That’s the first thing I notice as I enter what appears to be a sprawling log cabin, decorated with lights and trees for the holiday, an antique sleigh dangling from the ceiling. This is Pinegrove Ranch, one of a special breed of family-oriented all-inclusive resorts in New York State’s Catskill Mountains.
The Catskills used to be famous for the mega-resorts like the Concord, Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s and Brown’s – the Borscht Belt as they were collectively were known, pioneering all-inclusives (taking a page from cruises), equally famous for their ballroom-sized dining rooms and bottomless menus where you would spend as much time eating as anything else, and for their nightclub-style shows and comedians. But another genre of resort was developing around the same time – dude ranches which catered to the Baby Boom families fixated on 1950s and 1960s children’s shows like Howdy Doody and television Westerns (think “Toy Story”).
The gigantic resorts, with their pseudo-sophistication, have all gone by the wayside, but the dude ranches, live on, and for good reason – they offer a place where families can gather, have meals together, offer plenty to do in a cozier atmosphere, including the novelty of horseback riding and the fun western ambiance and the best of the “all-inclusive” concept. there’s another thing: logistics. The Catskills is about 2 1/2 hours from New York City, and here, within a contained area, is everything you want.
Pinegrove, which opened in the 1970s, isn’t just a family resort and a family business, it is operated like an extended family. During our stay during the Christmas holiday, many families who had suffered or become destitute during Superstorm Sandy were being hosted at Pinegrove at the invitation of owner Dave O’Halloran. Many were families who had stayed at the Pinegrove in years past, some come every year. They spoke of how wonderful it was to have a respite from what they had to contend with in their homes. You could overhear their conversations of commiseration as they retold their horror stories, and sought comfort from one another.
The giggles that greet us as we arrive are coming from a band of t’weens who radiate their delight at having a free rein of the place. O’Halloran tells me that this is one of the things that makes the experience so special and why it is the kids who prefer coming here even to Disneyworld. Pinegrove is large enough to provide plenty of space to roam, to find a place where the family can gather, and to offer just about every activity and facility under the resort sun, but small enough to feel at home.
So after a day or so, parents feel comfortable letting their kids gather with new-found friends, or go to an activity on their own.
Still, the way the place is organized is to encourage activities families do together – there is a supervised activity playroom for kids where counselors will keep kids occupied for a couple of hours at a time so parents can get a massage or go horseback riding or play tennis – but more likely, they are the kind of activities that adults will enjoy as much as their kids, and that goes for kids of any age. (That game of laser tag we played together was really fun).
And what activities!
Since this is a dude ranch, you can expect horseback riding and we were impressed by the stable of horses – the quantity (around 40) and how well cared for the horses were. There is great novelty, especially for families coming from the city. This is still a rural area so the trails go deep into the countryside and you get those views of the Catskills rolling hills.
And while the Dude Ranch might seem a contrivance, in these days of themeparks and “e”-this and “i”-it is ironic that a dude ranch, where you get out and ride real animals and do real things, has taken on an authenticity of its own. It isn’t just “authentic” – in the rustic quality of the buildings, the getting out and doing things, there is a certain “back to basics,” unpretentious wholesomeness that is so refreshing.
We had loved to go to dude ranches when our sons were young – it is really an ideal venue for families with young children. And when I booked this trip during the Christmas holiday, I joked to myself that “I was reliving their childhood.” But I was delighted to find how much fun a dude ranch is with adult children (which is why it is also an ideal venue for three-generational getaways and family reunions).
Indeed, we met a Long Island family who has been coming here for years – their daughter learned to ride here and, now in high school, comes back year after year to ride.
We arrive late – after dinner – but Pinegrove had set aside dinner for us. Happily, after we find our rooms (with all the expansions of Pinegrove, you need a map to find your way around initially), we are in time for the evening entertainment, a comedian in the Bull Room Nightclub, with disco lights and DJ. The comedian is really good, finding a way to connect with the adults and the youngest kids. There’s also a neat-looking saloon, where the bar stools are made of saddles.
On our first day, after breakfast in a really attractive Round Up Corral (dining room), we start off at the archery range – tremendous fun – guided by Claude who was quite masterful at it, helped us with technique, and interestingly, a descendent of a Cherokee Indian on one side, and a relative of PT Barnum on the other.
The fellows went for their horseback ride (they were the only two who signed up for the advanced ride that morning). The stables are beside the petting zoo and the snow tubing hill, all completely non-tech, evoking the pure delight of scenes from Courier & Ives and Norman Rockwell.
