trends and designer items. If you yearn for previously loved country-house plates and bowls instead, L'Objet qui Parle, a tiny attic of a shop on rue des Martyrs, will be just your thing. And for a change of pace, consider the beautiful African tableware at L'Arbre du Voyageur . The handmade dishes and cutlery, as well as a wealth of other decorative objects, jewelry, and food products, were purchased under fair trade conditions directly from the artisans.There's no such thing as too many cookbooks--just too little shelf space. Located on the up-and-coming rue Charlot, a gallery and bookstore called Food carries a smart selection of titles in French, English, and Japanese. Didn't think a whole recipe book could be written about vegetable peelings? Think again!What do you drink with all of this? Start at Lavinia, a three-floor wine emporium (3 bd de la Madeleine, 1st arr., 011-33/1-42-97-20-20). Rare bottles are in the basement; you may find yourself whispering out of respect. For an honest little wine, I turn to my no-frills neighborhood shop, La Cave des Abbesses (43 rue des Abbesses, 18th arr., 011-33/1-42-52-81-54).   E. Dehillerin 18 rue Coquillière, 1st arr., 011-33/1-42-36-53-13   Simon 48 rue Montmartre, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-33-71-65   Mora 13 rue Montmartre, 1st arr., 011-33/1-45-08-19-24   G. Detou 58 rue Tiquetonne, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-36-54-67   Lafayette Gourmet 48 bd Haussmann, 9th arr., 011-33/1-40-23-52-25   La Grande Epicerie 38 rue de Sèvres, 7th arr., 011-33/1-44-39-81-00   Izrael 30 rue François Miron, 4th arr., 011-33/1-42-72-66-23   Le Comptoir Colonial 22 rue Lepic, 18th arr., 011-33/1-42-58-44-84   Le Palais des Thés 64 rue Vieille du Temple, 3rd arr., 011-33/1-48-87-80-60   Les Abeilles 21 rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, 13th arr., 011-33/1-45-81-43-48   Jadis et Gourmande 27 rue Boissy d'Anglas, 8th arr., 011-33/1-42-65-23-23   Cacao et Chocolat 36 rue Vieille du Temple, 4th arr., 011-33/1-42-71-50-06   L'Atelier du Chocolat de Bayonne 109 rue St-Lazare, 9th arr., 011-33/1-40-16-09-13   Habitat 10 place de la République, 11th arr., 011-33/1-48-07-13-14   Sentou Galerie 24 rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, 4th arr., 011-33/1-42-71-00-01   L'Objet qui Parle 86 rue des Martyrs, 18th arr., 011-33/6-09-67-05-30   L'Arbre du Voyageur 32 rue de l'Espérance, 13th arr., 011-33/1-53-80-16-10   Food 58 rue Charlot, 3rd arr., 011-33/1-42-72-68-97   PlayIf you're at all like me, you're much happier if there's a food aspect to the things you do and the places you visit. Luckily, a number of cultural establishments in Paris have made sure to feed your stomach as well as your mind. The Musée Jacquemart-André is a luxurious 19th-century mansion that presents the art collection of its former owners. The dining room is now a salon de thé, serving tea, lunch, and pastries. At the Palais de Tokyo, the controversial contemporary arts center, the Tokyo Eat restaurant and its postmodern decor is as much a part of the experience as the edgy gift shop and the art itself.The Théâtre Edouard VII kindly solves the dilemma of whether to eat before or after a play. The owner's wife, a best-selling cookbook author, recently opened Café Guitry inside the theater. Her cooking (featuring specialties like lamb tajine with prunes and grilled almonds, or lemon and rosemary roasted chicken) is so good that people eat there even when they're not staying for the performance.Selling food and drinks inside a movie theater isn't unusual, but no one does it with as much style as Studio 28 in Montmartre. This tiny cinema (just one auditorium, decorated by Jean Cocteau no less) has a small bar that serves refreshments--soft drinks, cocktails, and tarts--that you can enjoy in the winter garden. The Opéra Bastille has launched a series of events that it calls Casse-Croûte à l'Opéra (a snack at the opera). Every Thursday at lunchtime, stop in and listen to a concert by the orchestra or a talk/debate with an opera professional, and perhaps enjoy a light lunch from the bar. Entrance is free; the cost of a sandwich, drink, and dessert is about $9.25.The mix of food and art naturally leads us to Galerie Fraîch'Attitude, which specializes in "Eat Art," art that uses food as its inspiration, subject, or material. Some of the exhibitions are actually edible and are meant to disappear into visitors' stomachs, to be re-created the next day. Most Parisians are city kids who shudder at the thought of spending more than a day in the country, and yet the first ray of sun sends them hunting for a patch of green on which to picnic with friends. A popular spot is Le Pont des Arts, a wood and cast-iron footbridge across the Seine linking the 1st and 6th districts. If