New York's Catskills see a big vacation revival
Drive about 90 miles north of New York City, and you'll begin to see the pine-covered peaks of the Catskill Mountains rolling across the horizon, with Pennsylvania's Pocono mountain range at their western edge and the wide, blue Hudson River at the east.
State routes wind between ski slopes and waterfalls, passing through colorful villages such as Woodstock before dipping back into relative wilderness. But in those quiet woods and towns, a shift is taking place.
For the past century, the Catskills have been best-known to outsiders for the tourism empire that helped define it from the early 1900s up through the 1970s: The "Borscht Belt."
So called for the predominantly Jewish clientele who summered there, this string of resorts hosted some of the greatest performers of the era, not to mention setting the scene for Frances "Baby" Houseman's summer of love in "Dirty Dancing."
But in the past 30 years, the tradition of whole New York families summering together in the Catskills waned, and since, most of these star-studded, amenity-rich resorts have been shuttered and left to ruin.
As of 2013, even the legendary 13,000-acre Kutsher's had deteriorated to nothing more than few condemned buildings, which tenuously hosted the occasional music festival even while being gradually reclaimed by the wilder forces of nature. Then, it sold to a developer. One day soon, the property will reopen as a yoga resort.
The revitalization of the Kutsher's property is no anomaly: Over the past six years, after decades of hibernation, the region is experiencing a tourism renaissance.
For travelers and transplants alike, trends such as Cabin Porn fever and farm-to-table food culture align exactly with what the Catskills have to offer, all while popular destinations like the Hamptons have grown far too expensive for the common New York City weekender and far too crowded for the exclusive one.
"There's a sense of discovery in visiting this area. It's out of the way. And it's not the Hamptons, lined with stores you see on Fifth Avenue," said Mike Cioffi, Brooklyn native and owner of the Phoenicia Diner, which he bought and reopened in 2012. "If you spend a dollar in a store on Main Street, it stays in this community. I think people appreciate that."
Accordingly, 19th-century boarding houses are being revamped into AirBnB getaways by the dozen.
Distinguished chefs are relocating, planting elaborate gardens and building backyard smokehouses, shortening the distance between farm and table. And in some cases, even the crumbling Borscht Belt resorts themselves are being reinvented.
Scribner's Catskill Lodge opened as a motor lodge in 1966 and has been freshly redone by a New York hospitality duo and a Brooklyn-based design firm.
All 38 rooms offer postcard views of Hunter Mountain's slopes from their balconies, along with a luxury restaurant, an outdoor pool and a yoga and meditation studio. It's the first full-on resort in the new wave of Catskills accommodations, hosting largely young families and millennial tourists who come to town for the bouldering, skiing, zip-lining and inner tubing the area has to offer.
Up the road, a short drive from Kaaterskill Falls and the Platte Clove Preserve, is the secluded Deer Mountain Inn.
An old logging road on the property was once lined with the now-extinct cedar that frames the inn. Now, it winds up the mountainside to a fire circle, log lean-tos and a freshly laid stone table for cookouts.
Back at the main house, a deck overlooks a rolling lawn, mountain peaks on the horizon. In the restaurant, hunting lodge ephemera hangs over the fireplaces, and indie staples such as Mirah and Cat Power shuffle through the playlist.
Chef Ryan Tate, who earned a Michelin star in Tribeca before relocating upstate, laments the short growing season at mountain elevation, but he's looking forward to the opening of a new farm in downtown Tannersville, right beside the high school.
Their crops supply the Inn's kitchen with fresh local produce.
The cozy dining room, rustic, wood-paneled suites and attic billiards nook are exceptional, but a distinguished New York City chef is not -- the Catskills is now home to expats from Brooklyn's landmark Marlow & Sons and Diner, the Whitney Museum's Untitled among others.
One such place is The Pines. On the route between Woodstock and Phoenicia, in the hamlet of Shandaken, the creekside outpost was a much-loved Italian eatery starting in the '60s, right up until Woodstock native Jeremy Bernstein took it over.
A woodworker and indie rocker (and it shows), Bernstein takes pride in hosting visitors and locals alike for thoughtful food in a space he's designed to feel like his own living room, appointed with floor-to-ceiling Sharpie murals of conifer forests and giant owls.
Upstairs guest rooms are underway.
Around the corner on Route 28, Cioffi's Phoenicia Diner has just been built out with an outdoor patio and a coffee-bar inside an Airstream trailer.
Its reopening in 2012 was right about the same time four intrepid New Yorkers bought an old cinder block motel down the street, now known as Graham & Co. This 20-room rustic minimalist motel offers highbrow coffee, palo santo and a swimming pool fed by an artesian spring.
At the Catskills' eastern front, the mountain range's namesake town is unfurling into a more soulful version of its pastoral neighbor across the river, Hudson. In the past few months alone, a quiet Main Street has welcomed a new framing shop, haberdashery, candlemakers' boutique and a studio for furniture made exclusively of reclaimed bowling alley wood.
Year-round residents bring a sense of community that strictly tourist towns can't offer, plus there's plenty for the weekender.
HiLo café and bar, opened by Brooklynites, serves up local bok choy with pan-fried garlic scapes and miso ranch alongside fernet cocktails, and their espresso shots come triple ristretto.
Some say they see a diverse new community of transplants coming together in the Catskills -- a community that has fled (or been priced out of) other places (read: Brooklyn).
But Bernstein begs to differ: "I'm a hokey guy, maybe, but I believe in the magic of these hills. I don't think it's about ending up here because you didn't want to be somewhere else -- it's the clean drinking water, the beautiful woods, the mountain hikes. People come here because of all this wild, beautiful place has to offer."