The perfect day trip from here is Kingston (it’s about 15 miles south), the closest thing in the Catskills to a cosmopolitan city. Here you’ll find the remarkable bar/bistro Boiston’s, which perfectly blends down-home and upmarket, a combination that extends to the menu, where you can have “cauliflower wings” and mustard/molasses-glazed salmon or deviled eggs and a burger. Later, stop by Uptown Coffee, it is as urban chic as any coffeehouse I’ve seen.
You’ll also find such offbeat shops as Bop to Tottom, with a spiffy new location to show off their accessories and curiosities, from studded handbags to ceramic puppies; and Stockade, a tavern famous for its hand-crafted cocktails. While you’re in the area make sure to visit the LGBTQ Center. I suggest you stop here when in Uptown Kingston (yes, it’s actually a big enough town to have an uptown, downtown, and midtown) to see their latest art exhibitor find out what’s going on around town. You might find a Valley Boys dinner to go to, hosted by one of the members of this gay men’s group. Or the Center might be producing an event at nearby Back Stage Productions or the popular Anchor Bar. “This center,” says Director of Programs Vanessa Shelmandine, “has the support of all the local government.”
So open is Kingston, in fact, that Vanessa speculates that’s actually part of the reason there aren’t any gay bars even in this 24,000-person Ulster County metropolis. “We’ve entered the era,” she says, “where it’s assumed that everywhere will be LGBTQ affirming.” I mean, this is a town where the annual O+ Festival (a wonderful celebration of arts and wellness, with artists donating performances and doctors donating health care services for the entertainers) has a parade led by a draq queen cruising with the mayor. Realtor Tim Hurley (the daytime alter-ego of Lady Esther Gin) agrees: “I had some clients wanting to look at property to open a gay bar. I’m not sure it would work, because everywhere is already so gay-friendly.”
It’s with reluctance that I leave Ulster County, but more adventures await: namely, Hunter Mountain, about 45 minutes northwest, in the heart of Catskill Park in Greene County. I drive past landscapes so breathtaking I can see where the Hudson River School of painters got their inspiration. I stop at Kaaterskill Falls to watch the water plunge through rocky slopes covered in green, and remember the famous painting of the falls by Thomas Cole, a leader of that group. I make a note to visit the Thomas Cole House, in the town of Catskill to the east, where you can tour the house itself, Cole’s studio, and an ever-changing special exhibit. For now, though, I pretend I’m Cole and gaze at the falls, cross the street to witness an absolutely perfect landscape of multi-hued hills, and (unlike that 19th-century artist) get back in the car. As I think about Cole and his comrades (Frederic Church, Asher Durand, and others), I realize that the arts are certainly not a new thing in this area.
Arriving in Hunter, I’m greeted by Pam Weisberg of the Catskill Mountain Foundation, and we head down to Palenville and the tiny Circle W General Store, a “find” in this tiny village, offering staples, gourmet items, pottery, candles, and guidebooks. The real thrill here, though, is a selection of amazing sandwiches and baked goods, and as I indulge in a fabulous Reuben with house-made red cabbage slaw, Pam tells me about the work of the Foundation, for which she’s director of programming. They’ve acquired several buildings in Hunter and nearby Tannersville, and converted them to artistic use: two movie theaters, a performance space, a gallery, and a museum. They’re also developing housing where artists can do residencies rent-free. It’s part of an ambitious plan to create a real artistic presence in and around Hunter Mountain.
We stop in Kaaterskill Fine Arts Gallery, where I admire the work of sever- al local artists: fabulous wood creations, ceramics, jewelry, paintings. It’s a stunning collection, and it’s only through vociferous willpower (and prior splurges) that I manage to not buy anything. Across the street lies the quirky Piano Performance Museum, a collection of (playable) pianos from the 1800s to present: ornate, boxy, elegant, sinuous, lustrous, any adjective you want to choose. The small room is totally packed with vintage instruments and accessories, and it might not sound like much, but trust me, it’s a place you don’t want to miss.
I check into Fairlawn Inn, which combines the traditional look of this 1904 house with an eclectic design and art collection, carrying hints of period style but not sticking slavishly to it, instead creating a place that looks like a real home—well, if your home had a lovely patio, second floor deck, and Hunter Mountain towering above you. Even in this area, which is a little more conservative than a place like Woodstock or Saugerties, Owner Chuck Tomajko proclaims, “I’ve had no bumps in the road” as a result of being a gay business owner, and, what’s more: “I have never, EVER, heard of anyone having any trouble.” He speculates that this open-mindedness is a result both of the artistic sensibility (“when you’re in an arts community, it tends to bring more open- ness”) and the diverse visiting population (“stand on the mountain, and you’ll hear 20 different languages being spoken”).
Unlike much of the Catskills, this is an area that thrives in the winter, with skiing and other winter sports on Hunter Mountain, but Chuck tells me that his summer business is actually starting to outweigh his winter bookings, which says to me that people are beginning to appreciate all there is to do here, from the arts to amazing hikes, from zipline tours to cideries and wineries (the craft beverage movement is taking over here big time).
That night I enjoy dinner at Tannersville’s Mama’s Boy Burgers, which I love. Michael Koegel, a veteran of New York’s famed Gramercy Tavern, has created a little haven of retro charm, with pink diamond linoleum floors, blue and white tables, and a wide assortment of burgers adorned with a creative array of toppings. There’s a definite hip overlay here (my burger has kale on it), but mainly it’s just great food, most of it locally sourced, and a comfy, familiar atmosphere. I decide to splurge on dessert, a dense, rich chocolate polenta cake. As I try to decide between ice cream or whipped cream to top it, the young woman behind the counter persuades me to get both. Her rea- soning? “It’s Saturday night.” You know what? I splurge, and I’m not at all embarrassed about it. So sue me. It’s Saturday night.
I end the night at nearby Orpheum Performing Arts Center, run by the Catskill Mountain Foundation, which tonight is presenting the NYC-based Gol- lim Dance Company. The show is astounding, the talkback with the audience enlightening, and all in all I’m beginning to believe that Hunter Mountain, in some ways the unlikeliest place of all for the arts to grow, might just become a major spot for experimental work. I am also encourage by what Pam Weisberg’s told me, “We’re hoping as more and more artists come here, they’ll provide a sustainable transition for the area.”
There’s something about the words “sustainable transition” that I love, as if the area’s never going to be “finished,” but will be in a perpetual state of transition that will only get more and more exciting as it develops and…well, transitions. I hope the Catskills sustain their transition forever, because it’s really a pretty amazing area, full of so much beauty, so near to major cities and yet so incredibly far away both in landscape and in attitude. There might be a bit of a hipster overlay arriving, but they’re a special breed of hipsters, a Catskills breed, who can appreciate what’s unique about this region while at the same time adding a bit of flair.
So get in ahead of the game and come on up. Have both ice cream AND whipped cream with your cake. Go 45 in a 55 mph zone. Take a look at those hillsides covered in every flaming color of the rainbow, those plunging falls, those emerald pastures ringed by towering blasts of pines, the river flowing like a glistening snake through vibrant pincushions. Suddenly you find yourself thinking, you know, what’s the rush? So you pick a bird, and you watch it as it flies down the horizon that stretches into eternity untouched by buildings. You understand that what seemed urgent yesterday can really wait till tomorrow.
You smile. It’s at that moment that you “get” the Catskills.