After lunch, we play ping pong, miniature golf, swim in the large indoor pool (with two waterslides).
After dinner, we play laser tag, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening’s entertainment of Karaoke; the night we left, there was a family-friendly comedy and magic show with Steve Rodman). Each night there is some kind of musical entertainment and family show (magicians, jugglers, etc.) in the Bullroom night club, plus Karaoke, campfires and sing-a-longs throughout the week.
You think of a dude ranch for summer, but I was surprised by how great a venue it is for winter, particularly because there is so much to do inside as well as wonderful activities to get you outside. In winter, there is a tubing hill, an ice skating pond, a rock climbing wall, jumping pillow, volley ball, baseball field, racketball courts, tennis courts, even an Indian tee-pee and place for campfires, and a marvelous playground with large wooden train, airplane and boat to climb on and a petting zoo.
Indoors, there is a a video game room, pool tables and ping pong, a fitness center, and the swimming pool. And the front desk has a supply of board games.
Just about all the activities are included (non-riders get $20 off their daily rate), but there are a few special activities at extra cost, like massage and paintball.
During the day, there are a host of special activities – bocce tournament, tractor rides, egg toss (for Pinegrove Dollars!), bingo (for Pinegrove Dollars!), Can Jan Frisbee Game (for Pinegrove Dollars!), ping pong tournament, shuffleboard tournament, line dancing.
The all-inclusive aspect of Pinegrove is particularly marvelous for families- particularly multi-generational families and family reunions, and the dining room is really lovely – beautiful blonde wood, picture windows, an open space.
Lunch is provided in the “food court” or you can have waiter service in a separate, smaller dining room, Tapadero’s, if you want a more private space for your family, where you can sandwich, panini, or salad. On Wednesday and Sunday, lunch is a barbeque on the Lawn.
Food is one of the distinctive aspects of Pinegrove Ranch -it is abundant (won’t win any Michelin stars, but satisfying enough). A distinctive feature is the Chuckwagon Snack Bar that is open almost all day long, where you can grab snacks (hamburger, fries, ice cream etc) at no extra charge. There is coffee and hot chocolate available throughout the day And each day there is a cocktail party for adults with hors d’oeuvres and a Coketail party for the kids.
Pinegrove specializes in holidays – we met a Long Island family who have been coming for years for Halloween (they have a haunted corn maze as one of the novel activities),and we found Pinegrove ideal during the Christmas holidays.
I really loved the atmosphere here.
Pinegrove’s facilities are particularly wonderful – there is quality throughout- and an authenticity (if you can imagine that the concept was a complete fabrication in the 1950s). It is the Real McCoy.
But it is more than that: the wood frame buildings are really rustic. The interior corridors – just about everywhere you look, on walls and suspended from the ceiling – are artifacts and antiques that represent the farming tradition of the region that Dave has collected over the years: scythes, plows, an old-fashioned washing tub, a switchboard, even a Conestoga wagon in one of the lobbies, and sleighs suspended from the ceiling – like a kind of Smithsonian Institution of Americana. (A fun activity would be a scavenger hunt).
The quality of the furnishings and decor is also impressive to me, even though the overall atmosphere is casual and comfortable. Our rooms in the Santa Fe wing (451 and 456), are beautifully decorated in a very pleasing Southwestern motif, for example, with a handsome gas-operated fireplace (child-safe and automatic turnoff), granite bathroom. the boys’ room has two full beds.
There are family rooms with bunk beds for the kids.
What really impressed me, though were the wood carvings – totem-sized – all throughout the interior and around the property. Masterfully carved, especially some of the chairs and lamps. It turns out that Dave has been collecting these from a couple of artisans in the area over a period of decades. They also lend an authentic quality to the atmosphere here. (If it looks “authentic” to me, I can imagine what a child thinks when they enter this world.)
And then there is the artwork – an exquisite mural of horses that decorates the lobby, and smaller paintings everywhere, even the miniature golf holes are decorated with these amazing paintings, and in the archery range.
A Family Owned, Family Run, Family Resort
I can’t help myself: I sit down with Dave O’Halloran to find out where the wood carvings and art come from, and to talk more about this phenomenon of New York Catskills’ dude ranches.
He tells me that his brother, Greg, was an artist and that his sister Deb turned out to have a real flare for painting horses – they did the magnificent mural that decorates the lobby area. Greg did most of the other artwork.