it's too crowded, go farther up to the Quai St-Bernard, on the south bank of the Seine in the 5th. Beyond the large grassy areas and beautiful river view, the main attraction is the dancing arenas, where professionals and amateurs dance the summer nights away in a whirlwind of salsa, tango, and samba. Another favorite is the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th, an arrondissement of hidden treasures. The park offers breathtaking landscapes and happens to be the steepest in Paris. Some argue that this makes picnicking a challenge, but such is the spice of life. Paris is rediscovering a pleasure in cooking, prompting the creation of a number of classes that adopt a modern approach: The goal is to give you the basics so you can have fun in your kitchen and entertain without stress. Fred Chesneau, founder of L'Atelier de Fred, teaches small groups of up to six in a darling neo-rococo kitchen. The Bergerault brothers at L'Atelier des Chefs do it on a larger scale in a lofty glass-roof workshop, complete with bookstore and boutique. In both cases, you cook your meal and eat it, too. If it's wine you'd like to learn about, Lavinia has a free tasting every Saturday and gives tasting classes for all levels. (Prices range from $38 to $177.) At Legrand Filles et Fils, a wine store constructed in 1880, you can sign up for a series of courses or attend a single session to discover one region or producer. (All classes will work to accommodate English-speaking students upon request.)Le Fooding is a Parisian movement that promotes new ways to eat, cook, and even think about food (lefooding.com). Events are either free or very inexpensive and involve the hottest chefs and the trendiest locations: wandering wine tastings with nibbles, market stands serving delectable soups, giant picnics on the banks of the Seine.Paris is also home to a number of food shows, unique opportunities to meet producers, taste products, and possibly bring something home. The Salon Saveurs (held in May and December) showcases a great array of artisanal foods, while independent French vintners present their wines at the Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants (held in April and November). As for the Salon du Chocolat (in October), it is a chocoholic's dream come true.For the latest trends, restaurant reviews, shopping tips, and events, Parisians pick up the free weekly paper A Nous Paris (distributed on Tuesday mornings in the Métro) and the city magazine Zurban ($1.25, published on Wednesdays and sold at newsstands), which also includes listings for movies, concerts, plays, and art shows. In French only, bien sûr!   Musée Jacquemart-André 158 bd Haussmann, 8th arr., 011-33/1-45-62-11-59, musee-jacquemart-andre.com, admission $12, lunch $19   Palais de Tokyo 13 av du Président Wilson, 16th arr., 011-33/1-47-23-38-86, palaisdetokyo.com, exhibit admission $8, sea bream $23   Théâtre Edouard VII 10 place Edouard VII, 9th arr., tickets 011-33/1-47-42-59-92; Café Guitry, 011-33/1-40-07-00-77, theatreedouard7.com, lamb tajine $26   Studio 28 10 rue Tholozé, 18th arr., 011-33/1-46-06-36-07, cinemastudio28.com, tart $9.25   Opéra Bastille 120 rue de Lyon, 12th arr., 011-33/1-72-29-35-35, operadeparis.fr   Galerie Fraîch'Attitude 60 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, 10th arr., 011-33/1-49-49-15-15, fraichattitude.com   L'Atelier de Fred 6 rue des Vertus, 3rd arr., 011-33/1-40-29-46-04, latelierdefred.com, two-hour classes $79   L'Atelier des Chefs 10 rue Penthièvre, 8th arr., 011-33/1-53-30-05-82, latelierdeschefs.com, classes from $20   Legrand Filles et Fils 1 rue de la Banque, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-60-07-12, caves-legrand.com, events from $13   Salon Saveurs 011-33/1-46-05-80-77, salonsaveurs@free.fr, admission $10.50   Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants 011-33/1-53-02-05-10, vigneron-independant.com, admission $8   Salon du Chocolat chocoland.com, admission $15.75

Inspiration

Eat Like a Local: Hawaii's Big Island

What you'll find in this story: Hawaii food guide, Big Island local suggestions, Hawaiian restaurants, local Hawaii favorites, Kailua-Kona restaurants, Waimea restaurants, Hilo restaurants Kailua-Kona: Between mile markers 103 and 104 on Mamalahoa Highway, just south of Kona, is one of the finest markets in Hawaii, the South Kona Fruit Stand. Juicy honey bell tangelos, ulu (breadfruit), Tahitian limes, and cherimoya and guanabana (both in the custard-apple family) line the tables -- and much of what's here is thrillingly unidentifiable. Sweet strawberry papayas (from 75¢ per pound) are hefty in your hand, and a spoonful of their bright pink flesh satisfies the most powerful sugar craving. The produce comes chiefly from the six acres of organic farms next