I filled a rather significant hole in my Hudson Valley education last weekend. I finally spent a couple of nights at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY.
I say significant and finally not just because the spectacular 259-room castle hotel, which has been around since 1869 and sits on the Shawangunk Ridge in Ulster County, is listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But also because friends and family have been visiting for years and singing the praises of the place.
My curiosity was peeked, but never sufficiently to spend several hundred dollars a night to see what the fuss was about. Also, I’m somewhat of a snob when it comes to nature.
My preference is to contemplate it in solitude, or as close to that condition as possible. If I must have companions, the fewer the better.
So the idea of a resort hotel with hundreds of rooms, a lake with paddleboats, a climbing labyrinth, a golf course, and a spa didn’t quite sound like something Henry David Thoreau would have approved of.
Fortunately, I was able to overcome my qualms with the help of friends who invited my wife and me, and dozens of others, to help them celebrate a significant wedding anniversary.
I also have a small confession to make. On a nature walk we took Saturday morning, I dropped a tissue onto a ledge below where we were standing while contemplating one of the resort’s exceptional views.
I still feel bad about it.
The only reason I bring up this seemingly minor violation is that I don’t think I’ve visited anywhere that accommodates this many guests on a daily basis – including Switzerland, where cleanliness along its alpine meadows rises to something like a spiritual contract – with such well-groomed trails and so little litter.
Mohonk was started by Quaker twin brothers Alfred and Albert Smiley as a place to enjoy nature, and subsequent generations of the family have built upon their mission of environmental stewardship.
So I apologize. I was tempted to climb down to retrieve the culprit Kleenex. Except that would have risked spending Saturday night at the local hospital, or the morgue, rather than at the excellent dinner and dance party, with a great band, that our friends threw to celebrate their anniversary.
Our cozy wood-trimmed room came with a terrace where one could enjoy a view of the lake and fellow guests engaging in water sports, as well as swifts and swallows darting back and forth against the evening sky. We also had a fireplace that we put to good use Saturday morning.
I had only two regrets. The first was that I forgot to bring along a bottle of vodka or scotch. Since part of the fun of resorts, as well as an effective cost cutting measure, is to enjoy the view under the influence of your own poison.
And that I neglected to pack my binoculars, since Mohonk is well known for its bird walks. I was told guides might have pairs one could borrow; but I wasn’t ambitious enough to sign up for any of the scheduled walks.
However, my failure to include a bottle of Tito’s or single malt in my luggage turned out just fine. Because one of the hotel’s bars is on an outdoor terrace that offers perhaps the best views of the Catskills I’ve ever seen.
Before I forget, the food was also excellent and elegantly served. Saturday breakfast and Sunday brunch, where we joined hundreds of other hotel guests under the soaring ceilings of the Victorian era main dining room, couldn’t have been more generous or artfully prepared.
I suppose the test of any great resort is the opportunities it provides to socialize when you feel like it and privacy when you don’t.
Mohonk Mountain House tiptoes up to, but never quite crosses, the line into overkill with a rustic gazebo seemingly every hundred feet or so.
But those gazebos offer amazing views.
The most memorable part of the weekend came when my wife and I took an hour-long walk along Eagle Cliff. It wasn’t especially challenging – Mohonk borders the Mohonk Preserve and offers eighty-five miles of hiking trails, some undoubtedly a good deal more strenuous than ours – but when we turned a corner we came upon a view I’ll probably always remember.
It was of black vultures serenely riding the thermals high above the emerald carpeted ridge of the Shawangunks.
We failed to take advantage of the hotel’s spa or pool. But come Sunday morning, before brunch, I did bury my resort-phobic pride, settled into a kayak and paddled out along Mohonk Lake, among the canoers and paddleboarders.
When I returned to the dock, a cheerful attendant was waiting to guide me into a slip, specifically made for kayaks. It came with an overhead bar that allows you to lift yourself out of the scull without any risk of capsizing.
There’s something to be said for a resort with all the amenities.
Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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