Time and time again we at Frommer's are reminded that the majority of the traveling that Americans do is just within a few hours drive of home. This fact hits home, as I am always looking for interesting destinations that A.) My husband and I can get to by car on Friday night and depart on a Sunday (with enough time away to feel like we've actually gone somewhere, and B.) Are replete with reasons to inspire repeat visits. After a three-day weekend to Hudson River Valley in early March, we can now add that destination to the list.
We positioned ourselves at the historic Mohonk Mountain House (tel. 800/772-6646; www.mohonk.com), which is close enough to a town that you can get there quickly and take in the shopping and sites (more on that in a minute), but nestled atop a mountain in such a way that driving (or perhaps cycling) becomes a more sensible option. A cross between summer camp and a resort, Mohonk has been run by the Smiley family since it opened in 1870 and offers a plethora of activities for visitors, even in the last gasps of winter. Situated on the top of the Shawangunk Ridge, one half of the house has mountain views and the other half has views of Lake Mohonk, and all of the 265 rooms have some kind of view. On the road up to Mohonk, signs remind drivers to proceed "slowly and quietly please," an old-fashioned gesture that hints at the family's Quaker background. How civilized. Driving up to the building, it looks more like a self-sustaining entity, a compound if you will, than anything the website can tell you. In short, it's enormous.
At Mohonk, you can do as much as you want or as little as you want, and most activities and all meals are included in the rate, which ranges $445-$590 for a traditional style room for two people all the way up to $1,500 for a lake view suite, but special offers are usually easy to find (click here for the latest). In the winter months, you can ice skate, cross country ski or snowshoe; you can also visit the greenhouse on the premises, sign up for a nature walk or watch maple sugaring take place. In warmer weather, swimming, canoeing, golf, and hiking are possibilities -- the grounds are home to 85 miles of hiking trails. Evenings are characterized by formal dinners that require reservations and a strict attire: no jeans or sneakers; dinner jackets for men are a must. It's civilized, yes, but like much of American dining these days, people don't exactly speak in hushed tones; the room feels like an odd juxtaposition of a camp's dining hall and a formal room. After dinner, you can either catch the evening's screening of a classic film or check out musical entertainment -- big band, anyone? But after all a day chockablock of stuff, there is something rewarding about retiring to your room, with its fireplace and balcony (nearly half of the rooms have these) and its lack of television. That's right. And you don't miss it, either.
A typical day might go like this. Sleep in. Wake up and have a quick continental breakfast, or join the buffet for a slightly more involved affair, such as waffles or omelete cooked to order. Take in a walk around the grounds and then decide to go cross-country skiing. Come back for lunch and then participate in the open ice skating session. Afterward, walk back to the main lodge and enjoy tea and cookies in the Lake Lounge, a room full of wood paneling, high ceilings and fireplaces. Go back to the room and relax for a bit before dinner, and review the plans for the next day's activities. Enjoy a leisurely dinner -- it's a four-course affair but we were never full -- and then after dinner, play pinball, Ms. Pac-Man, pool, or ping pong. Or find a quiet spot in a lounge with a fireplace. There are so many fireplaces scattered throughout the building and different lounges that I quickly lost count. Some work and some are purely decorative. Indeed, Mohonk possesses plenty of places where you can idle away a few lazy hours reading a book, rock on the porch overlooking the lake, or play board games, and no one will bother you. At first, this tug of do-nothing and do-everything made me anxious and indecisive, but once we discovered that many of the activities are available nearly every day, we realized we could probably do almost everything we wanted to do and still have time to do nothing.
We agreed, though, that it's hard to escape the feeling that by lounging around you're missing something, but we were never bored. Nonetheless, Mohonk is perhaps not the best place to go for 100 percent total escape and relaxation -- hence the "summer camp" part of the description. You can, however (and should) opt for a treatment at the spa, because the facility is beautiful and the lounges that form a semi-circle around side of the building and that you pass through on the way to treatment rooms are green with plants and bright with afternoon sun, offering a panoramic view that is unparalleled. The spa addition also includes an indoor heated pool, fitness center and yoga classes. We scheduled a couple's stone massage and the hot stones are expertly used as yet another implement in the massage process, gently rubbing out any knots in problem areas. (I had not slept well in weeks but that night was much more restful.)