door, where tiny geckos dart around searching for insects. The best treat for the car ride is a five-ounce bag of chocolate-covered caramel macadamia nuts ($6). At lunchtime in the town of Kailua-Kona, surfers line up in front of Kona Tacos, in the hot asphalt parking lot of the Lanihau Shopping Center. Flaky, flavorful fish tacos ($6.75) and kalua pork burritos ($6.50) are served with fresh pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa. Next door, Tropical Island Flavors supplies a frosty shave ice follow-up (from $2.50). More than a mere snow cone, a Hawaiian shave ice is covered in sweet red azuki beans, which lend a chewy, grainy texture and add complexity. You can order one without beans, but you'll be missing out. These concoctions, which also use syrups flavored like coconut, mango, and lihing mui (preserved plum with a piquantly sour kick), embody the true meaning of ono -- Hawaiian for "delicious." Waimea: Inside and outside of Hawaii, Daniel Thiebaut is known as one of the best restaurants on the Big Island -- with a price tag to match. But on Sundays, this elegant French-Asian Waimea institution, housed in a restored, late 19th-century general store, has an excellent brunch deal from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The buffet spread includes an omelette bar, fresh poke and sushi, fluffy pastries, and island fruit such as pineapple, all for $16 (a pretty big steal, considering that an average dinner entrée at Daniel Thiebaut costs about $27). Live acoustic Hawaiian music, art, and antique signs lend a relaxed, plantation feel. Hilo: Adjacent to Suison, Hilo's waterfront fish market, Nihon Restaurant and Cultural Center is the place for fresh-off-the-boat seafood, including ahi tuna. A neighborhood favorite for its sushi and other Japanese dishes -- the chef's macadamia-nut roll ($9) and beautifully browned butterfish misoyaki ($17) are standouts -- the restaurant overlooks Queen Liliuokalani Gardens and Hilo Bay, with impressive views of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Combination lunches are $13, and full-dinner specials are around $16. In a historic row of buildings, Naung Mai Thai Kitchen is a tiny, two-room Thai restaurant with bright pink walls, orchids on every table, and a patio. Naung Mai specializes in wake-your-mouth-up curries -- red, yellow, green, and Massaman (from $8) -- and chef Bua on-Mai's powerfully fragrant tom yum soup ($8) is in a class of its own. If you can handle it, ask for your curry Thai-hot. All the flavors are guaranteed to pop. The 17-year-old Hilo Farmers Market is held every Wednesday and Saturday, "from dawn till it's gone," in the city's historic downtown. This is the best spot to sample all kinds of tropical foods. More than 175 stalls showcase exotic treats such as cherimoya, jaboticaba berries, jackfruit, lychee, papaya, rambutan, fresh-baked coconut pastries, and dried fish. Not all of it is local: One stall is known for its Peruvian tamales. The price range for most items is from 50¢ per pound (for apple bananas, juicy strawberry papaya, and pocket-size fruits that are sweeter and firmer than the bananas you'll find on the mainland) to $2 per pound (for pomegranates). Forget about Kona coffee. Java from the east side of the Big Island is coming into its own. Stop by Hilo Coffee Mill for a taste -- and cofounder Kathy Patton's private tutorial on coffee-roasting and brewing -- and leave with a few fragrant bags of fresh-roasted beans for when you're back home. There's always a pot brewing with the roast of the day. The Mill's 100 percent Puna rain forest coffee is the best on the east side -- and at $17 per pound, it's the more caffeinated bang for your buck when compared to the west side's Kona peaberry, which costs about double. Best of all, Patton welcomes visitors to try a cup, or two, for free before making a purchase. Volcano: Ever had wine made from Hawaiian guavas or honey extracted from the blossoms of the macadamia tree? Step up to the koa wood bar and sample unique varietals at Volcano Winery, the Big Island's only commercial vintner. The Symphony Mele, a crisp white from a hybrid grape created by the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis, costs $14 per bottle; it won a gold medal at the 2004 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. Fruit lovers will want to pick up the golden Hawaiian Guava Wine ($16), one of the winery's most popular sellers; it's made from a blend of fermented yellow guava puree and white French Columbard grapes from Napa. All of the tropical fruits used are grown on the Big Island. Taste all six of Volcano's wines for free. South Kona Fruit Stand 84-4770 Mamalahoa Hwy., Captain Cook, 808/328-8547 Kona Tacos 75-5595 Palani Rd., Kailua-Kona, 808/329-9049 Tropical Island Flavors Kailua-Kona, 808/937-5570 Daniel Thiebaut 65-1259 Kawaihae Rd., Waimea, 808/887-2200 Nihon Restaurant 123 Lihiwai St., Hilo, 808/969-1133 Naung Mai 86 Kilauea Ave., Hilo, 808/934-7540 Hilo Farmers Market Mamo St. and Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, 808/933-1000 Hilo Coffee Mill 16-643 Kipimana St., Suite #1, Kea'au, 808/982-5551 Volcano Winery 35 Pii Mauna Dr., Volcano, 808/967-7772

