This new hotel is worth a trip to the Catskills just for the tub
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We left the city (Jersey City, if we're being picky) at exactly 6 p.m., chasing the tail end of rush hour. It was early March, and the threat of the coronavirus escalating was very much a concern. We wanted to travel, but not so far we might get stranded. There was a sense of urgency — not just at our house but also at the TPG office — that if we didn't travel immediately, we might not have the chance for some time.
It was March 6, and opening day at the 28-room Urban Cowboy Lodge in the Catskills region of New York.
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Less than two weeks later, the property would announce its temporary closure — and most travelers would officially be on lockdown. But, at the time, we were all still cautiously optimistic that the virus might peter out; that the situation would de-escalate and we could all go back to planning our far-flung adventures and overseas vacations. Maybe we would all work from home for a few days, a week, but then this would blow over.
Those were the conversations we had around the communal table when we arrived at the Urban Cowboy Lodge just after dinner had been served. Normally, there are two seatings, but on this, the first night, there was only one service — and we arrived just in time to tuck into plates of grilled blue oyster mushrooms with chili and roast cabbage; fried sweet potatoes with braised leeks; and piles of roasted chicken.
Around the table sat documentary filmmakers and producers; public relations specialists; creative directors; and athletes. Some people now worked for the lodge, having just left behind jobs in New York City or even stints as a cruise ship entertainer. Others seemed to have a personal relationship with the property or the team behind it. All of us, though, were desperate for a quiet weekend in the woods, far from the news and the mounting threat of a global health crisis. After all, there's not much in the way of cell service here in the 700,000-acre Catskill Park.
Though we didn't know anyone and were there strictly as hotel guests, both my boyfriend (who had tagged along for the weekend getaway) and I felt immediately at home, welcomed into the conversation over glasses of Deadwood bourbon and local hard cider.
Following dinner, we all retreated to the main area of the lodge for dessert (blood orange with candied thyme and whipped cream). A wood fire was roaring in the river stone fireplace, framed by memorabilia that pays homage to the lodge's earlier incarnation as the 19th-century Alpine Inn — and the entire region's legacy as a summer retreat for New Yorkers.
We grabbed another round of drinks from the whimsical bar, which seems almost to have been cut from the surrounding woodlands. Like the fireplace, cedar trees and meandering branches hug the bar, which serves a breakfast spread in the morning and light bites and beverages (try the Paloma Rosa with tequila, Cocchi Rosa, grapefruit and rosemary) until late in the evening.
Across the 68-acre, five-building property in the Big Indian Wilderness (a protected forest nestled within the parkland) snow began to fall. In the mountainous expanse of the Catskills, the days leading up to spring often feel far more like bone-cold winter. So we retreated to our room — a "forest bathing suite" in the Walden building — to enjoy the quiet evening from our private deck overlooking the forest.
While things were quiet outside, nothing about the design is quiet at the Urban Cowboy Lodge, where hand-painted wallpaper stretches from the baseboard across the ceiling, echoing the Native American-inspired motifs of the wool Pendleton bedspreads and bathrobes.
The entire property is a riot of clashing prints, patterns and textures. It should be discordant, overwhelming even, but somehow all the tartan flannel curtains, jacquard textiles, reclaimed woods and antler chandeliers complement each other harmoniously.
I'll be the first to admit I've long been a fan of the Urban Cowboy brand, which was born as a bed-and-breakfast in Brooklyn and now includes a property in Nashville, in no small part because this team knows tubs. And if you know me, you know I'll gladly drive two-and-half hours (or fly across the planet) for a spectacular hotel bathtub.
Related: A bathtub named desire — A review of The Cape, a Thompson Hotel in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Forest bathing suites feature outdoor heated cedar Japanese soaking tubs for two — ideal for watching snow filter through the fir trees on a late winter evening.
Suites in the Alpine building boast oversized copper clawfooted tubs and potbelly stoves. What I'm trying to say is: You'll want to book a suite, because these are bathtubs worth the splurge.
Guests here will be delighted by the details, which nod to traditional crafts like twigworking and printmaking. But you never feel trapped in some bygone era. The property deftly blends vintage décor and modern comforts and doesn't take itself too seriously.
In the bathroom, for example, a plaid curtain hides a gleaming shower with white subway tiles and Public Goods bath amenities guarded by a rubber ducky in a cowboy hat. On the toilet seat is a scene of playful bear clubs reminiscent of the Hudson River School movement.
There's complimentary Wi-Fi, a Douni white noise sound machine and a fully stocked minibar with 21st-century snacks (organic popcorn, ginger and banana chews, small-batch protein bars from Brooklyn and local lager from West Kill).
But the lodge does evoke a quieter, simpler era, and forces guests to slow down. After dinner on the second night, a group of us reconvened around the fireplace for a rousing game of reggae bingo. (Not to be a braggart, but I won — and got a complimentary cocktail in place of a trophy.)
