At 6 Catskills resorts: Retro design, modern comfort and games, lots of games

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At 6 Catskills resorts: Retro design, modern comfort and games, lots of games
15 free-standing Scandinavian-inspired cabins at Eastwind Oliverea Valley in Big Indian, N.Y., April 27, 2023. Lodgings in this bucolic region north of New York City are targeting a new generation of visitors with organized “experiences,” nostalgic style elements and serious cocktails. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

by Amy Thomas

NEW YORK, NY.- Picture yourself on a sojourn in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Would your preferred game be Pac-Man, pickleball or backgammon? The answer could determine where you stay. Then again, with the variety of games on hand at nearly every one of the Catskills’ newest wave of stylish resorts, there should be more than one option that tickles your fancy.

The influence of New York City, Brooklyn in particular, has been palpable in the Catskills — about 100 miles northwest of the metro area — for years. About a decade ago, indie hotels such as the Graham & Co. in Phoenicia and Foxfire Mountain House in Mount Tremper imported urban cool to the country with their Moroccan poufs, Tivoli radios and linen bedding. When Scribner’s Catskill Lodge debuted in 2016, its loftlike rooms and farm-to-table restaurant cemented Brooklyn’s presence.

But the Catskills’ legacy as a resort destination extends much further back. It was where one of the country’s earliest resorts, the Catskill Mountain House, made its home in 1824, followed by hundreds of others. A resurgence swept the area from the 1920s through the ’60s, when it became known as the borscht belt, owing to the number of sprawling hotels there that attracted members of New York’s Jewish community.

Now, once again, there’s an influx of new inns. While many are attracting families, others are targeting a younger audience drawn to a contemporary aesthetic that also evokes earlier eras, and curated travel “experiences.”

Those experiences might involve, in the winter, a “sled menu” of five different sled types that you can take to the local hills, as Hotel Lilien in Tannersville offers. In warmer months, visitors at the new Eastwind Oliverea Valley can take guided walks to forage for spruce, then sit at the bar and taste its infusion in a handcrafted cocktail. And there are so many games — from Scrabble to shuffleboard — at these new hotels that you’ll want to make sure you don’t miss out on the epic fly fishing, rock climbing and hiking the Catskills are known for.

“The Catskills were always great,” said John Flannigan, founder and CEO of Wylder Hotels, which opened the Wylder Windham in 2022, noting that the Hamptons and Jersey Shore have gotten too pricey and traffic-clogged. The situation, he said, “kind of naturally created a renaissance in the Catskills.”

A renaissance that has excited many and left others wary.

“There are pressure points,” said Lisa Berger, director of Ulster County Tourism, pointing to increasingly crowded trails, inadequate parking and “people traipsing through people’s backyards because a stream runs through it.” The influx of visitors has required a new approach in some spots. For instance, reservations are now required to visit Sam’s Point, a popular lookout point in Minnewaska State Park, in the neighboring Shawangunk Mountains.

The new resorts, for their part, often refurbish existing properties, which means a lighter footprint. Here are six to explore.

Hotel Lilien, in Tannersville

In the 1890s, Dr. Frederick Lilienthal built a summer home in Tannersville, a charming village in Greene County near Hunter Mountain. It went on to be converted to an inn, and by the 1970s, it was a huge party spot — “a total animal house,” in the words of David Harmatz, one of the founders of Lost Boys Hospitality Group, which bought the property and opened Hotel Lilien in late 2022.

There’s no whiff of frat vibes in the 18-room property now (except maybe the lounge’s pool table and vintage jukebox). The California-based design group Field Theory respected the inn’s original architecture and decorated with items found mostly at auctions and estate sales, drawing from a melange of midcentury, Japanese and West Coast influences. No two rooms are alike. An original octagonal room features a full-size bed, a vintage desk and wood-paneled walls, while a spacious king room has a rattan headboard and a leather chair. The first-floor lounge mixes even more materials for a layered eclecticism and has a bar and plenty of seating that welcomes the hang.

“We had someone recently call us ‘the living room of Tannersville,’” Harmatz said. As the weather warms up, the mingling promises to move outside to the oversize pool and requisite fire pits.

Doubles from $270 a night.

Wylder Windham, in Windham

For most of its 143 years, the Thompson House Resort in Windham was run by the same family. When John Flannigan of Wylder Hotels bought it in 2021, he saw its future as much as its past. “The vision,” he said, “was to restore it back to what its original look was.”

The 20-acre property is home to seven lodges that, together, make up 110 rooms. Wylder cut back trees and shrubbery so the buildings’ restored Victorian architecture could be appreciated. Then, working with design firm Post Company, transformed the interiors, particularly the main lodge, adding a restaurant, a bakery and a lounge with various pockets for reading, relaxing and, of course, playing games.

