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Road Trip: Wrong Way Waxler Hits the Highway to the Catskills

April 26, 2014

Photos and Story by Caroline Waxler

Our fearless driver looking a bit perplexed.

They call her Wrong Way Waxler. But eventually, she gets there and proves that it was worth the journey.

What: 2014 Audi SQ5 quattro Tiptronic

Destination: Phoenicia (pop. 309), in the Catskill Mountains.

The Route: From New York City, take New York Interstate I-87 north to exit NY-28 West. A slight turn onto Bridge Street, and you’re there!

Chairlifts ridden: 0

Number of wrong turns: 17

Her story: “Wrong way, cupcake,” was the very appropriate sendoff I got, attempting to turn east on a street that only ran west. What the passerby didn’t know was that in my family I am known as Wrong Way Waxler—and this drive was just beginning.

I took off heading north of the city to the tiny hamlet of Phoenicia in the Catskill Mountains.

An hour into my journey, I pulled over for a rest stop at Sloatsburg, on New York Interstate I-87. Signs for the exit declared: “History was made here,” so I figured if I had to go the restroom, why not go historic? It turns out that history wasn’t actually made at the rest stop but in the Hudson Valley area. However, this rest stop was lovely and huge, mall-like but with travel brochures.

Brio's provides a welcome respite and they have pie. 

About two-and-a-half hours out of NYC, the Phoenicia Diner shimmered in front of me like a mirage. Any town whose approach is signaled by a house of fries and apple pie works for me.

Slightly reminiscent of a Northern California hippie town in feel and size, Phoenicia’s Main Street spans only two blocks, with no traffic lights, plenty of parking spaces, and, as local lore goes, a gangster’s millions buried nearby.

Legend has it that Dutch Schultz, the gangster featured in E.L. Doctorow’s novel “Billy Bathgate,” buried a metal box filled with piles of $1,000 bills, diamonds and gold, somewhere within the town before his death.

The town still draws treasure-seekers.

Stopping to look for gifts at Tender Land Home.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten my shovel. My first stop, of course, was shopping: Tender Land Home was filled with lots of knick-knacks (aka great housewarming gifts). That day the store was host to a reception for local writer Holly George-Warren, promoting her new book, “Man Called Destruction" about rock singer Alex Chilton. Rock and Phoenicia seemed to go hand in hand.

Next up was lunch at Brio’s Pizzeria & Restaurant. Apparently their pizza is legendary but for some (insane) reason I was into eating kale that day. So I had the kale and avocado benedict—delicious and the price was right—for $12.37, including diet soda. The décor, however, wasn’t much to look at (unless local-ski-town-pizza-shop is your thing).

Lots of treasures to be found digging through the eclectic inventory at Mystery Spot Antiques.

The main dish in town is no doubt the Mystery Spot Antiques, known locally as “The Spot,” and fronted by a huge statue of Davy Crockett. Run by Soho-based rock-and-roll photographer and artist Laura Levine, whose art is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery (“American Cool”), the purveyor of vintage clothing, records, antiques, and random oddities (hello “Petey the Petrified Piranha”) used to be a small hotel. As Brooklynite weekend vacationers Jasmine Flotte and Sarah Moon put it, “We come up and just go to the Mystery Spot and the Phoenicia diner.”

A Brooklynite’s dream getaway can be found staying at Graham & Co.

That’s the way many people enjoy Phoenicia, whereas others come up for the abundant tubing, camping, hiking, and fly-fishing. And where do they all stay—or try to stay? Graham & Co., though it’s booked every weekend through September.

This 20-room boutique hotel, a few blocks off Main Street, feels like a Brooklynite’s dream getaway: swimming pool fed from an artesian spring on the property, hammocks, badminton court, fire pit, picnic area, outdoor string lights, and registration/coffee/stylish shop area complete with a bored hipster working behind the counter and “Hamptons vs. Catskills” T-shirts for sale ($28). 

On my way out of town I hit the massive Nest Egg, which bills itself as an “Old Time Country Store,” and grabbed some delicious Phoenicia Fudge Factory fudge (dark chocolate & sea salt). This was arguably worth the entire trip alone.

I popped over to Hunter Mountain (about twenty-ish minutes away) next to see about that warm-weather chairlift riding everyone talks about—Scenic Skyride. Alas, it was full Wally World when I got there (not open again until Memorial Day). There’s also a zip line, in case you prefer seeing the Catskill Mountains from a higher altitude at a terrifying speed.

Sitting on a chairlift at the closed-until-Memorial Day Hunter Mountain.

For a little high culture on the way back home, I checked out the dramatic 500-acre outdoor sculpture park that is Storm King Art Center, located in New Windsor, about an hour outside of Manhattan. And if something indoor is more your thing, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights is a step back in history. This is Manhattan’s oldest house, whose occupants have included both George Washington and Aaron Burr. If you happen to be there on a day when the curatorial assistant Jasmine is on hand you will get remarkable insight. How can you not love a place that has a sign in the women’s bathroom denoting that one of the toilets was built expressly for Queen Elizabeth’s 1976 visit. Apparently, a royal needs her own throne.

Storm King Art Center makes for a good half-way stop to take a walk and see some art.

Oh, and as for Wrong Way Waxler? I did OK, only getting lost a handful of times. This trip was easy enough that even I could do it. 

Caroline Waxler is a writer and founder of Harkness Hall, a New York-based business that programs conferences and panel discussions.