Man, I hope you see a bear,” says Tim, the innkeeper at Shandaken Inn, a new property surrounded by miles of countryside in the Catskills (sullivancatskills.com) Tim says black bears are skittish, but sightings are not uncommon, so like a safari, I keep my eyes peeled. Unfortunately, the elusive creatures never appear, but over the past week, I spotted other types of bears. And otters. And cubs. Even the occasional gym rat. It’s not all too surprising. The Catskills, two hours north of New York City, is a magnet to gay travelers, who pack weekend bags and boots for bucolic adventures in the wild.
The entire region, sprawling a whopping 3.8 million acres between NYC and Albany, is experiencing its biggest
renaissance to date. Small towns that have never been on the gay traveler’s radar now seduce with design hotels, major events like Gay Ski Day in Hunter are attracting LGBT city dwellers, and farm-fresh restaurants are having a moment as notable city chefs unpack their knives here.
Lending to the Catskills comeback story is a host of visionary and well heeled New Yorkers buying property and turning them into stylish “Great Outdoors” spots, from hotels to restaurants, that are imaginative and unarguably more inclusive. The recent rise in adventure/outdoor travel, the fastest growing global niche, also contributes to the boon, attracting city dwellers who seek a whole lot of nature without sacrificing modern comforts. Ultimately, gay communities in the Catskills are growing and thriving since people are not only visiting, but buying second homes or moving.
I had my first taste of the Catskills rebirth in Windham (townofwindhamny.com), one of the oldest towns in the region (established in 1798). Windham is small and compact (the historic main street is less than a mile long) with a population hovering around 1,600. It feels like it still belongs in the 18th century, and therein lies the charm. Most of the new development is integrated into the smalltown rural charm, embracing minimal country-inspired design. There’s a handful of small B&Bs in the area, but Eastwind Hotel (5088 NY-23, Tel: 518-734-0553. eastwindny.com), opened 2018, brought a millennial- centric, contemporary flair that, thankfully, doesn’t feel forced.
Eastwind dates back to the 1920s as a former bunkhouse for hunters and fishermen, and without compromising the original structure, the new owner elevated the property into a stylish, 19-room hotel. I use the term “hotel” generously since desk staff are gone by dusk, and there’s no room service, TVs, or restaurant, but surprisingly, this is what I loved about Eastwind. It feels casual, like a friend’s vacation home in the country, being that it’s a hybrid hotel, vacation rental, and even “glamping” if you book one of the Scandinavian-style “Lushna” standalone cabins with commanding views of the Catskills mountains. This set-up makes Eastwind favorable for guy getaways and couples who appreciate privacy—and there’s tons of it. The country-meets-modern design skews masculine yet its soft, the architecture comprising natural curves and angles as well as floor-to-ceiling windows that frame Windham Mountain. Natural light flooded the main lounge that transforms into a bar on weekends (also serving breakfast), and an outdoor sauna and a firepit were virtually made for Instagram.
Windham is primarily known for the slopes at Windham Mountain, but I discovered something far more distinctive: the food. Fortunately, Eastwind brought a spotlight to the surrounding, family-run restaurants, and each restaurant I dined at could do well on its own merit in NYC. One of my favorite home-cooked breakfasts was at Albergo Allegria (43 NY-296, Tel: 518-734-5560. albergousa.com), a small country inn known mostly for its farm-fresh meals with daily changing menus based on freshness and quality of natural ingredients. I ordered the sampling plate, which had a bit of everything: French Toast with homemade orange reduction, grilled asparagus tossed with fresh dill and slivers of preserved lemons, and their signature omelete stuffed with locally grown mushrooms and paired with gruyere cheese.
I also found a whole lot of love in the kitchen at Catskill Mountain Country Store (55510 NY-23, Tel: 518-734-3387. (catskillmtncountrystore.com), where my friend and I dined on cheeseburgers, pancakes, and freshly baked cookies. The restaurant uses organic ingredients in all their dishes. The kitschy, adjoined general merchant store is a visual wonderland, selling everything from locallymade jams, maple syrup, fudge, preserves, and baked breads to local organic skincare products and dozens of artisanal, country-themed crafts and gifts to bring back home.