Beyond The Borscht Belt: Discover The Catskills' Modern Marvels - My Family Travels

Since the 1920s, when Catskills attractions and hotels began luring Jewish vacationers from New York City, it’s been known as the Borscht Belt. Now it’s making a comeback thanks to shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Pop culture, affordability and true scenic beauty have made this upstate New York region popular again as a middle-class vacation mecca.

Just two hours north of Manhattan’s Billionaires’ Row, the shabby chic Sullivan Catskills offers remote workers a laid-back lifestyle. Millennials makeover clapboard bungalow colonies into weekend retreats. Developers replace others with balconied apartments for Hasidic residents. On a recent winter visit, we discovered that Sullivan County especially features surprising family attractions and a new style of Catskills hotels.

Bean Sprouts Are the New Borscht

Take a farm tour to pet baby alpacas in their pen at Buck Brook Farm, a Sullivan Catskills family attrction.
Take a farm tour to pet baby alpacas in their pen at Buck Brook Farm, a popular Sullivan Catskills family attrction.

The hoped-for Borscht Belt Museum in Ellenville (donations welcome) will tell the story of people escaping the city’s industrial pollution to the source of New York’s famously pure drinking water. Meanwhile, follow the fascinating plaques of the Borscht Belt Historical Marker Project along forested country roads. Long, unpaved driveways marked in Hebrew lead to Jewish summer camps. Hipster cafes, artisan weavers and art galleries bring historic villages along the Catskills’ scenic lakes and rivers to life. Newcomers among Catskills’ attractions and hotels like LEGOLAND New York and the towering black glass Resorts World Catskills casino vie for attention.

Through it all rise colorful, psychedelically painted dove sculptures — 90 in total — landmarks of the 1969 Woodstock Festival that changed Sulllivan County – and the world forever.

Now serving avocado toast and turmeric lattes, these seven Catskills family attractions and hotels promise an upstate escape to remember.

Stroll Hurleyville, Star of Catskills Attractions

The vintage Sullivan Dairy storefront on the Main Street in Hurleyville, The Catskills, New York.
The vintage Sullivan Dairy shop is on the Main Street in Hurleyville, about a block from the ONW Rail Trail.

Historic Hurleyville was the epicenter of both Catskills summer resorts and dairy farming until trains from New York City stopped running. That changed with the diaspora of Brooklyn and Hoboken families who brought civic pride to the small town. They launched yoga classes, the Hurleyville Performing Arts Center, the elite Homestead Collaborative College High School and welcomed other enthusiastic, multicultural families to join them.

Late February marks the annual Snowshoe Walk and Run along the nine-mile ONW Rail Trail. Folks turn out to offer free snowshoe rentals, hot chocolate and good cheer to anyone who participates. Drop by Tango afterwards for a buttermilk fried chicken sandwich while kids enjoy their vegan mac n’ cheese. Sip a cocktail at their firepit or check out one of the gastropubs on the two-block long Main Street. (There are a dozen more breweries, distilleries, wineries and cideries on the Sullivan Catskills Craft Beverage Trail.)

In summer, the town attracts glampers with furnished cabins and fully-outfitted geodesic domes. They’re a good bet because Hurleyville is so convenient to Catskills family attractions.

Shop Narrowsburg, a Sullivan Catskills Style Center

The Sullivan West branch of the Narrowsburg Pulbic Library features public lectures and free family events that reflect the influx of young families to the region.
The Narrowsburg Pulbic Library features public lectures and free kids’ events that reflect the influx of young families to the region.

The hamlet of Narrowsburg in Tusten on the banks of the Upper Delaware River has a lot going for it. Hike the moderately steep Tusten Mountain Trail off Crawford Street. Pause to watch bald eagles soaring over the river. Stop into the Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History (open weekends May to October.) A former colonial history theme park, it’s now owned by Sullivan County and is evolving into a living history museum.

