This summer, Peter Diaz started the “Wall of Fame” at his yearling restaurant, Tavern 214, in Phoenicia. The first member? Helena Christensen. “She comes in all the time; she’s a big supporter,” says Diaz, who proudly posted a photo of himself and the supermodel on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Celebrities aren’t the only ones showing up in the Catskills: The region is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, with visitors from throughout the tristate and beyond heading to these storied mountains for outdoor fun, relaxation — and to experience the area’s newfound status as a hip destination. Case in point: In 2011, Budget Travel named Phoenicia one of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America, writing: “Phoenicia may look like a one-street river town sandwiched between hills in New York’s Catskills… but it’s got a bookish, cosmopolitan vibe in its soul.” Although the wrath of Hurricane Irene rained down later that year, Phoenicia (along with many of the region’s badly affected areas) bounced right back. Now, the town is — according to pretty much everyone on the planet — better than ever.
“Phoenicia just has all the right elements,” says Diaz. “It’s in a beautiful area ringed by mountains, and it is pretty much 15 minutes from everywhere: 15 minutes from skiing, 15 minutes from Woodstock. But it’s important to note that Phoenicia is not Woodstock. They’re peace and love, but we have a quirky little cool vibe of our own.”
The Trailways bus stops in the center of town (three hours from Manhattan) and for decades, New Yorkers and other adventure seekers have been flocking here to rent tubes to float down the Esopus Creek, which magically seems to appear around every corner in the area. (Town Tinker Tube Rentals used to be the only game in town, but a few years ago F&S Adventures joined the mix.)
Of course, the hipness factor went into overdrive when the Graham & Co., a 19-room boutique hotel, opened in July 2013. The brainchild of four Brooklyn-based designers, the industrial-chic lodging is all about minimalist pleasures. “Who likes it here? Well, anyone who is design-minded, who is interested in something that is not traditional, something that is authentically cool,” says general manager James Anthony, noting that the clientele comes from Brooklyn — and all around the world. “We focus on some of the primitive luxuries in life — laying by the pool, mountain views, relaxation, eating good food. We purposely don’t put TVs in the rooms, and there is no air conditioning.” Badminton and other lawn games, nightly bonfires, and a weekly outside movie pump up the fun factor.
Still, the primitive pleasures come with a more modern price-tag: Rooms range from $155-$230. This summer, the site opened a new bunkhouse — six bedrooms with bunks and two shared baths, which is “perfect for skiers or girls groups,” says Anthony. On a recent visit, we lounged by the unheated pool, which somehow manages to convey an old Hollywood vibe (I half-expected Frank Sinatra to show up at any moment); we loved riding their free bicycles into town — where we checked out shops like the Nest Egg, which has a nice mix of souvenirs, clothes, and legendary fudge. We parked the bikes in a nearby park and started up the Tanbark Trail, a two-mile loop hike which provides spectacular views and signs about the area’s interesting quarrying history.
Our stay didn’t leave us enough time to explore everything in town (although we made time for a gigantic plate of peach pancakes at Sweet Sue’s). We’d love to go back for the first annual “Phoenicia Flea,” a gathering of top-notch local artisans, on July 26-27. But finding great reasons to return to this unique corner of the Catskills won’t be difficult to do.