Travelogue: Catskills, NY (March 2008)

Ever since moving to New York from California, we have been anticipating the cold, harsh, East Coast winter, surely in store. But with the exception of a couple of days, Manhattan has felt pretty mild. So when faced with the question of where to go for a weekend getaway during the early days of March—that month when most New Yorkers are fleeing to warmer climates—we chose to look for some snow. Where could we find those wintry white landscapes we’d been so warned about?

Where to go? We were fairly certain that the Adirondacks would have snow, but we would have to drive at least 4 hours, more if there was any kind of storm. The Catskills, a two hour drive outside of the city, could be too warm, but it was a chance we were willing to take.

We found a wonderful spot to stay in Greene County—The Kaaterskill. Located on a sprawling property with large open spaces, a pond fed by a nearby stream, horses, bunnies, and a pig, the property’s barn had been converted into a lovely set of rooms, each with its own wood-burning fireplace, private deck, jacuzzi bathtub, and kitchenette. We reserved The Inness room for Friday and Saturday nights.

This particular Inn hadn’t been listed in any of our books. I had looked into the suggestions in Frommers, Fodors, as well as in An Explorer’s Guide: The Hudson Valley & Catskill Mountains—

a guide with a more specific focus for the local trips we anticipate taking often during our residence in Manhattan—but never saw the Kaaterskill listed as an option in any of them. What I had done, however, was download the lodging options from the county websites for Greene, Ulster, Sullivan, and Delaware counties onto a word document. Because we wanted a cozy retreat in case of inclimate weather, we were determined to find a room with a fireplace and I focused my search on places listing one as an amenity. The Kaaterskill was one of the last websites I looked at in the list of Greene County lodging options, but I knew it was a place we’d enjoy (and thank goodness, because in my very thorough search, I’d found few others that fit us so perfectly at a price we could manage, even if it too was still a bit more money than we’d planned on).

For transportation, we scoured the internet for the best car rental price. What seemed to be the best option was to book an Avis compact through hotwire. It would require that we pick up and drop off the car at La Guardia, but even with the additional taxi fares, the overall price of the rental would be less than if we were to pick up the car within Manhattan.

We left Friday morning after over-packing (no surprise)—we brought along our ski clothes and lots of layering options—perhaps we would snow-shoe, or cross-country ski, or ice skate, we reasoned. And because we would have access to a kitchenette, we packed a cooler bag with provisions for breakfasts and lunch, some snacks for the drive, and a special syrah from Firestone, where we were married.

The drive seemed to pass quickly—perhaps too quickly for Aron, poor guy, who had planned to sleep off the previous night’s 27 hour shift during the drive. But before we knew it, we were in Woodstock, looking for Joshua’s, where we would stop for lunch.

On our previous trip to the Catskills, we passed through many of the same regions and villages, but we had bypassed Woodstock. I think its notoriety for such a huge event (which actually took place 60 miles away in Bethel, NY), and our imagination of it as a place still locked in a hippie holding pattern drove us away. And yet we were completely wrong to dismiss it—I think it may actually have been one of our favorite towns of any we passed through! It has a completely charming main street with a nice mix of emphasis on the old and the new, and it is situated amongst this stunning landscape. I understand that Woodstock also features a thriving artist’s community, something we would have investigated further with more time.

Joshua’s has been a Woodstock fixture since 1972, and serves an eclectic menu which seems to focus on middle eastern cuisine. Aron had some delicious chicken crepes which, however, had

more of a Moroccan flavor. We also shared some tasty baba ghanoush.

After lunch, we continued on to our hotel, taking a couple of side trips along the way—compelled by a view or pulled toward a winery (which happened to be closed). After a small bridge crossing some cascading, rushing waters, we pulled up to the Kaaterskill. It looked beautiful!

I should mention that we had happily watched the weather forecast the weekend before our weekend as the snow fell north of us, in the Catskills. But then the temperature climbed into the 40s… the 50s, the high 50s. By Thursday the forecast was calling for rain Friday and Saturday. And as we pulled into the parking lot, we felt the first drops fall.

At first we were both a bit dismayed at the weather (we admitted to each other only later), but it turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise. Snow-shoeing would have been lovely, but we wouldn’t have fully appreciated just what a wonderful retreat we had found in the Kaaterskill. We have a tendency to pack so much into every vacation day that we often forget to pause and relax—and, had we done so on this trip, we wouldn’t have had nearly enough time to revel in feeling a warm fire while looking out at the mountains and the property’s lovely frozen, white pond.

The Kaaterskill has a self-check-in policy, but Debbie saw us pull up and walked out to greet us and show us to our room. She pointed out the pond house we were free to use; the animals who would welcome our visit; a common room with dvds, magazines, and a phone for our use; as well as the wood pile we could draw from for building our fires. The room itself was ample in size, with distinct sitting areas in addition to the other amenities about which we were so excited. We were to help ourselves to the oatmeal, popcorn, coffee/tea and hot cocoa—which we did in addition to stocking the refrigerator with our own staples.