The benches that are around the property were carved by Casey Thomson, now 86, who worked for Pinegrove ranch for 25 years.
The large – totem-sized – carvings were down by two local artists. Hopie Quick, who lives in Olive Bridge, works for the county, and does his wood carving on the side. He did a lot of the bear and animal carvings we see around. Dave says he started buying pieces 30-40 years ago.
Most magnificent of all, are the carvings of Indians – the faces so recognizable. These were done by Hal MacKintosh, Purling, NY
“I bumped into him; he had the carvings in his yard,” Dave says.
My favorite pieces are two chairs with carved figures.
The various artifacts that are everywhere – sleigh, carriages, wagons, farm tools, machines –Dave says, were collected over the years. I collected local things that I thought were historically relevant to what we do. Guests have recognized what we are doing and donate stuff to us instead of a garage sale.”
His personal favorite is a 1930s mechanical horse that used to be in front of stores and you’d put in a coin for a ride.
The Catskills all-inclusive resorts did not survive – they were way too big, I suspect and needed to keep up huge volumes of guests to break even. But the dude ranches are poised for resurgence, catering to new generations of families looking for much the same thing as their parents’ – value and superb activities in one compact destination.
Pinegrove Ranch caters to family travelers from the New York/tri-state area. “They come for first time because we’re different – they’ve done the beach, theme park, so they try a ranch for the first time. And then they come back year after year, because we’re a great value, because of family values – wholesome, great price – people get their money’s worth – We cater to the family value of spending time with children – we’re not Club Hyatt where you go golfing and kids spend the day with counselors. We want families together – But we have a supervised program so parents can massage or ride horses.
“We keep trying to morph. Families change. The traveling ages of families change. When we started, 15-17 year olds were common, but less common today. Our age demographic are families with children are 3-7. So we have to change. In 1970s and 80s we had go-carts and ATVs, now we have a bouncing pillow.….
But the dude ranches- with their all-inclusive concept and activities that appeal across age groups – are ideal to satisfy the newer trend are three generations coming together. In fact, Dave just named a small wing of 7 rooms after the Davey family, who have come to Pinegrove every year since 1971. “A few years back, we changed the name from Montana to Davey Wing, to surprise to them.
“Our guests realize you care, it is personal to them. We want [Pinegrove] to be their ranch, not ours, we just work there. It’s all about the guest”
This sounds very well and good – like a brochure or commercial. Except it accurately describes the feeling we get, too, after just a day at Pinegrove. There is an amazingly comfortable, homey, cozy feeling to the place. It feels like an extended family – not commercial, not impersonal at all. This is as much because of the facilities and layout as the other guests who create a shared sense of community (especially after you’ve listened to people singing Karaoke).
We were very impressed with our rooms – fresh, a contemporary look to the decor. Pinegrove has been refurbishing the rooms over the past two years – so far 70 out of 126 have been done over.
“We make the room family friendly. We changed the fireplace from woodburning to gas with a timer. Everything we do is designed so grandkids, children or adults can enjoy.”
For all these reasons, Pinegrove is an ideal venue for family reunions.
“Having a property that has meals included means that families get together at least three times a day – after that, we design programs for family reunions, so that there is an individual activity twice day (between breakfast-lunch, lunch-dinner. If there are too many activities, the family members get disinterested. The whole idea to bring family together in different, fun ways; that’s what makes unusual and rewarding. They can have a softball game, tug of war, a hayride.”
Larger groups can arrange for a hospitality room. “We set up tables there- it is a place to gather. We tell them to bring all their photo albums and put on tables so everyone can see everyone else’s photos.”
Most families organize family reunions in summer (usually a peak-season rate). This year, Pinegrove is doing something new, and having fixed, year-round rates, with discounts and specials through the year.
“2013 is the first year we are offering the same rate year-round, with some specials – always had seasonal rates, now have one rate..
“Our customers are feeling this economy very much so – can’t afford … We looked at the lowest rate we could charge year-round, and still offer specials – Mother’s Day when Moms stay free.
And believe it or not, PInegrove is offering a “Kids Free” deal for July 2013, during the height of peak season.
“We’ve never done this before in 41 years.” And in peak season! (The rates are on the website, where there are specials posted as well).
“We have a lot of guests who really like taking advantage of specials and special events and come more than once a year.”
Like for the haunted corn maze at Halloween. And Christmas here has been enchanting.
Many weekends have different themes.