Inspiration

The Motel Gets Its Groove Back

What you'll find in this story: trendy motels, new motel accommodations, New York accommodations, Miami accommodations, Portland accommodations, affordable lodging Portland, Oregon This 43-year-old building in Portland's booming Lower Burnside neighborhood (known as LoBu) has history: The lounge in the downstairs area used to be an underground piano bar in the '60s called Sam's Hideaway, an infamous secret meeting spot for trysts and backroom business deals. Kelsey Bunker, a former lawyer, joined forces with Tod Breslau, a local real-estate entrepreneur, after Breslau heard the club and motel (which had become a Travel Inn) was up for sale. Bunker loved the place enough to change her career path, and they took a full year to renovate the 80 rooms. "The bones were really good, but there was so much dry rot," says Bunker. "It needed a ton of gutting and maintenance." Six months ago, the Jupiter Hotel officially opened. Among the playful new additions: Wall-size photoscapes of forests or city scenes, an outdoor fire pit, and slate doors that invite doodling (colored chalk is provided). Bunker kept the spirit of Sam's alive in at least one way. After midnight--and a few too many at Doug Fir, the Jupiter's alpine-style lounge--you can stumble upstairs for only $49. Just ask for the special Get a Room rate. 800 E. Burnside, 503/230-9200, jupiterhotel.com, normally from $79.  --Adrien Glover Marfa, Texas Marfa was a dying west Texas ranching town, best known for being where the James Dean movie Giant was shot, when artist Donald Judd established the Chinati Foundation there in 1986. Hipsters have made the pilgrimage ever since, some even staying to open bookstores, art galleries, and cafés. Now there's a fitting place for arty types to crash when they make the trip: the Thunderbird. Last year, Liz Lambert--owner of the Hotel San Jose in Austin--coordinated a redesign of a 1959 former motor court on Highway 90. The result, open since January, could be described as Cowboy Zen. Each of the 24 minimalist rooms has cowhide rugs on smooth concrete floors. The Thunderbird's landscaping is similarly true to its Texan roots, with gravel, cacti, and horizontal lattices made of pipe salvaged from nearby oil fields. There's also a pool and an outdoor fireplace for the cold desert nights. 601 W. San Antonio, 432/729-1984, thunderbirdmarfa.com, from $79.  --Michael Hall Miami Beach, Florida Four years ago, when Collins Avenue north of 14th Street began to crest as Miami Beach's hippest new district, a surfer named Eric Gabriel decided to get his feet wet in the motel business. He took over the slab-concrete Seadeck, a 1952 motel that had become a home for retirees. As part of his year-long renovation, Gabriel filled the 45 rooms with mid-century accessories like teak headboards. In name, the Aqua Hotel may have graduated from motel to hotel, but it still has telltale motel markers: It's two stories high, and you enter your room from the courtyard, where there's a pool-size hot tub and tropical garden. To enjoy it fully, snag one of the two sun beds--they're free, a rarity in Miami. 1530 Collins Ave., 305/538-4361, aquamiami.com, from $99.  --Jason Cochran Mt. Tremper, New York After buying the Lazy Meadow in 2002 as an investment, Kate Pierson of the B-52s restored the Catskills motor lodge. She created bright, cheerful rentals, put "Kate's" in front of the name, and reopened in May 2004. Work is still in progress on two of the units, but the finished seven are delightfully reminiscent of the motel's early-'50s glory days: The two-bedroom efficiencies even have matching turquoise or pink appliances and cupboards. "Every item was personally selected by Kate," says Monica Coleman, Pierson's partner in business and life. That includes the psychedelic mushroom ottoman, the 3-D nature murals, and the toiletries, which Pierson picked up during her years on the road. Rooms 7 and 8 also have a kitchen with a breakfast bar, a spiral staircase leading to the boudoir, a glass-walled shower for two, and a posse of good-spirited gnomes in the living room. Rehabbed Airstream trailers, down by the river, will be available for rent this summer. 