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Phoenicia: The Secret of the Catskills 

click to enlarge The Sportsman's Alamo Cantina's iconic woodsman statue on Main Street in Phoenicia.
  • The Sportsman's Alamo Cantina's iconic woodsman statue on Main Street in Phoenicia.

Although it seems like a kept secret of the Catskills, Phoenicia has captivating alpine scenery that’s cultivated a community of return visitors and full-time residents for over a century. Located off of Route 28 in the town of Shandaken, Phoenicia is just 30 minutes from Kingston and seemingly chiseled into a mountainside, just minutes away from skiing at Hunter and Belleayre. Phoenicia’s Main Street lacks both traffic lights and crosswalks. When looking both ways is even necessary, rusty pickups rumble past foreign luxury cars.

While traveling north on the Thruway, the purple peaks of the Catskill Mountains begin to tease visitors from a distance. After disappearing over the horizon, their silhouettes return within five miles of the Kingston exit—a reminder of the scenery to come. The remaining commute along Route 28 is scattered with small hamlets, smaller businesses, and the occasional totem pole, as well as a drive past the Emerson Resort and Spa and Catskill Corners, home to the world’s biggest kaleidoscope.

Upon entering Phoenicia, guests must pass over train tracks that were once the lifeblood of the hamlet. Phoenicia was once a stop along the Ulster & Delaware Railroad—a passenger and cargo railroad that remains active. Outside of town, along Route 28, the Catskill Mountain Railroad runs a 12-mile scenic train trip between Boiceville and Phoenicia. The Phoenicia station, home of the Empire State Railway Museum, is located in the historic railroad depot. The station, completed in 1900, allowed the hamlet’s tourism industry to flourish. Throughout the duration of World War I, the Phoenicia stop of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad provided tourist traffic that has since become an imperative social and economic aspect to the area.

What’s Shakin’ in Shandaken
The economy of Shandaken itself has historically been focused on tourism traffic. In an 1879 article in the New York Times, “In The Ulster Catskills: Attractions of Shandaken Valley,” it is noted that “many thousands of people will come [to the Catskills] annually to escape the heat of the pent-up cities, and spend some of their hard-earned money in gaining renewed strength and vigor of body and mind.”

Originally a part of Woodstock, the town of Shandaken was established in 1804. After its first town meeting less than a week after its establishment, hamlets began forming throughout the town. Phoenicia’s Main Street was constructed in 1853 and has been altered scarcely since.

Of the businesses lining Phoenicia’s 19th-century streets, the Town Tinker Tube Rental has become a staple of the Catskills. Housed in a giant red barn, the Town Tinker rents inner tubes for riding the rapids of the Esopus Creek. The Town Tinker has designated sections of a five-mile portion of the Esopus based on the experience levels of guests—safety equipment is readily available for those who desire or require it.

Considering this inherent vacation-based tradition, it is no surprise that locals and business owners are welcoming to the visiting crowd. “[Tourists] blend in—they become part of our town,” says Sue Taylor, owner of Sweet Sue’s restaurant, a breakfast and lunch spot on Main Street (serving 20 kinds of pancakes!) that’s jammed with hungry hordes on weekends. “A lot of our customers are second-home owners from New York City. This has become just as much of a home for them.”

In a 2002 New York Times article about Phoenicia, Claudia Rowe reported that “Real estate agents estimate that more than half of the property in Phoenicia is owned by part-time residents.” Town Clerk Laurilyn Frasier confirms the abundance of part-time residents. “Most of the people on my tax roll are second-home owners,” says Frasier.

These visitors may not live in Phoenicia full-time, but their impact is felt all year. Mike Ricciardella, owner of Brio’s, The Sportsman’s Alamo Cantina, and Ricciardella’s, says that he depends on tourists and second-home owners to keep his restaurants operating. Ricciardella has lived in Phoenicia all his life and was raised in his family’s restaurant business.

He believes that in order to maintain a business in an area like Phoenicia, you must plan for the “peaks and valleys” of income. As might be expected, businesses tend to fare better in the summer when most tourists and second-home owners are in town.

“It’s a rollercoaster,” says Dave Pillard, owner of The Tender Land Home, a gift and furnishing store on Main Street. As “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams echoes through his modest shop, Pillard continues: “In December it’s busy, but in January it’s rough. It gets easier once you learn the pattern.”

  • Jesse Ordansky reports on life in the mountains of Ulster County.

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