The names stand out as stars in Victorian sky; great elephantine resorts built as Victorian monuments to the transcendentalist aesthetic: Mount Washington, Algonquin, Greenbrier, Yellowstone. As June began the summer, trains full of families would deliver their guests to the station where waiting carriages would ferry them up to these cool mountain or seaside retreats for the entire summer. We have spas, they had leisure.
After the second world war, as air conditioning made city summers at least somewhat livable, and the pace of the world accelerated, these great palaces began to fade. Some burned, others fell into disrepair, but all were on life support. The nuclear age had no need for such places where nature was the principle entertainment, where tea-time conversation in luxurious public parlors was substituted for television, and where music, dances, and lectures comprised evening activities. The world moved too quickly, and these quaint relics faded into obscurity with bustles and hand fans and croquet.
Yet a few of these places survived, most now subsidiaries of giant corporations or governments more used to stamping out quarterly reports than understanding they are stewards of a bygone age. A scant handful remained as they were founded. Now, only one remains:
In the posession of the Smiley family since they bought it as a small tavern in 1869, Mohonk is still very much what it was back in 1869. As Quakers, the Smileys didn’t permit alcohol, cards, dancing, or swimming on Sundays, but that was ok by most of the guests. Indeed so many guests loved the pastoral atmosphere that Mohonk underwent nearly continuous building and expansion up until 1910, when the present structure was largely finished.... and what a finish! Artisans were brought in from all over the United States to build and hand-craft the woodwork, much of it in now nearly extinct but lusterous American Chestnut. The guestrooms in the stone wing all have fireplaces and individual porches, many of the bathrooms still have gargantuan claw-foot tubs, transoms vent the rooms and large windows bring in the cool air off the lake. The result is a quarter-mile long, rambling affair built by 2 different architectural firms and all of it is as done in the Victorian grand style.
Around the hotel span acres of prize gardens dotted with summerhouse gazebos, 80+ miles of hiking, walking, riding, and rock climbing paths, an 18 acre lake that still has fish (rare in the acid-rain soaked upstate New York), and all surrounded by over 8,000 acres of wilderness. It is, in short, a spectacular setting, and still, after all the years, Mohonk’s greatest asset among many.
All the other grand resort hotels had pretty much the same thing, so why did Mohonk survive? Why this place? I’d love to say it’s a complex mix, but it isn’t. It’s the management and the guests. I have never experienced anything like it. I’ve heard stories about some places in the Catskills like it, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine for anyone who doesn’t understand Mohonk. It’s the key to whether you will love Mohonk or feel ripped-off:
Mohonk is a community. Some places have long-time customers, but few can claim five or more generations of guests who come nearly every year (yes, my family among them), and even a few pensioners who still spend entire summers as they did when they were children. At Mohonk, the past and the present blend in an intoxicating experience of rustication without the inconveniences of camping. The Smiley’s have an unusual love of their national landmark and even more of a love for the delicate ecosystem within which it resides. “New” at Mohonk means air conditioning (2005), and a bar (2006). There are still no televisions in the guest rooms ( there are public rooms with televisions that nobody watches), but the guests of today will be glad to know women are now alllowed to bathe at the beach, dances are held in the lounge, and card playing need no longer be confined to one’s room. The latest newfangled arrival is wireless internet. Yaay! But none of that makes Mohonk what it is without the people. The employees love working there even if they don’t always love their jobs. How do I know this? Because long-time guests of Mohonk care about Mohonk and the Smileys are perceptive and gracious enough to know and appreciate this. And that is the magic. Mohonk is a happy place. People say, “hello” to each other, easy conversation between guests and employees is frequent, you get to know the people and they get to know you. It’s definitely Old Republic America, not the deferential, quiet, subservient, but efficient service one finds in most better city hotels. It was the guests that pushed to get air conditioning in the kitchen during the hottest summer Mohonk ever had. Guests didn’t ask for air conditioning in the dining room, though Mohonk did it anyway, they were more worried about the staff. Guests frequently donate funding for items found all over Mohonk. In plenty of places in the house and the grounds you’ll see little plaques given by families in the names of their departed who loved Mohonk. The Smileys aren’t absentee landlords either, they actively work to make Mohonk work. They ensure management isn’t tyranical, and that everyone, guest and staff alike, are well-treated. Arriving at Mohonk with an attitude of entitlement and superiority will virtually insure you won’t like it. You won’t be treated as well as other guests and you may get the impression that you aren’t welcome back. If the idea of dressing for dinner isn’t your idea of a vacation then Mohonk won’t make you happy.
