Where one New Yorker goes to get away from it all
New Paltz, N.Y.
An endangered species is thriving again in New York's Shawangunk Mountains. Mohonk Mountain House, a Victorian resort hotel which seems to combine Victorian, Siberian, and Japanese architecture, has refurbished and revitalized itself so successfully that now, besides being the family favorite it has always been, it is also becoming a popular weekend hideaway for New York City's trend setters from 90 miles south. It is a unique opportunity to retreat to another world . . . another century . . . with all the modern conveniences of today.
With its recently reupholstered antique oak furniture, 147 fireplaces, modern bathrooms, and fantastic panoramic views of mountain and lake from most rooms, and with more than 100 gazebos (they call them summer houses) perched in strategic, breathtaking locations, Mohonk is now thoroughly capable of competing with Hilton's finest on almost every level.
Although Mohonk has lifted some of the rules it enforced as a Quaker-oriented turn-of-the-century resort, there is still no bar, although drinking is now permitted in the dining room at dinner. Smoking is still prohibited in most public areas, although it is permitted in your own room. The management, however, remains firm on its insistence that gentlemen wear jackets at dinner, but open-necked sport shirts and turtlenecks may now be donned under the jackets.
Mohonk, which in one form or another dates back to 1859, is alive and well under the management of the Smiley family, six of whom can still be found taking more or less active roles in the running of the resort. The Mohonk Trust, however, now helps maintain in perpetuity some 7,500 acres, which include 2,500 around Lake Mohonk as well as what may be one of the world's, and certainly the nation's, most authentic Victorian hotels.
I spent the Thanksgiving weekend at Mohonk, in a huge tower room with panoramic view, modern bathroom, and wood-burning fireplace for which kindling and logs were provided every day. The three meals per day included in the $73 -per-day-per-person price (rates for more modest rooms are as low as $48 per person, plus around $6 per day gratuity) were simple, wholesome, and varied -- as American as apple pie a la mode, of which there was usually an ample supply. There is an attempt at diversity; for instance, on Thanksgiving Day seafood crepes as well as turkey and roast beef were on the menu.
Breakfasts are as hearty as those one gets in England: Fruit, cereals, eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, home-made muffins, and Danish pastries. Luncheons are salady, meaty, and delicious buffets, always with home-baked bread. And the pastry table at Sunday lunch was one of the most luscious ever seen outside of Vienna.
Most of the time I sat by one fire or another reading or people-watching. Never did anybody interrupt me as I read --unspoken rule at Mohonk: Never interrupt a reader. Truly, it is a bookworm's paradise, what with comfortable seats by the fire and an unusually varied library, including a fine nature collection. It is also the perfect place to reread such cozy authors as Jane Austen . . . but better bring your own copy, since there may be a run on period reading.
But what is there to do when you are tired of reading, you may ask. Well, first thing you must do when you arrive is to acquiesce in your heart to the spirit of the place . . . and take part in most of the activities offered, of which there are many, none of which will cause you to feel brokenhearted if you miss one.
I took part in a community sing; listened to a chamber music concert by the Mohonk Trio, with Rachel Smiley, an octogenarian, at the piano; attended the screening of an old Katharine Hepburn movie; saw a slide lecture of antique post cards that traced the voyage from New York City to New Paltz by way of the Hudson Dayline; and thoroughly enjoyed a short performance of "Comedy for Lovers" performed by Two for the Road Productions.
And, oh yes, I must also confess that I never quite made the "Rise and Shine" rain or shine 6:30 a.m. hike with Miss Ida, who also gives massages later on in the day. And I regretfully passed up the session on making Christmas baskets.
But there were lots of other casually organized activities, like hikes to the top of Sky Top nearby and to other interesting areas. The hotel also provided maps which clearly designated self-guided nature walks, labeled "short and easy, " "moderate," and "strenuous." I never graduated beyond the moderate. Maybe next time . . . .
Although creature comforts are important, however, and well taken care of at Mohonk, what makes a stay there such an unforgettable experience is that old word "ambiance." I was intrigued by the two "ghost" rockers on every balcony, rocking away in the breeze. It was cold, but unfortunately not cold enough for the lovely "live" (that means fishing) lake to freeze over, so I had to miss the ice skating and skating music on the lake as well as the old-fashioned push chairs which Mohonk sets on the ice for nonskaters.
There is the danger that the Lake Mohonk area may yet be inundated by the hoards of people from distant metropolises. Lake Minnewaska, nearby, is in the midst of great turmoil caused by the fact that the Marriott Corporation wants to buy the property and erect a $78 million resort complex with hotels, conference centers, and condominiums . . . and a parking lot for 1,000 cars. This would have a disastrous effect on the Minnewaska and on the Mohonk area. But local conservationists are fighting Marriott every inch of the way.
Thus, the endangered species is not yet totally spared. And it might very well be that this is the last year that Mohonk Mountain house can be enjoyed as it is . . . as it was.
So check with your travel agent about the many special weekends -- devoted to various activities like cross-country skiing, ice skating, chamber music, performing arts, folk dancing, golfing, tennis -- many of which are offered at reduced rates. There is even a pioneer sugaring weekend in March when guests are taught to make their own maple syrup by Dan Smiley and learn a variety of handicrafts like weaving and woodcarving. Mohonk is busiest in the fall when the leaves are turning, but a good time to go is also in early June, when the lovely laurel is in bloom. But better make your reservations soon.
Write to Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, N.Y. 12561 or call 212-233-2244 -- and ask for its special catalogs with events, rates, and reservation information.