“It’s not meant to be fussy or design-y,” Flannigan said. The rooms — from “cozy” queens to suites to an entire four-bedroom farmhouse — feel bright and fresh with crisp navy quilts and wide plank oak floors. Eighty-two rooms also have oversize balconies to bring the outdoors in. And yet the outside keeps calling: The grounds, through which the Batavia Kill flows, include a heated swimming pool, pickleball and other lawn games.

Doubles from $325 a night.

Kenoza Hall, in Kenoza Lake

It would be tough to find hoteliers who know the region better than local couple Sims and Kirsten Harlow Foster. Since 2014, they have steadily been introducing inns across a southern pocket of the Catskills.

The newest, Kenoza Hall, was born from one of the last remaining 20th century boardinghouses in Sullivan County that hadn’t been razed: the Armbrust House.

“We let it be what it wanted to be — which was an old Victorian hotel,” Sims Foster said of the property’s grand presence. The main inn has 22 rooms, a couple of parlors, and a bar and restaurant, decorated with vintage Catskills photos and cozy velvet seats and couches. A large front porch and terrace overlooks Lake Kenoza. In June, they added 10 bungalows, a nod to the region’s bungalow colonies from the 1950s. Each has a private porch, oversize tub, gas stove and custom furnishings, such as modern fainting couches and sectional sofas. Even the walk along the wandering paths to reach the bungalows — which are perched above the main house, near the heated pool, spa and trailheads — can feel like an escape.

Doubles from $349 a night.

Bluebird Hunter Lodge, in Hunter

When Rob Blood, founder of Lark Hotels, was growing up in the ’80s, he remembers being in the car with his parents, hearing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Band on the radio. This is the vibe he tapped into when considering Bluebird Hunter Lodge’s atmosphere.

“We were imagining ourselves sitting around a fire with this playlist in the background, and what are the elements we want surrounding us?” he said. The answer was plaid throws, leather couches and an old turntable with vinyl crackling through a speaker. The kind of space like the lodge’s alpine lounge, tricked out with fishing gear, landscape paintings and local artifacts scavenged from nearby antique stores. Then there’s the tavern, with its cathedral ceiling, stone fireplace and menu with local beers. All of it was designed by Blood and his wife, Megan Kennedy, as part of Lark’s design studio, Elder & Ash.

The couple’s family — they have three children — inspired them to go big on the rooms. Some feature double queen bunk beds, others open up onto the back lawn with mountain views, and adjoining bi-level king-size suites can be combined to accommodate 10 people.

Doubles from $169 a night.

Eastwind Oliverea Valley, in Big Indian

Five years after starting Eastwind Hotels with a 26-room property in Windham, Bjorn Boyer, Julija Stoliarova and Dan Cipriani opened another Catskills resort in January: Eastwind Oliverea Valley.

While the Windham property took over an old motel, they started from scratch in the new location, building 15 Lushnas — free-standing Scandinavian-inspired cabins — in a secluded hollow along the Esopus Creek in Ulster County, along with 12 other guest rooms. A dramatic pitched-roof structure housing a restaurant and bar, named Dandelion, anchors the property. It is communal space such as this that is central to the Eastwind experience.

“We try to program the space so that guests get to know each other and get to be around each other,” Boyer said. That means turning over the restaurant to a candle-making workshop in off-hours and offering yoga beneath the building’s eaves.

Aesthetically, the partners are also keen to be welcoming, creating coziness through minimalistic but homey furnishings. The A-frame cabins feature queen beds, vintage lighting and decor, and Turkish carpets. “I was determined to find pieces that stand out, are comfortable and have a story about where they came from,” Stoliarova said. “They are one of a kind in my eye.”

Doubles from $279 a night; double Lushnas from $499 a night.

Camptown Catskills, in Leeds

Although many of the area resorts being renovated date to the 1800s, the roadside Rip Van Winkle Motor Lodge was very much a relic of the 1930s before Ray Pirkle and Kim Bucci of Ramshackle Studio transformed it. Along with Mountain Shore Properties, the duo, also responsible for the Rivertown Lodge in Hudson, New York, took on the hotel, built and maintained by the same family for eight decades, and simultaneously restored it to its earlier condition and modernized it with custom furniture and amenities.

The new Camptown offers 24 guest rooms in the main lodge and 26 log cabins scattered across 22 acres. Each is uniquely designed and decorated, some with wooden-spindle bed frames, others with Shaker-style nook beds; all keep the rustic knotty-pine walls.

“Our goal was to infuse modern Shaker elements without scrubbing away the sense of history,” Bucci said. In the main lodge, which also houses Casa Susanna, a Mexican restaurant, they converted the former dance hall into the lobby, sanding the floors back to their original state and restoring a grand stone fireplace, which is flanked by couches and a library table. Come summer, the property’s Swim Club will open, providing access to the pool, cabanas and an outdoor bar.

Doubles from $209 a night; cabins from $299.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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