Avoid the fall crush: go to the Catskills. Guests return year after year to resorts in the Borsch Belt, where, in autumn, you can see the forest for the trees.

FLAME-COLORED foliage, covered bridges, roadside stands with baskets of gold and red apples, and pyramids of orange pumpkins are scenes of fall found only in New England, yes? No, not necessarily. New York State offers much of the same colorful charm - hours closer to home for people living almost anywhere south and west of Connecticut. What's more, New York's autumn beauty can be enjoyed without traffic jams and hassles over finding a room, since the state's autumn spectacular remains relatively undiscovered.

Only 90 miles northwest of New York City one finds Sullivan County in the Catskill Mountains - an area that includes some 1,000 miles of rugged outdoor beauty. The Catskills are well known, if just in legend, for the antics of Rip van Winkle. But the mountains also became known for the many popular summer hotels of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s where comedians like Jackie Mason, Sid Caesar, and Joan Rivers got their starts in show business on the so-called ``Borsch Belt Circuit.'' Those were the days before air conditioning, when Mom and the kids went to the mountains for a month to escape the summer heat in the city, and Papa commuted on weekends to join them.

The number of hotels swelled to nearly 500 by the '60s. Resorts offered all meals, plus swimming, boating, fishing, and sports for the kids during the day, and nightclub entertainment in the evening. This kept the whole family happy.

Gradually, air conditioning and air travel changed vacation habits. There was a move to shorter trips and more of them. A week at a resort is now considered a long stay. While the number of Catskill hotels declined drastically, some grew bigger, catering to a wider variety of vacationers. The demand escalated for year-round resorts that offered not only tennis, golf, hiking, and swimming in summer, but such winter sports as downhill and cross-country skiing, ice skating, and sleigh rides.

One resort that kept pace with the times is Kutsher's Country Club, in Monticello, now in its 80th year. It began modestly by renting rooms in the farmhouse on the 200-acre farm purchased by Austrian emigrant brothers, Louis and Max Kutsher, in 1903. Friends in New York City wrote asking to come to the farm. That meant serving three meals a day and a little down-home fiddling and funny stories by Uncle Max. It wasn't long before the family was out of farming and into the resort business full time.

The current manager, Milton Kutsher, ran a small-town newspaper as reporter and editor for a time, before joining the business after World War II. He has overseen the resort's growth to 450 rooms, with an elegant new wing, and a nightclub seating 1,800 people. Outside, there's an 18-hole championship golf course, a lake, 12 tennis courts, and an outdoor pool. Inside are a health club, nursery, and indoor pool.

Yet even with all these facilities, ``the major draw is the American Plan, which includes three meals a day for an average of $100 per person a day,'' according to Mr. Kutsher. This rate includes the evening entertainment.

While the resort's clientele was once 100 percent Jewish, Mr. Kutsher says that ``now it has changed to around 50 percent.'' Package plans - weekday senior rates, conventions, weekend rates - keep the hotel occupied most of the time.

About 60 percent of the guests return one or more times a year. For instance, there are Barbara and Fred Herzog, who on a recent weekend were relaxing on a plum velvet sofa in the lobby. On this occasion they were here with a grocers association; but they come on their own for a weekend or two each year, they said. Barbara added, ``We like Kutsher's because it's relaxing - we don't have to leave the hotel if we don't want to; everything is right here.''

Other resorts we visited included the plush 1,200-room Concord Resort Hotel at Kiamesha Lake, with its 2,000 acres and golf courses and clusters of tennis courts. Then there were the smaller, well-designed and maintained resorts named Fallsview and Nevele, in the town of Ellenville in Ulster County.

In addition, there are numerous hotels, motels, inns, campgrounds, dude ranches, cottages, and B&Bs from which to choose, as well as all types of restaurants.

There are so many, in fact, that it is still possible this month to get Catskills lodgings for a fall foliage trip; reservations are recommended, however.

The ``I Love New York Catskills Fall Festival'' runs from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31. The Catskill Mountain Range spreads into several counties, but Sullivan County alone offers enough diversity to satisfy almost any vacationer. Here are some suggestions:

Visits to working farms. The resorts are surrounded by farmland as well as forests, and a number of farms are open to visitors. Among them is Apple Pond Farming Center in Callicoon Center. It's a working sheep farm, using organic methods. Here visitors can see a sheep-herding demonstration or logging, and they can take a foliage tour by horse-drawn wagon. Open year round. Call (914) 482-4764.

The Cider Mill on Route 122 South makes cider every fall. Open May to December. Farm stands can be found along many country roads.

Driving tours in the country. Four scenic drives of different lengths have been laid out. One starts in Monticello and heads south on Route 42 to Sackett Lake Road and Mongaup Falls, where you can sight bald eagles. Another drive, originating in Livingston Manor, includes covered bridges. Still another route takes you to Tomsco Falls, the ``Niagara of Sullivan County.'' Route 17 is the main north-south route, providing access to other scenic routes.

Antiques shops. Shopping for antiques is a popular pursuit any time of year. Monticello has interesting antique shops along Route 42. Several shops in Liberty and Parksville are listed as the ``best'' in the area in a new book, ``The Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains.''

Historic sites. Close by, on Route 97 in Narrowsburg, one finds Fort Delaware and the Minisink Battleground Park, where colonial militiamen fought against the British in the Revolutionary War.

If you go

For specifics on Catskill attractions and accommodations, contact the Sullivan County Office of Public Information, Monticello, NY 12701; phone 800-431-INFO or, from inside New York, 800-882-CATS. Ask for their Sullivan County Catskills Travel Guide. ``The Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains,'' by Joanne Michaels and Mary Barile (Harmony Books, New York, N.Y., $14.95), contains much useful information.

For additional information about Kutsher's Country Club in Monticello, phone 800-431-1273 or, from inside New York, (212) 243-3112.

Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.

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