Everyone loves autumn in New York City, but it’s also a fantastic time to ditch the asphalt and head upstate for relaxing weekend of brilliant fall leafscapes and star-splattered night skies. About five years ago, a super-organized friend of mine rented a 10-person VRBO house outside of Woodstock one October weekend and started an annual tradition. Over time, couples broke up, people had babies, and the friend who started it all moved abroad, but some permutation of our original crew (along with a rotating cast of dogs) still finds our way to a rented house in the Catskills for one weekend every fall. For city dwellers like us, the call of things like giant decks with firepits, the opportunity to cook for more than two people in a real, adult kitchen, and watching the sun sink into the mountains from the back porch is tough to resist.
The area around Woodstock is particularly great for a group with disparate interests because there are so many different ways to fill up the day. In five years, I haven’t come close to doing it all, but here are some highlights that are worth exploring if a weekend upstate is part of your plans this fall.
How to get there: You can take the Trailways bus to Woodstock for $56 round-trip, which takes around three hours, but to get around once you’re in the Catskills you’re going to need a car. You could take the bus to Kingston ($51 round trip) and then rent a car from there to avoid New York traffic and car rental rates.
Where to stay: We always go through VRBO— the pictures on the site give you a pretty good sense of what the houses are like and the owners are generally used to renting to groups and are pretty accommodating (they’ll let you use the olive oil, leave beers in the fridge, tell you where to leave your linens when you leave). There’s a big range in prices, but we’ve found it pretty easy to rent houses that sleep 8-10, for $375-450 per night, so it works out to be about $100 per person for the whole weekend. There are lots of cool houses on AirBnB, too.
If you’re not a rental house type, try The Spruceton Inn, a new “bed and bar” outside Phoenicia, run by BB pals Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg. They’ve turned a mid-century lodge into a Catskills wonderland where you can snuggle in your room, meet new friends over a beer or a bonfire, or go splash in the creek. Rates start at $69/night.
What to do when you’re not on the deck or in front of a roaring fire: Probably the most obvious option is apple-picking at one of the many orchards in the area, like DuBois Farms, where you can score several varieties of fresh apples on a pay-what-you-pick basis. Most have other family-friendly diversions too, like farmers’ markets, tractor rides, live music and corn mazes. Just because it’s kinda hokey doesn’t mean it isn’t fun! Plus you can pick up a pumpkin for a fraction of the cost at your bodega or NYC greenmarket, and this stop is important if your trip upstate includes, as it should, a per diem goal with respect to cider doughnut intake.
Don’t miss the hike up to Overlook Mountain if you’d like your workout to be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Hudson Valley. The full hike takes about three hours and turns out to be a little more strenuous than it first appears, so be sure to bring a bottle of water. There are plenty of cool places to stop and rest along the way, though, including water towers you can climb and the ruins of a hotel that burned down in the 1920s.
If you’re interested in the ethical issues around livestock and industrial farming, you can learn a lot during a tour of a nearby farm sanctuary like Woodstock Animal Farm Sanctuary. Be prepared for them to seriously not sugarcoat it, though; most of the pigs, cows, goats, and chickens you’ll interact with were subjected to torture–not to mention creepy bioengineering–before they were rescued. If you can handle a dose of vegan propaganda, it’s worth a visit just to see the animals.
For something really different, check out Opus 40, an outdoor sculpture park in Saugerties representing the life’s work of artist and Bard professor Harvey Fite. In 1938, Fite purchased a bluestone quarry and embarked on a meticulously-planned 40-year-long project to construct an enormous, labyrinthine stone structure on the property. In a cruel twist, Fite died from a fall on the rocks just three years before his vision was completed, but what is there is pretty mind-boggling, especially if you have trouble focusing on one thing for just 40 minutes, let alone that many years.
Best bites: There are several amateur chefs in the mix among my friends, which means that I don’t know much about local restaurants, but I can recommend Smokehouse of the Catskills, a German butcher with killer kielbasa and liverwurst, and Sunfrost Market, a gourmet food and coffee shop with excellent produce. Tinker Street in Woodstock is lined with the predictablly schlocky head shops and sensible clog purveyors, but you can stock up on all the books on your list at The Golden Notebook, handmade wool and deerskin gloves at Woodstock General Supply, coffee, baked goods, and sandwiches at Bread Alone, and an amazing selection of tea and petit fours at The Tea Shop of Woodstock.
If you’re staying closer to Phoenicia or Margaretville, The Phoenicia Diner serves up delicious diner fare (pancakes, burgers, pies and one of the best reubens anywhere) made from local ingredients. There’s nothing on the menu that tops $15, and it’s always cheerful and bustling. Open Thurs-Mon from 7am to 5pm in the fall. Also in that area, the Pakatakan Farmer’s Market (or Round Barn market), has local veggies, snacks, honey and maple syrup and handmade goods like pottery and soaps. Stock up on Skeeter Beater here, the best natural mosquito repellant you’ll find anywhere. And ignore the name, BuddhaPesto is delicious.
My favorite thing to do in the Catskills, though, is to just hang out and do all the things that seem so difficult to accomplish in my regular life in Brooklyn: curl up for a long, uninterrupted read, take the dog on an off-leash walk in the woods, or cook a massive dinner with friends and eat it at a table for twelve. One year, someone brought an axe and we all took turns chopping wood, another year the house we rented had a regulation size pétanque court in the backyard, and the most recent trip included a marathon screening of Friday the 13th I-IV in a den/home theater that was bigger than my entire apartment. Whatever you do on your mini-vacation in the Catskills, you’ll feel much farther than two hours away from Brooklyn.