by Deborah Bogosian
New Paltz, NY
From the approach — and from almost every vantage point — Mohonk Mountain House cuts a stunning profile. Picture an enormous Victorian castle on a lake, surrounded by lush gardens and situated amid 7,800 acres of nature preserve and nestled on a ridge in the Shawangunk mountains (one of the Nature Conservancy’s “Last Great Places” on earth.)
It’s a spectacular setting, and quite a story: At more than 140 years old, Mohonk Mountain House is one of the last of the great grand resorts of its ilk. The hotel’s bona fides include designations as a National Historic Landmark and a place on the register of Historic Hotels. George Washington didn’t sleep here but five presidents have (Roosevelt, Hayes, Taft, Arthur and Clinton).
Mohonk’s legacy began in 1869 with the identical twin Smiley brothers, eccentric and frugal Quakers and educators who had a vision and who made some good choices and got lucky. They — particularly brother Albert — envisaged Mohonk as a summer retreat where people could reap the benefits of communing with nature and with each other. For many years, Mohonk was a hub of academic and diplomatic conferences and refined entertainment. It faltered in a few periods but has rebounded to its position today as one of America’s great historic resorts.
Architecturally, Mohonk is an outlandish amalgamation: nine adjoining buildings of various periods, facades, heights, angles, turrets and towers, more than an eighth of a mile from end-to-end. With all its eclecticism there is a coherence to the place. The 2005 Spa Wing isn’t an aesthetic jolt from the 1879 Rock Building it adjoins; the 2001 Skating Pavilion nicely echoes the feel of the main dining room wing that dates to the turn of the last century. Somehow it all hangs together.
Mohonk’s interiors are equally historic and eclectic. Fixtures, carpeting, furniture and decor are either original or reproduction period pieces comfortably arranged in vast public spaces and the dozens of cozy nooks throughout the seven-story hotel. Hallways serve as a kind of vertical scrapbook, with photographs, paintings, maps, textiles, news clippings, floor plans and artifacts of the hotel’s history and geography, worthy of taking the time to review.
Mohonk occasionally gets comparisons to the haunted Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Perhaps it’s the Victorian feel or scale of the place or expansive hallways or its topiary maze. But from there the comparison fall short. The only “ghost” here is likely the spirit of Albert Smiley, who probably would be quite pleased with the way the place has evolved — and the ways in which it has not. With a 140-year-old resort, the art form is in knowing what to change, and what to keep the same. Mohonk largely gets the balance right.
Mohonk is special as much for what it is not as for what it is. It is decidedly low-tech. You won’t be assaulted by flat-screen TVs in every corner, nor will you have one in your room. Daily schedules are still tacked to bulletin boards. The airwaves aren’t yet permeated with Wi-Fi.
Four o’clock isn’t happy hour at Mohonk; it’s tea-and-cookies time. The resort’s only bar (a recent concession to modern sensibilities) closes at 11. Alan Alda is about the hottest celebrity sighting reported there. And the only glitz you’re likely to see is in a craft bin at the kids club. Mohonk is so un-cool, it’s cool.
To love Mohonk is to appreciate the whole experience — its gorgeous setting and natural beauty and classic take on relaxation and recreation and service. Avoid getting too fussed about particular details — uneven dinner service, the lack of technology, how long you may have to wait for your car — or you’ll likely begin to have serious problems with the price point (not cheap).
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There are 265 guest rooms on seven floors and the range of sizes, styles and features reflects the eclecticism of the hotel itself. The basic room categories are Traditional, Victorian, Suites/Junior Suites and Tower Rooms. Even within these categories, the room can vary in size and features, and be sizes and bedding combinations. Many have balconies and many have in-room fireplaces (some have both). With a supply of chopped wood, firestarters and easy instructions, this former Girl Scout got a minor blaze going in no time. There are no TVs in the rooms -- to the discontent of some but a welcome opportunity for your kids to detox from Spongebob Square Pants.
Many of Mohonk's rooms have been refurbished over the past several years. Upgrades include new furniture, fixtures, carpeting and window treatments and air conditioning -- a fairly recent addition the Mountain House.
Bathrooms are stocked with Mohonk's house brand of rosemary mint shampoo, conditioner and shower gel.
This is a magical place. I can only imagine how wonderful it is to stay here-we only we’re here for the day. If you book a spa treatment you have the run of the place except for the pool. The grounds are beautiful and the lake just gorgeous. The staff is super friendly and helpful. I would love to come back and stay some day. And yes, it’s very pricey.
There are lots of places for the people who want to drink, party, etc, etc., and not so much for those of us who want beautiful, nature- and family-themed places (without a theme park atmosphere). This is one of the most gorgeous places on earth: a fairytale castle on a mountaintop surrounded by hundreds of acres of Nature with capital N. My family has been coming here for over 40 years now, from bringing out kids to now bringing grown grandkids. And they all love it! When you go through that gate and have to drive 2 miles to the Mountain House, you feel as though you are leaving all the world's problems out there. And what is especially nice is that you can be outdoors all day, climbing mountains, hiking, paddle-boarding - and then you come inside to dress for a fantastic gourmet dinner. I like to call it genteel camping!