Luckily, the Hudson River Valley was designated a National Heritage Area by Congress in 1996, which means there is plenty worth seeing. From our base in New Paltz, located in the lower portion of the Hudson River Valley, we were within a half-hour's drive of many attractions on the east side of the river, such as the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site (tel. 845/229-9115; www.nps.gov/vama) in Hyde Park. Designed by the renowned architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, the 50-room mansion was built by Frederick Vanderbilt in 1898, one of many homes owned by the extremely wealthy family. Despite the fact that it was just a summer place, it is not exactly humble. Instead, its style reflects the desire to bring a bit of the opulence of the Gilded Age architecture and interiors of Europe to America. The mansion is unusual for many reasons, one of which is the fact that most of the contents of the home are original or as close to original as possible, in accordance with preservation. In the summer, make sure you walk through the property's formal Rose Garden.
While you're in Hyde Park, it's worth visiting the Springwood, the lifelong home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (tel. 800/FDR-VISIT; www.nps.gov/hofr) and other assorted Roosevelt properties, including Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill and FDR's Top Cottage. Our tour guide was informative and animated, but we were disheartened by the lack of basic knowledge some of the tourgoers displayed -- one college-aged student wanted to know what party FDR was a member of! Our visit to both of these places took the better part of a day, but if the weather was not muddy and snowy we would have spent more time at the park, as the Hyde Park Trail offers ten miles of paths; one part connects the mansion and FDR's home. The guided tour is $8 for the Vanderbilt House; it's $14 for a two-day ticket for the Home of FDR guided tour and admission to his Presidential Library and Museum, the only one that was constructed and used by a sitting president. Don't miss his desk from the White House and head downstairs to see his well-kept Ford Phaeton, which was specially rigged so that he could drive.
It took us the better part of a day to tour those two properties but there are many more, including Sunnyside, the country home of Washington Irving, Locust Grove, the country home of Samuel F.B. Morse. During our three-day weekend we planned a tour of the Culinary Institute of America (tel. 800/CULINARY; www.ciachef.edu), whose flagship campus is located in Hyde Park. We stopped there once spontaneously on the way home from somewhere else, which resulted in wandering around aimlessly and eating dinner. For this trip, we arranged a tour and lunch, and were led around by a current student named Andre who was extremely knowledgeable and energetic and we ate a delicious lunch at St. Andrew's Café, a meal that found me wishing I could install a wood-burning oven at home so I could make pizza on a whim. (It was so good I ate it later, cold; I never, ever eat cold pizza.) As you walk through the main building, Roth Hall, the large windows into the kitchen make it easy to gawk at the day's breads and pastries and other meals in various stages of preparation. No doubt, CIA has benefited tremendously by the increased food awareness; since 2001, enrollment has gone from 2,012 to 2,836 in 2006.
CIA is amazing not only because of the exhaustive education the students receive (how cool is it to take a wine class?), but the fact that it consistently produces top chefs, graduating a new class every three weeks. The place is constantly abuzz. The campus's five restaurants are run by students, supervised by faculty, and open to the public five days a week; only two of them, American Bounty and Escoffier, are open on Saturdays for dinner. Reservations are recommended. There are plenty of opportunities, too, for the aspiring foodie or curious cook. For something social and less hands-on, the Dining Series offers opportunities for themed meals and events, with a fixed menu that also includes wines and beverage pairings. CIA has an extensive continuing education program, too. You can sign up for a one-day course on the weekend that focuses on grilling, sauces, herbs, or cheese, for example, or world cuisines, from Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean, German, Celtic, or Asian fare. If you want a total culinary immersion, five-day boot camps are available in basic training, skills development, baking, pastry, grilling, French cuisine, Italian cuisine, and more. I looked through the options while waiting for lunch and could not decide what class I'd choose, but odds are it will involve butter, sugar and flour.
So, at some future date, when the weather is warmer and farmer's markets are fully stocked, we will return. Perhaps we'll drive further north and visit Rhinebeck. Or maybe we'll just stay on the east side of the river and take a day-long cooking course at Culinary, drive around the Hudson Valley (tel. 845/291-2136; www.travelhudsonvalley.org) keeping at eye out for antique stores and stopping periodically at wineries (tel. 585/394-3620; www.newyorkwines.org/winecountry/hudsonriver/map.asp) along the way. Regardless, there's plenty here to warrant another visit. Mission accomplished.
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