The unsolicited advice started pouring in. As I suppose it does when you’re recently engaged. All very well-meaning, of course, but largely irrelevant, outdated or totally overwhelming. So, I just smiled, nodded and ignored it all, barreling blithely towards the wedding date believing I had it all figured out. Until I was knocked off course by an article profiling the relationship therapist Esther Perel, where she said that ‘the challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what’s safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring’. Oh.
The ‘safe and predictable’ part was not the problem: our nightly Netflix routine was stiflingly cosy. No, it was the ‘m’ word that worried me. Was it possible to become more mysterious? If it required anything Dita Von Teese-ish, you could count me out (too many buckles). But Perel meant mystery more as a state of mind: establishing boundaries, pursuing separate interests and severing unsexy codepencies. This I was eager to try, but where to start?
Then, I remembered the Dutchess, a secretive farm in the Hudson Valley of Upstate New York with no website, no social media presence, almost no online footprint at all. And how, despite the absence of information, frazzled Manhattanites flock there to unplug and get back to nature on healing weekend retreats. Everyone seemed to know someone, a friend of a friend of a friend, who had been there and raved about the nourishing communal meals, the sound baths, the silence. In this age when ‘information is power’, the Dutchess had built a legion of devotees on whispers and withholding (it really shows remarkable restraint not to advertise that your chef is an alumni of Eleven Madison Park, or that your farmer trained at Blue Hill at Stone Barns). I decided to head to Staatsburg, NY, to see if the elusive Dutchess could teach me a thing or two about mystery.
It was a bright but arctic afternoon when my Uber pulled off the main road and… deposited me in the 18th century. The sense of time-warp was overpowering – the pristine view of rolling fields, clusters of Pennsylvania Dutch barn buildings and dense forest betrayed no hint of modernity. And the silence, as promised, was blanketing. While being shown to my room, I instantly hit on ‘Amish chic’ to describe the wide floorboards, unadorned walls and simple wooden furniture in the stone farmhouse. But Eric, the kindly guest experience manager, explained the design concept as ‘wabi sabi’. I nodded sagely to show I was au fait with all manner of Japanese aesthetic principles and rushed to Google it as soon as he left. Apparently, it means impermanent beauty and embracing a less-is-more approach that takes pleasure in the incomplete. Making peace with imperfection? That seemed like a good mantra for marriage. I was learning already. And, though the first thing I noticed was the quiet rusticity, later I took in the full-sized Aesop bottles by the bath, the fluffy Frette robe and the unspeakable softness of the smoky gray linen sheets, recognising it as that stealthy kind of luxury that doesn’t rush to reveal its worth (also known as the well-bred kind).
It’s amazing how time slows down when there are no distractions. Before, I had been slightly dreading the communal dining aspect of the weekend, envisaging it as painful small talk with strangers that would just have to be borne. But, after a few restless hours on my own, I was desperate for human contact and, fashionably, was the first to arrive at Pop’s Kitchen for cocktail hour. The rest of the guests trickled in and I stood awkwardly in a corner, feeling that there was an absurd element of Poirot about the whole affair – strangers called together in an old-timey house, sizing each other up over aperitifs. Then, Will, an outspoken Swede, broke the ice by saying, ‘Guys, I saw the weirdest leaf on my hike today.’ Everyone laughed, shattering the tension and, from there, the conversation never faltered, carrying us through dinner and late into the night.
For a diverse bunch – London, Sweden, India, Chicago, Canada, New York – we got along so well that I started to wonder if we were unusual. Was it possible that every group had this much fun? But, while the evening may have taken us by surprise – I doubt I’ll ever go to a better dinner party – I see now that much of it was down to the Dutchess’ formula: gather a group of curious and like-minded people, put them out in nature and take away their screens. Add a roaring fire, lovingly-cooked seasonal farm bounty and many, many mezcal cocktails. Voila, instant kinship.
The next day, I woke up with the peaceful feeling that I only get in rural and remote places, like my internal geiger counter has finally fallen silent. The farm seemed a much more benevolent place and being on my own didn’t seem daunting anymore but something to savour instead. After a breakfast of homemade granola and coconut yoghurt (all the food is gluten free and dairy free but you never feel deprived, it’s more of a happy bonus), I got into the gentle rhythm of the day: a yoga class in the atmospheric big red barn with its enormous windows and soundtrack of chiming Indonesian gongs, a hike around the property’s network of trails with leaves crunching underfoot, and a chat with chef Mark Margiotta about the feast he was planning for that evening and his favourite local farms for sourcing seasonal produce.
After dinner, we gathered around the bonfire and I had a chance to ask Eric some of my burning questions. Like, why all the secrecy? ‘It’s about avoiding expectations. We want everyone’s experience to be about discovery and chance encounters, not disappointment that something hasn’t lived up to the image in your head.’ He continued, ‘and, I guess, it’s also about self-selection – the people who are willing to take a chance on an unknown quantity are also the people who will get the most out of it.’
Sitting under the stars, I thought about how all this was true. How the Dutchess was a bit like a wise old sensei, leading by example, trusting that you’ll understand in your own time. It’s all a bit lofty, certainly, but I leave the next morning feeling like I’ve done more than just relax: I’ve ventured out alone, I’ve let people surprise me, I’ve surprised myself.
‘So, how was it?’, my fiancé asks when I get back. ‘It was great,’ I smile, choosing not to elaborate.
Intrigued? Explore your mysterious side with our boutique hotels in Upstate New York.