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The Delaware River as seen from Upstate, NY.


The People Make The Place 

For years, I have had this adoration for – a borderline obsession with – New York City, full of history, museums, the arts and theatre, a mélange of languages and cultures, culinary delights and the je ne c’est quoi referenced when descriptive narratives fail. Over the years I have visited, stayed for months at a time and now have a few clients I work with in the city. From the moment you land near any of its airports, the energy of the city seeps through the soles of your feet and pulses through your body. It is infectious, energizing and you almost exhale Fred Ebb’s lyrics, “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere!”  


While NYC inspires me to do more and be more every time I am there, this three part series, however, will tell of the beauty out of the city, where colors take shape and come to life in Upstate, New York. 


My Facebook memories started to flood my feed with pictures and stories of this exact time in 2016. While on a three-month work trip to NYC, I escaped the timbre of the city’s sirens and the symphony of horns on Memorial Day weekend to the chirps of chipmunks, rolling hills, vast plains and the serenity that is Upstate, New York. As if the land itself is not gorgeous enough – like a deep spiritually awakening gorgeous – its hills and plains are etched and blotted with waterways: brooks, creeks, streams, rivers, eddies, ponds, lakes, and the list goes on. In Hawai‘i, we call any water way – besides the big blue pond that surrounds us – a “river.”


My dear friends Lynne and Bobby O’Neill live on a lake in Upstate. Their property meets the lake with a private sandy shore in a little alcove, which Bobby proudly proclaims, “we’re the only property on the lake with a shore!” 


Lynne and Bobby, for some time, have been graciously extending invitations to me for a visit and all I could ask myself as I was enveloped by the natural beauty was, “Adrian, what took you so long?” 


Having lived in NYC’s trendy West Village, Lynne and Bobby sought respite in the tranquility that is Upstate – a recurring theme I noticed as I was introduced to business owners and residents in their neck of the woods (such an apropos idiom). 


Bobby was born and raised in the area, his mother, a well-known real estate agent created a St. Patrick’s Day parade in their hometown. Lynne, a Hawai‘i ex-pat, lived in New York City for decades. An event and fashion show producer, Lynne has been a part of the very fabric of New York City’s fashion scene and the iconic New York Fashion Week. The couple met in upstate and has been inseparable ever since. Like the rest of my amazing friends, I met Lynne and Bobby once and have admired them from day one.


On a beautiful summer morning, I made my way to Hoboken Station. The stained glass ceiling in the terminal of the station gave me neck cramps, as I could not stop ogling at the intricate designs and vibrant colors. While the waiting area in the terminal was renovated in 2004, the stained-glass ceiling has been there since the terminal’s opening in the early 1900s.  Louis Comfort Tiffany, the genius behind the design of the ceiling, created an entire era of stained-glass pieces and was the first Design Director for his father’s company, Tiffany & Co.


I showed up early on that summer morning - two hours early! I got to sit and take in the terminal, the ebb and flow of commuters making their way about the cities and visitors like me stumbling around train lines while staring at my NJ Transit app and lugging my suitcase. 


While nervously texting Lynne of my departure and track lane, I joked about what it must feel like while traveling between islands in Hawai‘i, “this is what it must feel like for tourist traveling inter-island.” 


“Yes!” she shot back. 


As my train pulled away to start the two-hour-long journey to Port Jervis, Lynne sends a text and a Wikipedia link about the Moodna Viaduct – a 3,200 foot iron railroad trestle that spans Moodna Creek, just before the Salisbury-Mills station. She tells me to sit on the right side of the train and I can enjoy the view. I’m certain it would have been a beautiful sight, but the lulling rhythm of the train on the tracks and the green pastures eventually convinced my eyelids that it could no longer stay open.


The train starts to slow and I see the petit frame of Lynne in the distance. Donning her COMME des GARÇONS dress and some flip-flops – the perfect melding of her West Village style – while she eyes each passenger as they disembark, as if I’m somehow tucked between them. I come off last, and trust me when I say, there’s no way anyone can miss me.


My first impression is, “THIS is  New York?”


One can only imagine the type of characters this city has seen at the height of industrialization, the type of cargo sent to Southeast Asia and how industries and workforces changed the very makeup of this town. Many have stepped off the trains in Port Jervis, but this Hawaiian was there to take it all in – and I had the perfect guides!


Driving about 30 minutes northwest of Port Jervis to meet Bobby where he operates a beautiful vacation rental called Sticks & Stones, on a fairytale-like creek. Lynne took me on the scenic route – along the Delaware River. No words or descriptive lyricism could adequately paint what I felt and what I have seen, it was stunningly gorgeous. 


