Golf, tennis, swimming in the lake. Head for the hills for an urbane take on backcountry life.
If you ever get invited to stay at a friend's weekend home in the Poconos, whatever you do, don't make jokes about honeymoon suites and heart-shaped tubs. "That is so much baloney!" says real-estate broker Virginia Hood. "When people find Buck Hill Falls and Skytop, they see the Poconos are an entirely different place." Those areas, along with Pocono Farms and Lake Naomi, are country-club communities with untouched woodlands, golf courses, tennis courts, and private lakes. And though these secluded hamlets certainly contrast with the region's nascar raceways and paint-ball parks, they don't quite attain Hamptons-like levels of pretension, either. The social scene revolves around tennis and golf, and vacationers tend to be families with young children. "You've got the usual gamut of Upper East Siders, lawyers, investment bankers, and retail-shop owners," says one Brooklyn Heights mother who's been bringing her three children to Buck Hill Falls for ten years. "But people who need a glitzy nightlife would be quite unhappy here. It's like camp for the whole family." New Yorkers with second homes in the region -- many of whose families have been summering in the Poconos for generations -- are more apt to attend a meeting for the local arts association than a cocktail party, and whatever their profession, they're treated like small-town neighbors. "You don't have to worry about people finding out what you did last night," Hood says, "because they already know."
FAMILIAR FACES Todd Oldham, Michael Strahan, Phil Woods, Paul Sorvino, and the Phipps family have homes in the region.
HOT TOPIC On the rare occasion when the conversation veers from golf handicaps and backhands, Poconos vacationers are most concerned with how to preserve the region's woodlands. Though land within the resort communities is protected -- and many have already reached 90 percent of building capacity -- surrounding forests have been razed and developed with tract houses and cookie-cutter mansions.
TRAVEL TIME The Skytop Lodge is 97 miles by car from midtown Manhattan. Bus service is available through Martz Trailways from Port Authority to Mount Pocono (570-839-7611) and takes approximately two hours.
THINGS TO DO Country clubs and resorts offer music and dancing every weekend, but the summer crowd would sooner pass the evening with a gourmet meal at the Pump House Inn in Canadensis (570-595-7501) or at the Homestead Inn in Cresco (570-595-3171). Manhattanites flock to the Cook's Touch in Mountainhome (570-595-3599) for American cuisine and squelch Nobu cravings at the Tokyo Tea House, which is tucked away in a strip mall in Pocono Summit (570-839-8880).
NICE PLACES TO VISIT Test the waters by staying at one of the Poconos' many cozy B&Bs -- like the Crescent Lodge Country Inn in Paradise Valley (800-392-9400, doubles start at $120) or the Pine Knob Inn in Canadensis (800-426-1460, doubles start at $168). The stately and elegant Skytop Lodge (800-345-7759, doubles start at $445) provides the full country-club experience.
REALTORS Virginia Hood Real Estate (570-595-9000) specializes in Barrett Township; Kathy Louis Real Estate (570-839-3347) serves Pocono Farms and Lake Naomi.
ENTRY PRICE Lake Naomi rentals run from $800 to $3,000 a week for a lakefront home, while Buck Hill Falls townhouses rent for $4,000 a month. Pocono Farms has cozy, wooded ranch-style cabins for sale for $85,000 to $200,000, and the average Lake Naomi sale last year was $177,000 for an older home on a small lot; houses on the lake go for up to $700,000. Townhouses at Skytop start at $300,000, and empty lakefront lots average $350,000, with larger property costing up to $1.2 million. Historic homes in Buck Hill Falls start at $200,000 and top off around $1 million.
See the Upper West Side liberal in his "natural" habitat in this Arcadian patch of the Hudson Valley.
A weekend in Columbia County isn't about proximity to New York's rich and famous, it's about distance from them. "I can't see anyone else from my property, and no one can see me, and I love it!" says lawyer Ernest Rubenstein. "We don't get that fast-lane 'look how much money I have' clientele up here," agrees local broker Andrea Gabel. "People just want to come up and have a barbecue and go for a swim in their pond -- they don't want to have to worry about their dinner reservations." The weekend population consists largely of writers, artists, teachers, and editors -- and the occasional lawyer. "There's a very different type of character here than what you'd find in the Hamptons," says filmmaker Sedat Pakay, who moved with his wife to Columbia County from New York City in 1988. "I would say it's a more intellectual crowd."
FAMILIAR FACES The Columbia County intelligentsia: poet John Ashbery, Donald Westlake, Ellsworth Kelly, William Wegman, photographer and musician Christian Steiner, sculptor George Ricky, Victor Navasky, Tatum O'Neal, and filmmaking team Merchant and Ivory, who have weekended in the area for more than 25 years. "I do quite a bit of cooking here," says Ismail Merchant. "I'm an excellent chef."
HOT TOPICS The same Upper West Siders who pack community-board meetings in the city spend their weekends in Columbia County, so it's no surprise that socializing here often takes the form of community protest. "Friends of" groups opposing virtually any commercial development abound. A few of their least favorite things: the Lebanon Valley Speedway -- a dragway beloved by some locals -- and a proposed cement plant in Greenport.
TRAVEL TIME Getting there actually is half the fun. "Once you're on the highway, the trip is just beautiful the whole way up," says Ila Lane Gross, who has been weekending in Chatham since 1973. The drive up the Taconic is about two and a half hours from the city. The Amtrak train ride to Hudson is two hours (1-800-usa-rail).
THINGS TO DO Hudson has become a center for antique dealers and collectors, with more than 65 high-end shops along its main street. Historic sites include beautiful Mount Lebanon Shaker Village and the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, and Olana, the Frederic Church estate in Greenport. Christian Steiner's wonderful Tannery Pond concert series at the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village is a low-key alternative to Tanglewood, and the Spencertown Academy offers a range of top-notch performing-arts events. For dinner, locals head to the Blue Plate Restaurant in Chatham (518-392-7711), The Red Dot (518-828-3657), and the Charleston (518-828-4990) in Hudson; and Mario's (518-794-9495) in New Lebanon.
NICE PLACES TO VISIT The Inn at Silver Maple Farm bed-and-breakfast in Canaan is a beautifully converted post-and-beam barn with homey rooms and suites (518-781-3600, doubles start at $140). The Inn at Green River Bed & Breakfast in Hillsdale is a 1830 Federal-style house with seven guest rooms (518-325-7248, doubles start at $110).
RECOMMENDED REALTORS Andrea Gabel, Gabel Real Estate, in Spencertown, 518-392-4975. Frances Schools, Old Ghent Realty, in Ghent, 518-392-2480.
ENTRY PRICE Most houses with five to ten acres of land run about $250,000 to $500,000, but houses with larger parcels of land can top $1 million, particularly if they offer a trout stream or a pond. A summer rental from Memorial Day through Labor Day generally costs around $9,000, although rental prices can run as high as $30,000 for truly magnificent estates.
SIGNS OF THE TIMES The long-depressed city of Hudson is undergoing a renaissance, with thriving antiques businesses, a revived economy, and, most recently, a significant artistic community. Last year, internationally renowned concert pianists Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther purchased an old bank on Warren Street and converted it into a 300-seat concert hall. "They've spent the last few decades traveling all over Europe and the United States," says Joe Ahern, executive director of the Columbia County Council on the Arts. "They could live anywhere and perform anywhere, but they chose Hudson."