As a native of New York’s Finger Lakes, I’ve been driving through the Catskills to reach New York City since I was a kid. The decrepit farmhouses and the tired towns, which had fallen on hard times in the ’70s, never seemed worth a stop. But over the past few years, the area has become a haven for artists, chefs and artisans looking for a beautiful, affordable alternative to New York City. The result is a network of hamlets, each harboring its own thriving creative scene. Phoenicia, for instance, is now home to a stylish motel designed by one of the cofounders of New York City clothing store Oak; there’s also a fantastic chrome diner serving silver-dollar pancakes in a modern dining room with touches of camping kitsch (look for the bait-and-tackle boxes near the counter). Farther north is the town of Andes, which compensates for lack of cell-phone service with a world-class antiques shop, an impressive hard cidery and a café that bakes perfect tarts filled with velvety, sweet pears. The time to go is now—here’s everything you need to know for the ultimate Catskills road trip.
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This tin-ceilinged restaurant in Narrowsburg doubles as a town meeting place. The regulars sitting next to me are greeted with hugs by the otherwise-shy teenage waitress, so I copy their order. I am rewarded with a dish of smoky andouille mac and cheese and fantastic fried chicken. The meat is juicy and covered in a craggy copper-colored crust that’s too hot to touch when it lands in front of me, delivered by The Heron’s co-owner Marla Puccetti. Her partner, chef Paul Nanni, a Marcus Samuelsson protégé, pours us glasses of crisp Wayside Cider (pressed just north of Narrowsburg) and explains the learning curve the couple faced in opening the town’s only ambitiously local restaurant: “Our poultry farmers froze their fresh chicken because they weren’t sure they would be able to sell it in time. We convinced them that there is demand here, and now we get delicious chickens within hours of them being killed.” The Heron’s new downstairs music venue (serving Catskills Brewery IPA) is also a hub for a community that notices even the smallest changes. As I leave, I pass a sign pleading for the return of The Heron’s beloved bear toilet paper holder: "I was stolen Saturday night!" 40 Main St., Narrowsburg; theheronrestaurant.com.