Luxury resort has been welcoming families for 142 years
by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman
I have found the American Shangri-la. Who would have guessed it is a mere 90 miles from New York City, or that you can reach it by traveling the New York Thruway?
But once you turn off the road from New Paltz and pass through the gate, it is 2.3 mile ride up a curving, sloping, narrow road (the sign reads, “Slowly and Quietly Please”) before you get your first, breathtaking sight of Mohonk Mountain House, itself – a 266-room Victorian stone castle, flanked with shingled wings with turrets.
Mohonk (the name means “lake in the sky”) is a sparkling wonder, tucked at the top of the Shawangunk Ridge, its rock formations rising majestically above a glacial lake, framing the enchanting castle.
The resort spans 2,200 acres, surrounded by 4.400 acres more of Mohonk Preserve. The entire ridgeline, preserved from Mohonk Mountain House through Minnewaska State Park and the Nature Conservancy’s Sam’s Point Preserve, totals 28,000 acres. Mohonk has won awards from the United Nations Environment Programme for its environmental stewardship.
The feeling of perfect peace, harmony, of leaving the cares of the world behind, as you get that shock of breathing in pure air, and swim in a chemical-free lake water, makes you believe you have, in fact, found Shangri-la in America.
You can easily imagine how Victorians would have arrived up these same roads just wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage. Those Society folk were leaving behind the bustle and stagnant air of the city. It is the same, today, pretty much. for we city-dwellers and suburbanites.
Mohonk Mountain House has been family owned since 1869 when Albert Smiley purchased 280 acres and a ten-room inn.
Still owned and operated by the Smiley family (the fourth generation is n charge today), Mohonk Mountain House is one of the oldest family-owned resorts in existence. It was named a Historic Landmark in 1986 and is a member of Historic Hotels of America
The enchantment of Mohonk is its timelessness and sense of tradition. You cross the threshold where “Celebrating 142 years” is written in gold.
Mohonk is both refined and rustic. This is a place where men wear jackets in the formal dining room (if that is not for you, there is a casual dining room, as well). The resort is luxurious, but not in the way of gilding, sterling and crystal. Mohonk was designed as a rustic retreat, to get away from the stiff formality of Society. But it is luxurious in that everything you can imagine is there for you, and in the sense of being catered to with a level of service which is white glove, even if no one actually wears white gloves any more, yet warm and friendly. Indeed, it is the warm atmosphere, the ambiance, that makes Mohonk a place that people travel from afar to visit and return year after year.
The most stunning attraction, of course, is Lake Mohonk (“Mohonk” means “lake in the sky-), a sparkling wonder that is half-mile long, 60-feet deep, carved by a mile-high glacier. A sky lake, it is fed by rainwater. Limestone lines a part of the base and the calcium in the limestone acts as a buffer to any acidity that might occur in rainwater or runoff, so the water is pure.
Mohonk is old-fashioned in another way – a throwback to those days when vacationers would stay the whole season or a month or a week. Their days were filled with lectures, workshops, planned activities, meals, even Afternoon Tea, and they fell into this easy, casual rhythm.
Keeping this tradition, Mohonk Mountain House is a Full American Plan resort (a rarity these days). That means that the rate includes accommodations, three meals daily, Afternoon Tea and Cookies, and most activities (tennis on red clay and Har-tru courts, boating on the lake, even golf during midweek; you pay extra for horseback riding, carriage rides, weekend golf, and spa services).
Tradition is a big deal here – a novelty in these days – something you can actually hold up to and show a child: this is what tradition is; this is what heritage is. In an era when Big Corporate interests seem to dominate everything, when it is so incredibly hard to hold on to heritage and history against the forces and pressures of modernity, Mohonk Mountain House is a rare treasure.
It isn’t just one of the most comprehensive resorts (basically, almost anything you can imagine at a resort is available there)… it is its timelessness, its class and classic quality that makes it such a novelty. This isn’t European, it is pure Americana.
You have this sense of time travel roaming the halls of the castle, and reveling in the vintage photos and drawings that fill the walls (original plans of the castle noting that it is made of fire-proof stone; portraits of speakers for programs the resort has hosted for 100 years; drawings of places like Venice where Mohonk guests would likely also travel).