The resort is relaxed but with a host of recreational options: hiking (over 85 miles of trails), mountain-biking (bikes available for rental onsite), snow-shoeing, snow tubing, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, tennis, golf, horseback riding, shuffleboard and basketball.
In summer the lake is a center of activity in summer, with a swimming beach, boating and fishing.
Should rain keeps your kids indoors, there's a selection of puzzles and board games available. There's also a library with a small selection of kids books, as well as is communal large-screen TV off of the main parlor, where it could be fun to watch, say, a Yankees-Red Sox game with other visitors. If you must (like my kid), there is a modest game room tucked away in a small room on the first floor.
Add to this a host of spa services, exercise classes and special programs, and a family will never want for something to do.
The Council House just up the hill from the main building houses Mohonk's active kids program. As you enter, notice the handmade sign for "Record for most newts caught." The figure was in the 60s.
The Kids Club operates in summer and on weekends and on a limited schedule off peak. The program is structured but flexible based on the dynamics and interests and weather. Kids are divided into three age groups: Tykes (ages 2 to 3), Explorers (ages 4 to 6), and Adventurers (ages 7 to 12). Activities can range from arts and crafts and indoor games to rock scrambling, ice skating, lawn games, sports, pony rides, boat rides and scavenger hunts. Many activities skew to Mohonk's natural surroundings, including a "Junior Naturalist" program in which kids do hands-on environmental explorations. Occasionally the program might include movie watching (my personal bugaboo with vacation kids-clubs).
In July and August there are teen programs that feature supervised activities such as daylong hikes, golf or tennis. There are also summer evening programs for kids -- ice cream sundae socials, dance parties, campfires and the like.
There's a wooded playground for toddlers and younger kids, and a jogging strollers are available so that parents can explore the grounds with babies.
It's worth a visit the barn museum just across the road. Like the hotel itself, the barn is rambling and fun to explore. Its rooms and lofts house a collection of antique carriages, cars and sleds, and is also a trove of artifacts from the history of the Mountain House: early elevators and dumb waiters, old room keys and room-service call systems, bathtubs and toilets, signage, and desks, blackboards and books from the days when the hotel served as a school for boys in winter.
Mohonk's heated indoor pool in the new Spa Wing is lovely and family friendly. Situated in a wood-beamed and windowed enclosure, encircled by lounge chairs, the pool is just the right size and temperature for a pleasant swim. (The underwater sound system was perhaps the only detail that struck me as needless bells-and-whistles.) Depth ranges from a few inches in the shallowest end to 5 feet. There's a small selection of kickboards and floaters and goggles available. Towels are provided and there are changing rooms with lockers, hair dryers and bathing suit dryers. Usually an hour a day is reserved for adult swim, so watch the schedule to know when that occurs. There's a sign-in and key card entry system but there is no lifeguard so kids need to be minded.
The 2005 addition of a 30,000-square-foot Spa Wing has added to Mohonk's distinction and appeal. It is light filled, pristine, visually appealing and comforting. You can be rubbed with Shawangunk grit, inhale the particular kind of "mountain red" witch hazel that grows on the property, or sink into one of over a dozen other treatments. The Spa also extends Mohonk's historical environmental sensitivity with its "recycled" stone walls, geo-thermal heating and cooling system and "green roof" that helps reduce rain run-off, filters the air, and serves as a sanctuary for birds and butterflies.
The salon offers manicures pedicures for six to 16 year olds, though they are steep at $45, and there are several massages and facials available for teens ($70 and up), making the spa one of the more family friendly ones available.
Mohonk is a "full American Plan" resort, which means room prices include three meals daily (plus afternoon tea and cookies). Meals are served in the expansive turn-of-the (last) century dining room. High chairs are available.
Breakfast and lunch are buffets and dinner is a four-course affair with reserved seating times. Dinner at Mohonk is, if not a dress-up occasion, at least a "dress decent" occasion. Jackets are suggested for men and boys over 12.
Kids can order from the menu or enjoy the kids' buffet, where there are variations on the kid-friendly staples that any parent knows too well. If your kids do opt for the buffet (seems most do) you may want to manage the pacing a bit so that they're not finished and antsy to go before you've finished your soup.
The food is bountiful and hearty and aims to hit high marks but sometimes falls short. There are some high points: house smoked fish, artisanal cheeses, delicate curries and very good ice cream. But there are other less successful ones: a "grown-up" version of macaroni and cheese that was simply okay; coffee that really ought to be better; bags of potato chips on the kids' buffet that seemed out of place.
