Before my visit to Wildflower Farms, a new resort in the Catskill Mountains, I had only ever seen one American kestrel. It was two years ago, while driving past an open field slot bonus 100 to 7x in upstate New York, and I had screeched to a halt to get a closer look — only for the bird to fly from its fence post in an instant. But on my first morning at Wildflower Farms, I spotted North America’s smallest raptor perched on a pole a mere 30 feet from the main building. It held still long enough for me to get a good look through my binoculars, as if it had been placed there by guest services. Later that day I would glimpse a bald eagle and one of its young swooping out of their nest high in a tree, somewhere near cabin No. 32.
Phenomenal birdlife is just one of many everyday majesties at this Auberge Resorts Collection property, which opened in Gardiner last fall and was just named to Travel + Leisure’s 2023 It List. Its 65 cabins and cottages are arranged around a grand main building that’s home to Clay, the restaurant; the poolside Dew Bar; and an open-air venue named the Great Porch, as well as a shop, a spa, and an event space. Everything faces an open plain that rolls out like a carpet toward the stark granite ridge of the “Gunks,” as the Shawangunk Mountains are known. A stream creates a gentle soundtrack as it flows along the property’s eastern edge. (At first, I wondered if I could hear the sound of…traffic? No, it was just the wind and the water.)
“As people spend more time with screens, it’s valuable for us to be in nature,” said resort owner Phillip Rapoport, who lives in Gardiner with his wife, Kristin, and their young son, and regularly hikes and climbs in the nearby Mohonk Preserve. The couple spent seven years developing the property, working with the California architects Electric Bowery and New York designers Ward & Gray to create the right mix of minimalism and well-upholstered coziness. “We wanted to give the interiors the same feeling as our own home,” Kristin explained.
The finished product is a vision of rural Catskills life filtered through a luxurious lens. I could rise early to feed the chickens and gather eggs for my breakfast. I could try my hand at bread baking, botanical-cocktail mixing, or decorating ceramics with dried flowers. I took a pickling class, joining six other guests to vigorously massage salt into red cabbage, beets, and chard to turn them into sauerkraut. It was good, messy fun.
To get a window into Wildflower’s country bona fides, I attended one of the daily sessions hosted by a farm manager, who explained how the team works hand in hand with the Clay kitchen to decide what to grow and when, based on the wishes of the chef and the realities of the soil and climate. Beets do very well, I learned; carrots come out looking less than perfect. But the farm is an evolving enterprise. The goal is to increase the current 150 plant beds and three greenhouses to between two and four acres of vegetable production, then add pigs and cows, all in service of the restaurant.
Farming may not interest you, and — no judgment — I got the feeling that many of my fellow guests didn’t come to learn about beets so much as eat them. If that is the case, there is plenty to enjoy at Clay, where executive chef Rob Lawson delivers refined farm-to-fork dishes like celery root with dates and truffles. The restaurant also invites chefs, such as Michael Anthony from N.Y.C.’s Gramercy Tavern, to do kitchen collaborations. And at the downstairs cocktail bar, the Green Room, local brewers and distillers bring in their bottles to accompany weekly jam sessions by area musicians.
On my visit, guests seemed to be hanging out at Clay most hours of the day. But the resort also makes it very easy to shut out the world: I could lounge by the zellige-tiled saltwater pool at the spa, curl up in my cabin next to the wood-burning stove, or sit around a firepit with a cocktail as the birds went quiet and the profound country darkness descended.
This kind of stylish quietude has been luring New York City dwellers to the Catskills and Hudson Valley region for generations. But the pull of upstate has never been stronger than it is today. I visited the region for many years before deciding to buy a house there seven years ago, and during the pandemic witnessed a steady trickle of urbanites turn into a tidal wave. Houses were snatched up at record prices. Airbnbs were scarce, and by 2021 hotels and resorts were doing brisk business. During that period, several new independent properties opened across the Catskills. Some are more glamping spots than full-service hotels; many are in the Scandi-cabin vein — including Innes, Piaule Catskill, Hutton Brick Yards, AutoCamp, and Eastwind Oliverea Valley.
What sets Wildflower apart from these other newcomers is that it represents the first international luxury hotel operator — Auberge has 25 properties, from California to Greece — to take the plunge in the region. There are rumors that others will follow, from Soho House and Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas to Montage and André Balazs.
If the deluge has yet to happen it may be because, as some industry insiders believe, the region isn’t quite ready. One hotelier, Erik Warner of Eagle Point Hotel Partners, told me he’s been looking in the Catskills for a decade, but believes that the area doesn’t quite have the “critical mass” of amenities and attractions needed to sustain a world-class hotel scene. “You can’t go hotel-hopping,” as he put it. Many of the new openings don’t have seasoned hoteliers behind them and “think they’ll succeed just by being there,” Warner added.
Phillip Rapoport guesses that the increased development may actually make it harder to open resorts in the region. “Local trust is incredibly important,” he said. “One hotel is enough for each of these towns.” For now, Wildflower Farms has taken a big step toward making upstate not just a weekend playground for New Yorkers, but an international destination. (The resort has already welcomed guests from Turkey, Singapore, and the Philippines.)
When I checked out, the staff sent me off with a box of the eggs I’d gathered and my jar of sauerkraut — along with specific instructions on how to tend to it until it ripens into something really wonderful. In a way, the resort has embarked on a similar process: with time and careful attention, it, along with tourism in the whole region, will surely get better with age.