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Travel: A Family Retreat

Brett Anderson

Certain places always draw us back. For 137 years, the Hudson River Valley’s Mohonk Mountain House, set atop a ridge overlooking the Shawangunk Mountains in New Paltz, N.Y., has been such a place.

The rambling Victorian resort’s turreted wings visually trace its history, from the gabled ease of the 1870s to the crenellated stone towers of 1900 to the state-of-the-art spa wing that opened in 2005. However, nothing remains of the orginal lakeside tavern owned by a Mr. John Stokes. If that unassuming inn’s 10 bedrooms were rather monastic, the entertainments were anything but. Dancing was a favorite pastime of guests, as were cardplaying and drinking. Though Stokes sold liquor, he apparently discouraged excessive consumption and, reputedly, chained inebriated guests to trees if they became unruly. Into this cultivated scene, in September of 1869, walked an unlikely figure: Alfred Smiley, a Quaker teetotaler from Poughkeepsie on a nature outing, accompanied by his wife, children, and a number of friends. Smiley was immediately struck by the area’s incandescent beauty. As a family friend, Frederick Partington, later wrote in The Story of Mohonk, “He was standing less than a hundred miles from the metropolis of the country; he was surrounded by romantic natural features absolutely unknown to the great outside world . . . .” When Stokes mentioned to Smiley his intention to sell the tavern and the lake, Smiley wired his twin brother, Albert, an educator in Providence, R.I., to come at once. On his arrival, Albert, also smitten, purchased the tavern and 300 acres for $28,000.

As the crude tavern gave way to lofty, elegant buildings with sweeping verandas surrounded by manicured gardens and the wild woods, gambling and drinking gave way to nature walks, musical concerts, lectures, and religious services. The lack of liquor, however, did not deter many of America’s prominent families from making an annual pilgrimage to Mohonk, and it quickly acquired the loyal following among generations of these families that persists to the present day. While the Smiley family continues to own and operate the resort, the Quaker “house rules” have somewhat relaxed. A bar was added in the 1960s, but the exquisitely detailed period rooms (rates range from $415 to $775, double occupancy, with three meals and afternoon tea included), most of which have fireplaces, have no televisions. Twenty-first-century guests may, of course, order room service—though to miss a home-style dinner in the magnificent, polished, two-story, Arts and Crafts–style dining room, with its vistas of mountains and lake, would be to deny oneself a magical memory. The roster of activities at the 2,200-acre resort includes horseback riding, hiking, tennis, croquet, golf, ice-skating and cross-country skiing in season, and perusing the property’s 1888 barn museum, which houses an impressive collection of artifacts ranging from a Model T to an Edison dictation machine.

The Spa at Mohonk Mountain comprises 30,000 square feet and is built, in part, of stone quarried directly from the site. The interior retains the gracious rusticity of the rest of the resort, while housing modern facilities that include massage and facial rooms, a couple’s suite, two enclosed verandas with views for relaxation, a fitness center, a solarium equipped with a stone fireplace, an indoor swimming pool, and an outdoor heated mineral pool.

Given Mohonk Mountain House’s amenities, it is ironic that Albert Smiley never intended to become a hotelier. “I had no more thought of it than going to the moon,” he once quipped. “My sole purpose was to provide a home.” For four generations of Smileys and their guests, he succeeded.

Reflected in the waters of Lake Mohonk, the rambling yet elegant Mountain House dates to the 1870s.

Mohonk Mountain House
800.772.6646
www.mohonk.com

Photo by Jim Fets
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