The Catskills Comeback
Updated: Oct 31, 2018
A storied New York vacation destination is going through a rebirth, and demographic changes in Brooklyn are a big part of it.
I was lapping the Kaatskill Flyer at Hunter with my newfound friend, Ben, an Orthodox Jew from Williamsburg with a thick old-world accent, a scraggly maroon beard, and a pair of Atomic skis that looked like they predated the Internet. His friends had returned to the lodge at midday, and Ben was eager to get out for a few more turns before returning home for his graveyard shift at an industrial matzah bakery.
We skied together for the rest of that sunny April afternoon, carving a spring-slush version of powder-eights down each of Hunter’s dynamite-cut frontside trails. Ben told me that he and his buddies typically skied Jersey’s Mountain Creek, which is closer to the city, but they decided this time to take advantage of one of the many new ski bus options to the Catskills in search of bigger, more challenging terrain.
Skiing with Orthodox Jews in the Catskills is hardly novel – the region is an historic epicenter of Jewish recreation – but it occurred to me that Ben the Brooklyn Matzah baker is part of a larger wave of visitors from New York metropolitan area that are helping to contribute to a rebirth of sorts in the region. These ain’t your bubbe’s Catskills.
Struck by hunger on the ride home, I made an après pit stop in Woodstock at Station Bar & Curio, a cozy spot owned and operated by a trio of New York City expats since June 2016. With its local craft brews, artisanal cocktails, and clever, rustic touches like a draft tower constructed from an antique radiator, Station Bar is a significant change of scenery from the old-fashioned watering holes of past decades. But the Catskills are transforming, and it’s significantly tied to changes occurring 140 miles southeast in Brooklyn.
There was a time when The Catskills were one of the top vacation destinations in the United States. Just two hours from the largest metropolitan area in the country, the region was home to the legendary Borscht Belt resorts, more than 500 hotels, and over twenty ski areas. The Catskills were such an important hub for winter sports that, in 1952, they were the site of the first commercial snowmaking installation in the world, at Grossinger’s Resort in Liberty. But the increasing affordability of air travel in the sixties and seventies helped draw more skiers to resorts out west and overseas. Over the next few decades, tourism slowly decayed in the Catskills, and many of its ski areas and summer resorts shut their doors one by one. Where there once were over twenty ski areas, only four remain.
But changes have been coming, and they are unmistakable. Talk to almost anyone in the region and you will hear the same story: Brooklyn is returning to the Catskills. Gentrification in New York’s largest borough has catalyzed business growth in the region thanks to a new supply of customers as well as business owners.
“There has been a tremendous shift in the markets that are being exposed to the Catskills,” says Laszlo Vajtay, President of Plattekill Mountain Resort. “We are seeing more young professionals and young married couples from New York City visiting the region, and many of them are coming up from Brooklyn.” Indeed, new development in the Catskills is significantly on the rise, largely thanks to the region’s resurgent popularity with city dwellers.
The gentrification of Brooklyn that has helped fuel this new stream of clients for the Catskills resorts has also increased cost of living expenses, leading to a mass expatriation of younger families in search greener pastures in the Catskills and upper Hudson Valley.
These urban expats have answered the rising demand for lodging and dining in the Catskills with a bevy of great new hotels, bars and restaurants that share an unmistakable Brooklyn sensibility. Neo-rustic boutique hotels, like Scribner’s Catskill Lodge and The Eastwind Hotel and Bar, have opened within shouting distance of ski resorts, and dozens of new AirBnB listings have popped up around the region. Retro-chic restaurants, like The Phoenicia Diner and the Jagerberg Beer Hall and Tavern, cater to the epicurean palates of the new urban clientele while paying homage the region’s historic roots.
“The Catskills are the new Hamptons,” says Becky Pine, Windham Mountain Resort’s Communications Manager, referring to the resurgence of the Catskills as a trendy destination among young singles and families visiting from The City. Her sentiments are echoed by a 2018 report from Empire State Development, whose data illustrates a sharp rise in tourism in the region in recent years. Greene County for example, home to Windham and Hunter, has seen 12.3% growth in visitor spending since 2015. Winter tourism is booming thanks to a combination of easy accessibility (there are multiple outfits running buses to resorts from the city, including Urban Sherpa and OvrRide, that pick up from multiple locations in New York City) and the expansion to new regions and demographics thanks to new marketing efforts and multi-mountain passes, such as the Peak Pass.
