Of Borscht and Buddha
With a mountain-wilderness beauty disproportionate to its modest size, parts of the Catskills region have been an on-again, off-again vacation destination for 200 years. Sullivan County was once the center of the summer Borscht Belt universe, with its primarily Jewish bungalow colonies, all-you-can-eat buffets, mambo nights, and sprawling family resorts like Browns, the Concord, and Grossingers, where Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar got their start.
The most authentic and rural part of the area is Delaware County, still very much a farming community whose “cow country” authenticity is an irresistible lure for city sophisticates.
Today it’s Ulster County that appeals most to urbanites looking for a Walden Pond escape, combining rich Hudson River heritage and a beautiful mountain interior of deep forests and hidden waterfalls. Riverside towns like Kingston and Saugerties offer history, but Woodstock is the Catskills’ most famous, popularly known for the 1969 rock concert that bore its name – even though the festival was actually held 50 miles away, in Bethel.
Today’s Woodstock is part tie-dyed (with a number of ashrams and Buddhist retreat centers), part film-and-fashion crowd, and part Hamptons escapees, but that’s just part of the Bohemian continuum that started in the early 1900s, when artists and writers, alternative thinkers, and the independent-minded started settling here.
Those who bond with nature while hip-high in cold mountain springs will want to make a pilgrimage to the Beaverkill River, the birthplace of American fly-fishing and perhaps the most famous trout stream in the United States. It is the raison d’être for the Beaverkill Valley Inn, built in 1893, and once owned by Laurance Rockefeller (Nelson’s nephew). From here, anglers are only a quick cast away from the revered Wulff Fly Fishing School.
For those who prefer their great outdoors embellished with all the refined comforts of the great indoors, the Emerson inn and spa is far and away the Catskills’ best destination, offering specialties from Ayurvedic head massages to a detoxifying algae wrap. Twenty-four beautifully appointed rooms fill out the inn’s 1874 Victorian mansion, while celebrated French-influenced meals focus on local Hudson Valley fare complemented by an award-winning wine list.
For a dose of the old Catskills, the past lives on at Mohonk Mountain House, the only remaining example of a type of lodging once prevalent in the area. Seven stories high and sprawling at the edge of a deep glacier-gouged lake, it’s a glorious hodgepodge of Victorian turrets, gables, and crenellated stone towers, built by two Quaker brothers in 1869 and still run by the same family today (the Smileys).
It’s set on 2,200 private acres of woodland abutting the 6,400-acre Mohonk Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains and boasts 85 miles of quiet trails and carriage roads, plus nearly 130 gazebos. A 1-mile hike to Sky Top Tower rewards climbers with a breathtaking 360-degree view of Catskills beauty and six states.