HUDSON, N.Y. -- One route to self-deception is to line up summer destinations in winter, when warm-sounding places exert a strong pull. Another is to jump at bargain-priced lodging. We recently learned these lessons the hard way.
Olana. In the depth of snow season the luscious word that Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), a famous painter of the Hudson River School, chose to name his estate conjured visions of a hospitable sultanate. Better still, the mansion, surrounded by 250 acres of woods and fields overlooking the river, was filled with Church's romantic landscapes. Church himself designed the house and grounds. We had to go.
Six months later we headed out for Olana. Driving to eastern New York State was a breeze, the scenery was a dreamy blur of trees, mountains, and big farms. We were ahead of schedule when we neared our motel, so we thought we would drop off our stuff.
The Muscatel Arms (not its real name) announced itself with a faded sign on an unkempt lawn. Three one-story buildings formed a squared-off U. Piles of trash, some bagged in see-through plastic, some spilling out of waste barrels, leaned against the wall of each building. Cars and pickups were nosed up to several of the ``efficiencies and suites," as they were advertised online. A half-dozen men, some bare-chested, leaned on their vehicles, schmoozing. The scene felt like an outtake from the TV reality show ``Cops."
For reasons we still cannot fathom, we parked and entered the lobby. We asked about the garbage. ``Yeah, it's trash day," said the world-weary clerk.
We entered our room and were clobbered by the odor of dirty ashtrays, mildew, and eau de locker room. A drowsy fly circled what looked like the smallest double bed ever made. We shuddered to think what stains would materialize on the bedspread under the blue light of a CSI technician.
The middle drawer of the bureau had collapsed, and the walls sported fist-size patches of cracked spackling. As for the kitchen and bathroom, suffice to say that that was when we decided this trip could be accomplished in one day instead of two.
The detour made the heavenly Olana seem positively celestial. A carriage road and a woodland trail led to Church's festive fieldstone mansion -- part Italianate villa, part Persian palace. Glazed tiles surrounded windows with arches curving to a point. Tan and brown bricks wove ornate patterns on the upper-story walls, and the odd golden roof tile sparkled on the mansard roof. We half expected to see an enormous tassel hanging from the great turret. Yet the palette of earth-tone greens, reds, and blues kept the exuberant building from soaring into gaudiness. Church designed the oddly appealing house between 1870 and 1876, after returning from a trip to the Middle East.
Before stopping at the visitors center, we charged up a short hill to catch the views from the mansion's south-facing entrance. Spread out below was the landscape that graced so many of Church's atmosphere-drenched paintings: in the foreground, a mown hillside, a swath of forest, and a lake. In the distance were the Hudson and, across it, the Catskill Mountains.
We returned to the visitors center to find out when the next house tour began. ``The house is closed this year," the guide said. ``We're installing a new fire-suppression system and doing some other renovations."
A few fancy sprinklers separated us from the object of our quest. A quest that had already cost us a nonrefundable motel fee. We stared at the guide. ``But there's a cultural landscape tour starting in 10 minutes," he added hastily. ``And a slide show with pictures of the house interior." There was nothing to do but sign up -- one of us, who had missed the notice on Olana's website, doggedly avoiding the dagger stare of the other.
The slide show revealed that Church named Olana -- ``our place on high" -- after a Turkish treasury house. The images showed that he had gone as mad for the Middle East inside the house as outside. It took him four years to decorate. Acres of Oriental carpets, a pasha's trove of pillows, and heavy velvet curtains created a sensuous drama. Light poured in through high windows framing views of the outer landscape. It was a fantasia only an artist could create.
The 45-minute landscape tour was a leisurely stroll. Like the picturesque grounds of English estates, Olana's landscape is a highly orchestrated series of pictorial views that unfold along a winding drive and culminate in the grand, 60-mile vista in front of the house. Well-placed clumps of trees dot fields sloping south to the lake, which Church dug to echo the distant Hudson. Farther out the wilder forest and mountains loom, making the immediate surroundings feel all the more civilized. At the tour's end, the guide justified our bungled day with a single sentence: ``Church considered this designed landscape his finest work of art."
There was plenty of daylight left to begin the journey home. As we sailed past the Muscatel Arms, we noticed the trash was still there.
Contact Jane Roy Brown and Bill Regan, a writer-photographer team based in Western Massachusetts, at www.regan-brown.com.