Photos by Liz Barclay (@liz_barclay)
It’s summer, it’s hot, and you need an escape from the city. You also need a shake up from the traditional migration to Long Island’s shores or the artsy enclaves that dot the Hudson River Valley. Our advice: Go vintage. In the mid-20th century, the Catskills (or Borscht Belt) regularly welcomed New Yorkers in search of clean air and lush landscapes. The resorts that sprang up in the region—including the famed Kutsher’s, which is today memorialized by a modern Jewish restaurant in Tribeca—helped launch the careers of comedians like Jack Benny, Rodney Dangerfield, and Joan Rivers. Today, the region’s lost the bustle of these salad days, but it hasn’t lost its powerful charm. And while you might not get to enjoy Jackie Mason’s schtick, there’s enough hiking, tubing, and other adventures to ensure you create your own laughs.
The picturesque town of Phoenicia is a short three hour bus ride away from NYC, and it offers a mix of outdoor activities and quirky restaurants ideal for city slickers who like to get out into the countryside without giving up too many creature comforts. The town, which is nestled in the Catskills, is gorgeous, green, and eminently likeable—no wonder it was ranked one of the “10 Coolest Small Towns in America” by Budget Travel Magazine in 2011. Think of it as a tastier alternative to nearby Woodstock—similarly offbeat and artsy, but with better food.
The following itinerary can be completed in one day, but you should really give yourself a whole weekend to bike around town, lay by the pool at the Brooklynized Graham & Co., and most importantly, sample some of the local fare.
What you’ll need:
- Hiking shoes.
- Bathing suit.
- Your appetite.
1. TAKE THE SCENIC ROUTE
If you have a car (or rent one), enjoy blasting Yeezus while taking a leisurely cruise through the Catskills (the drive takes a little over two hours). However, it’s an easy trip without a whip: Just catch the Adirondack Trailways bus at Penn Station ($64.50 roundtrip; five daily departures), which will bring you straight to Phoenicia’s main drag in less than three hours. The woodsy scenery out the bus window is mesmerizing; the ride up alone is enough to melt away all your city-induced stress.
2. ONE STOP PIZZA AND MEXICAN: BRIO’S PIZZERIA/SPORTSMAN’S ALAMO & CANTINA
Brio’s Pizzeria & Restaurant opened in 1973, and has been serving the ultimate breakfast and pizza to locals and visitors ever since. Mike Ricciardella opened Brio’s at the young age of 18, and he created a long lasting legacy in the small town. A few years later, Mike opened Sportsman’s Alamo Cantina, a Mexican restaurant inspired by his Oaxacan kitchen staff and head chef Julio. Mike bought the space adjacent to Brio’s, and low-and-behold, The Alamo was born, showcasing authentic dishes ranging from beef tongue tacos, omelets with maduros, and chicken with mole.
In the kitchen, Mike and his cooks hand-shape meatballs, simmer chorizo sauce, grill pancakes on the flattop and burgers on the grill. Up front, Mike’s nephew hand-tosses the pizzas and cooks them in a wood-fired oven. A trademark of Brio’s pizzas are the sesame seeds that adorn the crust. “We just decide to give it that extra touch,” Mike explains. Besides pizza, Brio’s offers fried meatballs drowned in a bright red tomato sauce, and an eggplant parm sandwich served on house-baked Asiago bread. The Margherita pizza is outstanding—a shining example of how Brio’s has mastered the simplicity and precision of Italian classics. brios.net, alamocantina.com
3. PANCAKES: SWEET SUE’S
This low-key, cozy breakfast café is famous for its pancakes, which come in upwards of 20 varieties. Favorites include the Red Monkey (with strawberries and bananas), Blue Monkey (blueberries and bananas), Hawaiian (pineapple and coconut), lemon-ricotta, and chocolate chip. You can get your pancakes made with whole grain or buckwheat—but those in the know order the cornmeal pancakes, which are sweet and reminiscent of fluffy cornbread. Owner Sue Oakley-Taylor’s breakfast burritos are also a hit—gargantuan wraps stuffed with eggs, chorizo, beans, and fresh avocado. Why does this town do Mexican so surprisingly well? tripadvisor.com
4. WHERE TO STAY: THE GRAHAM & CO.
This traditional motel-turned-aesthetically-pleasing-hipster-haven, designed by Amanda Bupp, Bianca Barattini, Jason Gnewikow, and Jeff Madalena (owner of the superb NYC clothing boutique, Oak), is a five-minute walk from Phoenicia’s main street. A staff member will cheerfully hand you a Budweiser upon check in and show you to your room, which is decked out in animal fur rugs, hanging Edison bulbs, and rustic wood furniture. The pool is blissful—its water sourced from a spring on the property—and we wouldn’t judge if you spent your entire weekend tanning next to it. But do take advantage of the hotel’s complimentary bikes and breakfast—coffee, local fruit, muffins, and orange juice are put out everyday Saturday and Sunday at 8am. The Graham & Co. has four different room types, with rates starting at $165 per night. thegrahamandco.com
5. WHERE TO TUBE: F & S ADVENTURES TUBE RENTAL
F&S offers a basic tubing package that includes tube, life jacket, and a free tube taxi ride to Esopus Creek for $20. So lay back and float down the creek, possibly with a six pack of Coronas by your side. If you’re not all that into tubing, the nearby town of Hunter offers spectacular miniature golf and a lighted driving range at Bear Creek Landing. And if theater’s more your thing, go see a show at Phoenicia’s Shandaken Theatrical Society. F&S Adventures Tube Rental
6. ICE CREAM: MAMA’S BOY MARKET
Mama’s Boy sells the best ice cream—and more specifically, the best chai ice cream—in town. The frozen chai treat is spicy like good Indian masala chai. The shop also sells muffins and pies, coffee, pulled pork sliders, mac and cheese, quiches, and tamales made with local ingredients. Enjoy your coffee, ice cream, or lunch out on the covered terrace. mamasboymarket.com