A list of activities such as this waited for us on the writing desk in our room. Saturday mornings could be spent exploring the on-property logging trail — or hiking the expansive network of trails in the area.
Sunday evening promised an old radio show in the cozy den downstairs, beneath the main lodge, where travelers can also warm up around a second fire or curl up on a leather beanbag chair with a well-loved novel from the stocked bookshelves.
You can always request a board game or fireside s'mores, and most evenings are punctuated by cocktail hours dedicated to different music genres (hip-hop from the 1990s; romantic melodies from the 1950s). An impressive turntable setup with stacks of classic and eclectic LPs ensures the soundtrack always strikes the right tone.
Urban Cowboy urges travelers to "arrive as strangers" and "leave as friends" — it's their official maxim, the first words that appear on the website and every email correspondence.
In addition to family-style dinners, coffee and pastries were set out each morning for guests. After peeling back the curtains in our suite to enjoy the scenery (including a coyote slipping through the snow-dusted woods right behind our suite), we'd walk over to the main lodge for a cup of fresh-brewed Stumptown coffee by the fire, nodding our hellos to the other guests.
Eventually, guests migrate to the dining room for breakfast served a la carte. After bonding over a shared love of kitschy Americana or Jamaican singjay the night before, it's easy to find yourself seated once again at the long, wooden bench around the communal table, steeped in a new conversation about the smoked trout bagel or leek-and-mushroom frittata.
And though my boyfriend and I spent plenty of time coupled off — hiking the Giant Ledge trail around the corner and exploring the nearby town of Phoenicia — we found ourselves hugging other guests when we departed. It's hard to be anti-social in a place like this, where so many meals and wholesome activities are enjoyed together.
Solitude is there if you want it, but when everyone is gathered around a roaring fire, nibbling on charcuterie plates and guessing at the name for an obscure reggae track, it's impossible not to feel a kinship with your fellow travelers.
After a brief and promising debut, the Urban Cowboy Lodge has just reopened this week, according to Afar. But it may be a very different experience from the one I had in March.
Now, meals must be enjoyed outside, at least six feet apart from other groups, or in private. The lodge will only operate at 50% capacity, and all guests and staff members are required to wear masks in public spaces. So, can the lodge rekindle its undeniable flair for encouraging visitors to become fast friends in a post-pandemic world?
It's certainly trying to make the most of the situation, and the balmy spring weather.
For the entire month of June, the property is partnering with Roberta's, a Brooklyn pizzeria. On a clear day, you can enjoy a wood-fired pizza and a bottle of wine on the sprawling front lawn — or retreat with your pie to the privacy of your room.
Coffee is now delivered directly to guest rooms, and the dining room has been transformed into a to-go canteen, with grab-and-go options such as yogurt, pastries, breads, cheeses and meats. Instead of boisterous bingo nights, travelers can opt instead for stargazing kits, or rent board games.
Even if you're not hugging strangers goodbye at the end of your stay, the Urban Cowboy Lodge is still positioned to deliver its remarkably optimistic interpretation of hospitality: a blissful escape from the world, and an unmistakable sense of camaraderie at a time when travelers may need it most.
Rates for entry-level rooms typically start around $255 a night, but a suite will set you back between $300 and $400. Reservations for the month of June are being arranged by email, so shoot the team a note to arrange your stay. Rates have also been lowered.
Pay for your stay with your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and then erase the travel charge on your statement (one mile equals 1 cent). Otherwise, maximize your purchase by paying with a card that earns bonus points on travel such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x) or Chase Sapphire Reserve.
In addition to the on-site activities, which may include strolling around the property, fly fishing or picnicking on the lawn, travelers who escape to the Urban Cowboy Lodge will have the vast Catskills at their disposal.
Related: 8 easy New York City escapes you can reach in 3 hours or less
During our trip, we made a detour to the legendary Phoenicia Diner, about 20 minutes down the road, and wandered around the small namesake hamlet. Travelers can grab a sundae from the Ice Cream Station on Main Street and pedal along the Ulster & Delaware Railroad as you follow the Esopus Creek. It can be just as enjoyable to watch other travelers try their hand at the activity.
Another 20 minutes along State Route 28 is Woodstock, an arts colony with a slew of fun shops and boutiques including Candlestock, a candle shop featuring a psychedelic drip candle started in 1969 that's now well over 6 feet tall. At Bread Alone Bakery, you can grab a light breakfast or lunch, or take home an entire sourdough round. We recommend you do both. If you're in town for the day, snag a table at Silvia (now offering Peck picnic baskets to go).
But ultimately, the greatest appeal of the region, especially now, may be its wide-open spaces. We're especially fond of the Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain trail near Big Indian; Kaaterskill Falls in Hunter, New York; the hike to the restored fire tower on Mount Tremper, near Phoenicia; and the Overlook Mountain trailhead just outside Woodstock, which famously features eerie ruins of a hotel from the 1930s. So be sure to pack your hiking boots and your bug spray.
Feature photo by Ben Fitchett.