’Round the mountain to Mohonk

I am coming ’round the mountain, although I am not singing aye aye yippee. I am actually (confession time) singing along to K T Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See,” when — two miles past the gatehouse, where Kara has checked my credentials and asked me if I want valet parking or to self-park — suddenly I see Mohonk Mountain House. Actually, I don’t “see” Monhonk so much as Mohonk — a national historic landmark, just 20 miles northwest of Poughkeepsie — socks me in the jaw.

Located in the Shawangunk Mountains in New Paltz, Mohonk has been owned and operated by the Smiley family since its founding by Albert Smiley in 1869. The Mountain House’s façade runs an eighth of a mile and its architectural styles — the house and resort have grown organically over the last 151 years — run the gamut,from Heidi-like chalet, to Dutch gabled townhouse to Fantasy Island stone house, with chimneys, turrets and angular red roofs that would not look out of place in Tibet.

Talk about entering a different world. Mohonk’s modest front door gives no clue to what lies behind, although the nine waiting valets (what is the collective noun for valets? A bevy? A scad?) should have tipped me off that Mohonk was going to be big. Inside, it’s a city — which is to say a very wonderful city, lost in time, with an entrance lobby that manages at once to be vast and yet gemütlich; where the corridors radiating off the main hall are wide enough to hold an army; where the five-story central wooden staircase is an architectural wonder; and where, from the sublime to the ridiculous, the floral-patterned, 1960s-style, wall-to-wall carpet (and there are acres of it) will take you straight back to your grandmother’s, or great-grandmother’s home.

The Smileys did not think small. The Lake Lounge, where breakfast is served, is still very much the hub of the hotel. It is large enough to host a full symphony orchestra and still leave room for a marching band, neither of which would be out of place here, since the lounge, and with the parlor above it are the settings for many of Mohonk’s entertainments, which are legendary. There is music and there are other arts. There is dance and there is magic. Every weekend of the year brings a new theme or festival to Mohonk — from swing dance to ballroom dancing, from yoga and Ugly Sweater Weekends to rock ’n’ roll and birdwatching. There are girlfriends getaways and garden holidays, “Chefs on the Mountain” and wine-tasting weekends. In midsummer, there is a six-week long Festival of the Arts. The only problem at Mohonk is not what to do, but how on earth to find the time to do it.

And then there is food. The dining room, with its peerless view across the Hudson Valley to the captivating Catskills beyond, has stayed virtually unchanged through five generations of Smiley ownership. To be sure, it is the size of an airplane hangar, yet with fresh flowers on each table and good, starched linen, the vast hall feels surprisingly intimate. The staff serves half a million meals a year at Mohonk, so you could be forgiven for expecting some kind of institutional slush. But under Executive Chef Jim Palmeri and a partnership with more than 50 local farms, supplying the kitchen with the best local produce, “farm-to-table” is more than just an empty slogan here. (Fun fact: Ever since the French Huguenots planted some of the nation’s first grape vines in what is now New Paltz in 1677, the Hudson Valley has been chock-full of farms.)

Venture out on to one of Mohonk’s two lakefront terraces, with their long lines of rocking chairs facing the almost mystical lake and you will be transfixed. Breathe. In mid-March, the lake is still frozen, but now spring is here and this winter wonderland has been transformed. Mohonk is a sporting paradise, everything from tennis and archery to kayaking and tomahawk-throwing. There is rowing, paddle-boarding, swimming — of course — in the lake or pool, as well as hiking and rock scrambling and, for the riders or would-be riders among you, horseback riding is always an option. Or you can venture to the other side of the lake and climb the mountain to Sky Top Tower. Constructed in 1923, as a memorial to Albert Smiley, the tower enables you to see six states from its lookouts.

All this activity calls for some serious relaxation, and it it’s no exaggeration to say that Mohonk is now considered by some to be the top resort spa in the country. (Condé Nast Traveller has called it just that.) With its 16 treatment rooms, along with relaxation verandas, a solarium, and outdoor heated mineral pool, eucalyptus steam rooms and dry rock saunas, this spa has it all — world class facilities combined with tip-top treatments and therapists. Though the spa menu is a cornucopia of sweet temptation, the way to go if you plan on having just one treatment is the signature Mohonk Red Massage, inspired by the indigenous red witch-hazel that grows on the property. 

If retail is your preferred kind of therapy, Mohonk takes care of that too. The spa has one of the best spa shops I have seen, where you can buy many of the therapy products used, in addition to an inviting range of athletic and leisure wear. If you need a bigger selection, Mohonk’s main gift shop, off the main lobby near the library, is the place to head for. It is the size of a supermarket but infinitely more interesting.

Suddenly I see that my time is up and it is time to return to reality. But I’ll be back. If, like me, your travel plans are currently on hold, or you have already cancelled them because of the dreaded coronavirus, think about a short drive up the Hudson Valley this spring or summer. “Come Up for Air,” runs Mohonk’s clever advertising slogan. I’ll be doing just that.

For more, visit mohonk.com.

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