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Skyline to Fall Line

Skyline to Fall Line

Travel East
By Steve Cohen
posted: 02/02/2006

It's fitting that the "World's Largest Kaleidoscope" sits astride Route 28 in Mt. Tremper, N.Y., a gateway to the Catskill ski region. Less than a three-hour drive from Times Square, the four ski areas that vie for the attention of metro New York skiers-Belleayre, Plattekill, Hunter and Windham-are kaleidoscopic in their own right: colorful and diverse, never the same twice, tumbled together into the folds of an ancient mountain range that was once the glittering summer playground of New York's wealthiest. In the early 1950s, the advent of air conditioning and automobiles began casting an ever-lengthening shadow on the region's appeal. Today some of its towns-Phoenicia, Shandaken, Tannersville, Hunter and Windham-are weathered and worn.

But there are signs of a Catskill rebirth, fueled in part by the 9/11 attack, which has driven many city residents toward the quieter environs just outside the metro region. Artists and telecommuters-the leading edge of this influx-are helping to rejuvenate these once-depressed communities and spark interest in the local ski mountains. Top-shelf boutique lodging has begun to spring up (the Emerson Inn & Spa in Mt. Tremper, for instance). A controversial plan to build a $250 million megaresort at Belleayre has been proposed. And major new lodging projects are nearing completion at Hunter and Windham as the Catskill region seeks to expand on its day-skiing roots.

Most New York City skiers jump off the Thruway (I-87) at exits 19 (Belleayre and Plattekill), 20 (Hunter) and 21 (Windham) to reach their sliding destinations, but the four ski hills are also linked by secondary roads, and none is more than a 30-minute hop from any of the others. Unlike other compact ski regions, where resorts band together to lure customers and then share the rewards, these four beat each other like dysfunctional siblings. But as is almost always the case, competition is good for the consumer-in this case, weary urban dwellers looking for good skiing close to home.

[NEXT ""]Belleayre is one of the best bargains in Eastern skiing, with weekend tickets going for $44 and weekday opportunities to ski for as little as $15. Anyone can ski for $10 on his or her birthday, and if you don't have a winter birthday the resort will assign you one. Such discounts only raise the hackles of the other area operators. They contend that state-owned Belleayre has artificially low prices subsidized by tax dollars, and that it has an unfair advantage in that it pays no property tax or liability insurance (covered by the state), has no debt service and gets surplus state equipment at low-or no-cost.

Belleayre lacks high-speed lifts. One is promised, though in a fiscally strapped state, legislative promises are ephemeral at best. Nevertheless, its thoughtful trail layout, excellent grooming, generous snowmaking and tidy base facilities give it major-league appeal.

The mountain itself has an incongruously Western feel, with wide trails lined by tall evergreens. The runs are similar in pitch-dark blue at most-but they vary dramatically in character. Some twist and turn, others run fall-line straight, and plenty of thoughtfully preserved tree islands add visual interest. The grooming crew is judicious in its approach, manicuring one run baby-butt smooth, leaving the next punctuated with bumps.

In a nice touch, the area offers true adventures for better skiers. For a dollar, skiers get a 10-minute snowcat ride to a gladed section on the resort's eastern flank. The terrain dives down all of Belleayre's 1,200 vertical feet to a cutover leading back to the lifts, and the more adventurous can continue another 1,000 vertical to the road if they leave a car there beforehand.

[NEXT ""]On good powder days, the area's west flank offers legal poaching of the defunct Highmount Ski Area trails, accessible from a discreet spur off of the Deer Run trail.

Plattekill stares Belleayre in the face- trails each plainly visible from the other-but they're starkly dissimilar. Where Belleayre is polished and plush, Plattekill is short on frills and long on hardcore appeal. Yes, its parking lots are unpaved, the food in its quaint lodge is basic, and its lifts are strictly fixed-grip. But what Plattekill has is a perfectly tilted wedge of true expert and intermediate terrain that drops straight down 1,100 feet of uninterrupted vertical. And because it occupies the western slope of the Catskills, it catches more snow than any of the region's other areas.

Plattekill owners Lazlo and Danielle Vajtay are mom-and-pop proprietors for the new millennium. They grew up skiing and instructing here, and in 1993, when Lazlo was 30, the couple purchased the resort out of bankruptcy. They've been upgrading ever since, always on the lookout for good buys. A used chairlift replaced a surface lift and amped up the skiing a few years ago. And last year they bought $4,000 worth of used snowmaking equipment for $600 from a Massachusetts area, then found a compressor on eBay.

The Vajtays bill Plattekill as a family ski area, but the kind of families that are most comfortable here are ones with FIS bloodlines. A couple of extra-long beginner trails meander down the perimeter, but it's the sustained vertical that makes Plattekill appealing to seasoned skiers. That and Powder Daize: The area normally operates Friday through Sunday and on holidays, but when it dumps a foot or more, Platte-kill spins its lifts and sells $25 lift tickets.

