At alpaca farms, smiles are contagious. (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
New York’s Catskill Mountain region was a bustling vacation paradise in the 1940s through the 1960s, primarily for Jewish families who didn’t feel welcome at other resorts in the metropolitan area. The region earned the nickname “the Borscht Belt” for the dozens of mega-resorts, like Grossinger’s and the Concord, popping up in every town and growing more lavish by the decade. Eventually, resorts died out due to greater access to other vacation spots by plane, as well as a modern Jewish generation that wanted to stay in the city. But years after the collapse of the Borscht Belt, which left countless large-scale resorts and bungalow colonies emptied and abandoned, the Catskills are finding new success in businesses that are nearly the antithesis of what the area used to be famous for.
Leading the charge in this new wave of success is a number of modest alpaca farms. If the very idea of an alpaca conjures images of Machu Picchu, and if you’re thinking that it seems like a strange animal to house in upstate New York, all you need to do is meet this new wave of farmers, and the Alpaca Belt will make total sense.
Just a few miles away from the site of the former Stevensville Resort, one of the larger Borscht Belt hotels that collapsed when its owner was discovered to be an accomplice of Bernie Madoff, you’ll find Ed and Denise Burkart and their farm, Imagine Alpacas. Though the farm is hidden behind a little house and a sweet, lush forest, you’ll know you’ve hit the right spot after you park your car and are met with dozens of large doe eyes staring your way, waiting for you to make your move.
Billy Shears saying hello! (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
Of the 21 alpacas on the farm, “most of them are named after Beatles songs,” Denise points out, introducing Billy Shears, a tall, brown, fluffy sire. She and Ed came upstate by way of a vacation from New York City, visiting a nearby existing alpaca farm and falling in love instantly. Though they spend lots of time with their herd, feeding them, brushing them, taking care of medical worries, they have a strong network of alpaca-farming buddies who watch the animals if they decide to visit family in the city. And what of the family of the cherubic retirees? “Our kids think we’re crazy,” Ed tells me, looking over their backyard, with a herd of prize-winning sires in view.
About 20 minutes away, Patty Ludwig of Alpacas in Harmony also has family members who are dubious about her alpaca endeavors. “My husband wasn’t so sure at first,” she says. “But he loves the farm life now!” Patty and her husband still make the commute, splitting time between Long Island and a village called Cochecton, near Monticello. In 2008, she met her alpaca, Harmony, and began boarding a small pack at Rosehaven, a nearby farm often credited as the inspiration for the increase in the number of farms in the area. As her herd grew, she knew she wanted to move toward the upstate life. “The great thing about these animals is that you don’t need to know much beforehand,” she says while trying to feed one of her little guys a frozen carrot.
Alpacas in Harmony (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
Today, Patty’s farm has a herd of 30 alpacas, including a few cria (babies); her prize male, called Monty; two horses; and a barn full of cats that came with the house. Like Imagine Alpacas, Alpacas in Harmony has a little shop where you can buy items made from the fleece from her animals as well as other alpaca-fleece items. At Imagine Alpacas, fleece socks are a best-seller, and all items are wrapped in a bag marked with a photo of their prize silver alpaca, Amadeus.
You can take the two-hour drive from New York City to visit Amadeus at Imagine Alpacas by making an appointment with Ed and Denise. Make sure to say hi to Mimi, Prudence, and the other soft, furry ladies, and stop in Yiasou Cafe, a small Greek restaurant nearby with a cult following. Likewise, the herd at Alpacas in Harmony can be visited by appointment. The farms are filled with families, for the most part, with excited children who like to pet the soft neck hair of the alpacas, and other local farmers who come to see familiar faces, both human and alpaca. The shops do well around the holidays, but fleece is a big seller all year round. And with the influx of new, small hotels cropping up across the Catskills, the farms have a wider variety of visitors stopping in.
It’s feeding time! (Photo: Annemarie Dooling)
Altogether, in the area spanning upstate New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, there are about 15 farms creating a larger alpaca community, not including a handful of farms that are closed to visitors or the bed-and-breakfasts that have a tiny herd on-site. The farmers, many of them new to the lifestyle, have Meetups and Facebook groups and stop by each other’s farms to spin or buy fleece. Selling the alpaca fleece and showing the animals at events top the list in ownership reasons, income, and expenditures, although, according to some of the Facebook groups, alpaca meat — not FDA approved — is starting to gain in popularity. If you want to buy some, a Facebook group is the place to start.
For a simpler visit, to pet and meet the animals, you’ve got many options.
Does it get any cuter than this? (Photo: Bella Alpacas)
Bella Alpacas, in New Milford, Conn., is a B&B where you can do yoga and have a sleep overnight before visiting Gustov and Michelangelo.
In Millerton, N.Y., Copper Star Alpaca Farm features a prizewinning superstar herd and a large number of alpacas for sale, if you want to jump into the farming game yourself. Pic A Paca not only rescues abused alpacas but also has rental services for parties. You can either visit their herd or have them come to you. It’s recommended to call ahead before visiting any of these alpaca farms.
Where to stay
Adding to the region’s newfound glory are the small boutique hotels and B&Bs popping up across the wooded landscape. A far cry from the excess and glamour of their predecessors, these modest lodgings specialize in intimate settings, some with little more than a bed, a desk, and a radio.
The simple charm of the Graham and Co. (Photo: Graham & Co.)
Phoenicia’s Graham & Co. came first, the product of New York City designers, and its dozen rooms are constantly booked throughout the year; the grounds also include a tiny pool and places for bike riding and watching movies in the summer. Nearby, the new Spruceton Inn has the same minimalist aesthetic with a no-kids/no-pets policy for some true peace and quiet. Kids are, however, welcome at the Hillside Schoolhouse, although they might not love it. This Sullivan County hotel is a converted one-room schoolhouse with just two accommodations: the Belfry and Room 1893, both with some modern upgrades, such as a private bath, Wi-Fi, and TV.
About 40 miles north of the Hillside, the Arnold House, in Livingston Manor, N.Y., is having its first winter in the Catskills, and the nine rooms of this converted B&B are already a popular destination. Spend a morning by the fireplace; then drive five minutes into Livingston Manor’s main strip, where breakfast at the Main Street Farm — an unassuming shop with local beer, cider, honey, meat, cheese, and dairy products — awaits you. You can pack up some fresh eggs and cheese to take back to the Arnold or enjoy a sit-down sandwich in the shop.
The Arnold House is a B&B turned hotel. (Photo: Arnold House)
Best of all, Livingston Manor is only 25 minutes away from the top alpaca farms in the region and just a few minutes from Liberty, N.Y., the home of the first tuberculosis hospitals and Borscht Belt getaways in the Catskills.
As you drive through this town, with its delicate bakeries, health food shops, and barbecue barn, it’s hard to imagine the over-the-top excess and glitz that made it a top destination for fleeing city dwellers just 50 years ago. But with its groves of fragrant pine trees, its mountain vistas, and the silence broken only by the sounds of birdsong, you can easily see why it’s become one again.
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