THE ROAD TRIP
The open road and its endless possibilities; the scenic route, the road less traveled, a wrong turn, right turn, stop light, green light. We shouldn’t need a sign to tell us when we need to slow down. Alright, relax. I’ll cut it out with the philosophical banter and get us started on our journey.
It was a Friday at 12 pm, Sophie who you may remember from our stint at Gramercy Park Hotel, met me at an Enterprise Car Rental on Thompson St in Downtown Manhattan. We decided to skip town and spend a weekend in the wondrous natural surrounds at North Branch Inn. As part of Foster Supply Hospitality, who get to call the always scenic Western Catskills home, the Americana-style Inn in the laidback town of North Branch was set to be our perfectly dreamy escape.
I, like every 20-something New Yorker trying to make a living, rented the cheapest possible option I could find. It didn’t take long for us to bond with the adorable teller at Enterprise (if by some small chance you’re reading this, call me), and he ended up giving us, well, a little upgrade. A white convertible Ford Mustang, black leather interiors.
So there we were on the open road, top-down, classic throwbacks playing just loud enough so I could sing my heart out, and driving just fast enough so that no one had the time to yell at us to turn it down.
THE SECRET GARDENS
Up windy mountain roads we made our first stop for a casual Friday afternoon massage at another of Foster Supply Hospitality’s properties, The Arnold House. We arrive with Andre 3000’s International Player’s Anthem blasting from our Mustang on the otherwise peaceful Shandelee Road that glistened with untouched snow.
In attempts to make up for our grand entrance, we tip-toed in to find my idea of interior design perfection. There’s a couple sat in total silence, basking in the indoor sun aside a roaring wood stove. There are freshly baked cookies and warm alpaca blankets aplenty. And all the way at the end of the
At the end of the lobby, was a sun-lit greenhouse adorned in exotic and local plants. The road had steered me right this time. And just as I stopped to smell the roses, I was met by Scott Woods; the hotel’s fabulous Director of Gardens who was so kind as to indulge me while I asked him about his indoor garden.
Before we got to terrariums and floral arrangements, Scott told me about his life Upstate. He described elaborate mornings with his husband where they “have coffee in bed for two hours and look out at the lush green view. We have about twenty chickens, and every day we get fresh eggs. You hear coyotes at night, we have bears and everything.” His dreamy set-up comes with his even dreamier beau, Albert Vincent, who Scott apparently met when he “worked at DreamWorks in LA. Albert was in soap operas as an actor. He was on Days of our Lives.”
Hold on, I thought out loud, “Rewind. How did you go from DreamWorks to plants?” Scott shares, “I always loved plants, but I decided to go to LA to follow my art. I worked at DreamWorks for six years.” Scott paused for a second as if to question if he should say what he was about to say, “…I also ended up being the assistant to Steven Spielberg’s mother for over two years. She is a character. I’m still friends with all of Steven’s sisters on Facebook. His mother owned a little kosher dairy restaurant, and I would drive her around in this big Lincoln. We’d hang out in the restaurant and go shopping in Beverly Hills.”
Scott’s ten years in LA would come to an end upon one winter visit to his home Upstate. “I actually wrote a book about all this. It’s called We Hillfolk. I self-published it through Amazon and I’ve sold almost 3,000 copies. It’s about moving back with my husband after living in LA. You’re going to love it! It’s an easy read.”
I got so swept up in Scott’s movie-worthy life, I forgot to ask him a single thing about the plants all around us. A guy with such a crazy story I thought, must grow some pretty out-there plants. The craziest? “Super-hot peppers,” he says without flinching. “How hot?” I ask. “Totally burn you. The Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpions are super-hot. They’re kind of like having a pet dragon, you grow them for fun.”
The following question, I simply had to ask. “What else do you grow for fun, does anyone ever ask you to grow pot?” Scott giggles, “One time, but not at The Arnold House. I grew this pot plant in my backyard at home that a dishwasher guy once gave me. The thing was like nine feet tall, dripping with buds. One day my neighbor came over and told me there were a couple of cops in my backyard and I had this lump in my throat. After ten minutes of playing with me, he’s like ‘
The way Scott uncovered where life’s roads had taken him, felt like I was there for the ride. So when he described where my next road would take me, I simply couldn’t wait. “The North Branch Inn is amazing. There’s an abandoned swimming pool and when I started it was filled with broken concrete and old bicycles. They wanted me to block it with some trees but instead, we embraced it. We emptied it out, put in topsoil, and now it’s like this sunken garden. It kind of feels like Angkor Wat, the whole place is so romantic.”
