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Rip Van Winkle Never Imagined Living So Well!

16 Jan

Emerson Resort and Spa. (Photo courtesy of the Emerson.)

The Catskill Mountain gnomes who Rip Van Winkle encountered were fond of bowling and magical brews. These days they’re hanging out in hot tubs and getting massages after dining in style…of course, still while imbibing magical Catskill brews.

Winter’s the perfect time in the Catskills to indulge yourself in both active and therapeutic recreation. You’ll find luxurious Catskills escapes come in many guises. I was fortunate to spend nights at the serene Emerson Resort and Spa and the funky-chic Roxbury Motel. Each is family friendly yet also a sophisticated anomaly in this charming old Dutch colonial haven.

The burbling Esopus River and East Branch Delaware River and rounded mountains are extraordinarily calming. The entire Ulster and Delaware county region is laced with streams and rail beds, many of which carry antique trains or have been converted to trails. These flows continue the formation of the Catskills, which aren’t mountains in the usual sense but rather are remnants of a carved plateau. That’s why so many of these green mounds have nearly uniform height.

Esopus River running past the Emerson. (Photo courtesy of the Emerson.)

The beautiful view from the bed of our duplex suite, as it appeared in Autumn. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

At its core, the Emerson is an ayurvedic retreat. “I thought I’d have to travel back to India to find a space like that,” said my travel companion, who hails from that nation.

Behind the imported, ancient Indian hand-carved gate at New York’s first Mobil Four-Star Spa you’ll discover ten treatment rooms adorned with antique fixtures and sculptures of deities and a striking raw stone sculpture centerpiece. Guests can stroll between these private sessions and steam showers, saunas, a fitness room, relaxation lounge, and outdoor hot tub. To take healthy wisdom home with you, there are Yoga classes too.

The Country Store with a silo converted into the world's largest kaleidoscope. (Photo courtesy of the Emerson.)

When you’re ready for more fanciful fare, dizzy yourself with the world’s largest kaleidoscope at the Country Store just yards away. But steady yourself on your feet for serious shopping — the Country Store is stocked with distinctive jewelry, gourmet delights, glassware, antiques, women’s apparel, furnishings, accessories, and more.

The Emerson's road sign, complete with glowing eyes. (Photo Courtesy of the Emerson.)

Ol' Red Eyes at the Catamount. (Photo by Erik Baard)

At the Emerson’s restaurants it’s as pleasurable to fill your belly as it is to fill your luggage and spirit. The glowing red mountain lion eyes of the Catamount’s imposing sign announce “carnivores welcome.” But vegetarians and vegans will find very satifying choices. I had the pleasure of feasting on a tofu and veggie stir fry while I enjoyed the company of Lisa Berger of Ulster County Tourism, who had sauteed Atlantic salmon.

Catamount stir fry. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Catamount trout. (Photo by Erik Baard.)

Over at the Roxbury Motel, in Delaware County, each room is a unique and elegant work of art, reflecting a broad palate of periods and influences. If you’re a more playful sort, a sleepover can transport you to an ancient cave, the helm of a starship, or into a coconut cream pie one can imagine was whipped up by Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island.”

The Roxbury cheerfully greets the night. (Photo Courtesy of the Roxbury Motel.)

Mary Ann's coconut cream pie. (Photo Courtesy of the Roxbury Motel.)

A starship for the night. Uhura not included. (Photo Courtesy of the Roxbury Motel.)

The Noir Boudoir. (Photo Courtesy of the Roxbury Motel.)

Bride of Amadeus suite. (Photo Courtesy of the Roxbury Motel.)

The decor reflects the engaging and fun personalities of its delightful owners, Gregory Henderson and Joseph Massa. The two met through New York City’s theater life and so it’s no surprise that they brought stagecraft to create shared dreams into which they personally welcome each guest.

But this dynamic duo is in touch with the rooted tranquility all around them too. This past weekend they were moved to post this little video of the East Branch Delaware River running past the Roxbury Motel:

 

 

Just contemplate that snowy stream for now, until you too can head up for a spa retreat in the Catskills!

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Catskills Snow Season Begins!