After spending some time enjoying the fire, and after we’d had some fun chasing the bunnies around their enclosure in barely successful attempts to pet them, we went out for dinner at a place called Angela’s that was just up the road. The Kaaterskill is actually very secluded, and the drive out to find dinner is potentially a long one—we let proximity (and the promise of pizza, which we knew they at least had) guide our decision.

There was something so funny about Angela’s; it certainly had a different feel than any the restaurants we’d become accustomed to in the city. Large tables of families and, perhaps predominantly, groups of seniors filled a warm room with a fireplace at one end. But the first thing that came to our attention was the accordion player in the corner, backed by a loud synthesizer, next to whom we were seated. There was something about this scene that just made you smile—and yet we felt completely out of our element. It was all-you-can-eat pasta night, but we actually bypassed both the pasta and the pizza in favor of a grilled barbeque chicken sandwich and veal parmesan. My chicken was delicious—perfectly done and smoky, but Aron’s veal left much to be desired and the accompanying pasta was uninspired. The pizzas did, however, look very tasty and based on my chicken sandwich, I wouldn’t hesitate to give them a try another time. As we ate, laughing about raising our voices over the accordion (and are those cymbals that I hear?), we watched young children come up to do the chicken dance and look eagerly at the lollipops that the grandpa-like player kept at the ready for sticky little fingers. After dinner we returned to the room, built up the fire, tested the waters in the jacuzzi, and watched Vanilla Sky with Orville Redenbacher.

The next morning, I rose a little before Aron and got the fire going, brewed some coffee, and made us breakfasts of yogurt with granola, pomegranates, blueberries, and a bit of honey drizzled on top. It was so lovely: listening to the sounds of the crackling fire and a light rain while

looking out the large windows to see some geese land on “our” frozen pond. And though it might seem that we couldn’t be any cheesier (or happier, let’s be honest), we spent the next hour or so reading to each other from Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate. This is his latest anthologized collection of stories from The New Yorker, all about living and raising children in New York after having returned from a residence in Paris. So though we were away from the city, we were never too far—laughing over shared impressions of the city with Mr. Gopnik.

Around noon, we made ourselves a light lunch of spinach salad with goat cheese, some bresaola, and some fresh mozzarella, before getting ready to start the day (out-of-doors). We put on our mud boots, visited some of the animals, checked out the pond house, and hit the road.

Not long after setting out, we passed by The Clark House, where we had stayed on our first visit to the Catskills this past fall. We couldn’t believe we were so close—we hadn’t even paid attention and normally we would try to avoid any overlap. It turned out that we’d be recognizing a lot of familiar ground, but ground which looked completely unfamiliar in its new wintry state. Rounding a bend near Kaaterskill Falls, in fact, we happened upon a gorgeous wall of ice, vertical spires dripping into stalagtite-like shapes against the rock.

One of our first stops was in the village of Tannersville at Last Chance Cheese and Antiques.We didn’t stop to eat—though the menu looked very appealing—but we did browse their very cute shop, which resembled an old-time general store! The shelves were filled with local, gourmet treasures (like maple syrup), as well as brimming with nostalgic candy and other goodies. There were cheeses, of course, but also homemade pies and streudel for sale.

After walking back to the car in the rain, we continued past some other charming store-fronts—outdoorsy outfitters, a taqueria, etcetera—and drove toward one of the notable ski resorts in the area: Hunter Mountain. Though it was raining, a few die-hard skiers and boarders were making their way down the slopes. We took a look around and visited the lodge—lots of people were congregrating around the large bar.

We decided to pay a visit to another nearby ski resort—Windham—to see which seemed better for future trips. On the way we saw a sign for a Maple Hill Farms, so we took a detour. We crossed the river and made our way up the driveway; at its end we found a small shed with maple products for sale by the honor system. We entered our purchases (one jug of 2008 vintage syrup and a bag of fresh maple candies) into a log and deposited our bills into a small wooden box. As we exited, the smell of sugar cooking was overwhelming; we started making our way toward the smell and toward the building with all of the steam piping out of it. Through the window, an elderly man gestured for us to come in.

Welcoming us inside, he offered us a cookie from their bags of Oreos, and introduced us to his partners in sugaring. His grandfather had built the “factory,” and he noted that he had been very short (apologetically to Aron who was having to duck). The sap is piped underground into the building, where it is boiled and refined in large metal bins. The heat, one of the men opened a door to reveal, was coming from a wood-fueled furnace (another satisfying aroma). As one man showed us his process for measuring the refined syrup’s temperature, I found myself distracted by his hands: they were so smooth, no doubt from years of repeated burns. In fact, all of the men’s hands seemed lacking in wrinkles or prints. Each seemed pleased to answer our questions and the personal tour was such a nice surprise—and it surely made the soft, fresh maple candy that much more delectable.

Windham looked very nice as well—with a large bar area overlooking the slopes (closed for the day) and, my favorite feature, a bank of Adirondack chairs lined up outside at the base for use on sunnier days. There was a band playing, and the crowd was sizable despite the mountain closure. Aron and I agreed we liked the somewhat quainter interior at Hunter, but both seemed nice. It was hard to gauge the mountains’ comparative sizes or numbers of runs—the trail maps are always drawn to flatter.

