Destinations

The Catskills: The Former Borscht Belt Region With a Farm-to-Table Focus

By
Melanie Wynne
|
Freelancer
February 23, 2021
|
5 min read

So fresh and so green, green

Catskills from above.

A 2 ½-hour escape from New York City, the peaceful Catskills region meanders among five of upstate New York’s most laid-back, rural, and idyllic counties: Delaware, Greene, Ulster, Sullivan, and Schoharie. 

Natural beauty is one of the Catskills’ biggest draws, with an accent on big; 700,000 acres of preserved forest land and hiking trails unfurl throughout the Catskills Mountains, studded with 98 peaks over 3,000ft, carved with cliffs and caves, and sluiced by epic cascades like the 260-foot Kaaterskill Falls (one of the highest waterfalls in New York). 

This illustrated Catskills map will help you get your bearings, as will this gorgeous aerial tour of the Catskills

Land of the Lenape

The Catskills were originally settled by part of the Lenape tribe of Native Americans, a sub-tribe sometimes called the Esopus, or more commonly the Munsee. 

In the early 1600s, Munsee land was in great demand from Manhattan-based Dutch farmers and merchants seeking country homesteads. By the 1720s, the steady and often violent persistence of these early colonists forced the Munsee to seek refuge in the Midwest, where they are now known as the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe. 

Though the region now has a Dutch name (Catskills means “Cat Creek” in Dutch) and the Munsee are no longer physically in the Catskills, you can still learn about their history and artifacts at the Congressman Maurice D. Hinchey Catskills Interpretive Center in Mount Tremper.

Meanwhile, well-preserved evidence of the Catskills’ early European colonists can still be found in sturdy stone, brick and wooden buildings like the 17th-century Dutch Colonial Bronck Museum in Greene County, and throughout Ulster County cities and towns like Kingston and Stone Ridge. 

So peaceful, you could nap for 20 years 

mountains in the Catskills.

In the Catskills, deep post-glacial ravines are known as cloves, and they were made famous by Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, the fable of an old Dutch-American man who settled into one for a nap—and slept right through the American Revolutionary War. 

Though New York-born Irving wrote his 1819 short story before he’d ever visited the Catskills, his vivid descriptions of its craggy mountains and deep forests made a lasting impression on 19th-century travelers—and still ring true for any visitor.  

In Greene County, just outside the town of Palenville, a roughly two-mile moderate trail takes hikers around Kaaterskill Clove. In Hunter, explore the waterfalls and trails of the 208-acre Platte Clove Preserve

Picturing a whole new landscape

Kaaterskill Falls.

Landscape painter Thomas Cole founded America’s first official art movement in the Catskills in the mid-19th century. With his Hudson River School style of painting, he and artists like Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford (two of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC) celebrated the lush scenery of the Catskills in huge paintings. 

The Hudson River School Art Trail connects the real locations, like Kaaterskill Falls and Catskill Creek, that inspired these museum-worthy works. You can also take a virtual tour of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site to see the artist’s home and studio.

Did you hear the one about the Borscht Belt?

In 1919, Grossinger’s Resort opened its doors to Jewish families—unwelcome in many other US vacation spots due to anti-Semitism—and kicked off four decades of Jewish summer vacations in the Catskills. 

By the 1950s, Jewish comedians like Sid Caesar, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, and Jerry Lewis were honing their craft at hundreds of “Borscht Belt” resorts throughout Sullivan and Ulster counties. These large resorts were mini communities of their own, with their own theater stages, and sometimes even their own markets and post offices.

Amazon TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and movies like Dirty Dancing and A Walk on the Moon depict fictional Catskills resorts, but the stories and images in Tania Grossinger’s Growing Up at Grossinger’s, Marisa Scheinfeld’s The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, and the documentary Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last American Resort better illustrate this bygone era.  

Groovy, man

classic WV vans.

In the mid-1960s, counterculture groups began flocking to the Catskills for its cheap land and, shall we say, permissive attitudes, giving rise to communes, farm collectives, and spiritual retreats. 