Though Pinegrove does not have a corporate meeting room or convention center (though I guess the nightclub could be used), corporations love to give stays as incentive or for corporate “bonding” weekends.
The dude ranches, he says, are the last of the surviving Catskill resorts.
“We developed a niche market- the dude ranch – in 1950s, 1960s [the O’Hallorans have had Pinegrove since the 1970s]. We survived where the large famed resorts did not, because the ranches, from day one, catered to family clientele, where the large resorts catered to adult-entertainment style clientele. Not to mention –this was luck – being a ranch coincides with the trend of people wanting to be in the great outdoors. In the late 1970s, early 1980s, travelers wanted the glitz, glamor and shiny this; now they prefer the rustic feel of a lodge.
“Why we’re successful and why we are here -beyond the good value and catering to families with children – is what we can’t advertise but is what happens to each child here. The young children here – 7,8,9,10 – have lots to do, programs, activities where Mom and Dad may come and participate – archery, hayride – but sooner or later, they want to go again and again to do an activity, and Mom and Dad feel comfortable enough to let go and say ‘Go ahead and meet me at the pool.’ That sense of independence the child has – because Mom and Dad see they are safe, well cared for, so they let go, and let kids be kids, and that independence is why the kids choose us over every option. They choose us over Disneyworld.
“It’s not that we are better than Disneyworld, but to the child, [they value] the independence, that growth, that independence, not being afraid of getting lost. We had it as children growing up, but it is less and less available to children today.”
Dave says that he had that growing up in Florida. “We would spend vacations at a small place in the Florida Keys. It had nothing, but we had freedom to play. I take my own children to a big resort, and I’m afraid to let go of their hands.”
“We can’t advertise that but that’s probably the number one reason people come.”
In Florida, he and his siblings also grew up with horses, so taking over a dude ranch in New York’s Catskills wasn’t really a stretch.
His brother in law and sister started a ranch – he had worked as manager at Cimmeron in Putnam, one of the first and best known ranches in New York, in the 1950s and1960s, when everybody wanted to go to ranch. “They didn’t have locks on doors, TVs. They took you horseback riding and fed you breakfast.”
His sister was a ballerina and model in New York City but “she loved horses beyond belief.. In florida, we had horses so we opened Pinegrove with the help of our families.”
Pinegrove spans 500 acres – a mindboggling expanse these days, especially for people coming out of urban and suburban settings.
There are several dude ranches in the area (we’ve been to most at one time or another). Each has its own personality and character, much as cruise lines and cruise ships offer very different atmosphere and experiences.
“We all do a good job, Malibu, Pennsylvania, Roaring Brook in Lake George, Rocking Horse. Each has its own uniqueness and appeal.
“Malibu appeals to the avid rider – the guest will find more riding options, and longer rides than any of the others.
“Golfers will enjoy Thousand Acres because they have golf courses right on property.
Roaring Brook, which is right next to Lake George, offers more activities in the area.
Rocking Horse Ranch – “the shiniest of all,” he says – is more polished, manicured than all the rest. It appeals to the person more accustomed to high-end property.
Pinegrove, he says, appeals to the working parent family looking for great value. “We provide more than any – meals alone – 3 meals a day, complimentary snack bar, from 11 am-11 pm.
“Others, when you want fruit punch, soda, ice tea – you pay for that, here it is included.” It also offers a cocktail party (kids have mocktail party) every day and not just weekly; and more entertainment than the other dude ranches.
“We provide more per day, per person than any, and yet at a price that competitive,” Dave says.
I have to say it also offers the best combination of laid-back, unpretentious atmosphere that is still high-quality and well-made.
(There is still a game room with a huge selection of video games so no one will go through withdrawal, and it is set off with a “wall” of silver horseshoes.
Okay, it’s a little hokey – but it makes you smile and for kids, it is like stepping into a world of their imagination. The fantasy is reinforced with decor: there is the carpet with cowboy hats and boots; saddles are used to decorate the walls; horseshoes create the wall to the game room.
I love the sitting areas and nooks – the pool table and the large stone fireplace in the main lobby. It’s not old or old-fashioned. It’s timeless.
For the first time in 41 years, Pinegrove Ranch is offering Kids Stay Free program in July, its peak season. Also, it now offers year-round rates but with specials.
Pinegrove Ranch, 30 Cherrytown Road, Kerhonkson N.Y. 12446, Ulster County, Reservations: 800-346-4626, email email@example.com, www.pinegroveranch.com.
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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