There are hints buried throughout the town of Phoenicia in New York’s Catskill Mountains that you are really not that far from the city. At Mama’s Boy coffee house and barbecue joint, they sell Olde Brooklyn soda. The collection of art work at the Arts Upstairs gallery is peppered with the names of NYC inhabitants. And thenthere are the visitors, who drive a quick two hours from the city to escape the pollution, air, noise, and otherwise, for a weekend. They camp, hike, shop, eat, view, listen, watch, and tube here. And if they’re doing it right, they leave refreshed and a little lonesome for the great, quiet wilderness.
One of twelve hamlets of the town of Shandaken which runs along Route 28, Phoenicia sits in the shadow of Slide Mountain, the tallest peak in the Catskills. Blink and you miss the center of town on Main Street, which traverses the Esopus Creek. But pay attention, and you’ll spot art galleries, shops, a playhouse, restaurants – and a giant statue of a pioneer man. Quaint, contemporary, and a little off-beat, the town was a favorite of Babe Ruth and legendary gangster "Dutch" Schultz.
Arts and the Great Outdoors
The Arts Upstairs is a gallery tucked between two shops on Main Street. Its whitewashed walls and sunny rooms make it look more cottage home than gallery. What’s wonderful about The Arts Upstairs is that, as volunteer and artist Dave Channon says, "Every artist hangs." The gallery started about seven years ago as a cooperative and now, even with amore structured setup, it still has its non-jury format, which means any artist can hang their work for a nominal fee or volunteer hours.
A couple galleries might not make an arts scene per say, but the Shandaken corridor is more than the sum of its parts. In addition to the galleries in Phoenicia, studios and galleries abound along Route 28, and on July 21 and 22, artists and galleries from Mount Tremper to Highmount are opening their studios to visitors as part of the Shandaken Art Studio Tour 2012. Opening parties will be held at The Arts Upstairs and Phoenicia’s other gallery, Cabane Studios, and a map is available to make sure you hit all the hot spots.
If that doesn’t get your creative juices flowing, try the Mount Tremper Arts Festival, which runs until August 12. The festival features art installations, theater, performance pieces, poetry, dance, and even classical performances and barbecue by the NYC-based International Contemporary Ensemble, better known as ICE.
If film and theater are more your style, the Shandaken Theatrical Society Playhouse, just off Main Street in Phoenicia, offers both. Set in a sprawling wood building, the theater puts on plays and concerts for adults and children, as well as monthly screenings of such classics as Creature From The Black Lagoon and Purple Rain. Admission for movies is a $5 suggested donation.
The buzz around the art community, however, has been the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, from August 2-5. Celebrating opera, art song, Broadway and more, the festival brings together bright young talent and established professional artists. A one woman opera, La Voix Humaine, an operatic comedy benefit show, and a group of Mongolian throat singers are on offer, but this year’s highlight is a production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on the Festival Stage, featuring the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera conductor Steven White.
If you’re in the market for something other than fine art, a stroll along Main Street will snag you anything from a Big Buddha handbag to a vintage dress to the very odd oddity. The shopping scene is small, but vibrant. At the Tender Land Home, owner Dave Pillard sells funky jewelry, designer handbags, housewares, and more. Nearby, 60 Main offers brightly printed dresses, along with children’s clothes and jewelry. And then, there’s the Mystery Spot, a ramshackle explosion of antiques, collectibles, and the very weird. Like an old time carnival hawker, the shop’s sign beckons you to "Meet Desdemona, the Devil Girl of Phoenicia! Visit the Creepy Doll Exhibit! Marvel at Petey the Petrified Piranha!" Enter at your own risk.
Rough It, Or Don’t
The area around Phoenicia is rife with campgrounds, if you’re really looking to get away from it all. Private campgrounds in and around the town offer everything from secluded tent sites, to RV hookups, to cabins. The Woodland Valley Campground, run by the New York State Department of Conservation, is an inexpensive, no frills option.
Speaking of hiking, if you come here, you should do it. The Catskills offer old-growth glory in a way that the formerly clear-cut peaks of the White Mountains cannot. Mossy rocks, fields of fern, and dense forest make this one of the most haunting landscapes in the north. Highly recommended is the Slide Mountain Loop, which picks some of the choice parts of several trails and strings them together up and around the Catskill’s highest peak. At about seven miles round trip, it makes for a great morning or afternoon hike. For more hikes visit the New York State Department of Conservation.
Or, how about a tube down the Esopus? Several vendors in town, including Town Tinker Tube Rentals, offer inner tube rafting down this omnipresent aquatic byway. This isn’t exactly lazy river rafting—the water is cold and strewn with rocks, so helmets are recommended for adults and required for children 14 and younger. Price for the inner tube (excluding gear) is $15 per day.
And if roughing it isn’t what you had in mind, accommodations like the Phoenicia Belle Bed and Breakfast offer quaint and cozy rooms right on Main Street. Set in a 19th century Victorian, the Phoenicia Belle features three guestrooms and a suite, starting at $100/night in the low season, $115 in the high. Also nearby is the expansive Emerson Resort and Spa, and several motels and lodges.
For more ideas on what to do on a long weekend in the Catskills, check out our Outdoor Weekend Getaway in Woodstock and the Catskill Mountains.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Ulster County Tourism