It was 4 p.m. on an early January Sunday at New York’s Hunter Mountain. As the chairlifts shut down for the day, a noisy crowd filled one of the base lodge bars, all eyes fixed on a large flat-screen TV mounted high on a wall.
Many of the gathered skiers and snowboarders now wore “Manning,” “Jacobs,” “Simms” and “Taylor” football jerseys. They moaned and groaned or screamed in delight as their New York Giants played the Atlanta Falcons in a National Football League wild-card playoff game.
They were as un-self-conscious and raucous as if they were watching at home in a den on Long Island, or in Brooklyn, the Bronx or Hoboken, N.J. As I used my sharp elbows on my fellow Noo Yawkers, trying to carve out a clear view of my Giants, it occurred to me that we were all so comfortably at home in the Catskills.
In the ancient Catskill Mountains, a 21 / 2-hour drive from Midtown Manhattan, the peaks reach 3,000 to 4,000 feet, the forest hides many valleys and hardscrabble towns, and Hunter and Windhammountains provide experiences different enough to sate anyone’s snow-sliding jones.
As a native New Yorker — and a resident of northern New Jersey for the past 25 years — I’ve skied Hunter and Windham on dozens of day trips. In fact, my very first day on skis, when I was in high school in the early 1970s, was at Hunter — wearing cotton long johns, rolled-up blue jeans, multiple sweatshirts and a baseball cap.
The resorts are only 10 miles apart along a winding, scenic country road but much more distant in attitude and identity. Despite their proximity, I’d never stayed overnight to ski Hunter and Windham on successive days until last month, when my non-skiing wife, our son (22 and an expert), our daughter (18 and an intermediate) and I made the Hunter Inn our base camp for three nights.
Nowadays, I can call myself an advanced skier, and I wear perspiration-wicking, high-tech base layers; polyester fleece; waterproof and breathable pants and jacket; and a helmet.
Some things don’t change, though.
Long known as a party-loving singles’ destination and the self-proclaimed “snowmaking capital of the world,” Hunter still attracts hard-chargers from Manhattan, New York City’s outer boroughs, Long Island and northern Jersey. When temperatures cooperate, it still lays down huge quantities of machine-made snow on nearly 100 percent of its terrain, a commitment pioneered by its founders, local brothers Orville and Israel Slutzky. (Across the Catskills, annual natural snowfall averages only 100 to 130 inches.)
In the base lodge, you can still get authentic Jewish deli food at Jerry’s, Italian at Santini’s Pizza, and Mediterranean and Asian cuisine in the Plaza Cafe, or loosen your ski boots sitting at a second-story sushi bar.
And on prime weekends and holidays, you can still expect crowds everywhere.
But on the Friday after New Year’s, we had Hunter, then about 60 percent open, largely to ourselves.
Experts head to Hunter West, which has only black and double-black diamond trails. Intermediate and advanced skiers and riders spend their time on the main mountain, as we did, on classic narrow trails cut between rocky ledges and on several broader boulevards (personal favorites: Belt Parkway, Broadway, Kennedy Drive, Eisenhower Drive).
Many Eastern snowsliders (including me) think that among New York’s nearly 50 ski areas, only Whiteface Mountain — the 1980 Olympics alpine skiing venue outside Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains, about 175 miles north — has better overall terrain. Hunter has 55 trails (beginner and intermediate, 30 percent each; advanced, 27 percent; expert, 13 percent) and one terrain park on 240 skiable acres, with a 1,600-foot vertical drop. Its 11 lifts include New York’s first high-speed detachable six-passenger chair. Like Windham, Hunter offers a zip line and night snow tubing.
Hunter’s image has softened steadily over the years with improved amenities and customer service. The biggest image changer is the upscale, ski-in/ski-out Kaatskill Mountain Club, which opened for the 2005-06 season, joining the older Liftside Village condominiums as Hunter’s only on-mountain housing options.
A full-service, quarter-share condo hotel, the Mountain Club features a bar, a spa, a fitness room, an indoor/outdoor heated pool and hot tubs. And Van Winkle’s, an outstanding restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, all overseen by Culinary Institute of America-trained executive chef Tim Lang. Our dinner there Friday night included spicy Thai chicken stir-fry, hearty beef stew and a not-to-be-missed dessert that proved big enough for the four of us: warm bananas foster bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.
On Saturday, before skiing at Windham, we stopped in the resort’s eponymous town for breakfast at the Catskill Mountain Country Store and Restaurant. As the family’s designated breakfast lovers, my son and I were in our element. The morning menu is creative and long, including eight kinds of pancakes, banana pecan French toast and a dizzying variety of omelets, and the portions are big, the better to fuel time on the hill.
At Windham, where 50 percent of the terrain was open, we encountered all that we’d appreciated missing at Hunter a day earlier: crowds, lift lines and a target-rich environment of skiers and riders to avoid on the trails.
Windham has always been a more sedate and polished experience than Hunter, attracting more affluent skiers and snowboarders. It began as a private club in the 1960s; many of its founders were New York stockbrokers. It’s dotted with several condominium complexes and ski-in/ski-out single-family homes, many of McMansion scale.
Windham has the same 1,600-foot vertical drop (and nearly 100 percent snowmaking coverage) as Hunter but not as much terrain variety or challenge. Its 49 trails (including eight open for night skiing and riding, a Catskills exclusive, on Fridays, Saturdays and select holidays) and five terrain parks cover 269 acres. The trail breakdown: easiest, 30 percent; more difficult, 45 percent; most difficult, 25 percent. Its 10 lifts include two high-speed detachable quad chairs.
The resort’s East Peak has four long cruisers (intermediate World Cup, and black diamonds Wicked, Wing’n It and Why Not) and Wanderer, a two-mile-long beginner run with great views of the countryside. West Peak, the main mountain, offers intermediate cruisers and several double-black diamond trails. We particularly enjoyed Upper Wraparound, Whiskey Jack, and Upper and Lower Whistler.
Foodwise, there’s a base lodge cafeteria, a coffee bar, the mid-mountain Wheelhouse Mountain Lodge restaurant, the outdoor slopeside BBQ & Bar, a sushi bar and Legends, an airy second-story bar and grill with large picture windows facing the mountain.
On Sunday, we considered traveling about 20 miles south of Hunter to ski at state-run Belleayre Mountain, for a unique weekend trifecta. But we opted for Hunter’s better conditions and greater vertical instead. Hoping for a couple of hours of relatively uncrowded skiing, we made it a point to be heading uphill by 9 a.m.
I’m happy to say that our hopes were realized.
Curtin is a freelance writer in New Jersey.