The trouble with New York winters is that they usually lack that wonderland quality that would make them something to look forward to. You’ll never see a dogsled glide through the empty streets of Manhattan, and although the wind chill can be brutal in February, temperatures aren’t consistently low enough for anyone to attempt to build a Central Park Ice Castle. And forget about jostling with tourists on crowded Midtown skating rinks. That’s about as fun as stepping off the curb into an ankle-deep puddle of slush. Sure, every decade or so (remember last year?) a storm comes along and buries the city in drifts of the white stuff, but most of the time it’s more gloomy skies, icy sidewalks, and the choice between parting with $8 for a gourmet cup of cocoa at La Maison du Chocolat or braving the lines at City’s Bakery’s annual Hot Chocolate Festival.
In other words, to actually enjoy the long cold months, there’s really only one thing to do: get out of New York. Luckily, there are more cures for cabin fever than most people imagine. So don’t just sit there. Find a bit of warmth at the bottom of a whiskey snifter, learn an Olympic sport at Lake Placid, or simply admire the artistic talent of a practiced ice carver. Because if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ve got to admit that “Angry Birds” isn’t going to keep the boredom at bay for an entire season.
The first thing to do when the mercury starts falling is to turn to alcohol for a little help. Here’s the good news: Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York (tuthilltown.com), has a tasting room that’s open Thursday through Monday until 6 p.m. And with 10 aged and unaged spirits to try, you’ll probably need to make two trips to sample all of their bourbons, whiskeys, and vodkas. On Saturdays and Sundays, this micro-distillery also offers tours by reservation at 12 p.m. and 3 p.m.
As long as you’re in the area, why not drop by the 13th Annual Catskill Ice Festival (alpineendeavors.com) in nearby New Paltz (January 21 to 24)? Participate in various clinics from basic ice movement to back country climbing or, if you’re feeling less adventurous, hang out at Rock and Snow, the event’s headquarters, for free slideshows on Friday and Saturday night. Track down a meal in town by walking west on Main Street to the Gilded Otter (gildedotter.com), named after the ship that carried French-speaking Huguenot refugees to the area, and order a bowl of their Three-Meat Chili or Shawagunk Jambalaya.
Frozen waterfalls aren’t for everybody, though. So let’s say you wouldn’t mind spending time outdoors, but prefer speed to heights. In that case, head north to the sliding track at Lake Placid’s Olympic Sports Complex (whiteface.com). Here on Mount Van Hoevenberg, visitors can climb into a bobsled with a professional driver and brakeman and fly through the same turns that competitors navigate in World Cup races. One trip down might be enough for most people, but thrill seekers will be pleased to know that the second ride is 20 percent off.
At the other end of the Olympic thrill spectrum, and somewhat closer to Manhattan, the Albany Curling Club (albanycurlingclub.net) welcomes newcomers to the sport to join one of their evening training sessions (January 10 to 13). Impress the regulars by practicing your sweeping skills in advance, and don’t forget to pack a pair of gloves—the tutorial lasts two hours. Who knows, after a couple of hours on the ice, you could be ready to enter your first bonspiel.
Only in its second incarnation, the town of Walton’s Winter Festival (visitthecatskills.com) has added a woodcarving contest to the day-long schedule (January 22) of activities this year. Yes, that means more guys with chainsaws. An ice-carving competition sponsored by the National Ice Carving Association is the main event, but stick around to watch snowmobile drag races, as well as snowman and igloo making. See? Snow can be pretty sometimes.
If you’re more of an indoor person, consider a New Jersey pub crawl instead of another visit to your neighborhood watering hole. Start with an award-winning Lazy Jake Porter from the Long Valley Pub and Brewery (restaurantvillageatlongvalley.com) and then continue west to the Pennsylvania border. In 1995, the Ship Inn (britishbrewpub.com) in Milford became the first establishment in the state to serve its own beer since Prohibition. Try the Black Death Stout if it’s on tap and then drive on to Lambertville for a final pint at River Horse Brewing Company (riverhorse.com). The Hop-a-lot-amus, a piney, citrusy unfiltered double IPA, is particularly good.
During the middle of the season (January 28 to 30), Ithaca will host a Winter Village Bluegrass Festival (wintervillagebluegrass.org), featuring workshops on Saturday, master classes with members of the Claire Lynch Band on Sunday, and live performances on all three days. A Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter in her own right, Claire Lynch has also appeared on albums by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Ralph Stanley. Bring your own instrument if you want to jam with other attendees, and plan ahead if you’re hoping to get the festival rate at La Tourelle (latourelle.com), a small resort overlooking Cayuga Lake.
Since installing New York’s first chairlift in 1949, Belleayre Mountain (belleayre.com) has evolved from a small Catskill resort to a 171-acre snow park with 52 trails and a halfpipe. Which means that skiers and snowboarders will want to mark their calendars for the Winter Festival Week at Belleayre (January 25 to 29), where $20 buys you a lift ticket Monday through Friday. That’s $100 for five days on the slopes if you own your own gear and can avoid the office for that long. On your way back to the city, stop by the Peekamoose Restaurant & Tap Room (peekamooserestaurant.com) in Big Indian for a dose of urban sophistication—Chef Devin Mills has spent time at Le Bernadin and Gramercy Tavern.
And then there’s always the beach. Swimming isn’t necessarily advisable in December, but on Saturday the 19th, a nature educator from the South Fork Natural History Museum (sofo.org/naturewalks.asp) will lead a beach walk at Montauk Point State Park. Besides winter bird watching, a trip out to Long Island offers the chance to observe up to four species of pinniped: Harbor Seals, Harp Seals, Hooded Seals, and Gray Seals. Dress in layers and remember to wear water proof shoes; wet feet will definitely spoil the experience. The Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (cresli.org) also leads weekend seal walks from Cupsogue Beach County Park.