At a time when the travel and hospitality industry relies heavily on social media and its hoards of influencers for bookings, The Duchess—a “secret hotel” in New York’s Hudson Valley—is an anomaly.
You won’t find a handle for The Duchess on Instagram, and don’t expect to browse perfectly-lit photos of its rooms on Google Images. When you track down the website there is no mention of rates, no booking form, and no details about the amenities. Just an illustration of a key encircled by the slender stem of a flower, and the words “a secret hotel in the Hudson Valley.”
“What I think is interesting is playing with the level of expectation you have before you come to a space and then what the reality is,” explains Rameet Chawla, a tech entrepreneur and founder of The Duchess. “You could almost argue that happiness is dependent on the distance between what your expectations are and what the reality is. So if someone’s job is to maximize the reality and make sure the experience is good, it’s almost equally their responsibility to lower expectations.”
Or, more precisely, ensure they have no prior expectations whatsoever. The Duchess isn’t a place you stumble across while researching upstate getaways, and it’s virtually impossible to book without an “in”. In fact, all guests are connected by a common thread—knowing either a person who is going, or one who has stayed at the hotel previously. This extended social web is one of the things that makes weekends at The Duchess a special experience. Every guest is in on the secret, and there’s nothing like a shared secret to enhance bonding.
In many ways it conforms to the blueprint of a retreat center, but with a twist. For every group, the team curates (or co-curates with a host) a unique experience based around a particular theme. They’ve organized Vipassana silent meditation, and turned the property into a mini France, with language lessons and a scavenger hunt conducted entirely in French. One up coming weekend will see a bunch of Bitcoin enthusiasts gather to discuss crypto currency, and occasionally they’ve even been known to throw a helluva wedding.
Like any retreat worth its salt, wellness is the backbone of the experience. Chawla is passionate about good food, and makes dining a communal experience from start to finish. Guests harvest their own produce from The Duchess’s fields and hand them over to the chefs, who then turn them into a delicious meal and serve them back to the guests. “It’s kind of a full loop, and for a lot of people they’ve been really disconnected from food and they’ve never had the opportunity to harvest a bunch of vegetables, so you end up learning a ton,” he explains. “We believe that the next form of wellness is all about what we’re putting in our body, and so this hotel is a platform to educate people about that.”
Of course meals are eaten at long tables, family style. Everything here is set up to help facilitate connection, collaboration and perhaps a genuine new friendship or two. Chawla says the element of curation is what sets the scene for bonding. “If you go to a friend’s birthday you’re totally cool talking to a stranger at that party. If it’s at your friend’s apartment for example,” he explains. “But if you bumped into someone on the subway—it could be that they’re going to the same party, but you likely won’t strike up a conversation with them. The reason [you would at the birthday] is that a party is curated, or at least you have a sense of curation there.”