Mohonk Mountain House has managed to maintain its 19th century charm while introducing amenities of the 21st century. The resort remains dedicated to providing “recreation and renewal of body, mind and spirit in a beautiful natural setting,”
That is exactly what you feel, sitting and rocking in a chair on the balcony of your room, gazing out over the lake and promontory on the other side.
It says something that Mohonk has 266 guest rooms, 138 working fireplaces and 238 balconies, It offers a variety of guestroom options, from elegant rooms in the Victorian Towers to charming guest cottages
Our room (570) in the castle is completely enchanting – with a working fireplace and, most exquisite of all, a terrace with two rocking chairs, overlooking the lake. I note the fine wood details and furnishings, a modern bathroom beautifully outfitted , plush robes I am drawn to the balcony and sit in the rocking chair awhile, then pull myself away to explore. the fact there is no television doesn’t faze me at all (there is a nightly movie and I think I spot a television room somewhere). There’s no television (it doesn’t faze me), but you can access WiFi in the room.
Still, I pull myself away and go off to explore the grounds- the lavish formal gardens reflecting French, Italian, and mid-19th century English landscaping styles, and find myself in a Victorian Maze.
Architecturally, Mohonk is a marvel, butits charm and appeal comes from the 125 “summerhouses” – these rustic gazebos – that are tucked here and there along the gravel paths that wind around the lake, and are built in improbable ways on top of the rock formations.
They are placed in such a way that when you sit in them, you think you are in your own world. It’s a little like Alice in Wonderland, but without the weirdness.
We return to the House (as the hotel is called) in time for Afternoon Tea and Cookies, one of the many charms. There is a wide selection of teas (no coffee, because tea is traditional), and the popular thing is to find a couple of rocking chairs on the wide porches overlooking the lake, or find a gazebo.
After this respite, we take out a canoe, delighting in the absolute peace and quiet. The next afternoon, I take out a kayak and paddle right up to a deer at water’s edge.
We stroll around the lake, the best way to savor just how magnificent the setting is – a changing scene depending upon the angle of the sun and time of day, and make our way to the small beach and swimming docks for a late swim before dinner.
We have made a reservation in the formal dining room, but there are several options including a casual dining room. From the picture windows, we revel in the sunset, as well as the doting service.
The menu features modern American cuisine emphasizing seasonal, local ingredients and items indigenous to America. You choose two selections from among the appetizers and salads (the Maryland Blue Crab Cake with sweet shallots and remoulade was sensational; other selections included foie gras au torchon with sweet red onion and apple chips; house cured salmon with watercress and lemon creme fraiche and local Hudson River Valley artisan cheese plate). the selection of entrees included five-spiced duck breast with butter-poached fingerling potatoes and port reduction; seared lobster cod cake with red bliss potato puree and English pea puree; and grilled swordfish with fennel puree, sauteed olives and tomato relish – each with a suggested wine.
The wine list was ample, with an international selection from France, Italy, Germany, Argentina, as well as a range of domestic wines from Oregon, California, Washington (only one Hudson Valley selection, that we found, a Whitecliff). For dessert, we enjoyed the apple cobbler and refreshing mango and raspberry sorbets.
The menu also features “Sound Choice” items, appealing to the tastes of health-conscious guests, as well as vegetarian options, are on every menu. Kosher meals are also offered upon request.
After dinner, there are evening programs such as a nightly classic movie, a campfire, a talk (“Finding the Earliest Huguenot Houses: Archaeological Excavations on Huguenot Street). You can enroll your child in the Evening Children’s Program (an evening activity included a photo scavenger hunt)
Each day has a schedule of special activities – during our stay, they included pilates, fitness classes, core strengthening, beginning ballet barre and stretch, dance exercise a blacksmith demonstration. You can play croquet, shuffleboard. A new activity is Disc Golf, on a 9-hole course. Guided hikes are organized at 10 am and 2 pm daily. You can use the 9-hole putting green.
There is a supervised children’s program (housed in the Council House), for children 2-12 at no extra charge, with a night program for parents, plus activities like kid’s tennis (5-12 years old); teens tennis.
You can visit the Barn Museum, built in 1888, or take a House Tour to learn more about Mohonk’s history.
Mohonk’s forte may be the greater outdoors, but the good news here is that there is also plenty to do if the weather is inclement – not the least is a stunning indoor pool, an expanded Fitness Center, lectures, talks and classes, a billiards room.