14 Dec
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Belleayre Mountain in Highmount, N.Y. is owned & operated by the New York State, Department of Environmental Conservation.

Santa and his elves are busy in the North Pole at this time of year, but far closer to home you’ll find snowy fun if you Visit the Catskills!

Opening day at Belleayre Mountain was a smash over the weekend and you’ll find numerous skiing, sledding, snowskating, snowboarding and other downhill thrills  popping now through the start of spring!  Nature watchers can slip quietly into gorgeous scenery on cross-country skis or on snowshoes. Families will love snow tubing too, as much as they love tubing rivers lacing the region in summer.

Tubing at Plattekill Mountain Resort in Roxbury, NY.

A vacation in the Catskill Mountains will work your body if you choose such active pursuits, but it will also feed and sooth those muscles. The region is home to top rated resorts and restaurants. Stay tuned for next week’s installment on spas and dining!

Kids in New York Apple Country!

20 Oct

Despite regional flood damage from Hurricane Irene, New York apple country is thriving and our charming villages are greatly recovered. 

I was thrilled to take 20 kids from Hour Children apple picking at Wilklow Orchards, in an historic area of the Hudson Valley under two hours north of New York City. Thanks to a sponsorship from super-chic Z Hotel in NYC and the orchard’s discount, the kids enjoyed a hay ride, hay jump, a greenhouse filled with crafts and inflated bouncy play rooms, farm fresh snacks and carried home bags of apples that they picked themselves! Wilklow is not only kid friendly, but welcomes leashed dogs too!

The time is still right to pick apples in New York State, our nation’s second largest grower of this more beloved fruit. Click here to learn where to come pick your own apples!  And every orchard is surrounded by other delightful attractions.

You can skip the crowds by visiting a farm on a weekday. Wilklow Orchards, for example, is open for picking from Labor day weekend to Halloween, October 31st, 9-5 daily. You’ll find a great assortment of apples, including Macintosh, Gala, Cortland, Jonamac, Empire, Jonagold, Mutsu, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Rome. I saved room in my bag for  gourmet Winesap! For an authentic taste of New York heritage, seek out the Northern Spy. Chefs love this crisp and tasty apple with an uber-cool name and you will too. It originated in New York more than two hundred years ago.

Many orchards will supply you with a pre-priced bag to fill with apples and a “picker pole” to reach high branches, but most trees are grafted to dwarf rootstock. Alexander the Great, who was a wee bit on the short side, is credited with introducing this innovation to Europe from Turkey and Central Asia.

Apples love slopes because water drains well of them. I’ve been planting apple trees on berms in New York City through the Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration. Though in Highland, NY, Wilklow Orchards gave me a little hint of what it might be like to visit the ancestral apple forest, which still grows in the lower Tian Shan (“cellestial” or “heavenly”) mountain range of Kazakhstan. At Wilklow Orchards, two apple rich slopes meet in a quiet and clear valley stream.

Running down into the fruitful valley of Wilklow Orchards. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Winesaps and other apple trees hugged the clear valley stream bisecting Wilklow Orchards. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Jonagold, which has deep New York ancestry, and Golden Delicious were hits with the kids. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Even very young trees were in full fruit. (Photo by Erik Baard)

One of the funnier moments in our day was when I deduced the source of the kids’ shared wave of concern that the orchard might be full of snakes. It turns out they associated snakes with fruit trees from the story of the Garden of Eden. Imagine that each of of the hundreds of fruit trees before them might be home to its own snake and you’ll understand the dark anxiety that manifested itself on a bright day. A few minutes of explanation and the kids were raring to get back to apple picking!  🙂

Fresh from the tree! Hour Children kids learned about real food and ecology. (Photo by Erik Baard)

The start of a balanced diet. (Photo by Erik Baard)

The kids made a pact to bring snacks and apples for others in their families and at Hour Children to share, and to each contribute an apple for making apple sauce. Their yield was a bit dented, however, when they met some very friendly, curious and hungry goats! If goats are anything like sheep, however, at least the kids will be fondly remembered.

Some apples never made it past the goats. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Next the kids burned off some apple energy by romping in the activity greenhouse, which features carnival “bounce rooms” and in the hay jump. The hay jump’s surrounded by pumpkins, inspiring a yearning to see pumpkin patches! The farm’s hay ride furthered their explorations.

