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How the Catskills became the long weekend summer getaway for New Yorkers

Simon Calder’s Travel

Strapped into climbing harnesses and braced against the chilly wind, my daughter and I peer over the ledge to track a pair of peregrine falcons — the fastest animals on earth — swooping and gliding on the thermals. We’re so high up on this section of a via ferrata, a protected climbing route with fixed steel cables, that it’s us who have the bird’s eye view. Beyond is a palette of green stretching as far as we can see, a breathtaking view of deciduous and evergreen forest and mountains that few outside New York are really aware exist. It’s certainly not what most people imagine when they picture America’s Empire State.

My family are spending a weekend in the Catskill Mountains, a 1,000-square-mile subrange of the Appalachians just west of the Hudson River Valley, a couple of hours’ drive northwest of New York City. Our temporary home is the Mohonk Mountain House, a huge Victorian castle-style hotel built in 1869 as a getaway for New York City’s glitterati (famous guests have included John D. Rockefeller and the Clintons) and whose 85 miles of private hiking trails include the Pinnacle Ledge, which my daughter Scout and I are precariously negotiating.

While the Catskills were the subject of famous works of art by 19th-century painters, collectively known as the Hudson River School, and literature like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, for most of us our main frame of reference is 1980s romantic drama Dirty Dancing – although the hotel used as Kellerman’s resort, where Patrick Swayze famously forbid anyone from putting Baby in the corner, is actually in Virginia.

Visitors can enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Catskills from the Mohonk Mountain House via ferrata (Mohonk Mountain House )

From the 1920s until the 1960s, the Catskills were synonymous with these summer resorts, particularly popular with New York City’s vacationing Jewish population — not for nothing was the area nicknamed The Borscht Belt. Most of them are now shuttered after they became a casualty of cheap air travel allowing access to more exotic destinations. But in the early 2000s there was a concerted effort to rebuild the region’s economy through tourism, with New York City dwellers seeking solace in the countryside. While the pandemic grounded flights and the world stopped travelling, the Catskills and the Hudson Valley (a…

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