We pulled over to a lookout and the rolling hills met the Delaware River on one side, where Lynne points out it’s the Pennsylvania side of the river. She asks a guy on a Harley Davidson to take a picture of us with the river as a backdrop. Lynne proudly tells the biker dude that she’s from Hawai‘i but now lives here in the sticks  (Too cliché? Fine. I’ll stop) and that I’m from Hawai‘i too, but in NYC for a few months for work. His response is what I’m accustomed to whenever I am not in Hawai‘i. “Hawaii! That’s far.” Yep. We stop the small talk and the beauty of everything around once again consumes me.


I could feel the antiquity of the areas as we drove past old barns, open fields and varied architectural styles. It was almost as if the stories were waiting to be told - a common theme I felt throughout the week in every town visited, every shop, every building and even the open plains. I could not get over the feeling that many storied pasts converged – something that continues to happen – in Upstate.


During the week, I meet this generation’s industrialists who created their own niche, moved their families to fulfill dreams, found opportunities in Upstate and collectively they bring a new voice to this region. These entrepreneurs are more cognizant about enhancing the resources around them, equally crafting a unique place while making a home – even it if is just for weekends.


While the other pieces of this triad will expound on the culinary delicacies and amazing history-rich hamlets to visit while in the Upstate area, I wanted this first piece to focus on the people I have met who found their place outside of the Big City. They’ve set their roots in these communities, breathing new life, creating jobs, and telling its stories while adding new chapters. I found it to be beautiful and inspiring.


Lynne and Bobby introduce me to Pamela Mayer who owns a beautifully curated boutique in the hamlet of Narrowsburg called MayerWasner. Pamela lived in DUMBO and created a line of luxury leather goods, which she sold in SoHo. With no ties to the area, Pamela set her own roots and now thrives in Narrowsburg. She features many designers in the boutique, including her own.


Also in Narrowsburg is a 550 square foot bookstore featured in Architectural Digest, the shelves are lined with books curated by the owner’s celebrity friends, writers, thinkers and politicos. One Grand Books’ proprietor, Aaron Hicklin – also the editor-in-chief of OUT Magazine, brought his concept to fruition after being inspired by a wine shop, Bottle Rocket, in the Flatiron district of Manhattan that had its wine curated by mood instead of region or other distinctions common to more seasoned oenophiles. The brilliant Christiane Amanpour and extremely talented Trevor Noah curate some of the popular shelves in the well-appointed bookshop. Hicklin – who resides in the city during the week – works the shop himself, which means his store hours are confined to Fridays through Sundays. 


A few doors down from One Grand Books and MayerWasner we go to dinner at The Heron - fantastic food and more about the delicious dishes in my next piece on the food we had in Upstate. The delicious food that’s created in this eatery is the result of a pair of another modern industrialists. Marla Puccetti - a successful television producer for networks like MTV, Oxygen and the Cooking Channel - and her partner and chef, Paul Nanni, started the farm-to-table restaurant in Narrowsburg. After equally successful careers in the City, they opened The Heron in 2012, utilizing the vast resources and quality ingredients of the area. While chatting, Lynne learned that their walk-in refrigerator broke down that day and caused unneeded stress. People around them rallied, someone with an ice truck let them use it as a mobile freezer until a repairman could make it out to Narrowsburg. It was a reminder that the people of the area are just as important as the farm-to-table freshness provided in their cuisine. 


Also in Sullivan County we visited the town of Callicoon, you could tell this town had seen great times and its fair share of struggle. We met another friend of the O’Neills, Nhi Mundy, proprietor of Bà & Me - a flavor packed standout serving food of Mundy’s native Vietnam. In 2012, along with her husband - celebrated photographer Michael Mundy - left the city life to live in Upstate. These industrialists took their skills to a new level. Nhi felt she could provide more culinary diversity by serving fresh and flavorful foods of her upbringing. While Bà & Me sounds like a play on the delicious potentials of a bánh mi, the terms actually mean Grandmother & Mother - an ode to her mother and late grandmother. The eatery is an ever-growing chain of Vietnamese restaurants, as it should be - the food is outstanding. If this wasn’t enough to add to Upstate’s charm and story, Nhi and Michael also operate an increasingly popular publication called DVEIGHT Mag, where they focus on the Delaware Valley goings on - the stories, the look and feel - all of it: stunning.


They’ve come from all over. Like those before, they carved out niches, made lives for themselves and their families, created businesses, made their communities thrive. Their stories and determination to make things happen will never leave me.


Lynne and Bobby opened up their home and proudly showed me a piece of New York that will stay with me forever.

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