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Urban modernity comes with a lime green twist at the award-winning, 11-room Roxbury Motel
Meetings East
August/September, 2006

The Catskill Region
A blossoming old favorite preserves its natural allure

by Jeff Heilman
Meetings East, August/September 2006

Just how unspoiled are the Catskill Mountains? The landscapes along the Hudson River School Art Trail—all within 15 miles of Cedar Grove, the 19th century home of pioneer American landscape artist Thomas Cole—remain just as he and his contemporaries painted them in the early 1800s. A prime example is the Kaaterskill Falls, New York’s highest waterfall, memorialized in Cole’s 1826 painting, Falls of the Kaaterskill.

Conveniently reached from the New York metropolitan area and Albany, the Catskill region—four counties roughly bounded by the Delaware River and Pennsylvania to the south, the Hudson River to the east and rural Otsego and Schoharie counties to the west and north—contains 35 undulating mountains with peaks over 3,500 feet high. Climb any one for dramatic views; ascend them all for admission into the Catskill 3500 Club.

Within this glacially formed splendor, a tourism renaissance is well under way. The New York Times is fond of branding the region "Hamptons North," Hollywood’s cameras are zooming in, and signs of revitalization are everywhere. Fear not celebrity ga-ga or the Hamptons’ notorious overcrowding, though.

"While each county is proceeding with its own goals and initiatives for the new Catskills," says Daniela Marino, president of the Catskill Association for Tourism Services, "there is still plenty of room to grow, and there will always be room to breathe."

Which is a good thing—for the executive retreats, outdoor weddings and small to midsize meetings that fit the Catskills best have always been about connecting with its vast, unspoiled nature.

Delaware County

With vintage red barns and picturesque drives in every direction, pastoral Delaware County runs with green valleys, forested hills, working farms, and fishing streams. The drive along Route 30, from Downsville to Grand Gorge, is especially scenic.

A "natural" choice is the West Branch Angler Resort in Deposit, a 200-acre fly-fishing resort and clay-shooting preserve. Offering 26 upscale riverside log cabins, including the multi-bedroom "CEO" and "Executive" lodgings, the property recently capitalized on its popularity as a retreat destination by introducing wireless Internet service and adding a 1,800-square-foot meeting facility to its spacious restaurant.

The Delaware & Ulster Rail Ride preserves the yesteryear tradition of taking the train to the Catskills. Departing Arkville, groups travel in Art Deco carriages on scenic regular and themed excursions along the East Branch of the Delaware River.

In rural Roxbury, urban modernity comes with a lime green twist at the award-winning, 11-room Roxbury Motel, where guests—from wedding parties to the entertainment elite—enjoy complimentary DVDs while luxuriating in groovy rooms designed by its Manhattan owners. A seven-room expansion is planned for this fall, and complementing the nights at the Roxbury, the nearby Public Lounge danced all the way up from Gotham’s club world.

Meetings-capable Ski Plattekill provides mountain resort fun year-round, while towns like Andes and Delhi are destinations for tea, strolling and antiquing.

At Kirkside Park estate, which is available for events, the Roxbury Nine play vintage baseball in period uniforms.

The county’s most famous son is 19th century naturalist-essayist John Burroughs, who kept company with Henry Ford and U.S. presidents while extolling the Catskills. The spelling is different, but another Roxburian, John Burrows, continues the tradition of reverence at his circa-1803 Stone Tavern Farm. Originally an overnight stop for milk-carrying ox drivers, this historic 400-acre property, with a new covered pavilion for events, offers a unique option: catered mountaintop camping.

Just south of Roxbury on Route 30 is the charming hamlet of Halcottsville, home to Susan’s Pleasant Pheasant Farm. Set in a restored stone mill, this four-bedroom bed-and-breakfast overlooks adjacent Lake Wawaka, where guests can kayak, fish and dine by bonfire.

Ulster County

A relatively painless 90-minute drive from New York City and barely 30 minutes from Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, historic Ulster, founded in 1683, is a getaway destination for wine lovers, mountain climbers, urban cowboys, and avid hikers.

Close to several member wineries along the 60-mile Shawangunk Wine Trail, the town of New Paltz is a popular base for visitors to the Shawangunk Mountains, a world-renowned climbing mecca. These singular white-faced cliffs run through the natural preserve surrounding the nearby Mohonk Mountain House, a longtime conference destination. The 261-room Victorian lakeside fantasy features amenities including an open-air ice-skating pavilion, a hedge-maze garden and the Labyrinth Trail, a hiking adventure that features climbing ladders through a sheer vertical crevice.