Nothing stays the same and while Mohonk retains traditions it also explores new ones. Along with old croquet, there’s tennis, horseback riding, raquetball, soccer, ice skating, boating, swimming (at the beach and in the new indoor pool with (ahem) underwater speakers), golf, fishing, and every variation of mountain sport from outstanding cross-country skiing trails, to caving (if you know who and how). Who misses the TV? Kids are entertained with daily activities divided by age group and there are still theme weeks consisting of expert-led lectures and adult pursuits. One of my fondest memories of Mohonk was several weeks spent under the stars with a host of astronomers and planetarium directors, including Fred Hess, Isaac Asimov, and Joe Rao watching the Perseid meteor shower and filling my head with the more prosaic delights of amateur astronomy. The newest star at Mohonk is the spa and it’s magnificent. Done in the Adirondack style, the new spa wing has been discreetly added on to what we affectionately called, “The Rickety Wing,” which was the oldest part of the mountain house and still my favorite, if not the most fancy. Alas, rennovations have not only rid it of its rickety-ness, but downright comfortable with all rooms now having private baths (they didn’t used to!). The spa is, I have to say, a blast. The staff are great and the Mohonk Red massage is the stuff of legend. Every spa reviewer has loved this latest addition from its aromatherapy steam room and mineral baths to the overstuffed leather wing chairs in the men’s dressing lounge. It’s a heady experience and not as outrageously expensive as some spas with more pretense and less service or atmosphere.
I see many posts here from people shocked at the prices. Yeah, it’s not cheap, I can’t even say it’s reasonable. Mohonk is expensive but it is so because there is so much of it. Comparisons with city hotels are unfair. The Carlysle doesn’t have 8,000 acres to oversee nor an army of groundskeepers or a quarter-mile long antique building to maintain nor are your meals included. Mohonk’s food is up and down. It’s far better than it used to be and, on occasion, is fantastic, but more often it’s merely as good as what you’d find in your average better restaurant. Breakfasts are the execption with fresh waffles, omelettes, and pancakes made-to-order. It’s a great start for a busy day of activities or a lazy day of gentle walking, reading, and just idling at the views.
Mohonk is like a club without being a club. If you appreciate what Mohonk is and what it offers, you’ll be most welcome whether it’s your first visit or your fiftieth. While the atmosphere lends itself to genteel leisure, times are more casual and so are the guests. If you enjoy being outdoors or if you enjoy simple retired leisure spent in conversation and reading, you will love Mohonk and while it’s definitely family-centric, it makes for a marvelously cozy and serene couples’ getaway, particularly in autumn and winter. Though the hotel must walk a thin line between the needs of 21st century guests and retaining it’s Barbizon atmosphere, it has succeeded and done so with aplomb under the direction of its original owners. Mohonk will either be your idea of the ideal retreat away from the world where bad things can't happen or it will be a musty antique with the nerve to charge a modest fortune for the privilege of boring you witless.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- A hotel, built in the 1860's and filled with charm...ideal for families in summer. ... more less
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- Also Known As:
- Mohonk House
- Mohonk Mountain Hotel
- Mohonk New Paltz
- Mohawk Mountain House
- Mohonk Mountain House New Paltz Ny
- Mohonk Mountain New Paltz
- Mohonk Mountain House New Paltz New York
- New Paltz Mohonk Mountain House Resort
- Mohonk Hotel New York