I was surprised to see that you can play golf on the 110-year-old Scottish golf course,a historic landmark course, fashioned in the old-links tradition of St. Andrews, at no charge midweek (there is a charge on weekends), and play tennis on red clay or Har-Tru courts, and that the Kids Club is also included (even the nighttime program).
Other activities (for extra fees) include guided mountain bike ride, a new rock climbing program at Sky Top, escorted by an authorized guide from Alpine Endeavors (half day and full day), weekend golf, horseback riding, and carriage rides and special programs such as a photographers workshop.
A spectacular new offering is the 30,000 square foot, eco-friendly spa, with more than 200 windows that look out to the outdoors. Among the 50 treatments offered, signature treatments include “Shawangunk Grit” mineral body treatment that uses fine quartz grains quarried from the surrounding cliffs for a gentle exfoliation, combined with a soothing hydro-therapy bath; and the “Mohonk Red” Massage that uses the Mohonk Red Witch Hazel (a rare variety), grown on the grounds, and a variety of massage modalities to relax and renew. A new offering is a nature-inspired experience: Indigo Herbal Poultice Massage with aromatic blend of herbs. Couples can have a massage together in a private room with a fireplace. Men’s and teens’ treatments are also offered.
Fitness classes, yoga, Qi Gong and meditation classes are conducted on the 2,000 sq. ft “green roof” garden terrace (weather permitting).
One of the newest offerings is the Never Diet Again! Weight Loss and Wellness Program (offered on select dates), a program that replaces a deprivation (diet) model with a method using meditation and visualization to make choices that lead to a healthy lifestyle and sustained weight loss.
The program is one of 40 theme programs presented each year (a tradition, in fact, going back 100 years), including culinary classes, gardening workshops, photography workshops, music festivals, nature programs and mystery.
Mohonk is now a year-round resort (it turns into a winter wonderland with ice skating in an 18,000 sq. ft. pavilion, cross-country skiing, ice-climbing and such), and people may come for just a night or two, but no matter how long you stay, you fall into this rhythm, this community.
You don’t “visit” Mohonk. You explore it, you discover it. There are 85 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, the most popular (and scenic) being a gravel path that rings the lake. You may well find yourself sharing a path with horseback riders or a horse-drawn carriage.
But in contrast to the manicured, manufactured and tempered kinds of experiences that define most guest experiences at resorts and especially theme parks, there is true adventure that starts just steps away from the porch where there is a line of rocking chairs.
The next morning, I wake early and go for a hike before breakfast, a 30-minute hike to the Sky Top Tower. As I walk along the gravel path, I come upon two deer, so secure in their preserve, they do not even bother to budge or even look up from where they munch leaves. The views looking back down at the castle hotel and the lake are stunning. In all, you hike up 300 feet to the stone tower, at 1,550 feet above sea level, the highest point.
The tower is the Albert K Smiley Memorial, which honors Mohonk’s founder, who lived from 1828 to 1912. The cornerstone was laid in 1921 and the tower was completed in 1923. It is empty inside, but you can climb to the top and be rewarded with a spectacular 360-degree view of the valley, farms, mountains.
I couldn’t have been more delighted to explore the tower if these were Roman construction or from King Arthur.
A sensational breakfast buffet served in the Main dining room seems to go on forever – there are chefs preparing omelettes to your specification; pancakes, waffles, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, yogurts, fresh fruits, grains, cereals, croissant and fresh breads, freshly squeezed orange juice.
After breakfast, I set out to tackle The Labyrinth, a scramble to the Sky Top Tower. A sign at the entrance gives you ample warning: you will climb three ladders over, under and through various rock formations. You will go through such aptly named formations as Headache Rock, Fat Man’s Misery, Lemon Squeeze, and The Crevice – a deep, narrow crack (fissure) in the face of a cliff at far upper end, where there is a series of narrow ladders. It warns that this is “rigorous”, you must be in excellent physical condition, and not be afraid of heights”… Follow the red arrows. It is supposed to take 45 minutes. (You climb up but take the path down.)
Well, I set out by myself with inappropriate footgear (kids actually do this scramble, but you must have laced sneakers or hiking shoes that give traction), but that was only one of my excuses. Unlike theme parks and most tourist attractions, this sign did not exaggerate. This was really a challenge, and I loved it, but you shouldn’t do it on your own. I had to bail.