Then refresh at Tusten, a hipster café, or stroll the antique and design shops. Allow plenty of time for Velvet Maple, an eclectic compilation of stylish new and gently used clothing, vintage artifacts, accessories, and really fun things for the house.

The Western Sullivan branch of the public library has friendly librarians and a lot of free facilities for kids including a games table and reading nook. Check out one of their very cool backpacks with discovery toys and head out to the trails nearby.

Pet a Top Catskills Attraction: Local Alpacas

Woman and man with two alpacas, with a llama in the background, at Buck Brook Farm in the Catskills.
Take a private tour at Buck Brook Farm and walk your alpaca around the grounds to meet the resident llamas.

Alpacas deserve their soft and cuddly reputation. Purchase farm tour tickets at Buck Brook Farms in Roscoe so the family can feed and pet the barn animals. Stop by to stroke fur samples in an educational display to appreciate how special alpaca is. If you can’t get enough, book a private tour. Walk an alpaca on a lead — you can’t do this in Long Island City. Hug them, stroke their fuzzy backs and take selfies. See more of the property and meet llamas while a wrangler explains the alpacas’ value as wool animals.

Our guide Morgan brought us to the rabbit breeding room to meet Angora and other enormous rabbits bred for their fur. Alice, a young 4-H student with 19 of her own rabbits at home, gave us a tour and explained rabbit breeding. Your kids will adore this excursion and so will you.

Let It All Hang Out at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts

The psychedlic Bethel Bus on display at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Photo c. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
The psychedlic Bethel Bus on display at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Photo c. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

The site of the famous 1969 Woodstock festival is now a terrific cultural arts and music destination with a full schedule of live entertainment. If you’ve told your grandkids about your old bellbottoms or Deadhead exploits, this is the place to take them.

Did you know that audiences prefer that it rains at this outdoor venue because it reminds them of that fateful Sunday afternoon? Don’t miss the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts wonderful Museum at Bethel Woods. Learn more than you thought possible about the 1960s. Pay homage to the musicians and Hippie movement through artifacts and memorabilia from the festival itself.

Ski The Catskills in Winter

Base area of Holiday Mountain Ski and Fun Park in Monticello. The Catskills top family attraction in winter.
The Holiday Mountain Ski and Fun Park in Monticello is, for many, the top Catskills family attraction in winter.

The 6,000-square-mile greater Catskills Mountains include the Vail-owned Hunter Mountain and smaller, more casual Belleayre. In Sullivan County, however, skiing is all about the Holiday Mountain Ski and Fun Park. Ski in winter, race go-karts in summer — this cool mini-mountain ski resort is pure vintage Catskills dating to 1957.

When word got out that developers were eyeing it for housing, local Jack Taylor, who learned to ski there, was keen to invest in it. With two chairlifts and seven runs, this classic Catskills attraction shows it age. But it’s perfect for beginners of any shape and size.

Guests love that all trails feed right into a very comfortable base lodge. Join Hasidic teens and Latino families getting on ski boots in the cafeteria. Sign up for ski school. Checkout the all-day apres-ski scene at the rustic Lift Bar with a fire pit out back. Look for the tubing hill and night skiing. (There’s more snow tubing at the nearby Villa Roma Resort.) Manmade snow is firm, well-groomed and kept in good condition so you can work the runs over and again. With $55 lift tickets and rental gear packages, you won’t go wrong in winter. And Jack Taylor promises fun Catskills summer activities, too.

Overnight at Arnold House, a Woodsy Sullivan Catskills Hotel

Greenhouse loung in the Arnold House welcomes families and pets to a new style of Catskills resort hotel.
The Greenhouse Lounge in the Arnold House welcomes families and pets to a new style of Catskills resort hotel.

Foster Supply Hospitality, a relative newcomer to the area, now manages five restored lodges and inns with four restaurants. With flavor-forward, farm to table dining; stylish rustic, outdoorsmen vibes; and a focus on relaxation and wellness, they’ve cornered the market on urbanites.

