There’s a country setting here for practically everyone: densely forested mountains with panoramic views; farmland on the western fringes of the park, where parcels run to the hundreds of acres; bustling historic towns on the banks of the Hudson. While you may not be able to plunge into the ocean before breakfast, you can rock-climb in the Shawangunks, hike up Kaaterskill Falls, bike around the massive reservoirs, or take a dip in your very own spring-fed pond. You can also just sit on your deck with a gin-and-tonic, gazing out at the horizon. As for the bugs, don’t believe lowlander hype: Mayflies are gone by mid-June, and it’s generally too windy in the mountains for mosquitoes.
The best part is, there is no off-season. This is New York ski country, after all.
The Catskills became popular as a summer destination in the early nineteenth century, when New Yorkers looking for fresh air—and Hudson River School painters looking for inspiration—shlepped by boat and coach to Greene County’s first hilltop hotel, the Catskill Mountain House. Still known to many as the Borscht Belt, the area became a haven for immigrant groups in the late nineteenth century, when the Ulster & Delaware railroad line started service from Kingston through Phoenicia and into Delaware and Greene counties. As the visitors became more prosperous, the accommodations grew more lavish: The original Catskill Mountain House grew to 300 rooms, the Grand Hotel in Highmount had 418, and the last of the lot—the Hotel Kaaterskill—had a staggering 800. By the twenties, however, the hotels had fallen into disrepair, and eventually the U&D went out of business. In the post-Depression years, the Catskills became home to countless Dirty Dancing–style bungalow communities. This was the era of old-school stand-up comedians like Henny Youngman, Shecky Greene, and Milton Berle, and family vacations that lasted all summer.
Since the seventies, the region has been in a slump. There have been efforts to revive it, most notably in the eighties, when brokers were pushing the Catskills to the city’s gay community as a sort of Fire Island–in–the–mountains. While this sold a handful of ski houses, the impact on the economy was minimal. Granted, there have always been pockets of serious money in the area, most famously in the exclusive Beaverkill Valley, Laurence Rockefeller’s old trout-fishing preserve between Roscoe and the Pepacton Reservoir, which has now been parceled off to wealthy New Yorkers (Amanda Burden owns in Beaverkill; so does Dan Rather). And, of course, there’s always been money in Woodstock.
Woodstock took off in 1903, when Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and his wife, Jane Byrd McCall, purchased a 1,500-acre area of land near the village, built a handful of humble Arts and Crafts cottages, and created the area’s first artists’ colony. Visitors included Thomas Mann, Isadora Duncan, Helen Hayes, and Bob Dylan, who lived here in the sixties. The original “Byrdcliffe” homes are now the ultimate in rich-hippie chic. Sharon Gannon and David Life, owners of Jivamukti Yoga Center, bought theirs four years ago. “Byrdcliffe is a historical monument,” explains Gannon. “Starbucks can’t come in here, McDonald’s can’t come in here. And,” she says proudly, “we have a satsang.” A satsang? “It’s a Sanskrit term: a community of like-minded people who believe that awakening is possible.”
But many would argue that Woodstock’s already had its awakening: It has gift shops, and fudge shops, and ice-cream parlors, and an organic supermarket; it has the Bear, the area’s “only decent restaurant,” as Lois Freedman, director of operations at Jean Georges, puts it (she has a house in nearby West Saugerties). Two weeks ago, David Bowie picked up a 60-acre mountaintop spread here for a cool $1.2 million—a bargain compared with East Hampton, but far more than most recent converts are willing to pay.
The current invasion kicked off in the mid-nineties, as the East End of Long Island exploded with movie stars, VIP lists, and $30 cover charges. Randy Florke, a former model with Iowa-farm-boy good looks and a fondness for fixer-uppers, set up house in Sullivan County and opened a real-estate agency in the West Village called the Rural Connection. Papered with almost absurdly cheap listings (a $13,000 shack on two acres, for instance), the agency’s windows quickly became something of a spectacle in a neighborhood where would-be renters battle over $2,000-a-month studios. Florke sold to dozens of his Manhattan neighbors, who have colonized the back roads of Jeffersonville and Livingston Manor, opening ever more cute little B&Bs and antiques shops. His average price is now $250,000.