[NEXT ""]Like Belleayre, Plattekill also offers a genuine backcountry skiing experience. Ask around for Sean Reilley, the area's "unofficial, unsanctioned powder guide." He's pretty much "on duty" daily, and when conditions are good, he'll lead impromptu tours on 2,000-vertical-foot descents from the summit to the access road, doubling the lift-served terrain.

Ask a New Yorker to name a New York ski area, and Hunter will roll off his tongue as easily as a curse-laden epitaph for the Boston Red Sox. Hunter still has its strong cadre of type-A Manhattanites, Brooklynites and Long Islanders who routinely try to the beat the under/over on the drive-time to the slopes. ("Made it in less than two hours!") But these days Hunter is working overtime to soften its image and remake itself as all things to all skiers. So far, it's succeeding. No longer are beginners thrown to the wolves, for instance. A new state-of-the-art Learning Center takes them by the hand from bus to slopes with very un-New York compassion. All facilities are on a single level. Beginners transition seamlessly from sign-up to rentals to meeting their instructor, all without one struggling uphill step. From a fireside table in the center's glass-walled Goldye's Café, parents can watch their kids' progress on the segregated beginners hill. And the families are coming-often headed by parents who skied Hunter as young singles and still love its hustle.

Hunter offers the most challenge in the metro area and big vert: 1,600. The top 300 feet are little more than commuter trails to the fall line, but then there are raw-boned, narrow trails sliced from rocky ledges and pitched as steeply as anything in New England. On busy days, they'll bump up and get scraped off, but they'll also hold your attention from first turn to lift maze.

[NEXT ""]In the ultimate sign that Hunter is softening its edges, the resort has broken ground on a quarter-share condominium complex called the Kaatskill Mountain Club, which will offer the first full-service on-mountain lodging in the resort's history. It opens next season, and the prospectus promises "around-the-clock staff to take care of almost anything that you might need." That kind of full-service pampering sounds like a new Hunter Mountain indeed.

Windham, Hunter's polished neighbor and chief rival to the north, has historically appealed to a more affluent skier. If New York City's Finest (the police) and Bravest (firefighters) call Hunter home, Wall Street brokers do the same at Windham, where they can check the Dow in the area's business center.

Windham is genteel and polite, more family-friendly country club than city playground. That's not surprising, since it began life as a private enclave back in the '60s. It caters to families with weekend nightskiing (the only resort in the Catskills to do so) and snowtubing. In recent years, Windham has come to resemble tony Stratton, Vt., with an ever-growing neighborhood of slopeside homes snaking up its western flank, tastefully hidden, for the most part, in wooded terrain.

Windham customers certainly come to ski, but also to sip microbrews in the Legends bar or nurse lattes from one of two Starbucks shops in the base lodge. The music of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel flows from the sound system. Pull into the Windham parking lot on a weekend, and snow caddies will lug your gear for free from curbside to the base area. Valet parking is also available.

Windham's shortcoming is its lack of terrain diversity. It boasts the same 1,600 vertical feet as Hunter, but nothing qualifies as especially challenging, and the bottom third is a long run-out where a good tuck comes in handy. The smaller eastern terrain pod has some excellent long cruisers, served by a fixed-grip triple. But hey, who's in a hurry? The nice thing for New Yorkers about skiing in the Catskills is that you can wring every last lift ride out of the day and still be home in time for 60 Minutes. Try doing that from Vermont.

JANUARY 2005

and Bravest (firefighters) call Hunter home, Wall Street brokers do the same at Windham, where they can check the Dow in the area's business center.

Windham is genteel and polite, more family-friendly country club than city playground. That's not surprising, since it began life as a private enclave back in the '60s. It caters to families with weekend nightskiing (the only resort in the Catskills to do so) and snowtubing. In recent years, Windham has come to resemble tony Stratton, Vt., with an ever-growing neighborhood of slopeside homes snaking up its western flank, tastefully hidden, for the most part, in wooded terrain.

Windham customers certainly come to ski, but also to sip microbrews in the Legends bar or nurse lattes from one of two Starbucks shops in the base lodge. The music of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel flows from the sound system. Pull into the Windham parking lot on a weekend, and snow caddies will lug your gear for free from curbside to the base area. Valet parking is also available.

Windham's shortcoming is its lack of terrain diversity. It boasts the same 1,600 vertical feet as Hunter, but nothing qualifies as especially challenging, and the bottom third is a long run-out where a good tuck comes in handy. The smaller eastern terrain pod has some excellent long cruisers, served by a fixed-grip triple. But hey, who's in a hurry? The nice thing for New Yorkers about skiing in the Catskills is that you can wring every last lift ride out of the day and still be home in time for 60 Minutes. Try doing that from Vermont.

JANUARY 2005

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