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Explore the Catskills three ways: for families, for outdoors activity, for shopping

Phoenicia, Tannersville, Narrowsburg and Hancock offer summertime pleasures for every kind of vacationer

A kayaker paddles on the Esopus Creek.

A kayaker paddles on the Esopus Creek. Photo Credit: Alamy /H. Mark Weidman

Gone are your grandparents’ Catskills. "Dirty Dancing"-style summer bungalow communities have been replaced by small-batch breweries and high-priced “bed and bars” across this swath of land bordered by the Hudson River to the east and the Pennsylvania border to the west.

The namesake 700,000-acre forest preserve at its heart remains, however, and deals can still be found, especially for savvy shoppers and families looking for outdoor adventures involving rail-to-trail hikes and swimming holes. Plus, the Sunday drive home will take you less time than a trip out east to the beach.

Catskills for Families: Phoenicia

People come from far and wide for the Phoenicia Diner (5681 Rte. 28, Phoenicia; 845-688-9957, phoeniciadiner.com) and its skillets (the Grits & Greens Skillet and the Corned Beef Skillet are favorites), but Phoenicia has so much more to offer, especially for families. This small town is uniquely positioned between stately Mt. Tremper and the pristine Esopus River, making it the perfect home base for weekend exploring.

The Glass Mountain Inn (108-110 Rte. 214, Phoenicia; 845-688-3331, glassmountaininn.com) offers three family-friendly accommodation options, ranging from two-bedroom apartments to a private guest cottage with piano, smart TV (Netflix, Hulu, etc.), library, card games and more. The Bailey family has outfitted the grounds with fire pits, grills, picnic tables, and lawn games, as well as a playground for small ones. (Prices start at $112 a night, or rent the entire place to fit 14.)

The Inn is across the street from the Stony Clove Creek hiking trail and walking distance from Mt. Tremper, perfect for day hikes. Want to get wet on a hot day? Head to Town Tinker Tube Rental (10 Bridge St., Phoenicia; 845-688-5553, towntinker.com) and float down the Esopus Creek instead, (prices start at $30 a day; age 12 and up; open daily through Sept. 30). Campsites next door at the Phoenicia Black Bear Campground (17 Bridge St., Phoenicia; 845-688-7405, phoeniciablackbearcampground.com) start at $35 a night.

Outside of town is the Empire State Railway Museum (70 Lower High St., Phoenicia; 845-688-7501, esrm.com), opening after a major refurbishment. The museum is housed in the original Phoenicia railway station and families can book their own Rail Explorer quad to pedal along the tracks ($150 per quad, 877-833-8588, railexplorers.net) for an eight-mile round trip through the Catskill forest.

Just up NY-28, guarded by giant catamount sculptures (lore holds that the Catskills were named for the area’s abundance of these mountain lions) sits the Emerson Resort & Spa (5340 Rte. 28, Mt. Tremper; 845-688-2828, emersonresort.com), also home to "The World’s Largest Kaleidoscope" and kaleidoshow; think laser show with music, thumping bass and educational narration. (The show is $5 per person, free for kids under 11 and overnight guests of the Emerson.) A kaleidostore offers smaller interactive kaleidoscopes to play with and science toys for sale, but the 60-foot-tall structure is the main attraction.

If the lines at the Phoenicia Diner are too long, head to Sweet Sue’s (49 Main St., Phoenicia; 845-688-7852) for a stack of giant fluffy pancakes. Brio’s (68 Main St., Phoenicia; 845-688-5370, brios.net) is the perfect pizza pit stop, or check out Tavern 214 (76 Rte. 214, Phoenicia; 845-688-7383, tavern214.com) for a farm-to-table gastropub meal that will bring happiness to the kids and adults alike. (Try the 36-ounce cowboy steak for two or the lobster mac and cheese.)