The hay jump! A frame, a mattress and hay = FUN. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Hay ride to the pumpkin patch! (Photo by Erik Baard)


Autumnal beauty: a pumpkin patch snug in the Catskill Mountains. (Photo by Erik Baard)

I’m grateful to the Green Heart NY program of I LOVE NEW YORK , the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the New York Apple Association for such a doubly special day — I got to share wonderful places with kids who need these experiences  while promoting local farms to boot.

There's so much more to see in the Catskills, but there's a good chance you'll wear your kid out. 🙂 (Photo by Erik Baard)

See your Way to the Seaway and Harborfest!

21 Sep

The heart of North America is linked to the wild north Atlantic by the Great Lakes, canals and the St. Lawrence Seaway, nearly all accessible from the Thousand Islands-Seaway, Finger Lakes, Greater Niagara and Chautauqua-Allegheny regions of New York. A 518-mile Seaway Trail takes hikers, bikers and motorists alongside it from Lake Erie and out past the Thousand Islands. Dotting the way are historic homes, forts and battle fields, the incomparable Niagara Falls, quaint villages, universities and cultural centers, museums, wilderness refuges and a seemingly endless choice of ice creams!

Indeed, a very worthy endeavor for dairy lovers who want to earn their treats as they go would be an ice cream bike tour across northern New York! Naturally, you’ll want to include a regional specialty, frozen custard. Vegans can munch their way across the trail as well, especially during the height of autumn harvest season (see events calendar). Just plan to sleep in and not drive or ride if you opt for the wine tastings!

My introduction to the Seaway was a rollicking citywide party,  Oswego Harborfest! Bare Naked Ladies headlined the rock stage, while countless other musicians sharing other genres filled the air around every corner. Crafts and foods kept festive visitors, students and families out strolling and discovering deep into the night. The fest is free for all and lasts four days.

The 2012 Oswego Harborfest will be the 25th (of July), so expect an even bigger celebration. That also happens to be the War of 1812 bicentennial, so keep an eye out for special programs and the occasional redcoat.

A hub of this unique touring area is the Seaway Trail Discovery Center in far mellower nearby Sackets Harbor. I stopped in with my travel buddy, Ed Hancox to learn more about the region from Seaway Trail, Inc. President and CEO Theresa Mitchell.

The Seaway Trail Discovery Center is focused yet eclectic, teaching visitors about this region’s central role in the War of 1812 (more about that in a future post), it’s industrial heyday and continuing agricultural vitality. Kids will love two animatronic figures that neatly capture the Center’s range: Ulysses Grant and a talking cow.

Seaway Trail Discovery Center. (Photo by Erik Baard)

The Seaway region offers ice cream at nearly every turn. Erik loves the cows, live or animatronic. (Photo by Ed Hancox)

The area's agricultural heritage is everywhere, on farms both bustling and sleepy. (Photo by Erik Baard)

After the fun kid stuff, we took a more sophisticated turn by dining with Theresa at Tin Pan Galley. This elegant and intimate, tree-shaded and ivy-covered restaurant features live music, often played by its multi-instrumentalist owner.

Tin Pan Galley's greenery, music and arts fused.

Another informal highlight of the Seaway Trail is the antiquing and flea market bargain hunting one can do along the way. Old industrial row houses and farms yield everyday items from another era — medicine and milk bottles, postcards, glasses, tins and kitchenware and other curios.

A turtle shell estimated to be 200 years old at a roadside flea market near Sandy Creek, NY. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Heart Island: A Love Story (Complete with Fairy Tale Castle and “Millionaires Row”)

14 Sep

Millionaires Row. (Photo courtesy of 1000 Islands Tourism Council)

As a city-bred environmentalist, I’ve put a lot of thought into ways to escape or eradicate the urban “heat island.” But in Alexandria Bay, the thinking is to visit and preserve Heart Island. What a difference one letter makes!

I had the pleasure of cruising a section of the Thousand Islands with New York State Assembly member Addie J. Russel aboard one of the Uncle Sam Boat Tours cruisers. We launched from a pier around the corner from the hotel where I stayed, Capt Thomson’s Resort, which overlooks the St. Lawrence River.