I was quickly woken up from my romantic daydream when my name was called. I had almost forgotten what I was there for, a soothing midday massage.
THE LADIES WHO BRANCH
Another quick drive through the rolling mountains of the Western Catskills, and many stares from confused drivers on the road expecting to see a man in a Mustang, we made it to North Branch Inn. Through each of the three unique buildings, The Main Inn House that dates back to the 1800s, the Library House and the Post Office Building, we were greeted with unexpected touches of history and charm in every corner. And yes, it already felt as romantic as Scott had suggested.
Our faces stuffed with the freshly baked cookies in the lobby, Stacey, North Branch Inn’s Director of Guest Services, came out to meet us. Despite crumbs all over me, she could not have been sweeter. Right off the bat Stacey was every bit as charming as the building she welcomes people into every single day.
Sophie and I continued to follow the New York native around the property. The scenery felt like it came out of an old romance novel. It was golden hour; the last light of the day was shining through bay windows upon dozens of books and irresistibly rustic decor. Stacey, however, shares that she wasn’t always working in such romantic surrounds. “You might not believe this but I worked at Bank of America for 16 years. I went to school for hotels in the 80s in Long Island, and worked at Marriott for a while but I decided to leave the city, move up here, and thought banking sounded interesting.”
Today, Stacey can be found using her customer service expertise to make all kinds of guests feel at home at North Branch Inn. “We get a lot of millennials from Brooklyn. But I’ve also noticed an older crowd coming back too.” She reveals, “I just find that we really connect with our guests. We truly care about who comes here. We want it to feel like a home away from home. We want you to walk away feeling more at peace than when you came.”
Stacey continued to explore the property with us, and just when I thought our tour couldn’t get any more interesting we met my new girl crush, Nicole. The witty and bubbly chef-meets-boss-lady is the kind of girl I instantly wanted to grab a bottomless brunch with. Her infectious charisma has taken her “from cooking at Blue Hill Stone Barns to leading operations at a culinary school,” and now to her new role as the GM of North Branch Inn.
You know the type of person you become best friends with in your first sitting? That’s Nicole. I’m not the only one who feels that way, Nicole shares that she “quickly became close friends with people at work, there’s a really good balance of locals who have lived here forever and transplants from the city. Last night we went to the Callicoon Wine Merchant which is this really fun little wine bar. It’s like a sitcom when you go in there because every time the door opens it’s someone you know and everyone’s like ‘Hey!’ That’s one of the things I was really missing in the city, that sense of community. You see people every day but you just pass by them because they’re just another face. Here you’re going to keep seeing the same faces again and actually get to know them.”
“Are you dating anyone up here? Do people use the apps?” I inquired. “It’s definitely a tough market. There are apps but it’s really interesting because if you match with someone, you’ll probably run into them. You’re going to see a lot of people you already know. The pool is definitely smaller but at the same time, you can build a really close community versus in the city where it’s so easy to just discount someone.”
Quite frankly, I couldn’t believe my ears. Nicole was literally speaking my truth. So what made North Branch Inn her reason to break up with New York City? “We attract people looking to unplug and relax. There’s nothing else going on on this street, it’s a little bit quirky but it’s also romantic and magical, it’s the kind of vibe you couldn’t create with something new it has to have a history. This building is from 1868, the post office is 1830. But there’s something fun about it too. You can wander across the street here to the restaurant, go bowling, get a little drunk and wander back to your room.”
THE CHEF’S COUNTER
Not to foreshadow the road ahead, but Nicole was exactly right. After two luxurious bubble baths, book in hand, I would be heading to dinner and one-too-many drinks across the street at North Branch Inn’s Restaurant.
We had clearly made some friends in high places because lucky for us, we had gained coveted access to the Chef’s Counter. I had heard murmurings of the delightfully fresh cuisine that Chef JP cooks up, and we were going to be sat up-close-and-personal with him and his team of two as they churned out meals for over 50 people that night.
For the first six courses of our meal, we watch Chef JP perfectly crisp trout, finely dice garnishes, and artfully plate dishes like his signature cauliflower salad. Let me just say, Chef JP and his sous chef are now my personal heroes. I can’t even hard-boil an egg in my kitchen without getting stressed out.