Catskills for Outdoors: Tannersville

Most Long Islanders think of Hunter Mountain (800-486-8376, huntermtn.com) as a weekend getaway for skiing, but this spot has lots to offer in summer, too. Ditch the snow boots for hiking boots and take the four-mile trail up the mountain to the highest fire tower in New York State at 4,040 feet.

If hiking downhill is more your speed, hop on the six-passenger Kaatskill Flyer chairlift ($12 adult, $8 age 7-12, free 6 and under) and take in the views that span clear to the Berkshires. Take a class at the Hunter Mountain Fly Fishing School (starting at $250), play a game of mountain disc golf on the 18-hole course (free to play, discs available for sale), or hit the actual links at one of more than a dozen nearby golf courses. New York Zipline Canopy Tours offers family-friendly packages ranging from an obstacle course Adventure Tower to a Night Zip Tour guided by moonlight with stops for stargazing and bat-watching (packages start at $19 per adult). Summer music festivals like Mountain Jam Weekend (June 15-17; ticket packages start at $105) host big indie names like Jack Johnson and Sturgill Simpson.    

From camping (KOA campgrounds and New York State Park tent and trailer sites abound) to glamping. Try Kate’s Lazy Meadow Motel (845-688-7200, lazymeadow.com). Any level of wilderness you want is available. Or you can rest your head at the recently-renovated Scribner’s Catskill Lodge (518-628-5130, scribnerslodge.com), whose bar Prospect at Scribner’s makes the meanest Bloody Mary on the mountain. Hiking trails extend from the lodge’s parking lot, and the bar boasts a front-seat view of Hunter Mountain.

Catskills for Shopping: Narrowsburg and Hancock

The Great Western Catskills now spill over to the Delaware River, with Pennsylvania border towns Narrowsburg and Hancock making new waves of late; historically known for fantastic fly-fishing and bountiful bluestone quarries, the area is now also home ware heaven. From vintage finds to furniture forged by local artisans, this area is full of options to keep your cabin cozy.

Start at Sunny’s Pop (50 Main St., Narrowsburg), a home and details store curated by Sunrise Ruffalo (actor Mark Ruffalo’s wife) where unusual finds include alpaca-felted goat’s milk soap from the nearby Buck Brook Alpaca farm and modern wall hooks made from maple and leather. A few doors down is MayerWasner (55 Main St., Narrowsburg), a designer duds destination for modern, sustainably made clothing. Next up, hop into Nest (15 Main St., Narrowsburg), a home shop run by former Vogue and W Magazine editor Anna Bern that is full of sleek leather chaises, bone and brass necklaces, and flowy caftans for calm Catskill mornings.

One Grand Books (60 Main St., Narrowsburg), brainchild of Aaron Hicklin, editor-in-chief of Out Magazine, offers 550 square feet of carefully curated books, sold individually or in collections of tastemakers’ Top 10s (think Leslie Odom Jr., Roxanne Gay or Mary Louise Parker). Grab some reading material and then stop off at The Heron Restaurant for avocado toast or another tasty bite and a signature cocktail, such as The Rosemary Nanni with grapefruit juice, Tanqueray and Campari. 

Covered bridges and summer camps still abound in neighboring Hancock, but this sleepy river town is having a renaissance. The Camptons (422 E. Front St.) is a surprising treasure-trove of fine housewares run by husband-and-wife owners and artists Jim and Laura McManus. The art and furniture gallery showcases paintings and prints, along with limited-edition T-shirts and hand-hewn modern camp-style furniture designed by Jim. An incomparable collection of vintage and antique tribal rugs rounds out the collection, punctuated by pops of colorful accessories.

Just a few doors down you’ll find Unclebrother (250 E. Front St.), the upstate arm of Gavin Brown’s tony New York City gallery, which doubles as a restaurant and is located in an old auto dealership (open weekends Memorial Day through Labor Day). Hancock town square also hosts a weekend farmers market and Friday night music and dance events, from Brazilian tap and jazz dancer Leo Sandoval to the roots-rock sound of The Suitcase Junket (destinationhancock.com).

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