'I Took a Surprise Vacation and Finally Gave Up Some Control'

Annemarie Conte
Photo credit: Annemarie Conte

From Woman's Day

I stare at the sealed envelope that I was not allowed to open every day for a week, my cuticles bit to nubs. Finally, the morning of our trip, my husband, Andy, lets me rip it apart.

Congratulations! You're going to … the Catskills.

What?

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the Catskills, a woodsy, quaint-and-primed-for-a-comeback region of upstate New York. Andy takes the 2 ½ hour drive from our New Jersey home every week in the winter to go skiing, and we have several friends who have relocated to the nearly 6,000-square-mile area about 130 miles north of Manhattan. But it never would have even occurred to me to add it to my list of destinations for my 10th wedding anniversary because it's already so familiar to us. But hey, that's what you get when you willingly sign yourself up for a surprise vacation.

Ford invited us to try Pack Up & Go, the trendy travel service that plans a secret, three-day weekend itinerary for you based on price point and a preference survey that asks questions about where you've been recently and what you like to do. But you don't find out where you're going or what you're doing until you open that envelope. So of course, Andy and I try to game the survey: When asked what type of car we'd most like to drive, we skip over the answers that we assume will lead to a sporty Mustang (not enough trunk space) and an extra-roomy Expedition (too big for just the two of us, since we aren't bringing the kids) in favor of a more mid-size vehicle. Which is why, when a ruby-red Mustang convertible shows up, we are speechless. My husband puts it succinctly: "Oh, man. We're going to get so many speeding tickets."

Friday, Friday, Friday

Pack Up & Go sent us a general packing list and weather report ahead of time, so even though we just found out where we're headed, we're already packed up to go. But they've also overstuffed our first-day itinerary with six planned activities, There's no way to, say, spend any quality time at Storm King Art Center, which has 500 acres of outdoor sculpture grounds, and take a 3-hour zipline mountain adventure. We have to make some cuts, so we reserve ziplining for Saturday and skip Storm King completely. I like that they've given us a lot of options, but if I didn't know the area, I would have felt obligated to try to fit everything in.

First, we grab a quick lunch at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. It's warmish out, so we put the top down on the Mustang. Trunk space is, indeed, tight, because we've squeezed in a cooler so Andy can bring home beer from local breweries along the way. But the car is zippy and fun to drive, and we're probably better off having the physical barrier of a smaller trunk to stop us from buying things we don't really need just because we're on vacation.

Photo credit: Annemarie Conte

Despite my highly detailed survey answers, there is no way that Pack Up & Go could have known that we actually received tickets to the Stone Barns' annual Harvest Fest as a wedding present a decade earlier - which makes this a lovely place to return to for our anniversary. We buy pastries and fresh-picked apples from the little café and wander through the gardens before taking the five-minute drive down the road to the new-to-us Rockefeller State Park Preserve to hike around the lake. The visitor's center is showcasing the beautiful, fluid art of 95-year-old Polish-American artist Lubomir Tomaszewski, so we got our art in as a bonus!

After that, we drive straight to our hotel, Think Big! A Tiny House Resort, in South Cairo, New York. As we pull into the driveway, a few chickens cluck over to greet us and one of the managers zips up in a golf cart. The property is maintained by mother-daughter team Margie and Melissa, and as we are talking to them, another fun coincidence emerges: When I was a kid, my mom would frequently take me into NYC's SoHo neighborhood, where Think Big! was one of my favorite stores. Margie's dad/Melissa's grandfather sold giant, pop-art versions of everyday objects, like pencils and coffee cups. (I even owned my own set of oversized drumsticks because I was the nerdiest drummer in the marching band.)

These rental units are the wee-sized counterpoint to the Think Big! of the '80s. Each tiny house has a full kitchen, and guests have unlimited access to fresh chicken eggs and free produce from the garden (we make a killer frittata for breakfast one morning). There are waterfalls on site, which delight me because we got married in front of a waterfall. And you can boat on Catskill Creek, or swim in the heated pool, or play with the tiny goats who will definitely try to eat your hair while you are snuggling them.

