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Mo Better Mohonk: The Last, Best Old-Time Resort (in Upstate New York)

March 3, 2004 -- Gazing at the brochure pictures of the sprawling architectural mishmash that is Mohonk Mountain House, I had visions of an alpine Disney, with oom-pah-pah bands awaking you at daybreak, B&B-style furnishings run amok, and kids in hyperdrive. Sure, the Shawangunk Mountain backdrop was appropriately photogenic, and the cross-country-ski trail system looked impressive. But somehow, hearing the venerable upstate New York resort described as an "enchanted Victorian castle," I figured I was in for a weekend of cheesy fun. Oh, but I was wrong.

This old-fashioned Adirondack retreat is a family resort that is determinedly adult-friendly. A National Historic Landmark structure whose origins go back to 1869, it's nobly and generously built, with wide staircases and wood wainscoting and the ambience of a gentlemen's hunting lodge of old. Huge windows reveal pillows of snowbanks outside and give a golden patina to the handsome woodwork inside. Yet Mohonk is filled with cozy little rabbit holes, too, where blazing fireplaces are tucked into reading rooms and where you can easily find yourself utterly alone. At times you'll even feel as if you have the run of your great-aunt's rustic 19th-century country manse. But this is also a place for enjoying the company of others. Nothing quite so neatly exemplifies the feel of Mohonk as the spacious wooden verandas with rows of rocking chairs overlooking the (now frozen) Lake Mohonk. Even when we were there, with snow blanketing the hills and temperatures hovering below freezing, the chairs were irresistible to guests, who balanced their skis on the porch's wooden rail and sipped Mohonk tea in the winter sun.

In a world where everyone seems tethered to a digital toy, Mohonk's old-fashioned sensibility feels almost revolutionary. Rooms have no TVs, so there were no car chases or shoot-em-ups rattling the old fixtures. I swear to you, I saw not one child with a Gameboy in hand. I did see red-cheeked kids in snowshoes or skis, kids on skates in the charming open-air Victorian Skating Pavilion, and kids attending (in droves and with mouths agape) the truly interesting events held daily, such as visits from esteemed zookeepers with animals in tow. Mohonk makes a point (through prominently placed signs and such) of gently asking parents to keep children from running wild inside the hotel--and indeed, it was a spirited but well-behaved bunch we saw on our weekend trip.

We also saw a fascinating mix of adults, from honeymooners to retirees to Manhattan residents there for a restorative weekend (it's just 90 minutes from New York City by car or bus to New Paltz; Metro North trains also run from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, 15 minutes away) in the resort's fitness center, which offers such state-of-the-art spa treatments as hot stone therapy massage and holistic facial renewals. We met a singer with the Metropolitan Opera who comes up between performances to rest and get rejuvenating massages. An older grand dame was there for similar pampering--and she was deliciously dressed and scented for dinner every night. We were told of one world traveler, a lady in her 90s, whose exploits took her to Napoleon's island deathbed and peaks in Nepal, who punctuated her adventures with trips to Mohonk to rest and reenergize. It's that kind of place.

How did this old-time behemoth survive and thrive for almost 135 years? Albert and Alfred Smiley, a pair of Quaker twins, came upon the wooded mountain property in 1869 and envisioned a peaceful retreat where, in lieu of gambling and drinking facilities, as Albert Smiley wrote, a "library of good standard works," entertainment, healthy recreation, and lectures would entice guests. They bought land piecemeal, eventually amassing what was to become an 8,600-acre property, much of it nature preserve. The Victorian castle you see today is a result of add-on construction from 1879 to 1923 from the designs of three different architects. While the understated Arts and Crafts-style interior feels interlocked and of a piece, the Gothic exterior, with its raucous display of towers, turrets, chimneys, and battlements, is endearingly hodgepodge. In truth, these imperfections only make the place more lovable--especially for those travelers weary of cool minimalist hotel design and homogenous guest rooms.

As sprawling as the resort has become (7 stories, 261 guest rooms, and 4 guest cottages!), it is still a family-owned and -operated business, and it shows. Generations of Smiley family portraits grace the hallways. Ardent ecologists and savvy caretakers, the Smileys are on-site daily, and the place hums with friendly efficiency. It has been said, too, that the Smileys are geniuses at making improvements without appearing to make any changes. Case in point: The rooms, wood-paneled and spacious, have a solid Victorian feel, but the bathrooms are completely modern, the sounds from other rooms or the hallway are barely heard, and everything works splendidly. And to add to the appeal, most rooms have balconies and half have wood-burning fireplaces. We would come in from dinner, light our Duraflame log and have a glass of wine around the fireplace. For city dwellers who usually have to settle for candles, this was bliss.

Writer Brendan Gill once called Mohonk "the last, best summer place," and indeed this year-round resort makes good use of all the seasons. Warm-weather activities revolve around water recreation on Lake Mohonk, 85 miles of forest and mountain trails, tennis, and golfing on the 105-year-old Mohonk Golf Course (free to guests on weekdays). Fifteen acres of English-style gardens begun by Albert Smiley himself bloom with roses, clematis, and more than 50 types of annuals. A stable provides horses for trail rides and carriage rides, and pony rides for the kids. The summer Mohonk Kids' Club provides organized activities, ranging from frog hunts and rock scrambling to hayrides and boat rides. Year-round the resort hosts jazz concerts, ballroom dances, and Native American storytelling under the stars.

As appealing as Mohonk sounds in the summer, it's hard to imagine a better time for us to have first seen it than in winter. Everything was relaxing and easy. Mohonk will pick up visitors at the New Paltz bus station free of charge if you make the arrangements in advance. Room service was as efficient as any I've ever used-and the resort now offers alcoholic beverages after years of Quaker abstinence. And getting out on the cross-country-ski trails couldn't have been easier. We simply walked a few yards from the Mohonk back porch to the ski shop, where we were immediately fitted with the right size skis (no charge to guests) and a map of the marked, maintained trails. A light snow was falling, and within minutes we were on a trail that swooped us down and up through icy forests, with not another soul in sight.

But perhaps nothing brings a real sense of community to the place as much as meals in the big, warm dining rooms. The sunny main dining room, with soaring ceilings and yellow pine paneling and oak floors, serves some 300 guests. The resort's Full American Plan rates include breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast and lunch are all-you-can-eat affairs, good for packing it in between ski runs. Afternoon tea and cookies are served in the chestnut-paneled Lake Lounge. The four-course dinners are much more ambitious, where the chefs get to noodle around with such haute dishes as foie gras ravioli--and considering how many people they serve, they do a more than respectable job. After a day of playing in the snow, tramping the trails, and rocking on the porch, we could not have found a more relaxing setting in which to dine. We sat holding hands as tables of families, grand dames, and couples like us watched the candlelight play on the rich wood furnishings and light up our cheeks, rosy as a child's.

Mohonk Mountain House, Lake Mohonk, New Paltz, New York 12561. 800/772-6646 or 845/256-2100. Fax: 845/256-2100. Rates include full breakfast, lunch, and dinner and afternoon tea. Most weekends require a two-night stay. $200-$415 single; $335-$515 double; $420-$620 suites; $540-$670 tower rooms. No charge for children under 4; children ages 4-12 $75; extra 12 and over $125. A 15% service charge is added to your daily room rate, and a 15% service charge is added to beverage checks, room service, and massage.

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