"I dunno,” says the guy standing next to me as we gaze over the valley. “The colours just ain't poppin' this year.”
I look at him in disbelief. In front of us is a sweeping vista of tree-blanketed hills in a riot of autumnal shades. There are lipstick reds and buttercup yellows, deep mauves and vibrant oranges. The colours shine with such intensity it looks as if each leaf has been painted by a Disney animator. If this ain't poppin', I don't know what is.
Perhaps it's easy to get blase when you have this on your doorstep. My underwhelmed friend lives in Manhattan and regularly comes upstate during the autumn to indulge in a spot of “leaf peeping”, the intriguingly illicit-sounding term for watching the leaves change colour.
Triggered by the colder weather, the colour change starts high up in New England around late August and then sweeps down the north-eastern states until it reaches Manhattan in late October.
There's a perception you need to head to Maine and Vermont, but upstate New York puts on a similarly impressive show.
We're in the Catskills National Park, which starts just 160 kilometres north of Manhattan. Covering 283,000 hectares and stretching into four counties, it's a region of tree-carpeted peaks and valleys dotted with quaint villages and towns. Accommodation ranges from charming B&Bs to resorts such as Mohonk Mountain House. Family-owned and operated since 1869, this spectacular Victorian castle enjoys impressive views over Lake Mohonk. Even if you don't stay here, it's worth a visit to see its beautiful period furnishings and stroll through the manicured gardens.
F rom Mohonk we head to Kingston, one of the larger towns in Ulster County and famous as the first capital of New York.
The first session of the senate was held here on September 10, 1777, and the house is now a historic site and museum. This is also the place where British troops invaded in October of the same year, after declaring the town “a nursery for almost every villain in the country”.
Compared to navigating Manhattan's traffic-clogged streets, driving upstate is a joy. Route 28 is the main artery through the region, but the meandering back roads are quieter and more fun to drive.
WE CALL into the small town of Phoenicia and see the aftermath of Hurricane Irene's visit last August. While the eyes of the world were trained on Manhattan - which largely escaped any serious damage - Irene was busy felling trees, bringing down power lines and dumping catastrophic amounts of rain that swelled rivers and blew bridges.
When we visit a few months later, the clean-up operation is ongoing, but for the most part the region is back open for business.
We decide to leave Route 28 and instead take a gorgeous, tree-lined back road to one of the biggest tourist magnets in the area: Woodstock. Ironically, the 1969 music festival that made the town famous actually took place 70km away at Yasgur's Farm, but that small detail hasn't deterred the town's retailers.
While undeniably touristy, the town stops just short of being an over-the-top Disney-style homage. Balancing the plethora of souvenir shops are some genuinely charming galleries, cafes and restaurants.
For an unbeatable view of the surrounding area, I'd recommend driving up Rock City Rd from where there's a lovely 4km tree-lined trail to the top of Overlook Mountain. The hike is moderately strenuous, but the reward is a spectacular sweeping vista across the region.
Not quite so recommended is climbing the rickety nine-storey fire tower at the peak. I'm sure it's perfectly safe, but the wind is so frighteningly ferocious at the top I have to ascend the last flight of stairs on all fours.
Ulster County is famous for its local produce and for dinner each night we search out tucked away eateries in the region's patchwork of towns and villages. Highlights include the Pine Hill Arms, an atmospheric bar that serves a mean sirloin steak, and the elegant Catamount Bar in the Emerson Resort, which has an extensive wine list.
My favourite by far, though, is the Country Inn, a beguiling pub in the unfortunately named Krumville, which we locate via a hand-drawn map that guides us along a labyrinth of unmarked back roads. It sells more than 500 different beers together with hearty comfort-food favourites such as Mac & Cheese.
After an enjoyable couple of days in Ulster County, it's time to hop over the Hudson to see how the other half live in neighbouring Dutchess County.
Our first stop is Rhinebeck, a postcard-perfect American town whose quaint main street is lined with antique shops, galleries and restaurants. Dining options range from The Beekman Arms Inn, which dates back to 1766 and has hosted George Washington and Franklin D Roosevelt, to Arielle, a modern brasserie specialising in delicious French-inspired cuisine.
Even today the town still gets the presidential seal of approval. Chelsea Clinton chose Rhinebeck as the venue for her million-dollar wedding to Marc Mezvinsky in 2010.
Continue south along the Hudson River and you soon hit three of Dutchess County's biggest drawcards.
Given its impressive classical facade, it's hard to believe Vanderbilt Mansion was the smallest of all the Vanderbilt residences. This relatively modest 54-room mansion was the holiday home of Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt in the early 1900s. You can tour the house or explore the grounds and bask in the enviable river views.
Also located in Hyde Park is Springwood, the lifelong home of America's only four-term president, Franklin D Roosevelt. Visitors can see his grave and that of his wife, Eleanor, as well as their much admired rose garden and a library and museum.
Five minutes down the road is the training ground for many of the US's best chefs.
The Culinary Institute of New York has 2900 students and you can sample their work at any of the five student-run restaurants. Alternatively, if you fancy yourself as a budding Wolfgang Puck, you can book onto a variety of courses, from two-hour food and wine tastings to multi-day cooking classes.
Our last stop before jumping on the I-87 highway back to Manhattan is the Walkway Over the Hudson, a two-kilometre-long railroad bridge that was the world's longest when it was constructed in 1888. It has since been converted into a pedestrian walkway and it now holds the title of the world's longest elevated pedestrian bridge.
At 65 metres above the Hudson River, it offers an impressive, if rather windswept, view along the valley.
As we inch our way back into Manhattan through Sunday night traffic, I spot the first signs of autumnal colour on the trees lining the city's avenues and cross streets. Soon Central Park will be awash in a glorious palette of reds, yellows and oranges.
I just hope it's "poppin' enough" for my leaf-peeping friend.
More information at fallgetaways.iloveny.com for driving tours and foliage reports.
- © Fairfax NZ News