From the 1920s through the 1970s, the Catskills, and particularly Sullivan County, was called “The Borscht Belt,” known for upscale resorts frequented by Jewish families. Scenes from Dirty Dancing and the most recent season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel hint at the level of entertainment the region attracted. Everyone from Duke Ellington to Joan Rivers, Andy Kaufman to a young Jerry Seinfeld performed up here. But during the 1960s, the area started to lose its original vacationers. Jewish guests could no longer be excluded from other resort areas with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, anti-semitism was in decline, and air travel became more affordable. Aside from a little music festival in Bethel, NY in 1969, the region just didn’t attract New Yorkers in the same droves. Over the last decade, though, the Catskills have become cool again, and not just around the well-known towns like Woodstock. On the western side of Sullivan County, Livingston Manor and its surrounding hamlets are just as big of a draw.
Husband and wife duo Sims Foster and Kirsten Harlow Foster accommodate many of the area’s vacationers in their four small well-designed hotels that come complete with an array of award-winning restaurants. The couple worked in NYC, Sims in hospitality, Kirsten in finance, before decamping for country life, but these are not fly-by-night developers. Five generations of the Foster family have lived in Livingston Manor, and their roots here date back over 100 years. Their hotels, the DeBruce, The Arnold, The North Branch Inn and Nine River Road each offer visitors a piece of history in a comfortable retreat, complete with homemade cookies, farm tours, and roaring fireplaces.
These are just two of the entrepreneurs who are dusting off the soul of this area, shining it up and serving it to New Yorkers who have forgotten this part of the Catskills. This beautiful rural area, only two and a half hours away from Brooklyn, offers visitors a chance to get away from it all, clear their minds, and get off the grid—without sacrificing high design, craft beer or award-winning menus. Adorable wine stores abut fly fishing shops and the toughest dinner reservations around service the locals right alongside the tourists. A sign on Main Street reads “Small Town — Big Backyard” and that’s just how it feels. The vibe up here is cool without being pretentious, and can best be described by the t-shirts in the shops; it’s where you’ll unplug from your life and find an “upstate of mind.”
Here’s where to go on your small town getaway.
Where to stay
When you’re looking to get away from it all and want an isolated cabin in the woods, but you’re also from the city and scared of sounds of the woods and ticks and bar soap, then this is the perfect option. Behind a gate with a code, there is a selection of six different sized cabins to choose from, depending on how big your party is (together they can sleep up to 20 comfortably). Each one comes with a bit of privacy and a sprawling landscape (over 250 acres) filled with Adirondack chairs, hammocks and a pedestrian bridge for exploring and relaxing. There are even private woods for hiking and a stream for fishing. Inside, the cabins are newly renovated with King-sized beds, Pendleton Blankets, terrycloth robes, and fancy bath products. Ours had an adorable kitchenette stocked with a better selection of cooking supplies that I have at home, plus provisions for breakfast (local granola, Greek yogurt, ground coffee, almond milk, and whole milk.) We also had a small screened porch, where we ended up spending most of the weekend—it even came equipped with a cot, in case we wanted to try sleeping under the stars. Prices range from $215 through $750/ night, depending on the size of the cabin.
The next time we visit Livingston Manor, we’ll plan earlier so we can get a room at The DeBruce, an upscale inn with 14 guest rooms that was recently called one of the best new hotels in the world by Conde Nast Traveler. The building has stood for over 100 years and has been renovated to maintain its history while updating with clawfoot tubs, spacious beds, and spa services. This option has access to acres of land and streams but also boasts a private pool. The stay includes breakfast and dinner, but oh—what a dinner! Dinner includes an award-winning nine-course tasting menu that has become renowned for its foraging and avant-garde menu. Picked deer hearts, anyone? Prices start at about $470 but include everything including meals and activities.
Food and Drink
This is like the ultimate basement rec room with a pool table, a jukebox and multiple stuffed deer heads on the wood-paneled walls. If it’s cold enough, the smell of the wood burning stove might be comforting, otherwise, if it’s warm, the screened windows will all be open, allowing the woodsy breeze to waft through. We went for brunch and started with a delicious local smoked trout dip, followed by a solid bean veggie burger, but the ever-changing menu also had a super steak selection, and northern farmhouse ravioli. The atmosphere encourages lingering over a local craft brew. Stop by with the family on Sundays for their weekly Sunday Pig Roast with a whole pig, sides, cocktails, live music and a bonfire that runs $25 for an all-you-can-eat feast. In July, Summer Fridays will join the rotation with live music, bonfires and drinks—dancing barefoot is mandatory.
The Kaatskeller is the heart of downtown Livingston Manor. The outdoor wood-fired grill pumps smoke up and down the arteries of the streets and streams, beckoning visitors into the magical beer garden. The outdoor space is a hangout, where you can grab an Adirondack chair around the fire pit, play lawn games, or grab a seat at one of the communal tables. (There is also a small indoor lounge, perfect for inclement weather, but really you’re here for the outdoors.) We ordered a few pizzas (all delicious!), a grilled kale salad with vegan Ceasar dressing (a revelation!) and a series of wine spritzers that were so refreshing that I begged the waitress to take a photo of the apertivo for me. (For the record, it was with Forthave Spirits Red Apertivo, based in Brooklyn. Is it too early to call this the drink of the summer?)
