From this week's Catskill Mountain News:
Drive along Route 28 and the signs for cottages and motels roll by. The places are easy to ignore, some turned into apartments with the kind of rural neglect – car jacked up on blocks, lawn gone to weed – that suggests better days. It’s enough to make you think that the best of times are no longer these times in our corner of the Catskills. But, no. Over the past five years a small renaissance has started, with people redoing those bygone institutions of Catskills’ vacations. This renaissance has even dovetailed with the recession and weathered it.
The downturn did turn on the Catskills and in some ways turned out old visitors – but at the same time it’s brought new ones, and now a few years later seems to be strengthening the local economy. Being only a few hours from the city means tourist who would have flown to a vacation spot are staying closer to home. Many of these new guests are turning to more traditional inns and B&Bs, a shift that’s corresponded with an influx of new owners whose more polished approach appeals to these visitors. Call it a bit of Proust and nostalgia for innkeeper and traveler alike, but both are taken with these places that recall the past, a past that’s been updated with better plumbing and insulation, flat screen TVs, white walls and linens.
At the Breezy Hill Inn (“Luxury in the Country” its slogan) the owners Michelle and Alan Sidrane sit on the screened porch and describe what they were looking for in their own travels: upscale inns and B&Bs, only there was little to be found here. Instead, the couple set out to build the place where they wanted to stay. Just how personal is obvious in the details down to the antiques in the rooms. The color scheme is based on her favorite pottery pattern whose hues repeat throughout the inn.
“It’s about coddling,” Michelle Sidrane explains, describing the Breezy Hill ethos with a high-end exercise room, steam room and lavish breakfasts. And, the inn’s busiest season? Not summer but winter when they’re booked straight from Christmas to mid-April. “We’re getting young families that used to go out West on a regular ski trip, looking for places to stay for a ski weekend at a more reasonable rate.” They’ve even had guests book the entire inn for holiday weekends.
The Sidrane’s is a very different approach from Sara Loughlin and Brian Batista’s at the Phoenicia Lodge. In their late 30s they treat inn-keeping like contemporary pioneers. They handle everything. On a quiet Monday (their “Saturday”) they’re both dressed in faded denim, work boots with white iPod earbuds dangling like necklaces around their throats. He’s mowing and she painting a cottage. The couple happened into the motel and cabins almost as a dare. They were looking for a place upstate, but not a motel – or a new career path. When they saw the place though they couldn’t stop thinking about it –and they had no idea what they were getting into. The local SBA loan officer even advised against it, but it’s been a huge success – busy now in summer and winter. They’ve replaced dark wood paneling with pale walls and new linens, and Sara stresses that this isn’t about luxury.
“We’re not trying to be upscale. There’s a need for a low-budget vacation.” People come to hike and fish, like they themselves did before moving. “We’re modest people,” she says, “and having a swanky place wouldn’t feel right. It doesn’t fit the way we live. Here in our region of the Catskills the middle hasn’t been done so well, so we saw what we could do. What might be possible.” What might be possible includes restoring original vintage features to give the lodge a Mad Men feel that fits not only the buildings’ era but the zeitgeist now.
Running the Mountain Brook Inn was even more of a jump for Gary Simmons. His home was in L.A. and his lodging experience more along the lines of staying at the Waldorf and The Plaza. His job had him virtually living in hotels, and there he studied the beds and how they were made, storing up the information for his future, not that he knew the Mountain Brook was his future. “And, not that this is a hotel,” he says in his Southern drawl as he runs around on a Monday afternoon dressed in a button-down shirt and coveralls, his version of a suit for the office. “Far from it. I love hotels but it’s definitely not that.”
The Mountain Brook is a motel – quaint and rustic on the edge of the Little Delaware. He found the place when visiting a friend after working on a show at Rockefeller Center. The Inn had been empty for two years and long on the market, but he knew it was his destiny. He also knew that destiny was going to take some work and jokes that he moved in with only an electric screwdriver. Since, he’s replaced and reworked just about everything – adding wainscoting and soundproofing and painting over the wood paneling that made the rooms claustrophobic. Now they have sitting rooms with deep sofas and inviting bedrooms with plush linens.
The three properties operate at different ends of the spectrum but taken with the Roxbury and the Hidden Inn’s re-opening show the vitality of Catskills’ lodging. Patty Cullen, Delaware County’s tourism director, explains: “There are a few trends driving visitors to the Catskills – first the growth in destination weddings [most of this summer’s guests at Breezy Hill and the Mountain Brook are attending weddings.] With a couple of events on one weekend, all the lodging in neighboring towns gets booked up.
Additionally, with the growth of the locavore movement we’re attracting a younger audience interested in food and farming as well as getting outdoors. There are also second-homeowners’ friends who are visiting longer and opting not to stay with their friends. In all this, people are looking online, reading reviews before even booking. A business’s online presence is hugely important in the choices visitors make.”
This is something the Sidranes and Batistas both attest to, and all three businesses agree that once someone comes, if they have a good experience they will return. All three properties have developed a huge audience of fans and returning visitors – visitors these inns and motels have all cultivated since opening.