5191 Rte. 28, 845/688-7200, lazymeadow.com, from $150, trailers from $125. --Carole Braden Wildwood, New Jersey While the working-class resort town of Wildwood has no shortage of motels in the kitschy architectural style known as Doo-Wop--think tiki torches and plastic palm trees--the Starlux Hotel is the first of the area's 200 mid-century lodgings to get a makeover. Owner Jack Morey, a Jersey Shore native, began a $1.1 million yearlong renovation of the Starlux starting in 2001, and in doing so, he spearheaded the beginning of a Doo-Wop preservation movement. Morey added a fourth floor to the three-story 1951 motel--formerly known as the Wingate--as well as a 16-suite wing and a glass-front lobby showcasing George Nelson saucer lamps and butterfly chairs. Rooms and suites are done in Jetsonesque decor, with modish accessories like lava lamps, but a funkier option is (again) two spruced-up silver Airstream trailers. 305 E. Rio Grande Ave., 609/522-7412, thestarlux.com, from $69. --Michelle Kleinsak Roxbury, New York "Meltdowns? We had them daily," says Greg Henderson of the yearlong redo he and his partner, Joseph Massa, did on the Roxbury, a 1961 Catskills motor lodge. The two theater vets had a weekend home nearby, and in 2003 they used the 11-room Roxbury as an excuse to move permanently from New York City. Once a fleabag, the Roxbury is now a colorful clash of '60s and '70s mod by way of Ikea, the Container Store, and local auction houses. Each room has its own vivid color palette, and all have zebra-print sofas, pillow-top mattresses, DVD players, and retro lamps behind apple-green doors. If the whole gang's coming, book Inspiration Peaks, a mountaintop manor outside the neighboring town of Andes. The large home, which sleeps 10 (from $400 a night, two-night minimum), is also owned by the pair and is decorated in a similar style. 2258 County Hwy. 41, 607/326-7200, theroxburymotel.com, from $85.  --Carole Braden Austin, Texas The Austin Motel is proud of its flavor. so close yet so far out reads the flashing marquee outside the motel, which was built in 1938. After decades as a central-city motor court, the Austin--and the South Congress Avenue neighborhood where it's located--got a little down on its luck in the '80s. Things took a turn for the better in 1992, when Dottye Dean, daughter of the second owner, took over. She initially made small cosmetic changes (laying down new carpets and hanging fresh drapes), and then started tackling bigger projects in 1995. But Dean's still not done: "Renovations are ongoing and probably always will be as long as I am in charge," she says. Now, each room has a unique theme, from the kitschy (room 258's Monet Honeymoon wall mural) to the beyond (the original '60s lime-green-and-blue wallpaper in room 145, Polka Dot Surprise). The website includes images of all 41 rooms; scope them all out and book the one that suits you best. 1220 S. Congress Ave., 512/441-1157, austinmotel.com, from $52.  --Michael Hall Palm Springs, California The 1954 motel now known as the Desert Star did some time in the '70s and '80s as condominiums, but Steve Samiof brought it back to its rent-by-the-night roots. The graphic artist moved into one of the condos in 2001. "When I saw the building, I fell in love," he said. Samiof bought six of the seven condos (one remains privately owned), renovated them one by one, and took his first booking the same year. The furniture reflects the mid-century aesthetic that reached its peak in the desert: reissued Nelson bubble lamps and Eames fiberglass chairs. But there are also 21st-century touches like large-screen TVs. Wooden accordion doors separate the spartan bedroom from the living area, which looks out on the central pool, giant cacti, and retro chaises. For all that, Samiof just sold the Desert Star--the new moteliers, Walter Popin and Davy Aker, promise not to make significant changes. 1611 Calle Palo Fierro, 760/778-1047, hopespringsresort.com, from $120.  --Celeste Moure More information A few savvy chains are also bringing design within reach. Joie de Vivre, based in San Francisco, has juiced up two former motels. The Phoenix Hotel, long a grungy favorite with bands visiting town, underwent a revamp last summer. The Tenderloin location, however, will probably keep everyone but groupies away (800/738-7477, from $99). Much more family-friendly is Hotel del Sol, in the Marina--it's a 1998 conversion of a '50s motor lodge, now with bright yellow and green decor (800/738-7477, joiedevivre.com, from $129). Two years ago, Best Western overhauled the Capitol Skyline Hotel, a '60s relic in Washington, D.C., with neoclassical blue and gold leather furniture--that's it above (800/458-7500, bestwestern.com, from $99). And in December, the chain will put the finishing touches on the three-year renovation of its Hollywood Hills Hotel. Look for contemporary oak furniture and gray walls (800/287-1700, bestwestern.com, from $109). Finally, this month André Balazs opens his third Standard Hotel. It's in Miami Beach, and it's a conversion of a '50s motel-turned-spa originally designed by Morris Lapidus (305/673-1717, standardhotel.com, from $150).  --Jessica Shaw