Urban cowboys can saddle up at the Pinegrove Dude Ranch or Rocking Horse Ranch, while high above the town of Ellenville—home to the conference-capable Nevele Grande Resort and Country Club—awaits the mountaintop Sam’s Point Preserve, home to the Verkeerderkill Falls and the Ice Caves, harboring snow and ice well into the summer.

Fire destroyed the historic Emerson Inn in Mt. Tremper last year, but in September, the new Emerson Inn and Spa will open with 50-plus guest units, a new spa, more than 5,000 square feet of meeting space, a banquet hall with an outdoor pavilion, and several small breakout rooms.

The neighboring town of Phoenicia features tubing on the Esopus Creek, zesty pizza at Brio’s and rides on the Catskill Mountain Railroad.

Footed by a lakeside beach with an outdoor pavilion and team-building options, four-season Belleayre Mountain is acclaimed for its summer music festival. The mountain begins expansion work next year on its Discovery Lodge.

Ulster is also where the Catskills meet the Hudson River. Groups can see mansions, lighthouses and other preservation sites along this influential, all-American waterway with Hudson River Cruises, one of several local cruise and ferry services.

Greene County

Hollywood has discovered the Great Northern Catskills. Timothy Hutton and Tilda Swinton starred in an independent feature filmed last year in brightly colored Tannersville, while Spielberg shot the War of the Worlds ferry scene at the historic waterfront in Athens.

Other Greene County stars, new and old, are ready for their close-ups. Last August, the $26 million Kaatskill Mountain Club opened at the year-round Hunter Mountain Resort. Offering quarter-ownership vacation condos, this luxury 109-room destination hotel is ready-made for groups, with 20,000 square feet of meeting space.

Another prime Hunter-area choice is the award-winning Scribner Hollow Lodge, a conference locale of companies like MTV and Pfizer. Meeting planners can reserve the entire property, which includes 38 custom-designed rooms and suites, and the Grotto, an underground cave-like pool and spa.

While only a stone foundation here and there remain, the aura of the area’s grand resorts of yesteryear remains a visitor draw. In Tannersville, North-South Lake features campsites, boating lakes and a 10,000-square-mile view from the rocky ledge once commanded by the Catskill Mountain House (1824-1962). Nearby, the Laurel House (1852-1963) once stood atop the Kaaterskill Falls.

To the northeast, the area between the towns of Catskill and Cairo is popularly known as the "German Alps." The local German-American heritage—and hospitality—is typified by the family-owned Blackhead Mountain Lodge and Country Club in Round Top. Turning 40 this year, the property is moving forward with a new 18-hole championship golf course, European-style guest room renovations and a conference facility, scheduled to open this fall.

Catskill is home to Thomas Cole’s Cedar Grove, as well as The Friar Tuck Resort, Spa and Convention Center, checking in with more than 52,000 square feet of meeting space. To the west is Ski Windham, the county’s other year-round mountain resort, equipped with more than 17,000 square feet of meeting space. And wine tasters have a unique mountaintop venue at the Windham Vineyard and Winery.

Sullivan County

The music, at last, has come home to Woodstock. Thirty-seven years after more than 450,000 souls gathered on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel for the 1969 Woodstock Music & Arts Fair, the long-anticipated Bethel Woods Arts Center opened its doors this July. The cultural center includes a 4,800-seat summer pavilion with lawn space for an additional 12,000 music lovers, as well as a 700-seat outdoor auditorium. Celebrating the 1969 event’s lasting influence upon American culture, a multipurpose events gallery and interpretative center is scheduled to open next year.

Another beloved music site, the group-friendly Forestburgh Playhouse, turns 60 next year, continuing a long tradition of bringing Broadway to the Catskills.

Meanwhile, contentious discussions continue on bringing as many as five casinos into Sullivan County. After fending off legal challenges, the group-friendly Mighty M Gaming facility at Monticello Raceway offers more than 1,500 video gaming machines to go with year-round live harness racing. The owners are working to develop a $500 million Native American casino on a site adjacent to the raceway.

Consuming many original Catskills hotels, fire remains a modern culprit, destroying the main building of the long-standing Villa Roma Resort and Conference Center last April. The owners have pledged to rebuild.

Meanwhile, the Concord Resort and Golf Club, site of the famed "Monster" and "Big G" courses, is undergoing a renovation.

Golf is a big attraction county-wide, with the course at Kutsher’s among the most challenging in the Northeast.

Sullivan also claims the birthplace of fly-fishing, on the Beaverkill River, along with a wealth of trout streams. For white-water adventures, Lander’s River Trips in Narrowsburg offers canoeing, rafting, tubing, and kayaking, complemented by motel and campground accommodations.