When we left, we realized we were probably a little early for dinner, but decided to head for our chosen restaurant in spite of this (more time to enjoy the room, we reasoned). Chalet Fondue wasn’t far down the road. We were seated adjacent to a stove-pot fire in a room flanked by giant wine barrels from Europe. The escargot appetizer was delicious, and the warm bread seemed a good sign of things to come. For dinner, we shared the champagne fondue (absolutely wonderful) with a side of vegetables. We passed on the chocolate fondue dessert—we would have our own version back at the inn.

We had picked up a bar of chocolate and a bag of marshmallows earlier, between stops. And the bare tree limbs, some broken off in recent storms, left us with an ample selection of roasting tools. After a soak in the Jacuzzi, we pulled out our supplies. We placed the chocolate in a cup near the fire to melt, roasting the sugary puffs and dipping them in the melted chocolate—so delicious! We hadn’t ordered wine with dinner, but we had brought a bottle of syrah from Firestone, a purchase from a recent trip to their Santa Ynez valley vineyard in California, which we enjoyed in our room.

The next morning, we repeated what we had done the day before—a leisurely breakfast by the fire, some reading—before saying goodbye to our little farm and to its residents. On our way out, we met one of the owners who told us we should visit the stream at the back of the property. We walked out past the horses and the pond house and came upon a rushing stream, on the banks of which they’d placed a nice rocking bench and a picnic table. We vowed to return again in warmer weather.

As we pulled away, the pig following us down the drive, we realized that something was amiss

with the time. The hour had sprung forward and we had less time than we’d thought to make stops along the road en route to our late brunch endpoint: Sweet Sue’s.

We decided to skip Saugerties—we’d briefly visited the village and its famous lighthouse on our previous trip—and drive back through Woodstock. The main goal was to pass by Lucky Chocolates. I’d seen the charming red and white storefront on our way into town on Friday and remarked upon it, but as there seemed to be plenty of candy stores and fudge shops in town, we passed it by. That evening, browsing one of the local publications, I’d come across an interview with Lucky’s proprietor, Rae Stang. When she mentioned that she was making chocolates with an Indian spice infusion, I knew the potential for this to be beyond average was pretty high.

It smells wonderful when you walk inside. There were some samples on the counter—a turtle-like chocolate confection using pecans and some freshly made marshmallows (which, as good as our roasted ones were, beat our bag of puffs by a mile). We had intended to buy only one piece each—after all, we were about to go for pancakes—but ended up buying 8 or so when we saw the flavor options. We chose salted caramel, passion fruit, earl gray, masala, and ginger. We were especially excited to try, as well, a fresh mint. In St.Remy-de-Provence, a small town in France, we visited chocolatier Joel Durand’s eponymous shop and tasted a fresh mint chocolate truffle for the first time—it was a revelation: mint chocolates should taste like chocolate and real mint leaves. We mentioned that this was only the second time either of us had seen a fresh mint chocolate, our first time in the U.S. to Stang—she seemed disappointed that we’d tasted it at all as she’d thought it was solely her idea. If only it weren’t so rare. I’m not sure this fresh mint was quite as astonishingly fresh as the one in France, but it was extremely good.

What made our visit to Lucky particularly special—as if more than chocolate were required—was the impromptu tour Stang gave us of her kitchen. After donning the requisite hair nets, Aron and I were shown how she uses fair trade, organic chocolate to fill, ribbon, enrobe, and generally decorate her concoctions. And we were given additional samples.

We were now officially running late and were concerned that we would be met with a “Closed” sign at Sweet Sue’s if we didn’t pick up the pace. Fortunately, we made it into a booth with moments to spare. Unfortunately, we think we spoiled our sweet breakfast a bit with all of those sweet chocolates. We each finished only about half of our gi-normous portions (Aron ordered the pecan crusted French toast with a side of hash and I had the blueberry and cottage cheese pancakes). We paid extra for real maple syrup (surprisingly not standard considering their proximity to so many maple farms). Both were tasty, but we wonder if some of the rave reviews don’t have more to do with the manhole-cover-like size of the flapjacks than with their taste—which while good wasn’t knock your socks off. This place was cute, however, and seemed popular with local families and staffed by a friendly crew—we could understand its appeal even if we left wishing we’d had a plate of savory eggs benedict instead.

We took our time driving home, stopping in Hurley, and heading through Cornwall, and Harriman. The drive was beautiful—it afforded us with some spectacular vistas and gave us a chance to ease back toward the city.

We stopped for dinner just outside New York and tried to keep our heads down as the couple next to us got into a terrible screaming match, riddled with expletives—it ended with threats from one to take the car and leave the other and retorted threats of police intervention. All this 4 inches from our table! So much for easing back into the city.

Alas, it only made us value our stay at the Kaaterskill and in the lovely (peaceful) Catskills that much more!

Update: We have since returned many times to the Kaaterskill. Check out our visit in October of 2009: we celebrated Aron’s birthday and saw some of the most beautiful fall color in memory.

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