Inspiration

New York's Hudson Valley

Ever since the Dutch patroons settled the green hills that flank the Hudson River in the seventeenth century, aristocrats have been building their dream homes along its scenic banks; today many are open to the public, offering a glimpse into the rarified world of America's early movers and shakers. Built mostly on the eastern bank, they cover every style in the book, from Gothic to Beaux-Arts to Federal; this concentrated wealth of historic architecture, unique in the United States, can easily fill a week's drive or more (especially during its gorgeous fall foliage season), but you can take in the approximately 130-mile stretch from New York City to the town of Hudson in as little as three or four packed days. In New York City, car rental outfits are plentiful; cut rates in half by renting at Newark Airport. Invest in a good regional map and head north on the Henry Hudson Parkway, which leads into the Saw Mill River Parkway and to Tarrytown, the first stop. From there, scenic Route 9 links the rest of the towns, though the Taconic State Parkway may be used when time is short. And you can save bucks as well as time by following a classic itinerary focusing on the historic highlights and patronizing the clusters of economical motels and dining spots where you can eat well for less than $15 a person. Note that most attractions close from approximately November through April, with some opening again briefly in December with romantic holiday candlelight tours; always check when planning your trip. New York City to Tarrytown (25 Miles) Head north out of Manhattan on the Henry Hudson Parkway, past white birch trees and the occasional creek tumbling over mossy boulders, the boxy tenements of the Bronx melting into inviting forests freckled with red-brick and white-clapboard towns. In well under an hour - but light-years away from Manhattan - you make your first stop, the pretty village of Tarrytown. This is Sleepy Hollow country, so don't miss Sunnyside (W. Sunnyside Lane, 914/591-8763), the riverfront homestead of that tale's writer, Washington Irving. This Dutch stone cottage "all made up of gable ends, angles and corners," in Irving's words, makes an excellent spot for a picnic. Adjacent is Lyndhurst (635 S. Broadway, 914/631-4481), a sprawling jumble of towers, rose windows, and steep roofs that's America's finest example of Gothic revival. This 1838 cross between an Arthurian fantasy castle and a setting for a romance novel is dressed in "Sing Sing marble" quarried by inmates from the notorious Ossining prison nearby. The elaborate interior fools our eyes with trompe l'oeil plaster passing for marble, mahogany, and flocking, a technique then much in vogue (and ironically more expensive than the real thing). It's pricey, but you do get a lot of sightseeing bang for those bucks at Kykuit ("KIKE-it," Dutch for "lookout"; 914/631-8200), a wisteria-clad stone mansion built in 1913 for John D. Rockefeller and which housed four generations of his clan before joining the National Trust as a historic site. Approaching on the shuttle from the Kykuit Visitor Center at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, the scale of the grounds is impressive, stretching down to the river and dotted with Governor Nelson Rockefeller's modern sculptures. The gardens, fountains, and vistas are worth the trip in and of themselves, but the house also offers great artworks, furniture, and Oriental porcelain, and there's even a fascinating collection of classic cars in the coach barn.  SleepsSaw Mill River Motel (25 Valley Ave., Elmsford, 914/592-7500, sawrivermotel.com) Just outside Tarrytown, a pleasant, two-story red-brick affair with 127 rooms. Elmsford Motel (19 Tarrytown Rd., 914/592-5300) A more basic but clean and quite presentable 48-roomer. Eats In the small but lively Tarrytown downtown, inexpensive restaurants abound despite the upscale look. Top picks: Bella's Restaurant (5 South Broadway, 914/332-0444) Plain, honest diner-style food in a plain, honest setting; entrées $6.25 to $11.25 with bread, salad, and two sides. Main Street Pizza (47 Main St., 914/631-3300, mainstreetpizzatarrytown.com) The pizza's great, but the dinners ($5.75 to $12, including bread and either pasta or salad) are even better in this sparkling tiled eatery. Tarrytown to Hyde Park (55 Miles) The next morning, pick up Route 9 for the idyllic 25-mile drive to the town of Garrison, where Boscobel (1601 Rte. 9D, 845/265-3638; boscobel.org), a 12-room mustard-and-cream Federal-style frame house, was built in 1808 for a certain States