As we passed astonishingly luxurious homes sitting atop tiny mounds arching out of clear water, Assemblymember Russel briefed me on some of the core environmental decisions facing her “River District” constituency. One hot debate centers on whether to build wind farms or maintain a large nuclear generating capacity — a question that resonates throughout the global environmental community. Voters are also divided over whether the government should modify water level policies maintained since dams were built generations ago. New regional growth and transportation models are being considered. As always, ecologists are busy battling zebra mussels.

As we approached Heart Island, the sunny upper deck’s milling crowd hushed and rushed to one side. Was it only the architecture that set this island apart or was it the love story that many read before arriving?

Fairy tale loves, usually involving the very wealthy, hold timeless escapist appeal. Ruth Bottigheimer, SUNY Stonybrook literary scholar and author of  Fairy Tales: A New History contends that fairy tales were not derived from orally transmitted rural folk tales as has long been believed. She posits that they were literary inventions of Italian urbanites.

Boldt Castle. (Photo courtesy of 1000 Islands Tourism Council)

And cramped city folk yearn like no others for fairy tale loves to be set in castles. Preferably their own.  George Boldt was as cosmopolitan as they come. A Prussian immigrant, he made his fortunes as a hotelier. His crowning business achievement came as proprietor of the original Waldorf-Astoria. But his most profound personal expression was this six-story castle he built as a monument to his love for Louise Kehrer Boldt, his wife.

Louise Kehrer Boldt, the castle's muse. (Photo by Erik Baard of painting at Boldt Castle)

Alas, Louise died suddenly. George halted all work on the castle in 1904.

Boldt Castle is an American reverse Taj Mahal. Whereas Emperor Shah Jahan built a mausoleum for his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal, George Boldt aspired to build a grand living home where love with Louise would always blossom. Her death rendered the effort meaningless. The castle stood incomplete and empty for over 70 years. The love was gone.

Or was it?

“Though the island was abandoned for decades, I dare say a good number of people living in the surrounding area were conceived here,” said Gary deYoung of the 1000 Islands Tourism Council. Couples boated out to Heart Island for trysts on many nights, writing declarations of love on the castle’s unfinished walls. Though restorations, renovations and additions have erased much of this unofficial history, happy traces remain in the basement.

Service tunnel in the basement of Boldt Castle. (Photo by Erik Baard)

Innovative for its time, an indoor pool in the basement of Boldt Castle. Though empty for decades, this room was also evidently popular with lovers. (Photo by Erik Baard)

It's always nice to arrive on Heart Island in the iconic I LOVE NY shirt, with a red or green heart. At center is Gary deYoung of the 1000 Islands Tourism Council. (Photo by Edward Hancox)

Even the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, which undertook care for the castle and island, is in on the love. Landscaping, garden features, a glass dome, furnishings and other elements added to complete the project evoke hearts and harts, or deer. Boldt himself made much of the heart/hart pun, linking his expression of love to the stags in his family crest.

Boldt's heart and hart in glass. (Photo by Erik Baard)

I suspect that Boldt was aware of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem written nearly 400 years earlier that makes use of the same pun. In that poem, the feminine is depicted in one line as “gentle, tame, and meek,” but subsequently the lover declares the author to be the prey, or hart:  “Dear heart, how like you this?”

The children's play castle. This was the only building to have residents. (Photo by Edward Hancox)

The "hennery." It paid to be a Boldt bird. (Photo by Erik Baard)

The grandeur of Heart Island doesn’t stop at the castle. Other magnificent structures include a children’s play castle, an aviary (or “hennery”) and powerhouse.

But if all of this castle business is just too over-the-top for you, perhaps you’d like to spend more time at the quaint and simple little Boldt yacht house across the water on Wellesley Island.

The Boldt yacht house is nearly itself a castle of wood. (Photo by Erik Baard)

A great, green way to get to the region is taking Amtrak to Syracuse, rather than driving all the way up. Or, of course, you could sail, row or paddle in! Our hotel, Capt. Thomson’s Resort, was perfect for sailors and drivers alike. Boat landings at Heart Island are free!

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