ROAD TRIP

The Catskills: A Heap of Old-Fashioned Fun, Only Two Hours From New York City

In the borscht belt, organic greens are beginning to trump Shecky Greenes. But if you skip the summer classics--like hiking and tubing--the joke's on you

By Jessica Shaw, Tuesday, Jun 20, 2006, 12:00 AM

Saugerties Lighthouse

Saugerties Lighthouse

(Nancy Kennedy | Dreamstime.com)

At the Saugerties Lighthouse on the Hudson River, you can stay the night in one of two romantic rooms

(Robert Wright)

Day 1: New York City to Woodstock

There's this glorious moment at the end of the Tappan Zee Bridge. Traffic magically thins as the massive stress knot of New York City starts to soften. My fiance Steve and I are desperately in need of a getaway when we set off for the Catskills. Our wedding is a month away, and we're up to our eyeballs in ridiculous family drama.

Tell people you're going to the Catskills and chances are at least one person will envision Jackie Mason trading one-liners with Jerry Stiller over bowls of borscht. Yes, in the '40s and '50s there were plenty of Jewish bungalow colonies. And sure, the Mel Brookses of the comedy world got their start in the region. But the Catskills have evolved since then. There may still be borscht, but it's all about the locally grown beets.

Steve and I head first to the one place we've both already visited, the legendary hippie town of Woodstock. Tinker Street, the main drag, is still the cliche we remember--tourist traps, tie-dye, and patchouli. "Is this Woodstock?" one guy shouts out his car window as he drives by. We nod. "Is this all there is to do around here?" Another nod.

We spend the night at theTwin Gables Guest Home, a Woodstock fixture. Our street-level room is comfortably nondescript, but we're surprised to find rigid instructions everywhere. At the door, a bold sign instructs us to only ring once. Where's that hippie love when you want it?

Lodging

Day 2: Woodstock to Saugerties

Five minutes outside of Woodstock, the Overlook Mountain Trail is a popular five-mile hike leading to the concrete ruins of an old hotel. (The scenic Rock City Road, which turns into Meads Mt. Road, winds up to the trailhead and is worth the trip by itself.) The beginning is relatively steep, but we're doing just fine. It doesn't take long, however, until we're humbled; walkers 30 years younger--and 30 years older--are breathing less heavily.

Woodstock tends to attract spiritual types, and Steve and I can get into that kind of thing. We seek a moment of introspection atKarma Triyana Dharmachakra, a Tibetan Buddhist temple that's open to the public. A massive golden Buddha is planted happily in the front of a big room. We grab cushions and meditate for what feels like at least 30 minutes, but in reality is all of 67 seconds. Enlightenment will have to wait.

On our way to the town of Phoenicia, we see a sign for theWorld's Largest Kaleidoscope, which turns out to be in a converted silo. We're the only people there, and we're instructed to lie flat, facing up. A rah-rah-America show, complete with what appear to be a thousand Abe Lincolns, spins psychedelically over our heads. It's a bizarre and entrancing spectacle, and somehow not a surprise that we're the only people there.

Phoenicia, meanwhile, is hopping. 'Tis the season for tubing! There are two tubing acts in town: Town Tinker andF-S Tube Rental. It's a sunny day, so we don't spend long studying the difference and just opt for the latter, which has been around for over 30 years. Richie Bedner, F-S Tube's self-described Tube King, welcomes us enthusiastically. He tells us not to worry about any DANGER AHEAD signs, and he assures us that a significant three-foot drop along the way is the best part of the ride. Steve wipes out and nearly loses a tooth, but I finish without a scratch and become one of tubing's biggest boosters. Trust me, it's way more fun than it sounds.

We have a reservation to stay the night at the still-functioningSaugerties Lighthouse, overlooking the Hudson River about 25 miles from Phoenicia. There are two rooms for guests, and they're a bit of a splurge. Given the price, we thought it would be best to compromise by having a picnic dinner on-site. To get to the lighthouse, visitors have to walk 10 minutes along a muddy footpath that's occasionally submerged by the incoming tide. There's a tide table on the lighthouse's website that we didn't pay quite enough attention to when we booked. At 7 P.M., we just barely make it.

Patrick Landewe, the lighthouse keeper, greets us at the door. Part L.L. Bean model, part enigmatic loner, he began his tenure only a few weeks earlier. The previous lighthouse keeper left after he married a guest, and apparently love connections are fairly common out here. Considering that the Hudson freezes over in the winter, Patrick's clock is ticking. There are only a couple more months for Cupid to strike. He shouldn't have a hard time, I tell my insanely jealous fiance.

Steve and I change into our bathing suits, jump into the Hudson, and watch the setting sun reflect sparkling amber tones in the warm water. If there's anything more romantic than throwing on towels and eating a low-key dinner on the deck of the Saugerties Lighthouse, I simply don't know what it could be.

Operators

Lodging

Activities

Day 3: Saugerties to Fleischmanns

The smell of eggs and bacon wakes us. Patrick has been cooking up a storm. We have no interest in leaving the lighthouse. Ever. In fact, we kind of want to quit our day jobs and become lighthouse keepers ourselves, until Patrick complains about having to wipe dead moths off the light bulbs. Every place has its unromantic side.

