How the Catskills became the long weekend summer getaway for New Yorkers

Swap high rises for high peaks in New York’s Catskills (Getty)
Swap high rises for high peaks in New York’s Catskills (Getty)

Strapped into climbing harnesses and braced against the chilly wind, my daughter and I peer over the ledge to track a pair of peregrine falcons – the fastest animals on earth – swooping and gliding on the thermals. We’re so high up on this section of a via ferrata, a protected climbing route with fixed steel cables, that it’s us who have the bird’s eye view. Beyond is a palette of green stretching as far as we can see, a breathtaking view of deciduous and evergreen forest and mountains that few outside New York are really aware exist. It’s certainly not what most people imagine when they picture America’s Empire State.

My family are spending a weekend in the Catskill Mountains, a 1,000-square-mile subrange of the Appalachians just west of the Hudson River Valley, a couple of hours’ drive northwest of New York City. Our temporary home is the Mohonk Mountain House, a huge Victorian castle-style hotel built in 1869 as a getaway for New York City’s glitterati (famous guests have included John D Rockefeller and the Clintons) and whose 85 miles of private hiking trails include the Pinnacle Ledge, which my daughter Scout and I are precariously negotiating.

While the Catskills were the subject of famous works of art by 19th-century painters, collectively known as the Hudson River School, and literature like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, for most of us our main frame of reference is 1980s romantic drama Dirty Dancing – although the hotel used as Kellerman’s resort, where Patrick Swayze famously forbid anyone from putting Baby in the corner, is actually in Virginia.

Visitors can enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Catskills from the Mohonk Mountain House via ferrata (Mohonk Mountain House)
Visitors can enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Catskills from the Mohonk Mountain House via ferrata (Mohonk Mountain House)

From the 1920s until the 1960s, the Catskills were synonymous with these summer resorts, particularly popular with New York City’s vacationing Jewish population – not for nothing was the area nicknamed The Borscht Belt. Most of them are now shuttered after they became a casualty of cheap air travel allowing access to more exotic destinations. But in the early 2000s there was a concerted effort to rebuild the region’s economy through tourism, with New York City dwellers seeking solace in the countryside. While the pandemic grounded flights and the world stopped travelling, the Catskills and the Hudson Valley (a 7,000-square-mile region that stretches along the Hudson River from Westchester County up to Albany) continued its resurgence. Those in the city who could afford it moved into their second homes, others sold their Brooklyn apartments and relocated upstate. By the time Covid restrictions were over, weekend holidaymakers followed. Today, upstate tourism is booming – and the area now draws international visitors.

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It’s hardly surprising. For two centuries, the mountains, lakes and rivers here have been a feast for the eyes, nourishment for the soul, and an outdoor enthusiasts’ playground (wilderness hikes in summer; snow sports in winter), and more recently the area has exploded with restaurants to rival New York City, as well as festivals, museums, art exhibitions, and galleries. The Catskills and Hudson Valley have wineries, cideries, distilleries, and craft breweries on tap, many of which are set in spectacular countryside.

Hudson Valley’s Kingston was New York’s original state capital (Getty)
Hudson Valley’s Kingston was New York’s original state capital (Getty)

A little further north of Mohonk is Kingston, the original state capital. Head to the Stockade District and eat pizza at Lola’s or get a coffee from Rough Draft, which somehow also manages to be a bookshop and a bar.

Woodstock, made famous by the 1969 festival (which actually took place 60 miles southwest of the town on a farm in Bethel), is a 20-minute drive from Kingston into the mountains. Catch a band playing in the backyard of The Colony music venue, and eat dinner at Good Night, an Asian restaurant just across the road that is a Hudson Valley favourite.

On this side of the Hudson River you’ll also find the town of Accord, which is home to Innes, a 220-acre luxury retreat with cabins, a swimming pool, restaurant and golf course. It’s run by a New York City transplant called Taavo Somer who started to come up to the Catskills and Hudson Valley in 2002 with his family and became hooked. Perhaps because of the vastness of this area, Somer says that, despite the influx of people, it all still feels peaceful. “Back when we first came up here, nobody in the city had heard of Accord. In the last year or so, people suddenly know it. It’s wild … but it’s not East Hampton. It’s still sleepy, and I think that’s why people find it appealing.”

Woodstock has great music, meals and plenty of spiritual gift shops (Getty)
Woodstock has great music, meals and plenty of spiritual gift shops (Getty)

Just across the Hudson River, Rhinebeck hosts a farmer’s market on Sunday mornings where farms across the Hudson Valley come to set up a table and sell their produce. My family and I relocated to Rhinebeck in the summer of 2020 (I moved from the UK to America in 2003 and lived in Texas for the best part of 17 years). We usually begin the weekend with a visit to a little café and grocery store a few miles outside of Rhinebeck called Golden Russet. Another local favourite is Slow Fox Farm, which Brooklynites Matt and Miranda Mobley purchased in 2018.

No visit to Rhinebeck is complete without dinner at Market Street Italian restaurant. If every little town in America has one place where you can bump into fifth-generation locals and discuss the latest small-town gossip, as well as weekenders and visitors, this is Rhinebeck’s. And while the rigatoni pasta and butterscotch budino are delicious, it’s the atmosphere that owner Luciano Valdivia has created here that makes it so special. He said he’s seen the town grow exponentially over the last decade. The Hudson Valley isn’t the Hamptons, and people here want to keep it that way. “You’ll see farmers sitting next to Manhattan Madison Avenue advertising executives,” Valdivia, who was born in Rhinebeck and grew up in the Hudson Valley, said. “People come here to melt into it rather than change it.”

On our final night at Mohonk, after dinner, it’s time for a walk around the lake – a gravel path wraps around the shoreline, and it’s big enough that when you’re out of earshot of the hotel, birdsong is the only thing you’ll hear. Halfway around, we sit down for a minute in one of the many pagodas hewn from the cedar that grows on the mountains here, to watch a family row past.

Then, as the sun is low in the sky, I head upstairs to the spa, grab a towel, and walk out onto the deck. I climb into the hot tub, shut my eyes and breathe in the smell of pine and listen to the low murmur of evening hikers somewhere off in the distance, possibly watching those same falcons soar on the thermals below them.

Rhinebeck is famous for its farmer’s markets and fairs (Getty)
Rhinebeck is famous for its farmer’s markets and fairs (Getty)

Travel essentials

Where to stay

Nightly rates at Mohonk Mountain House start at $1,245 (£990) for two adults, double occupancy, inclusive of meals and most resort activities.

How to get there

Icelandic low-cost carrier Play Airlines flies from Stansted via Reykjavik to New York Stewart International Airport in the Hudson Valley from £240 return. Airlines including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines, JetBlue and United Airlines fly direct to New York City. Flight time is around eight hours. The Catskills and the Hudson Valley are roughly a two-hour 30-minute drive from New York City.

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