Morris Dyckman upon his return from England (where, like many staunch loyalists, he'd fled after the British defeat in the revolution - not unlike King Charles II, who hid from the anti-Royalist troops of Oliver Cromwell in the English forest for which the house is named). Simple and practical, the period furnishings are a far cry from the overwrought Victoriana of some of the area's other manses. Don't miss the floor in the entry hall; a cloth painted to look like marble. From here, time permitting, two great side trips across the Tappan Zee Bridge are the military academy at West Point (845/938-2638; general admission free, guided bus tour $6 adults, under 12 $3) and the Storm King modern art center (Old Pleasant Hill Road, Mountainville, 845/534-3115; adults $7, seniors $5, students $3, under 5 free). Continue north into nearby Cold Spring, one of the Valley's more charming - though admittedly expensivish - towns (though with several decently priced dining spots). Stroll along Main Street, admire the neat Victorian homes and poke around the many shops and antiques dealers that have sprung up to serve the weekend hordes from New York. Another 27 miles on Route 9 will take you to Hyde Park (zooming through the sprawl of Poughkeepsie), in terms of mansions perhaps the Valley's mother lode. Its pi`ce de résistance is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Historic Site (Rte. 9, 845/229-9115; nps.gov/hofr), the birthplace, home, and gravesite of our 32nd president. Dating from the early nineteenth century, the Georgian colonial revival edifice (known as Springwood) offers a fascinating look into his life with furnishings, busts, and memorabilia. The first-ever Presidential Library and Museum is here, too, born of FDR's desire to provide future generations with easy access to the documents of his presidency. The museum offers thought-provoking exhibits ranging from his role in World War II to his White House desk to Eleanor Roosevelt (whose Dutch-style hideaway, Val-Kill, is also on the estate and visitable). De rigueur for students of excess, on the other hand, is the nearby Vanderbilt Mansion (Rte. 9, 845/229-9115; nps.gov/vama). The most opulent - some might say tacky - of the houses, the 55-room Italian Renaissance extravaganza was built by Frederick Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius, the original robber baron) at the height of the Gilded Age of the 1890s, a time when famous (and infamous) financiers and magnates rode roughshod over the American landscape. A highlight is the boudoir of Louise Vanderbilt, done up in a style I call "Liberace gone loco"-an orgy of curlicues, tapestries, and gilding. Use Hyde Park as a base for checking out lots of other attractions within striking distance: apart from the Samuel Morse home and museum in Poughkeepsie (2683 South Rd., 845/454-4500; lgny.org), nearby are several pick-your-own apple and berry farms (I especially like Greig Farm on Pitcher Lane in Red Hook, 845/758-1234); the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck (44 Stone Church Rd., Rhinebeck, 845/758-8610; museum $6 adults, $2 ages 6-10, weekdays; museum/air show $12 adults, $5 ages 6-10, weekends), a museum and summertime air show featuring World War I aircraft; and the Omega Institute (150 Lake Dr., Rhinebeck, 800/944-1001), a moderately priced New Age resort east of Rhinebeck that from May to October offers summer-camp-style pleasures mixed with classes and talks on topics both familiar and far-out. Sleeps  The Inn at Hyde Park (537 Rte. 9; 845/229-9161) Twenty-two smallish, plainish units in a beige woodframe motel across from Rollermagic. Doubles $55-$65. The Roosevelt Inn (4360 Rte. 9, 845/229-2443, fax 845/229-0026) Twenty-five clean-cut, basic rooms in a brown-shuttered building; doubles from $45-$55. Vanderbilt Motel (Rte. 9 at Linden La., 845/229-7100, fax 845/229-5312) A tad dated and no pool, but still a good value at $49-$64; 18 rooms. Golden Manor (522 Rte. 9, 845/229-2157) A charming Greek Revival-style motel with 38 impeccable rooms and a large outdoor swimming pool, run by a welcoming Korean-American family; doubles $45-$65. Super 8 Motel (4142 Rte. 9, 845/229-0088, fax 845/229-8088) Cute faux-Tudor two-story property with 61 comfortable rooms, $69-$100. Eats Cold Spring: Cold Spring Depot (1 Depot Sq., 845/265-2305) Possibly the most happening spot in town, with indoor/outdoor seating and a menu whose best bets are daily specials and pub food, served with sides or salad, $8 to $15. Cold Spring Pizza (120 Main St., 845/265-9512) A full Italian menu (ranging from $5.50 to $12) and quality pizzas in a simple setting. Hyde Park: Pete's Famous Diner/Restaurant (546 Rte. 9, 845/229-1475) Better-than-diner fare in a cute setting. Best deal: $7-to-$10 combo platters including