In Tannersville, a bunch of cars are parked in front of theLast Chance Antiques and Cheese Cafe. Once inside, we see why. The cafe has over 300 beers, about 100 types of cheese, and the best selection of candy this side of the Haribo factory. We marvel over the contents in the antique candy baskets and pick up Brie, almond, and apple sandwiches on raisin bread--plus some wax lips--for later.

In winter, Hunter Mountain is popular with skiers and snowboarders. Off season, the resort is open to mountain bikers and hikers, and the views are unparalleled. The 10-minuteSkyridechairlift to the top of the mountain is well worth the $8, so long as you're not acrophobic. It can be a breezy, chair-swinging ride, which makes for either a massive rush of adrenaline or--in the case of the woman in the chair behind ours--a loss of lunch.

We land for the evening in Fleischmanns, a quirky town with a slightTwin Peaksfeel. There are few people on the sidewalks, and the huge Victorian houses are more than a little odd. My favorite is all black, with blood-red stairs and a sign on the door announcing A NICE COLD WELCOME.

Ben Fenton, the innkeeper at theRiver Run Bed and Breakfast Inn, is much warmer. He insists we won't want to missRoberts' Auction. It takes place right next door every Saturday evening, all year round (it's since moved a few miles away to Arkville). Ben volunteers for Roberts, and he promises us VIP treatment. Whatever that means, it sounds exciting to me.

There are few better ways to spend a Saturday night than watching Eddie Roberts, a craggy old guy with a flannel shirt and a mile-a-minute delivery, hawk everything from an old Connect Four game to a majestic hand-carved bed rescued from an estate sale (Roberts' son, Edward Roberts Jr., now runs the auction in the Arkville location). Steve and I take our seats behind the regulars, octogenarians who show up with their own auction paddles as well as their pillows and pets.

As Steve and I learn, there's a right way to wave your paddle--subtly, nonchalantly, as if you don'tcarewhether you get that Shaker armoire--but we haven't mastered it. We swat our paddle around with gusto and end up going home with a pair of turbaned-gypsy figurine lamps ($25), and, for some inexplicable reason, the vinyl interior of a trunk ($15). We decide to quit when a broken Atari console starts looking good. It's almost 11 P.M., and we haven't eaten much all day.

Devin Mills, a former chef at New York's beloved Gramercy Tavern, grew up in the area and returned to openPeekamoose Restaurant. The prices in the main dining room are high, but the menu is more reasonable--and equally impressive--at the tables in the bar. The short-rib sandwich could convert any vegetarian. Devin's wife, Marybeth, approaches us with a spoonful of a new ice cream flavor they've concocted. We immediately identify it as sweet corn, and Marybeth is so impressed that she rewards us with a peach cobbler on the house.

Lodging

Food

Activities

Day 4: Fleischmanns to New York

We've been lucky with weather so far, but the good fortune ends as we wake up to a rainstorm. Fortunately, there's still plenty to do; several of the towns around Fleischmanns have lots of terrific antique stores. .

It turns out that not knowing anything about your path means you're likely to get lost. The upside is that you discover things you wouldn't otherwise. Somehow a list of roads I couldn't attempt to re-create leads us toThe Bridges of Madison County. Or, rather, Sullivan County, but we certainly feel like we're seeing the picturesque bridges through the eyes of Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. If you have to get lost, the Livingston Manor Bridge and Beaverkill Bridge are lovely rewards.

All weekend long we looked forward to finishing our road trip at the Munson Diner. We read about it inThe New York Times: It's an old-school diner lifted out of Manhattan and replanted in the town of Liberty. Sadly, it's not yet open for business. Instead, we stop at theLiberty Diner, a serviceable spot full of track-suited seniors and a fine early-bird special. Finally, we start to see the Catskills ofDirty Dancing. We eat our chicken soup and saltines, and, after spotting Max Kellerman's doppelgänger, Steve throws out his best "Nobody puts Baby in a corner."

The closer we get to New York City, the busier the roads become. And with our wedding just over a month away, the stress should be hitting me as soon as the Tappan Zee toll line comes into view--but it doesn't. The last four days of nonstop togetherness have been a perfect preparation for our future life. There will be incredible highs (the lighthouse), bizarre twists (the kaleidoscope), and splendid moments that catch us when we least expect them (those covered bridges). We may get lost sometimes, but I totally trust that we'll find our way back home.

Food

Finding your way

For the most detailed road information, your best bet is to pick up a local fishing map. The Delaware county tourist office has a downloadable version at delawarecounty.org/fishing. For maps of Ulster, Sullivan, and Greene counties, visit their websites: ulstertourism.info, scva.net, and greenetourism.com. The many side roads off Rte. 23A are particularly fun to explore, so allow for extra time in those parts. Both the Livingston Manor and Beaverkill Bridges are along Rte. 17 in Sullivan County. (But be careful: Rte. 17 is a notorious speed trap.) Log on to nycoveredbridges.org for information about those and other bridges.