Back in the late 90s, when I purchased my weekend home in the Catskills, my NYC friends and fellow urbanites thought it romantic and enviable. They beseeched me for invitations to join my husband and me on one of our trips upstate to escape to a tranquil reprieve from the city for a few days. If, on some weekend or holiday, we weren’t planning on venturing up to our country retreat, these same people begged to be allowed to use it in our absence. Our idea of a second home, tucked away on a mountain outside a quaint rural town, was deemed brilliant and held up as a lofty goal for others. However, when we announced our plans to move up permanently in 2002, we were met with shock and discouraging words. “You will die of boredom”, “There is nothing but cows and illiterates up there—who will you socialize with?”, “Where will you shop, what will you eat?”, “There’s no culture up there—no art, no music or theater?”, “You will be back in 6 months!”
Their assumptions of country living, or more specifically, Catskill country living, are understandable, but completely off base. My husband and I weren’t fully aware of how inaccurate they were when we first moved up here, but we knew that they were not exactly accurate.
During our weekends away from the city, most of our time was occupied with tinkering around our yard, hiking mountain trails and fleeing to places where we could be fully and wholly alone. So our knowledge of local activities beyond outdoor pursuits such as hiking, skiing or biking, were fairly limited. That said, we fully expected there would likely be some transplanted NYC folks like ourselves- artists, writers and actors looking to find a more nurturing venue for their creative personalities. Over the many weekend and holiday stays in our country home, we had encountered other NYC weekenders, as well as discovered a few cultural outposts for music and theater that we enjoyed. So we were confident that there would be a least some modicum of social and cultural offerings for us to take advantage of.
We soon came to learn that our assessment of what we would find to occupy and entertain ourselves as Catskill country residents was completely off the mark. The full diversity and richness of the social and cultural offerings in the Catskills was well beyond our imaginations. Whether it was live, original music, world-class theater or thought-provoking and inspiring fine art, we had it within arms-reach. The Catskills, and all the rural hamlets, towns and villages it encompasses, is home to countless artists, both native and imported. The bucolic, tranquil setting belies the productive creative energy that bubbles here.
Music lovers can find folk-rock bands, jazz and chamber music, African drumming, celtic, hip-hop, opera and of course, country music. Venues abound in the form of Festivals, nightclubs and performing arts centers. Such places include sites such as the acclaimed West Kortright Centre, featuring performers from all over the world; B-side Ballroom, where you not only get the best regional and national music, you can also get delicious farm-fresh food, cocktails and craft beer; Honest Brook Music Festival, a summer-long classical music festival housed in a preserved barn and presenting world-class musicians, Hunter Mountain and Bellearyre Mountain, 2 ski-resorts that transform into vibrant music centers over the summer and feature acts representing a huge diversity of genres, from blues, hip-hop, jazz, classic rock, and more; Taste of the Catskills, a weekend family-friendly event showcasing the food, beer, crafts, wine and music of the region; gorgeous Brewery Ommegang, an internationally renowned Belgian styled brewery hosting a summer concert series filled with huge-name acts; the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice, a 5-day festival celebrating uniquely American vocal styles from gospel to opera, world music to Broadway; Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, site of the original Woodstock, featuring concerts with big names acts in its 15,000 seat amphitheater, and countless other sites scattered across the region.
Theater and film aficionados have no lack of choices when it comes to viewing classic or new dramatic works on stages and screens of all sizes. Among my favorites is Franklin Stage Company ((picture above), located in the delightful village of Franklin and housed in the stately, renovated Chapel Hall. FSC, who offers FREE admission, produces classical plays, new works adapted from classic texts, and 20th century plays with classical themes in an intimate setting. The productions– set, costume, scoring and acting — are top-notch and always inspiring. Other theaters include, Shadowland Stages, a restored art-deco theater in Ellenville, presenting professional theater of classics, contemporary and new plays; Catskill Mountain Foundation Film and Performing Arts Center in Hunter, presenting multi-disciplinary performances and films as well as educational opportunities for all ages; Bridge Street Theatre outside downtown Catskill, presenting intimate theater and cabaret; the Forestburgh Playhouse, the oldest continuously operating professional summer theater in NY; Glimmerglass Opera, staging complete operas performed with full orchestra and professional actors from around the world; Todd Mountain Theatre Project, in Arkville, presenting professional level new and daring plays, and multitudes more of smaller, yet quality theater venues that are too numerous to list.
As a painter, I am exceedingly thrilled with the endless options for showing, viewing and learning about arts and crafts in all its forms. For viewing art, one usually needs to go no further than their local café or eateries. The communities here are huge supporters of the arts and whether it is a proprietor featuring art within their establishment or an art center presenting a show, there is always something to see. One of my all-time favorite events is the Treadwell Stagecoach Run Art Festival. For 2 days in July, each year, artists open their homes and studios to the public and are available to meet and discuss their work. Other art events and establishments, besides those previously mentioned, include Roxbury Arts Group, providing a wide variety of arts, entertainment and educational events; Bright Hill Press & Literary Center, dedicated to integrating language and visual art; Catskill Mountain Artisans Guild, located in Margaretville, offering workshops and shows; Mount Tremper Arts, presenting new works of contemporary art. Truly, the list of venues to view or participate in the creation of art are endless here in the Catskills. This list is just the tip of the deep creative iceberg!
Of course, any discussion of culture must include food! The Catskills has a long agricultural history, certainly, but that story has entered a new chapter and features new characters such as craft beverage producers, artisan food producers, restaurateurs and organic local food growers. There’s a delightful mix of old meets new, as NYC transplants and established farmers come together in establishing the region as a culinary go-to destination. Among the great draws are small, understated, yet artistically designed restaurant/eateries with menus featuring dishes and drinks made from local produce. The list of the foodie highlights is long with new entries cropping up regularly, but my list of faves include, restaurant and inn Table on Ten in Bloomville, Lucky Dog Farm Store in Hamden, Brushland Eating House in Bovina (picture above), Two Old Tarts in Andes, The Tulip & The Rose in Franklin, Unclebrother in Hancock, and more. For other foodie finds, I’d suggest, Delaware Phoenix Distillery in Walton for small-batch absinthes and whiskies, Vulto Creamery in Walton, Northern Farmhouse Pasta in Roscoe, Roxbury Mountain Maple in Hobart.
The Catskill region has come a long way since it’s Borscht Belt days, completely shedding any last remnant of that persona and reemerged with a shiny new brand. Today the Catskills presents an image that is part historical quaint, part contemporary energetic and forward-thinking creativity. It’s old, traditional pursuits, reimagined with new techniques and a mind toward conservation and healthful living that’s earth conscious. It’s the established incorporated and reinvigorated by the new. The result is an eclectic dynamic community homed in one of the most beautiful regions in the world. And, it’s my home! Lucky me.