To get to Unclebrother from Livingston Manor, you’ll drive 30 minutes to Hancock, NY, where many of the houses on the outskirts seemed to be for sale or at risk of falling into the river. It seems unusual that you’ll be stopping in front of a converted motor vehicle repair shop, but that’s the fun of Unclebrother, an unassuming restaurant and gallery that served me one of the best meals I’ve had in my life. Opened by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who is known for incorporating cooking into his conceptual art, along with his art dealer, Gavin Brown, who both have had summer houses in the area for years, the restaurant is more of a community space. First, you pay $25 per person at the cashier and then you take a seat and wait for the food to come out. There’s a set menu that changes every night, and if you’d like a cocktail (Negroni, on the night we went) or wine or beer, you can order that at the bar. You can sit at long tables outside where kids are playing tag, and big dogs are giving sloppy licks, or inside where the garage doors have been flung open. The communal tables add to the atmosphere where a multi-generational, diverse group of artists, grandmothers, cool kids, locals, and friends come together to eat. We were there on Fried Chicken Sunday, and started with a Wild Chickweed Thai Salad with Peanut Dressing, followed by a bowl of curry (a staple of the changing menu), then, 45 minutes later, out came two enormous pieces of Fried Chicken with curry sauce, panang potatoes, and a Thai Corn Salad. I’m not normally crazy for fried chicken, but this was sensational—and completely worth the wait. Remember, you’re upstate to relax, get another drink and sink into the chill vibes. Dessert was a Tres Leches cake which wasn’t too sweet or heavy after such a dense meal. Afterward, we walked it off with a tour of the small gallery. Unclebrother is only open in the summer, only on Friday through Sunday, and only from 6pm-9pm, through Labor Day.
As you drive on the highways to Livingston Manor, you’ll realize that there are so many breweries in the area, as per the billboards around every corner. Roscoe Beer Company and Catskill Brewery are two that come highly recommended. The next time I visit, I’ll stop by The Prohibition Distillery (10 Union St., Roscoe) in nearby Roscoe that creates its own vodka, gin, and whiskey which you can tour or drop in for a taste in their tasting room or outdoor bar.
Located right on Main Street, this bakery serves up baked treats until they sell out—which they will. At peak season, you can expect lines out the door, with those in-the-know waiting to stock up. There are spinach and feta turnovers, croissants bigger than your hand, but what you really want are the brick-sized apple turnovers to keep for breakfast the next morning. 66 Main St., Livingston Manor
This is where you can stock up on your provisions for the weekend—everything from local honey to dry pasta to bags of snacks are there for purchase. Additionally, they’ve got a solid selection of organic produce and grass-fed meats for the barbecue you may be planning. If you haven’t had your share of trout yet, buy some locally smoked fish from the surrounding streams. Or, if you are looking for pre-made picnic options, there are very delicious sandwiches to go. 36 Main St., Livingston Manor
On a Friday night, everyone in town will seem to be in this small store for the wine tasting, and to stock up for the weekend. Here, you’ll find great small labels represented at various price points. The friendly staff is helpful and will help you sort through to find just the right rose. 34 Main St., Livingston Manor
What to do
You’re really here to do nothing but commune with nature. Fishing for trout is major here, but if you don’t want to spend the day kneedeep in a stream, you could also do some hiking. We spent a few hours hiking a well- marked, less traveled trail from our lodgings at Antrim Streamside to the Beaver Lake Farm, a working farm on their property about an hour away by foot. Trekking through a muddy trail we saw spring peeper frogs, two deer crashing through the brush, a snake and countless birds until we were greeted by a friendly herd of sheep and young lambs at the farm—when the whole herd ran up to us baa-ing as we came out of the wood. Unlike the perfectly groomed trails we are used to, this one felt more like an adventure. There are tons of trails in The Catskill Park, and Morgan Outdoors, located on Main St., would be a good place to gear up, get a hiking suggestion, or sign up for one of their guided hikes. Pro tip 1: Make sure to do a tick check every evening. They were literally falling off of us when we left the woods. Pro Tip 2: If you hike in one direction very far, you will need to hike back that same trail. If you are in the middle of nowhere, there are no Lyfts. (Not that I tried. OK, I did. Just for research though. Really.)
Narrowsburg is a quaint little town a quick drive away that is definitely worth exploring for its unique boutiques owned by a lineup of bold-faced names. The tiny main street holds adorable stores and tiny cafes that you can stop in at lunch. We spent two hours here and saw it all. Start with One Grand Books, a completely curated bookstore owned by journalist and editor Aaron Hicklin (also the editor-in-chief of Out magazine until 2018), which stocks only the 10 books that people would take on a desert island. For instance, one shelf will have Tom Hanks’ picks, one shelf will have Miranda July’s picks, etc. Actors, directors, tech people, chefs, entrepreneurs, and athletes are all represented. It’s an incredibly effective way to stretch your reading chops, and if you’re like me, you’ll want to seriously update your summer reading lists. (Don’t go to the website, unless you want to fall through a recommendation wormhole.)
Then, go next door to Sunny’s Pop, a bright homewares store owned by Sunrise Ruffalo, Mark Ruffalo’s wife. Or duck into Mayer Wasner to be inspired to completely upend your wardrobe for the upstate chic sold here: patchwork skirts, linen sheaths, and an enviable clog collection will vie for your wallet. Then, learn what happens when an ex-Vogue and W magazine Design Director opens a shop full of antique and artisan-made goods: A duo of beautiful boutiques named Nest (one in Narrowsburg and one in Livingston Manor.) This is where you’ll find that hand-knit rug or the perfect woven fruit bowl to bring home as a reminder of your bucolic weekend up north.