When the last dish was set, we stole JP’s attention for a little banter. “What’s in your fridge right now, do you have any guilty pleasures?” He shares, “My guilty pleasure is definitely gyros and street meat, I also love the Taco Bell burrito supreme with extra beef and sour cream. In my fridge, there’s a bunch of proteins, a lot of venison.” Having driven past several cute venisons on our way up here I simply had to know, “Do you hunt?” JP, the diplomatic chef that he is, claims that he’s “Been back and forth on it. I am a very big hippie when it comes to animals. I love animals. But I love eating them too.” An appropriate time for Chef JP to break out an ice-breaking Fernet digestif.
“I’ve never tasted anything like this,” I shared.
Chef JP, “Really? It’s like a nicer Jägermeister.”
Sophie, “I can’t do it, don’t waste it. I’ve had too much.”
Chef JP, “Don’t worry, it won’t go to waste.”
A couple more sips and it was clear to me that Chef JP has made some right turns in his local community. Every few minutes a new bunch of locals and visitors alike would come up singing praises about his hearty, gourmet dishes. It was by far the most interactive kitchen I’d ever seen, and it wasn’t a show, it was just real.
Crowds later the clock struck midnight and the restaurant had emptied. Which also meant we got to stay for a final nightly staff tradition that they call ‘shifties,’ which is exactly what you think it is, one more drink. We join them in cheers and just as Nicole said, stumbled right on back to our room.
THE ALPACA, THE INCIDENT AND THE DEBRUCE
We arose the next day to birds chirping and air so crisp and fresh it made my dirty city self almost shed a tear. Unlike my usual Saturdays in the city, today the only thing on the agenda would be to pet some furry new friends at Buck Brook Alpacas.
We hop in the ‘Stang (yes, I’m now calling it a ‘Stang), and drive up to a big red barn straight out of an old-time western movie. Except in contrast to your usual western movie, we were met by what I can only gage was a 12-year-old boy named Jake. I coyly, or at least think I was being coy, took a puff of my pot pen–I was mentally preparing for a Get Him to The Greek ‘stroke the furry wall’ moment when the same 12-year-old told me he’s in charge of manning over 150 Peruvian alpacas.
At this point, Sophie and I practically frolicked around the barn with our new best friends (sorry Nicole, I switch quite easily), and fall in love with an alpaca who goes by the name Enchanter. Apparently, unlike most humans I know today, alpacas’ mate for life. However Enchanter, like most men I meet today, is currently leaving his alpaca mate for her sister, who apparently has better legs. I guess humans and alpacas aren’t so different after all.
I let the weed ware off before we get back into the car to explore Callicoon’s antique markets. I don’t think I waited long enough because half an hour later, we found ourselves lost in the middle of the woods. Our GPS took us to ice-covered roads with no service in the literal middle of nowhere. Suffice to say, the ‘Stang was not meant to go off-roading. A feeling I can only describe as somewhere between Nicole and Paris in The Simple Life and full-on Bear Grylls.
We take a deep breath, get ourselves together, and forge our way out of the woods. It was only then I began appreciating the sheer beauty of drives Upstate. The rolling mountains fade in opaqueness as far as the eyes can see, the quiet neighborhoods, the one blinking traffic light in the middle of Main Street. Callicoon’s Main Street, was lined with playful storefronts filled with treasures. We stop into Ragtime, a vintage boutique where we had the always necessary movie montage moment, and walk out with a new leather jacket and an assortment of rings.
The sun began to set, and we had to
We pick two seats at the bar, naturally because the bartender is a serious silver fox. We decided to opt for a set menu comprised of perfectly crisp fried chicken, grits, the best buttery biscuit I’ve ever had, and a graham cracker pie dessert. James, the aforementioned gorgeous bartender indulges us in chit-chat. He hails from England, used to be a photojournalist, and his slight accent becomes my Achilles heel. He tells us of his travels to far-flung places, how he managed to score two British passports, and all about his peaceful life in Upstate New York. And just like that, as James’ shift ended and dinner came to an end, so did our adventure in Upstate New York.
Roads were made for journeys. They have bumps, cracks, signs that might feel like they’re telling you something more than just to stop, and at the end of the day, it’s all part of the ride. Those roads will take you to meet fabulous people and make you stop at places you’d never thought you’d ever find yourself in. Each place you go will leave a mark on you. And those marks, like the cracks in the road, will only make you all the more interesting. So take the road, whichever one it may be and I assure you, you’ll end up in some pretty remarkable places.
If this has left you, well, a little inspired, you could win a 2-night stay at the North Branch Inn just by submitting your email right here.