Photo credit: Annemarie Conte

Our only goal for the rest of the day is to make it to our 7pm dinner reservation at Wm Farmer and Sons. The travel company arranged it, but told us we were free to call and cancel if we need to. I love the idea of not having to agonize over where to eat, and we've told them we love good food, so I'm so confident they've chosen well, I don't even bother to cross-reference it with internet reviews (and frankly, it would have been fruitless anyway because huge swaths of the Catskills are giant cell phone dead zones).

Photo credit: Annemarie Conte

And before we know it, it's time to get ready for dinner and take the half-hour drive to Hudson. We actually arrive early and stumble on Half Moon, a bar a block away from Farmer and Sons. There is a really solid beer selection and the bartenders, who are blasting punk music, could not be nicer. After finishing our drinks, we play a few games of Walking Dead pinball and then hustle over to our dinner reservation, where they greet us with complimentary champagne to celebrate our anniversary (yay!).

After dinner, we are so stuffed on special-occasion dishes (oysters, crab legs, bone marrow), the only obvious thing to do is to head back to the resort since we have reserved an earlyish morning appointment for ziplining. But as we are driving back to Think Big!, we pass the Catskill Elks Lodge. The lights are on, and as members of our local Elks, we can visit any other lodge in the country. We decide that one more stop can't hurt, so we pull in to check it out. As we walk through the door, there are about a dozen people sitting around the bar, scream-singing to Sinatra. They welcome us with a Cheers-style hello and then comp us $1 drafts of Yuengling. (Yes, that's right. $1 drinks for members.)

Zip away

When we arrive at Zipline New York at Hunter Mountain the next morning, I'm in internal-silent-panic mode. I'm not loving the idea of running off a platform and throwing myself down a mountain, relying only on a harness, some hardware, and the three dudes who work there who seem nice and competent but who I've only known for three minutes. Andy, as a former climber and avid skier, is totally fine with this concept, of course. I don't even like the chair lift ride to the top of the mountain, but once I take that first leap (literally), the rush of adrenaline as the trees whip past me is intoxicating. I kind of get why Andy likes skiing so much. The rest of the morning flies by (har). Unfortunately, we have zero photographic evidence of any of this because we didn't bring our phones to the top of the mountain and the woman who offered to take a few photos of us never actually sent them. I hope she's enjoying the footage of my screaming like a banshee that I'll never get to see.

After a quick lunch in the nearby town of Tannersville, we take an easy hike to Kaatterskill Falls (more waterfalls!) and then head back to the resort to make ourselves dinner in our tiny kitchen.

Photo credit: Annemarie Conte - 123

Criss-crossing the Catskills

On our final day, we drive all over the place, from the Suarez Family Brewery in Hudson to Sloop Brewing at the Barn in Elizaville to Bonfiglio and Bread bakery in Athens, ending up in the afternoon at the Post Road Brew House at the Culinary Institute of America. Andy has the best burger of his life and we walk across campus to get a growler filled with their made-on-site beer. We then head to our last stop for our final amazing coincidence of the trip. Ten years earlier, we honeymooned in Asheville, North Carolina and visited Biltmore, the most opulent of the Vanderbilt mansions. So we've bookended this adventure with a visit to the Vanderbilt Mansion. It's certainly large and impressive by most people's standards (it has 54 rooms, after all!), with gorgeous gardens and the requisite quirky park ranger tour guide, but it's a tiny cottage compared to the velvet-coated interiors of grand Biltmore (which has, 250 rooms, including 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms).

All in all, whisking ourselves on an unknown adventure where we had to do minimal planning was a welcome relief (despite all of the anxiety leading up to it!) - and we quickly grew to love the Mustang for our special trip because it managed those curvy mountain roads without a hitch. Here's to speeding into the next 10 years of marriage ... ticket-free, of course.


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