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As park lovers know by now, not every area operated by the National Park Service is a National Park. There are national seashores, for instance, and national historic sites. Turns out there are also such categories as national heritage areas. The Hudson River Valley between New York City and Albany is one such area, having been designated by Congress in 1996.

Heritage Areas have been a category of National Parks for 25 years now, and the 49 such spots are increasingly popular with visitors. Not only is it close to the nation's largest metropolitan area, but the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area (HRVNHA) is crammed with things to do. Here are some of the best Hudson Valley activities and historical, architectural, and other cultural highlights. Each site has its own hours, admission fees, and rules.

Best Museums: Architecture & History in the Hudson River Valley

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum (www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu) is near the FDR Home at Hyde Park. This museum was the first presidential library and the only one used by its namesake while in office. Planned and designed by Roosevelt in the Dutch Colonial style, it houses his official papers and other memorabilia.

The Home of Franklin Roosevelt (www.nps.gov/hofr) itself is nearby, and is administered by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site. I like comparing its relatively simple style to that of the nouveau-riche Vanderbilts, whose mansion is nearby.

In the Upper Valley, must-see places include Clermont State Historic Site (www.friendsofclermont.org), home to the Livingston family for seven generations. Right on the Hudson River, the 500-acre estate promises excellent views. This site also saw the lives of prominent Americans, including Robert Livingston.

The Martin Van Buren National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/mava) is Lindenwald, the home and farm of the eighth president of the United States from 1839 until his death in 1862. Inside the Georgian-style home in Kinderhook, I particularly liked the small dining room, dominated by a huge table that almost crowds out everything else.

The New York State Capitol (www.assembly.state.ny.us/tour) in Albany is a mishmash of styles that vaguely resembles a five-story French chateau. It took 32 years (1867-1899) to build, and five architects to make sense of it -- not to be confused with the modern State Office Buildings nearby, which resemble broken-down flying saucers.

The Vanderbilt Mansion (www.nps.gov/vama) at Hyde Park should be seen for its Gilded Age magnificence. Its 50 rooms were built in 1898 by Commodore Vanderbilt on 212 acres along the Hudson. Charles McKim was the architect, and Stanford White did the interiors.

Best Museums: Art & Artists in the Hudson River Valley

The Rockefeller family commissioned stained glass windows by Matisse (1956) and Chagall (1965) for the Union Church of Pocantico Hills (www.hudsonvalley.org) in Tarrytown, near their estate, Kykuit.

One of the most outstanding of artistic targets in the Upper Valley is the Olana State Historic Site (www.olana.org). Located near Hudson (the city), Olana was the home of Frederic Edwin Church, one of the most important painters of the Hudson River School. At the Persian-style villa with valley views, I liked especially the curio-packed central hall.

Be sure to visit the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (www.thomascole.org), home and studio of Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of painting.

In the Lower Hudson region, look for the Tarrytown home of Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Called Sunnyside (www.hudsonvalley.org), the house is where he lived from 1835 to 1859. It's right on the banks of the river, of course.

Best Museums: The Revolutionary War and Other Highlights

The West Point Museum (www.usma.edu/museum) is central to a tour of the entire Military Academy, which featured in the capture of Benedict Arnold and other historic events of the revolution. Not only is this the nation's oldest military school, but it is also the country's oldest continuously occupied military post. You can see everything from George Washington's pistols to a World War I tank here.

The FASNY Museum of Firefighting (www.fasnyfiremuseum.com) is said to be the best collection of American firefighting objects in the world, with over 90 pieces of apparatus on display.

Boat lovers will like the USS Slater DE766 (www.ussslater.org), the only World War II destroyer escort left. Complete with its battle armaments, it's docked at the Albany riverfront.

More Information

The official site of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Site is www.nps.gov/hurv. Another good site is www.hudsonrivervalley.com.

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