Instead, we go swimming in the lake. There is a small sand beach at the base of the rocky cliffs, and rafts where there are lounge chairs. Twice a day, the lifeguards organize a “lake swim” where you can swim from one side to the other. You may see fish swimming (even nesting).
Just above the swimming beach is the Granary, where you can sign up for the most amazing BBQ lunch as one of the lunch choices (recommended). The selection was fantastic: ribs, chicken, kielbasa, knockwurst, bratwurst, frankfurters; corn on the cob, potato, broccoli; various salads; fresh fruits, an array of freshly baked pies, an ice cream stand, lemonade. The tables were set with red and white checkered table cloths and we found seats overlooking the lake.
In the afternoon, we played tennis on red-clay courts (there are also Har-Tru courts) while the tennis pro was conducting classes for kids and teens.
Then it is back to the lake, for kayaking (there are also row boats, peddle boats and canoes available).
There never was a place that I so dreaded leaving more, or yearned to return to so much. Apparently, others feel the same because we met many people, even from afar, who have been back repeatedly. One family has held its reunion here for the past 12 years, coming as far away as Oregon.
Mohonk is very much a family place, and I cannot imagine a better choice for a family reunion (we met a family that has been coming back for 12 years), a destination wedding, or a family getaway. There is so much to enjoy together: paddle boats, canoes, rowboats and kayaks, even fishing on the lake; the small sand-beach and swimming in the lake (at certain hours, you can even swim across the lake), a playground in the woods, a supervised kids program, tennis; campfire. Planners are available to help organize a reunion or wedding.
Among the special programs for kids is a Junior Naturalist 0045perience (ages 4-12), offered daily through the Kids Club, to provide a hands-on approach to nature (complimentary to overnight guess)
It comes back to this delightful duality of being both classy and casual – and it comes down to a great place to introduce kids to such concepts as manners, tradition, and formality (A sign in the hallway reads “Parents – Please Do Not Allow Your Children To Run in Hallways.”). Mohonk manages to be classy without being snooty or stiff, sophisticated without being stodgy.
It is also the ideal size and setting for corporate groups, team-building, conferences (several were in progress during our visit). Mountain Lake Conference House, accommodating groups of 10 to 350 attendees.
You can also experience Mohonk Mountain House as a day-visitor, paying a fee to use the grounds and to have meals.
Check the website for getaway programs and packages, but expect to pay $200-$250 per person, per night, which is typical of an all-inclusive resort or luxury cruise.
Mohonk Mountain House, 1000 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz, NY 12561 , 800.772.6646,www.mohonk.com.
There is so much to do in the New Paltz area, though, you can easily stay a week:
The Hudson River Valley wine trail, for example. Near to Mohonk Mountain House is Whitecliff, a 70-acre family-run vineyard and winery focused on artisanal, on-premise production of high quality wines. (Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery, 331 McKinstry Road, Gardiner, NY 12525, 845-255-4613, Email:firstname.lastname@example.org; see also www.shawangunkwinetrail.com. For more information about Hudson Valley wineries, visit http:www.HudsonValleyWineCountry.org.)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home, Springwood, at Hyde Park; National Park Service, 4097 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, New York 12538, 800-337-8474, www.nps.gov/hofr/index.htm
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is America’s first presidential library and the only one used by a sitting president. It was conceived and built under President Roosevelt’s direction and opened to the public in 1941 (4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, NY 12538, 800-FDR-VISIT or 845-486-7770).
Val-Kill Cottage, Eleanor Roosevelt’ retreat, office, home, and her “laboratory” for social change during the prominent and influential period of her life from 1924 until her death in 1962.
A National Historic Landmark District since 1985, Huguenot Street in New Paltz is the site of six original stone houses, the earliest dating to 1692. Tours are available from May through October, but you can stroll and admire the houses inhabited by our ancestors any time of year.
Walkway Over the Hudson: a 1.3-mile former railroad bridge connecting Highland to Poughkeepsie, 212-foot-high above the Hudson River,is now one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world (you can bike also), debuted in October 2009. The Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad Bridge was the longest bridge in the world when it was built in 1888.
Friday, 17 February, 2012
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