The growth in tourism has set in motion an arms race among the Catskills ski resorts, each aiming to capture new clients with upgraded lifts, terrain expansion, snowmaking improvements and more. “This is the most dynamic time at Hunter in decades,” says Daniel Kenney, Hunter’s PR and Communications Manager. “I started skiing here twenty years ago. The natural beauty hasn’t faded, but the community has come a long way. We’ve seen an increase in visits and many new businesses are opening.” Hunter will look to attract more beginners, intermediates and tree-skiers with their new Hunter North expansion, set to open this winter with eighty new acres of trails and glades accessed by the resort’s second high-speed six-person chair. Hunter North’s trails and glades have been named after historic Catskills events and characters, and all five pistes will have complete snowmaking coverage.
Last season, Belleayre opened the Catskills’ first ever gondola, allowing patrons to access the resort’s full 1,400-foot vertical via a single lift. “The Catskill Thunder lift has improved our uphill capacity by 2,000 skiers per hour,” says the resort’s Marketing Manager, Joe McCracken. “It’s had a significant impact on the dynamics of skier traffic.” Belleayre has continued to make improvements ahead of the coming season with the addition of over fifty high-efficiency snow guns, a new medical building, upgraded terrain parks, upgrades to the Overlook Lodge and regraded terrain aimed at improving skier safety. The New York Ski Education Foundation (NYSEF) will also extend their race-training and freeride programming to Belleayre this season.
Not to be outdone, Windham has cut several new trails over the past few years into the “Wilderness Bowl,” which lies between the resort’s two peaks, and this year they will become the second resort in the Catskills to feature a high-speed six-person lift. Windham will also be introducing an RFID ticketing system – the first in New York - as well as improvements to snowmaking (over 100 new high-efficiency snow guns) and an upgraded snowcat.
The oft-overlooked Plattekill, located slightly further west in Roxbury, has long been spoken of in hushed tones by its most faithful supporters; a hardy bunch of diehard skiers who want to keep this soulful, no-frills resort from losing its old-fashioned charm. “We have always been the to go-to place to avoid crowds,” says Laszlo Vajtay. “People have purposefully kept Plattekill a secret.” This well-kept secret got out last year, though, when the biggest of last March’s storms knocked out power at the area’s other resorts, steering stranded powder-seekers to what, for many of them, had been a previously undiscovered ski area. Plattekill continues to make improvements this year as well, with upgrades to their snow gun system that Vajtay estimates will double the efficiency of their snowmaking. The installation of a new transformer will also provide the resort with more reliable energy and the opportunity to make future expansions to snowmaking and lifts.
While some resorts have struggled in the face of the industry’s challenges, including progressively warming temperatures and industry consolidation, the Catskills are thriving thanks to their accessibility to the New York City metro area and continuing improvements to its industry-leading snowmaking capacity (an essential feature given the resorts’ relatively low elevation and southerly locations). Millions have been poured into infrastructure development and expansion, and resort and business owners in the Catskills all share a common, optimistic outlook for the region in the foreseeable future. Whether it’s the mountain-town locals or the transplants making the trek from Brooklyn, the region has a faithful and expanding base of both new business owners and new clientele.
“Skiing is becoming sexy again,” says Vajtay, “and it’s happening here in the Catskills.”
WHERE TO SKI
Windham Mountain - Windham, NY - www.windhammountain.com
Hunter Mountain - Hunter, NY - www.huntermtn.com
Plattekill Mountain - Roxbury, NY - www.plattekill.com
Belleayre Mountain - Highmount, NY - www.belleayre.com
WHERE TO STAY
Scribner's Catskill Lodge - Hunter, NY - www.scribnerslodge.com
Eastwind Hotel and Bar - Windham, NY - www.eastwindny.com
Mountain Brook - Tannersville, NY - www.hotelmountainbrook.com
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
The Station Bar and Curio - Woodstock, NY - www.stationbarandcurio.com
Jagerberg Beer Hall and Tavern - Hunter, NY - www.jagerberghall.com
West Kill Brewing - West Kill, NY - www.westkillbrewing.com