An Italian American is reading old Jewish jokes from a lectern. His accent is terrible, his timing is terrible and he sure can't kvetch like Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield or Joan Rivers. But, still, he brings the house down.
"There was a girl knocking on my hotel room door all night. It was driving me crazy! Finally – I let her out."
I guess if you're going to get an Italian American to tell Jewish gags, you might as well get Robert de Niro. And truth is he's having as much fun as anybody with the material. "So a man goes to the psychiatrist…"
De Niro has been drafted by New York State tourism to launch the Catskills region as a destination for a generation that has forgotten the region exists. If it's a surprise to find myself two rows from Travis Bickle (De Niro's character in Taxi Driver), it's equally surprising to discover the Catskills is a place of rolling vales, mountain deer and pretty timber villages where folk still sit out under their shingled porches in the evening.
It's the very antithesis of the mean streets of Taxi Driver. Yet it's barely two hours' drive from Manhattan.
The Orthodox Jews of New York put the Catskills on the map in the 1960s and 70s. They escaped to summer resorts like the Nevele and Kutsher's and paradoxically shut themselves away from the sun and the pine trees. They lounged during the day before dressing for dinner to be entertained by young Borscht Belt hopefuls like Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.
Today? Not so much. Today's Catskill resorts are about fishing, canoeing and mountain hikes. The Emerson Resort, for instance, is a substantial retreat of stone and timber with a mountain lion sculpture clinging to its gates. The hearths of its vast suites are signed with lines not from Woody Allen but Ralph Waldo Emerson – though to be fair, the awfulness of Emerson's verse can still raise a chuckle: "When the pine tosses its cones/ To the song of its waterfall tones/ He speeds to the woodland walks/ To birds and trees he talks."
("A man goes to the doctor, and says, 'Doctor my leg hurts, what can I do?' The doctor says, 'Limp'." De Niro is surprised the audience is relishing the old gags: "I got more! You wan' 'em?")
Within the Catskill Mountains I hike to the two-tier Kaaterskill waterfall, the highest in the eastern states. Its sublime aesthetics inspired 19th-century poets, writers and artists, but it was Washington Irving who made them famous when he used the mountains as the setting for his 1819 short story, Rip van Winkle.
In the timber, candy-coloured town of Tannerville I overnight in a true curio called the Washington Irving Inn. The creaky 1890 timber mansion is stuffed to its gables with antiques bought from the region's ubiquitous second-hand shops and junk stores. It's also a shrine of sorts to Rip van Winkle, and when I ask the caring owner of 36 years, Stephania Jozic, if I can borrow a copy of Irving's short story, her delight is real.
I read it as I sip a dawn coffee on the porch, and I'm taken by how strange this story is. Rip lives under the reign of King George III but, while lost in the Catskills, meets a group of archaic Dutchmen playing bowls. After sharing their moonshine he falls asleep for 20 years and wakes up in the new Republic. Americans see it as a political allegory, but the tale seems fixated with Rip's nagging wife, to the extent that I wonder if it's just some misogynistic wish-fulfillment.
("My wife and I were very happy for 20 years." Pause. "Then we met.")
Driving through the countryside, I can see fortunes have been mixed for Catskill farmers, such that a six-hectare farm with fishing river is stuck in a dusty real estate window for US$140,000. But there's charm aplenty, especially in the giant 300-year-old barns made of hemlock, left to the attentions of weather and time. The covered bridges are the sort Washington Irving envisioned as haunted by headless horsemen, though they were actually designed to dupe river-shy horses into thinking they were entering a barn, not crossing a bridge.
Change is coming, however, because the hipsters and design mavens of NYC are seeing the charm – and the opportunity. They're moving in to take advantage of cheap commercial space, prime fresh-grown produce and local artisan skills. And when it all comes together, it's very on-message for millennial travellers.
The river valley hamlet of Phoenicia, for instance, is home to a '50s motel in the tradition of Norman Bates – only now it's called The Graham & Co and sold as a super-cool vintage retreat for $US185 a night.
In Delaware County, on the main street of Delhi (pronounced Del-high), I encounter Stone and Sawyer, an artist's cooperative set up in a disused creamery where locally made furniture, alpaca shawls and candles are shown off to stunning effect. At the rear of the studio, earthenware lamps are being assembled for an LA client at $800 a pop. "It's a great time to be here," says co-owner David Ryan. "There's a critical mass of creatives coming together and doing interesting things. You'd never believe it but there are two types of absinthe being made in this town!"