Iced tea (not so great) and lemonade (really good) are offered and the wine list is mentioned secondarily -- a subtle nod to Mohonk's roots in temperance. (Legend has it that back in the day of the original tavern that stood on the land, drunks would be chained to trees.)
Breakfast is full of choices: pancakes or waffles, cereals, pastries, a yogurt and fruit bar, omelets to-order, bacon and sausage. There are also lots to choose from at lunch, though some dishes are a little too conspicuous as variations on dinner leftovers from the night before.
Sunday brunch is especially bountiful (and popular with many day visitors), with offerings including salmon and shrimp and a dozen or so desserts including those silly messy chocolate fountains that kids love.
Miss a meal? The Carriage Lounge offers (at extra cost) light fare -- sandwiches, salads and cheese plates. Room service is also available. Summer dining options open up with lakeside barbecues and lobster bakes and informal picnic house selling sandwiches and wood-burning oven pizzas.
Planning & Tips
Mohonk is easily accessible by car and is about 90 miles from New York City (which New Yorkers will tell you can take a couple of hours or twice as long depending on city traffic).
Mohonk Mountain House is 25 miles from Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, 70 miles from Albany Airport and less than 100 miles from New York City area airports.
Adirondack Trailways goes to New Paltz from New York City (about $40 round/trip, with weekday discounts) and other points in New York.
The nearest Amtrak station is in Poughkeepsie, about 45 minutes away from Mohonk.
From New Paltz, you can get a taxi up to Mohonk for about $15 (New Paltz Taxi, 845-255-1550 or Joey's Taxi & Transportation Company: 845-255-8294)
The Mohonk Transportation Department can help with transportation arrangements to the Poughkeepsie Train Station or New Paltz Bus Station; inquire at 845-256-2016.
Mohonk's room rates have gone up quite a bit from the early days when a night's stay cost $3. Prices start at around $250 per person for a standard room on a weekday; add $165 for kids age 12 or older and $94 for 5 to 12 year olds (kids under five stay free). A 15 percent gratuity is added to the bill though staff won't refuse additional cash tips.
The Mohonk resort is a vast and immersive experience and once you are on the compound there's not much reason to leave, especially when they feed you so well. But the college town of New Paltz, with its State University of New York (SUNY) campus, provides some alternative eating and shopping options. It's worth a drive down historic Huguenot Street, a former center of Dutch immigrant community dating to the 17th Century.
All about the Extras
Mohonk is a popular place for family reunions and provides special services and packages including reunion games and souvenirs.
A homey gift shop -- first floor, can't miss it -- will fit the bill for souvenirs for the kids: wearables, comestibles and toys, many with a nature theme or an old fashioned feel. A corner of the shop is fashioned after a soda fountain, and the homemade milkshakes and fizzy drink concoctions sound tasty, if only anybody had room for them after all the big meals (see Dining).
There is a modern gym in the Spa Wing with state of the art equipment. It's very nice, as far as gyms go, but on a nice day, why not stay off the conveyer belts and go climb the mountain.
Parents' Time Out
For parents wanting some kid-free time, the hotel maintains a babysitter referral list with mini bios that summarizes their experience and interests. Many of them are hotel employees or former employees who "moonlight" as sitters. (They are not operating as hotel employees when they baby-sit.)
The Art of Smart Timing
Mohonk is open year-round. The greatest range of outdoor activities clusters around summer and winter months, but spring and fall can be great times to go for hikes amid fall foliage and spring buds (and less crowding). Its New York location means Mohonk gets all of the seasons: cold winters, hot summers.
Since Mohonk is a popular family destination, school break periods and holidays can be heavily booked. Prime summer weeks can be sold out months ahead.
Mohonk offers a host of theme weekends -- murder mysteries, cooking, gardening, dance, meditation, arts, fifties music. The theme programming is an added attraction but don't avoid booking if your dates happen to coincide with a theme that doesn't appeal to your interests. The programs add value for some, but otherwise can be ignored. Crowds for the thematic programs vary, but it's unlikely the place will be taken over by swing dancers or dieters.
Watch Mohonk's website or join the email list to stay in-the-know about special offers, including mid-week rates, holiday specials or "Kids Stay Free" or "Kids Stay Half Price" weeks. Mohonk also offers "Moms stay free" month during May, and "Dads stay Free in June."
If you can't swing an overnight but want to explore Mohonk, there are also day-rates that include at least one meal (lunch) and allow access to the grounds and many activities.
It has been many years since guests traveled to Mohonk via horse-drawn carriages, yet Mohonk's egress hasn't adapted all that well to the advent of the automobile. The valet service at checkout time can get backed up. Notices in the elevator say as much, and reportedly improvements to the driveway are in the planning stages. But, for now, if you're in a hurry to leave, you may do better to park in the self-park lot and take a DIY approach to loading your car. Or -- better still -- consider checking your luggage at the front desk for storage and spending a few more hours enjoying yourself.