Soon, the influx, though slow to start, was under way, beginning on the park’s southern borders, from High Falls, on the banks of the Hudson, all the way west to Roscoe, and then creeping north to tiny hamlets above the park—places with no fancy stores or restaurants to speak of, but something much more valuable: acreage.
‘We’ve done 95 percent of the work ourselves,” says Michelle Beck of the five-bedroom Roxbury farmhouse she’s decorated with a “Lucky Charms theme—blue moons, yellow diamonds . . . ” Michelle and her husband, George Wieser, a cinematographer, discovered the six-acre property in 1997, on a joyride in their 1969 Chevelle convertible. “We’d stop in farm towns, and just for the kick we’d have Realtors take us to houses,” she recalls. Two months after they discovered Delaware County, they closed on the house for $106,000. “For the first few years, we ran it as a mini-B&B,” says Beck. “Anyone could come up unannounced, and we’d put them to work.”
Most of the steals up here need renovating. When Jill Goldring and Aki Davis were looking, they saw plenty of places with questionable potential, from a cottage in Mount Tremper inhabited by an incontinent pot-bellied pig (the real-estate agent kept saying, “Oh, don’t worry, the smell will come out,” says Goldring, rolling her eyes) to a nineteenth-century farmhouse with an actual stream running through the basement. So when their vintage Porsche wound its way up a long wooded driveway to a wedge-shaped modernist gem overlooking the Pepacton reservoir, Goldring, an advertising executive, and Davis, a photographer, made an offer the same day. “It was completely turnkey,” she remembers. The house came equipped with everything from the Nakashima table and rare Jacobsen light fixtures in the dining area to the vintage flatware in the kitchen drawer. “The owners left us this note saying ‘The sheets are clean and the beds have been made,’ ” says Goldring. “They left the food in the pantry!” And in spite of near-total isolation (they own about 35 acres, and New York City owns practically everything around them, thanks to the watershed), they’re getting to know the neighbors. “We’re having dinner with these people we met in Kingston last summer,” Goldring says, sitting on her deck one hazy country evening. “They’re Porsche people.”
When you consider what many of these newcomers do during the week—they’re artists, journalists, fashion stylists, photographers, architects, advertising executives, and so on—it’s tempting to compare the Catskills to the bohemian pre-L.I.E. Hamptons of the sixties, when Bridgehampton and beyond drew a flock of similarly stylish young artists and writers. And the fact is, many of the hip new arrivals were once Hamptons people. “They used to take it for granted that they would end up with a house in the Hamptons,” says Carmon Deen, a broker at Ron Guichard Realty, who has sold countless homes to newly married young professionals in the past two years. “But then it becomes clear to them that they are not going to end up owning there, and this becomes a viable option.” He pauses and thinks a little longer. “To be honest,” he says slowly, “I’m beginning to wonder how there can be anyone left in Sag Harbor.”
“We spent quite a few summers on Long Island—in Bridgehampton, Shelter Island, one on the North Fork,” says Michelle Sanders, accessories director at Vogue. “Then last summer, we rented in Woodstock. It was definitely more our speed, but it still wasn’t rural enough.” Sanders and her husband, Derek, an architect with Can Resources, eventually moved farther west, landing in a barn on twelve acres just outside Roxbury, which they bought in December for about $150,000, gutted, and are renovating so extensively that they have yet to spend the night in it. Despite its raw form, the 8,000-square-foot structure is already an impressive pastiche of the new and the old, of downtown loft and backwoods barn. “It would be impossible to find something this size in Long Island,” says Michelle.
Anne Slowey, fashion-news director at Elle, doesn’t miss the Hamptons, either. Five years ago, she paid just over $200,000 for a 1926 hunting lodge called, rather appropriately, Windfall. The five-bedroom cottage is on 60 acres outside Roscoe. “When we first started going out to the beach, we’d ride our bikes everywhere and see flocks and flocks of geese flying over the cornfields,” she remembers of the twelve summers she and her husband, architect Rodger Fairey, rented in Southampton. “But then it turned into a boardwalk; it was like Brighton Beach. People were aggressive and rude. It’s like that Joni Mitchell song,” she says. “ ‘They paved Paradise.’ ”