Jay and Abby Wilson farmed Berkshire pigs before realising their 1790 barn at Maple Shade Farm was perfect for upmarket Manhattan weddings. Among the huge beams, artisan producers display their maple syrup, gourmet sausages and exotic teas. Young English cidermaker Alex Wilson tells me how he hunts down "wild apples" for his gourmet cider. He starts by locating cider trees in abandoned farms: "The deer spread the seeds, so we follow the deer trails to find other old trees …" His bottles of wild apple Wayside Cider are selling in Manhattan restaurants for $60.
Anything "old and artisan" is getting big love from the millennials, and fly-fishing certainly fits the bill with its maniacal attention to the ecologies of river bugs. In the glades of Willowemoc River, a "master instructor" called Craig Buckbee shows me how to flick my gossamer line at the river in a way to convince trout that I'm a nutritious mayfly. After a happy hour in golden light I realise fly-fishing isn't hard at all. It's catching a fish with a fly that's near impossible. So I go home empty-handed.
("Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman who'll give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you're in the wrong house.")
There are modern outdoor attractions, too, like the fearsome New York Zipline Adventure. Fit, khaki-clad people lead me up the 1000-metre peak of Mount Hunter and launch me on a 7.5km, six-cable flight through the mountains. So extreme are the ziplines that the guides must take full account of prevailing conditions. The first cable soars twice the height of the Statue of Liberty over the pines, reaching up to 100km/h: guide Marty assesses wind speed and declares the cable "Spicy!"
The descent on Cable 1 causes my eyes to water – but it can't move me like the final cultural attraction on my Catskills tour.
In the small farming community of Bethel Woods, there's a broad sloping flank of pasture. It's perfectly unremarkable – except that in 1969, 400,000 mostly young people spontaneously and joyously dropped everything to attend a concert held here called Woodstock.
There's a clever, colourful, inspiring museum at the top of the hill, setting the event in the context of a nation at war with Vietnam and itself. The highlight is a theatre presentation that ends with Jimmy Hendrix using his guitar to truly radical effect, playing the Star Spangled Banner in a way to evoke screaming US jets. The blood of Republicans must have run cold.
I meet Duke Devlin, an ex-museum guide and jocular old hippy with a great white beard and ponytail. "I came here in 1969 for the Grateful Dead, Hendrix and Janis Joplin," says Duke, "And I never left!"
"I've noticed a few Baby Boomers looking pretty emotional in this museum," I say. "Is that usual?"
"Yeah, it's emotional for our generation. It stirs up memories. I've seen that theatre presentation thousands of times, but when Hendrix looks out from the screen at you… Hits me every time."
It's at this same museum that New York State tourism invites their surprise guest to speak. Robert de Niro, who owns a house in the Catskills, looks a little grizzled and (inevitably) shorter in real life – but he pays proper homage to the Jewish Catskills, the wild Catskills, the artist's Catskills and the hippy Catskills.
"So to people who are thinking of vacationing here in this wonderful part of our great state, I say this – stay the hell away from my unspoiled paradise. I'm kidding of course, I want the world to discover it. Hey, I've got all the money I could ever want.
"Provided I die by 4 o'clock this afternoon."
Qantas and Virgin Australia offer daily flights between Sydney and Melbourne to New York. See qantas.com.au; virginaustralia.com. Choose La Guardia airport: it's close to Manhattan but also offering a relatively simple freeway trip north to the Catskills.
The Emerson Resort and Spa near Phoenicia is upmarket enough to host the Clintons but downhome enough to boast the World's Biggest Kaleidoscope. Ahem. Rooms from $US220. See emersonresort.com/
The Catskills Mountain Resort near Barryville is an ex-summer camp ("Hello Muddah… Hello Faddah… Here I am at Camp Granada"). It's impressive and good value with rooms from $US120. See catskillmountainsresort.com/
The Washington Irving Inn in Tannersville costs from $US170. See washingtonirving.com/
SEE + DO
Possibly owing to copyright, what everyone calls the Woodstock museum is the Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts: see bethelwoodscenter.org/the-museum
New York Adventure Zipline is the longest in North America. The SkyRider Tour costs $US119. See huntermtn.com/summer/zipline/
The Willowemoc runs near the town of Roscoe (which has a rather good micro brewery): for fly fishing, see roscoeny.com/
Max Anderson was a guest of ILoveNY