This is a world of gentle beauty, with a growing artistic presence and a burgeoning LGBT community, as people leave behind the city and head for this little haven. Did I say “little haven?” Nothing could be further from the truth, as the Catskills area is huge, covering four counties and thousands of square miles, stretching from the Pennsylvania border across a wide swath of New York State. Every little town presents a different face to the world, and every turn of a corner presents a new delight: a rushing creek, a stunning mountain view, a park along the river that’s noiseless except for the wind whooshing through the trees. With the influx of urban types, there’s also been a proliferation of culture here.
I start on the western end, and after a three-plus-hour drive from Philadelphia, I’m in Sullivan County and only the Delaware River separates us from Pennsylvania. My first stop: the deck of Ecce Bed and Breakfast, where the river spreads out below me, surrounded by wooded hills on either side, in 180 degrees of majesty. It’s the most spectacular view of any river I’ve ever seen anywhere (and trust me, I’ve seen a lot of river views), and I can just imagine the real estate agent taking Alan Rosenblatt and Kurt Kreider straight to the deck, and them pro- claiming, “sold.” I know I would.
The rooms at Ecce are lovely, with comfy beds, large bathrooms, and a nice little writing desk, and the B&B’s breakfasts are amazing. The owners, Alan and Kurt are as welcoming a pair of hosts as you can imagine, and their story is not unusual up here, with both giving up high-power jobs in Manhattan to move to the area that had been a weekend getaway for them. After 25 years, they’ve seen some changes, from a mere “acceptance” of a gay couple to a proliferation of a community that’s made the Catskills one of the most gay-friendly regions in the country. Most of the villages’ governing boards, they tell me, have an LGBT presence. I ask Alan whether, after over a decade full-time here, he’s happy they made the move. He answers “oh yes,” without a moment’s hesitation, adding with a smile, “Did I answer that fast enough?”
Confirming his words, I speak with Scott Samuelson, a county legislator for Sullivan County, who also runs the Bradstan Country Hotel, in nearby White Lake. He and his husband have been up here since 1981, and, notes Scott: “I’ve been extremely active in the community, and being gay has never been a question in any way, shape, or form.” He notes that with the increase in LGBT couples with children, it’s a far different lifestyle than the see-or-be-seen air of the Hamptons or Fire Island. “You can be with everybody, and everybody participates.” At the Bradstan, sit in a comfy room furnished with antiques, look out over White Lake, and enjoy their amazing “expanded continental breakfast.” On any given day you’ll likely see a mix of gay and straight couples. “Very accepting,” smiles Scott.
I hear this wherever I go. I have lunch, for instance, with Danielle Gaebel and Jennifer Bitetto of Natural Contents, which produces some of the best food in the region, from majorly delicious dinners to healthy “indulgences,” available at local farmers’ markets and online. This couple, living with their two children in the charming village of Narrowsburg, can’t speak highly enough about the region’s beauty and LGBT-friendliness. “I think in our little neighborhood we have about six gay and lesbian couples,” notes Danielle. So what should a visitor do when he/she gets here? They’re quick to point out the possibilities: rivers, mountains, eagle-watching, hiking. Jennifer sums it up: “You’re not going to find places to go out drinking and dancing all night, and meet someone to go home with. But then, straight people don’t have those places up here either!” Adds Danielle, “There’s not a lot here, which is the great pleasure and the great challenge all in one.”
I explore Narrowsburg a little (it’s basically one street), with a few home décor shops, a real estate place, and a few other storefronts. There’s a surprising amount to do, though: sip in The Tusten Cup, enjoy the current displays and wonderful gift shop at the Delaware Arts Center, have some comfort food with a twist at The Heron. My favorite, though? Sitting in a pocket-sized park watching as a fisherman glides across the water below, under a stunning arched bridge. I start to cross the bridge but get lazy, head back to my bench, and sit. The boat continues its slow-but-steady progress. I watch. That’s pretty much Narrowsburg. I’m liking these Catskills.
On the way back, I stop at Roebling’s Bridge, an aqueduct over the Delaware River built by the famous designer of the Brooklyn Bridge and the earliest still existing wire cable suspension structure in the country. I walk down a towpath, the river calm and the trees rainbow-hued. I stop in the little 1908 toll house, which has a display on the life of canal barge workers. The structure still stands as a testament to one of America’s most prominent designer/builders, having been erected a good 40 years before his much more famous project. The Catskills hold any number of surprises like this in store.
Another surprise: Carriage House, in Barryville, which feels like a 1970’s hunting lodge with its wood-beamed ceiling and striped curtains. Owner Agnes gives you a warm welcome while her husband works in the kitchen, and while the menu shows a definite slant toward their Hungarian roots (chicken paprikash, anyone?) there’s also a modern slant to it, with everything from avocado egg rolls to angel hair pasta with shrimp. You can’t go wrong at this friendly and unpretentious restaurant.
Continuing my theme of Catskills culture, I’m there with Franklin Trapp, who’s owned the Forestburgh Playhouse for two years now, and is revitalizing this classic theater. Their summer season consists mainly of musicals, and the irproximity to New York means they have access to some great talent. So stop by for dinner or a show, or a cabaret in the next-door Forestburgh Tavern, and I think you’ll be impressed with the level of talent and production values. This Manhattan transplant, who had a law career before returning to this beloved theatrical roots, has really done an amazing job of breathing new life into the Forestburgh. “There are a lot of transplants,” he notes, “who are pursuing their passion up here.” The Catskills as an artist magnet? Who’d have thought?
More culture awaits at Bethel Woods. Here on the site of the Woodstock Festival there’s now a spiffy performance center, with indoor and outdoor spaces, that’s hosted everyone from Barenaked Ladies to the Doobie Brothers to Suzanne Vega. Most wonderful, though, is the museum, which places the Woodstock festival into the context of life in the 1960s.
I smile at a series of quotes from attendees: “I had mud on my legs,” reads one, “and came home and didn’t want to wash it off.” Says another: “It was a nation camped there.” I read nostalgically about the Boomer Nation and Nuclear Shadow, while the era’s music provides a backdrop. I sit in a “magic bus” and watch a video on the wind shield about getting to Woodstock. Is eea beautifully designed film montage that carries us through the festival, complete with the sky changing on the ceiling. When I pass a case devoted to Richie Havens, and Museum Director Wade Lawrence tells me Havens instructed that his ashes be scattered over the Wood- stock site, the tears start slipping down my cheeks. When I enter the theater as Janis Joplin comes on the screen in all her raw and emotional beauty, the tears pour out in a way I know I’m not going to be able to stop. This is my youth, my culture, my values—can’t remember when a museum has resonated more.