Arnold House, on 80 forested acres on Shandelee Mountain, is one of their first properties. Manager Phil gave us a quick tour of the common spaces. In winter, the themed Frost Fire Lounge attracts families to its couches, pillows and faux fur throws. The Greenhouse hosts a small café bar and big patio tables stocked with board games. The welcoming lobby and breakfast sunroom have fireplaces, communal seating and WiFi to satisfy remote workers, teens and corporate retreats. A certain kind of family loves the 50-year-old tavern and pool table.

“Midday,” Phil tells us, “We usually set up a bunch of cool unique little snacks here and our dog amenities over there.”

Sleep in one of 16 guestrooms (some suites) or Bobby’s Farmhouse, a rental across the road. Other free Arnold House amenities include loaner snowshoes, hiking trails, ping pong, and gardening workshops,

Feel Good at Kenoza Hall, a Catskills Wellness Resort

Rustic greenhouse spa at Kenoza Hall, a luxury Catskills boutique hotel dedicated to wellness in upstate New York.
The rustic greenhouse spa at Kenoza Hall, a luxury Catskills boutique hotel dedicated to wellness in upstate New York.

Kenoza Hall, outside the hamlet of Livingston Manor, was built to satisfy the 19th-century appetite for wellness that spawned the Catskills’ vacation industry. Now the 20-room, luxe inn follows the same wellness principles in its attractions and hotel’s Hemlock Spa. At no additional charge, indulge in a sauna followed by a cold plunge, a barefoot walk on beds of mineral salts, and a rejuvenating nap in their rustic greenhouse. Out on the back lawn, the heated pool is busy from May to October.

Kenoza Hall puts a local spin on healthy dining, with fresh produce, green juices and vegan menu items. Carnivores will love their savory bacon, roast pork loin and duck entrees, all delicious. Plus, entrees are priced well below Manhattan eateries. The kids’ menu is not as creative as their many other family amenities, but the friendly staff work with children to accommodate dietary needs.

The resort’s 10 bungalows, one and two-bedroom tiny houses with a living space and fireplace, push all the right buttons for cozying up. Preschoolers prefer the themed rooms in the main lodge. Go “camping” on a king bed while kids claim the room’s canvas tipi, flame-shaped pillows, storybooks and plush toys. Repeat guests get even more add-ons, such as toy binoculars or a little camera to record memories of the walk down to Kenoza Lake. Return in summer for swimming, hiking and canoeing.

It’s Both a Catskills Attraction and Hotel!

A lifeguard watches over the kiddie pool at the Kartrite Resort & Indoor Water Park in Monticello, New York.
Several lifeguards monitor the pools and water slides at the Kartrite Resort & Indoor Water Park in Monticello, New York.

The range of Sullivan Catskills attractions and hotels means there’s something for everyone.

Take Kartrite, for example, a shiny new resort hotel on top of an indoor water park. The resort’s enormous games arcade calls out to guests like slot machines in a casino. Cheering coaches lure kids to try the $12 climbing wall. Pizza and snack stands, a candy shop selling ice cream, plus Harvey’s – a sit-down bar and café — cater to the captive audience. Leave everything in your comfortable guestroom before heading to the water park or be socked with a $15 locker fee.

You won’t leave the Kartrite Resort & Indoor Water Park without spending more than you planned, but we guarantee the kids will have fun year-round. Staff are friendly and helpful despite the crowds. The water park is clean and safe; lifeguards study the slides, tubes and waves from every angle. It’s tough to find room in the hot tub but the heated, outdoor pool welcomes you year-round. Caveat Parents: Bring water shoes because you will have to stay around the pools to watch your kids.

Like the marvelous Catskills’ attractions and hotels we discovered, it’s surprisingly fun. Kids just love the area. And with such a diverse, multicultural crowd speaking so many languages, they are bound to make new friends.

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