The Catskills’ hippie pinnacle was the three-day Woodstock Festival, which was held in August 1969. Confusingly, it was held <i>not</i> in the nearby village of Woodstock, as the organizers couldn’t find a suitable site there. 

While it was actually held in the town of Bethel on Max Yasgur’s farm (now the site of the prestigious Bethel Woods Center for the Arts), the town of Woodstock itself still has a strong cultural connection to the festival with a “peace and love” vibe and frequent drum circles on the village green. 

Sullivan County marked the festival’s 50th anniversary in 2019 with an interactive Dove Trail Map of 50 different peace dove sculptures—based on the festival’s original logo—that have been hand-painted by local artists. At that same time, Netflix debuted the documentary, Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, which is still available to stream. 

A taste of the Catskills

The Catskills remain an important agricultural area. Small family farms have become an increasingly hot regional commodity, and popular crops include apples, buckwheat, and goat milk products, as well as Munsee staples like heirloom corn and maple syrup. The region’s exceptionally clear water provides drinking water as far away as NYC. 

The Upstate New York Breakfast Kit from Fly Creek Cider Mill & Orchard will give you a well-rounded taste of the Catskills, or you can satisfy your sweet tooth with maple candy from Maplewood Farm & Orchard and goat milk fudge from Abba’s Acres

The Catskills Farm to Table Cookbook by Catskills photographer/graphic designer/farmer/chef Courtney Wade, explores the region’s sprawling range of produce and game. Featuring recipes from regional purveyors like Greene County’s Crystal Valley dairy farm and Delaware County’s CSA-sourced Bull & Garland gastropub, Wade incorporates foraged finds like the blackberries, ramps, nettles, and fiddleheads that locals go searching for in the spring, summer, and fall.   

From farm to glass 

Farming, foraging, and local water are common threads in Catskills booze-making, too. 

The region’s many apple orchards supply cideries like Scrumpy Ewe,  Awestruck Ciders, and Bad Seed that spin liquid gold from their crops (and offer shipping outside of New York). Wayside Cider’s mildly spicy Half Wild and Aaron Burr Cider’s Homestead Locational Ciders are made from locally harvested wild apples that originally fed the Munsee. 

Several regional craft breweries, such as West Kill Brewing and Arrowood Farm Brewery, are set on farms that supply them with hops, fruit, honey, and herbs. 

Catskills micro-distillers continue a tradition that dates back to the first European settlers but wasn’t made legal ‘til 2013, with the passage of the New York State Farm Distillery Bill. Catskill Distilling Company focuses on whiskey and bourbon, while Weathertop Farm forages for its own switchels, shrubs, and bitters and Delaware Phoenix Distillery creates three kinds of absinthe from its own herbs. 

Scenic highways and byways

Catskills Scenic Byway.

The Catskills are scenic byway heaven. The 52-mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway (Route 28) wends through Ulster and Delaware counties, between the region’s eastern and western gateways. And the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway (Route 97), taglined as the “Most Scenic Highway in the East,” cuts through roughly 70 miles’ worth of Sullivan and Delaware counties’ forest preserves, mountain parks, and hiking trails.  

The routes are lovely any time of year, but particularly beautiful in autumn when the Catskills put on a great show of fall foliage from local trees like red and chestnut oaks, eastern hemlock, and red maple. The region generally receives far fewer seasonal visitors than New England and peak autumn foliage here coincides with the apple picking season, in late September to early October. 

You can virtually experience the glory of Route 28 by relaxing with a hard cider, opening this map, and firing up these audio guides.

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Last Updated 
February 23, 2021
The Catskills: The Former Borscht Belt Region With a Farm-to-Table Focus
Melanie Wynne
Freelancer

Melanie grew up on the East Coast, and after many years away, moved to DC's Capitol Hill in 2015. She now lives in California wine country, but still loves DC and pines for the lush forests and farms of upstate New York.

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