Town of the Week: Bethel

  |  August 15, 2011

Bethel got on our radar when a reader alerted us to its offerings — not just on the nature front but the cultural front as well. Most famous for being the real home of the Woodstock festival, that concert site is now a cultural center within walking distance of many of Bethel’s offerings. The town encompasses the hamlet of Smallwood (a former Christian community that several folks have written in to ask us to cover), as well as Black Lake, White Lake and a few other teeny hamlets. Lots of good water in the area, but we find it a little light on the architectural charm, unless you’ve got a couple of million for a gated estate — there are plenty of those for sale, built at a more hopeful time in the American real estate market.

Our Bethel correspondent purchased an adorable cabin here which she now rents out, and has written in to sing the hamlet’s praises.

Weekending at the Real ‘Woodstock’

West of the Hudson and far from the more popular upstate destinations of New Paltz and Rhinebeck lies the best kept secret of the Catskills: Bethel. Blessed with varied real estate, swimming and boating lakes, historic sites, and beautiful scenery, Bethel is full of family activity all year ‘round.

When we purchased our cabin in the fall of 2010 we thought of it as nothing more than a quick and inexpensive getaway from Brooklyn.  Our place is in a hamlet within Bethel called Smallwood.  Most of the cabins are nearly identical due to the popularity of cabin ‘kits’ from Sears in the 1930’s when most of the places in Smallwood were built as part of a private vacation community. Of course, most of them now have additions of porches, screen rooms, and lots of cobbled-on additions. Most of the cabins here are seasonal, meaning they run on town water which is only turned on from April till October, after that its pretty impossible to stay unless you have your own well. Our street is half and half; partial summer residents and part year round residents. We’re the rarity, weekend people who come up all year around. My husband is a fan of the fall foliage season, while the kids can’t get enough of the peaceful calm of winter (oh, and the sledding, snowman building and skiing!).

There is so much to do in Sullivan county for families of all ages. At the Woodstock concert site they’ve built a gorgeous outdoor concert facility where family pak lawn tickets can be had for as little as $60 per family. On the immaculate lawn where the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin once played you can now enjoy the sounds of Elton John, Selena Gomez, and the New York Philharmonic. The annual July 4th family Philharmonic concert complete with fireworks is always a hit for all ages. Kids play and roam while adults enjoy the music and a picnic dinner.  The museum is also really a class act and thoroughly air conditioned for a humid or rainy afternoon.

Most communities up here have some sort of lake. Friends in Rock Hill have just a small patch of sand, while others in Masten Lake have a summer lake program full of children’s activities which is reflected in their joining fee (approx.. $700-). In White Lake friends of ours on the lake have their own dock but no real swimming beach.  In Smallwood we have a Club with a pool to join or the Lake Association which allows lake swimming on the large man-made beach with a lifeguard from July 4 till labor day and boating on the non-motor lake (and catch and release fishing) for the paltry sum of $125- a season.

The beauty of this is that if you’re up here for any length of time you and your kids will meet new friends, both local and from the city. Our city friends are as diverse as social workers from New Jersey, lawyers from Manhattan, and schoolteachers from Brooklyn. Some of our ‘country’ friends have six kids, some are business owners, some go to private schools with movie star’s kids!  So while Bethel may not have the caché of Southhampton, it is made up of ALL kinds!

Summer programs for kids are everywhere you look at all price ranges. The town of Bethel offers half day camp at $40 for six weeks as well as summer Tae Kwan Do, t-ball, Zumba, and basketball for low or no fee. My older son has attended the camp for three years now and has gone on field trips with the camp to local organic farms, a local family-owned waterpark, and to the movies. The counselors are local teachers and the C.I.T.s are older campers.  Other nearby towns have summer kids programs too, Callicoon has a morning arts program at their Delaware Arts Center for an annual fee. Locally there is a stable that even offers half day horse camps! There is even a children’s music program offered at Bethel Woods for four weeks in August (not to mention a ‘Family’ day when kids are allowed to run amuk on the concert grounds!).

Real Estate in Bethel is as diverse as people who vacation here. On the high end, Chapin Estates offers private lots and the builders create custom dream cabins just a hop from the gorgeous Lake Superior State Park.  Friends in Smallwood have purchased 3bd. 2 bth newer style homes, fully furnished (a little on the early 80’s stylewise) for the low 200’s.  These homes all have wells which allow that year round usage whereas seasonals can be had for as little as $35,000! Granted it may be a tiny one bedroom with little space to spare, but most of summer life here is spent outside (friends built a screened room to attempt to grow their space).  My friend Cynthia Taylor began selling real estate here after her husband (a certified green renovator) successfully flipped a cabin.  She has since gone on to flip several more and sold to other Manhattanites after showing them the beauty of the area.

The downsides of life here are few and far between: mosquitos can be vicious, the summer commute can rival the Jersey shore, and the sporadic rainy spells can make you want to climb the walls of your tiny abode.  The weather also does a real number on the houses, between the extreme winter cold and snow and the rainy springs its pretty much a Do-It–Yourselfer’s dream. The social scene consists mostly of snowbirds who remember Bethel’s heyday, although young families are changing that. There is not a lot of commercialism here, not many shops or restaurants, that can be an upside or downside depending on how you look at it.  For frugal families like mine, we look at it as a place were we can have a fantastic day together, without spending a dime, just enjoying each other’s company in nature.  Its just under 2 hours to Cobble Hill off season, there is a burgeoning (though overpriced) restaurant scene in Kauneonga Lake, and more and more people are discovering the area and are moving in to offset the depressing site of abandoned and unloved cabins.  Hopefully I’ll see some of you at the lake one day discussing the best way to paint log siding, or talking about the Bethel Woods concert last night, or sharing your upstate babysitter’s number, or heading out to Benji & Jakes to enjoy pizza on the deck overlooking the lake.  Bethel proves that country homes really do come in all shapes and sizes.

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