By: Nicole Pensiero
Here we were – four middle-aged women heading up to New York State’s Catskills region for a three-night getaway. We’d found a charming Airbnb in the tiny town of Phoenicia, whose greatest claim to fame seems to be the amazing gourmet diner that shares its name.
When contemplating things to do, we learned about Rail Explorers, which would give us an opportunity to pedal along the railroad tracks through some amazing scenery.
Having a bad knee, I was not sure how well I would do – but I was assured that this activity is great for “all ages and abilities,” so we were hopeful. More than 100,000 riders have taken part in riding the rails in the Catskills since its launch in May 2018 – we were ready to join their ranks.
Founded in 2017 by CEO Mary Jo Lu, with a bike designed by her husband Alex Catchpool, the first Rail Explorers “Division,” as they are called, opened in Portsmouth, RI, that year. There are now five locations in all in the U.S., including Las Vegas and the Catskills. (A similar activity, owned by Revolution Rail Company, has an operation in Cape May, NJ).
For our peddling adventure, leaving from the Ulster County town of Phoenicia, we had booked in advance, which was an excellent idea, as it quickly sold out for a late September Thursday morning. Rail Explorers runs from the first weekend in May until the end of October, running seven-days-a-week.
Interestingly, there are no age limits to ride. Newborns can be worn in a chest carrier by mom or dad; toddlers can be strapped to the seat with special harnesses. If an elderly person or disabled person can’t pedal, as long as another person on the bike does so, they can sit back and relax. The Catskills Rail Explorers have “accommodated those in wheelchairs, amputees; even ducks,” according to Casey Farrell, Division Manager of Rail Explorers in the Catskills.
“We have a one pet per bike policy,” he explained. “It’s mostly small dogs people bring, but two riders over the past two years have brought ducks.” Apparently well-behaved ones, too. Casey also says that Rail Explorers’ popularity has exploded since COVID-19 began in 2020: “We were one of the only things people could do safely. Our ridership jumped so high, and the demand was so huge that we actually had to expand the fleet to accommodate riders. It hasn’t slowed down since.” Social media has also been helpful in promoting Rail Explorers; when Amy Schumer shared her experience as an Instagram story, demand rose again.
While we saw no pets onboard on the blissfully sunny day we took part, every seat was indeed taken. Depending on the size of your group, you can ride a four-seat rail bike or a two-seater version. (Two-seaters are called Tandems, and four-seaters are called Quads). After getting thorough safety instructions by the friendly staff, we set off for our eight-mile jaunt.
Peddling was easier than I expected, and I was amazed at how much fun we had! Crossing over the highway, the staff blocked traffic, dropped the gates, and we continued on. At the four-mile point, we got off our bikes, and they were turned around by staff members for the return ride, which we were told did have some “assistive support” because of the incline. All in all, it was an amazing way to spend a few hours. We rewarded ourselves with a visit to the Phoenicia Diner, which has become a bit of a Hudson Valley legend in the past few years. With its unique brand of gourmet diner food, you cannot go wrong. Yummy milkshakes – including a Vanilla Bourbon version – topped off our fantastic food.
The following day, we traveled south to the county seat of Kingston, to enjoy a nighttime cruise on the Hudson River, on the Rip Van Winkle II, with entertainment by talented local band The Lost Cowboys. Beforehand, we savored an incredible meal at the popular Frank Guido’s Little Italy. Known for its delicious, sharable-sized Neapolitan dishes, we loved everything about this fantastic restaurant, including the friendly ambience. Our meals were absolutely delicious, especially the traditional spaghetti and meatballs and delectable chicken francaise. The homemade tiramisu was another highlight. We will surely visit again when back in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region. P.S. – Check out the many autographs adorning the walls of this renowned restaurant; plenty of famous folk have eaten at Frank Guido’s Little Italy– and we can certainly understand why.
For more information about Ulster County in New York State’s Hudson Valley, visit: www.visitulstercountyny.com.
Nicole Pensiero is a South Jersey-based freelance writer and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association. Follow her on Twitter at @NicoleWrytr.
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