sides, soup, and salad. Eveready Diner (540 Rte. 9; 845/229-8100) Cheerful Art Deco-style chrome diner offering home-style dinners for $7-12, including fresh veggies, salad, and bread. Best Wok (Hyde Park Plaza, Rte. 9, 845/229-0319) Simple but tasty Chinese take-out joint with a handful of tables; entrées around $7 and combination platters (with fried rice and egg roll) around $6. Hyde Park to Hudson (35 Miles) The northernmost stretch of our Route 9 itinerary includes some jewels of its own, including Clermont, a white-frame colonial-era landmark tucked away in northern Dutchess County, so we cruise north, sometimes on Route 9, sometimes along hilly country lanes bordered by low stone walls and fruit orchards, with quick stops along the way at the grand Mills Mansion (Old Post Rd., Staatsburg, 845/889-8851; adults $3, ages 5-12 $1), another Gilded Age robber baron's playground between Hyde Park and Rhinebeck, and at Montgomery Place (845/758-5461; adults $6, seniors $5, ages 5-17 $3), a lovely nineteenth-century jewel on Annandale-on-Hudson's picturesque River Road. North of Red Hook and west of Route 9 (518/537-4240; adults $3, seniors $2, kids 5-12 $1) is the oldest (1730s) and charmingly simplest of the riverfront estates - Clermont, the ancestral homestead of the Livingston clan. George Washington and other founding fathers really did sleep here; it was, in fact, Robert Livingston who administered the oath of office to our first president and served as minister to France. As if that weren't enough, he also bankrolled Robert Fulton's history-making steamboat - which took its name from the house and stopped by in 1807 on its maiden voyage down the Hudson. From Clermont, the last half-hour stretch of Route 9 takes you past more orchards and on to the once-roughneckish town of Hudson, a former whaling center that fell on hard times when that industry went belly up, and more recently has reinvented itself as the Valley's antiques capital, with pricey consignment shops everywhere you look and even the occasional celebrity driving up from New York to refurbish the penthouse (fortunately, most lodging and restaurant prices haven't yet gone similarly upscale). Take a leisurely stroll through the restored red-brick downtown, which mostly means Warren Street and antiquing. Not all of it's priced out of reach; some surprising, smaller values can still be snagged here. Two more local manses merit stops. In the town of Kinderhook about a half hour north on Route 9H is Lindenwald (518/758-9689; adults $2, under 16 free), the eclectic Victorian home and farm of Martin van Buren. Our eighth president may not be our best known, but he did help lay the foundations for the partisan politics we all know and love. The second house is one of the Hudson Valley's funkiest sights, perched high on a hill four miles south of Hudson and right across from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge leading across the Hudson to the Catskills. Commanding a view of the mighty Hudson slicing through wooded hills, Olana (Rte. 9G, 518/828-0135; adults $3, seniors $2, kids 5-12 $1) is the the quirky Persian-style home of nineteenth-century landscape painter Frederick Church that has caused many a jaw (my own included) to literally drop. Inside, the decor is eclectic but heavy on Islamic art. In a way, it's more about the setting than the house-which, while interesting enough with its fancy brickwork and Victorianoid turrets, is clunky in its attempt to re-create the subtleties of Middle Eastern architecture in a New World setting. From Hudson, drive directly back to New York City in two hours on the Taconic Parkway or the New York State Thruway, cut eastward to the Berkshires of Massachusetts on Route 23, or continue north toward Albany and western New York. The Hudson Valley may be a shiny touristic jewel in New York State's crown, but this is a region that just keeps on giving. Sleeps Warren Inn (731 Warren St., 518/828-9477, fax 518/828-3575) The Valley's best value, a former movie theater with 14 lovely, recently renovated rooms for $45 double year-round right in the historic district. Joslen Motor Lodge (320 Joslen Blvd., off Rte. 9, 518/828-7046) Sixteen fresh and impeccable units five minutes north of downtown; doubles $60-$70 ($100 with a kitchenette). St. Charles Hotel (16-18 Park Place, 518/822-9900, fax 518/822-0835) For a touch of class, this elegant, 34-room property, recently renovated, rents out doubles from $79-$119 year-round. EatsColumbia Diner & Restaurant (717 Warren St., 518/828-9083) Simple, honest food and value in an authentic chrome diner; seven or so daily specials (with sides) $4 to $6. Earth Foods Cafe Deli (523 Warren St., 518/822-1396) Freshly prepared, wholesome fare from $6 to $12 in a rustic cafe in the thick of downtown.