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Fyllis: Mohonk
Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance

By Fyllis Hockman

hen the couple, there for their 20th visit, commented that it was the first time they had taken the house tour -- one of the staples of the Mohonk Mountain House experience -- I asked what they had been doing all those years. Liz and Dan Gleason from Haddon Heights, NJ replied: "There's just so much to do all the time, you just can't fit it all in. Every year, there's a new surprise. This year, it's the Smiley family parlor."

And therein lie two of the greatest pleasures at this glorious old resort in New Paltz, NY -- activities to keep you busy all day (but only if desired) and the connection to the Smiley family, who has owned and operated the resort for over 140 years.

That connection reverberates throughout the property, which has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. First bought in 1869 by twins Albert and Alfred Smiley, the 10-room tavern that sat on 300 acres of lake and farm area has been expanded to encompass 266 rooms in connected buildings spanning a sixth of a mile, while the property now extends to 2200 acres.

beach by the lake at Mohonk Mountain House, New Platz, NY
Photo Courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House

Their most recent nod to architectural modernity came in 2005 when they added an ecologically sensitive, geothermally heated spa wing and the first and only -- and long overdue (at least to my way of thinking…) -- cocktail lounge. The structural expansion prior to that? 1910, when they added the rounded window section in the main dining room.

Which leaves you very unprepared for the grandiose creation greeting you as you drive up. The mammoth building sitting atop a hill more resembles a haunted house than a mountain resort. All jutting angles and balustrades, widows peaks and turrets, circular, angular and pointed wood, stone and rock cliffs result in a hodge-podge of architectural styles for which eclectic is an understatement. It's an imposing mish-mosh of disparate styles, all tacked one upon the other, without thought to form or aesthetic. You don't know whether you've arrived at a world-class hotel (which it is), Rapunzel's castle or the Addams Family abode; you do know that it's wonderful.

aerial view of the Mohonk Mountain House and lake
Photo Courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House

A walk through its many halls presents a similar adventure. A labyrinth of hallways, stairways, cubicles and cubby halls features a surprise at every turn: an aquarium, library, billiard room, activity center. The life-size stuffed Basset Hound and Russell Terrier in front of the gift shop were so real I was sure I heard them bark.

A Rogue's Gallery of famous people and family members who contributed to the long history of Mohonk features pictures of Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies who vacationed here along with several presidents and other heads of state. Around every corner, a rocking chair, lounge chair, or settee looking out on yet another beautiful view. Long porches and outdoor alcoves everywhere lined with more rocking chairs, many facing the lake caressed by canoes, rowboats, kayaks and paddle boats beckoning for attention. The whole idea is to get guests to look at, get out in and enjoy the surrounding nature. Or not. Sitting also is good.

Some resorts boast multiple restaurants and swimming pools -- at Mohonk, it's rocking chairs and gazebos. Thus many a guest can be found sitting in any one of 125 gazebos spread throughout the property -- the Smileys put them in areas they identified as beautiful locations, which accounts for their large number -- either reading a book or just staring out at the lake or mountain before them. Or equally entranced by flower-laden, canopied pathways interconnected by wooden bridges, trellised walkways, green bushes and rock outcroppings. The connection with nature is all-encompassing. Be prepared: there are so many places -- gazebos, benches, chairs, hidden nooks, alcoves, both indoors and out -- enticing you to just sit and read that you should carry a book with you at all times (or, if you're under 18, your iPod).

a row of rocking chairs at a gazebo overlooking the lake, Mohonk Mountain House
Photo Courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House

Sitting on our balcony -- there we had to make due with yet another rocking chair, which are the only things that outnumber the gazebos -- overlooking the views was so peaceful we had to force ourselves to get up and start undertaking the myriad of activities awaiting us. As an incentive to get moving, the map of the building lists 58 different destinations -- and those are just indoors! We'll talk about the outdoor options later.

Just as the current structure is essentially unchanged since 1902, the same goes for the initial mission of the resort, as first espoused by Albert Smiley: it remains dedicated to a renewal of the mind, body and spirit in a beautiful natural setting. That vision still permeates the property, embodying an old-world ambience that adds charm and character that no modern-day hotel complex can come close to matching.

You want to do some hiking, rock-climbing or mountain biking? You're in the right place. Want to ride a snowmobile, a Jet Ski or watch TV - you're not. Mohonk is all about tranquility. And simplicity. This is not the kind of place where they bring you umbrella drinks by the pool. That same Quaker philosophy also limits any raucous nightlife options. In lieu of the usual resort band and dancing, there may be a lecture on the Geology and Paleontology of the Hudson Valley. Seems like a fair trade-off…

a pair of mountain bikers
Photo Courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House

Okay, there actually is a TV located in one of the meeting rooms but a guest survey taken five years ago in which 97% of respondents said they didn't want them in the rooms probably assures that there won't be many more making an appearance. And the 15-20 local Smileys still involved in day-to-day operations probably also guaranty that the same ideal will continue. But make no mistake: this is no out-dated, out-of-touch, old-fashioned resort experience; I predict an exciting, activity-laden, fun-filled time to which, like the Gleasons, you'll want to return to year-after-year.

Now, about those other activities? There's swimming, inside and out, fitness center and spa, boating, fishing, yoga, guided nature tours, croquet, golf, tennis and, in winter, ice skating, snowshoeing and tubing. Eighty-five miles of carriage roads and trails are available for hiking, running, biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.

Sky Top Tower overlooking lake
Photo Courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House

Strolling the grounds is an activity in itself, past fish ponds, a putting green, stables, a Barn Museum chock-full of fascinating antiques and historic memorabilia, and extensive award-winning gardens. Some are laid out in a well-marked precisely structured design, an interesting antidote to the resort's chaotic architectural structure; other less manicured foliage spill out over more trellised walkways and, yes, more gazebos, leading around, through, between, beneath and beyond an intricate maze -- literally -- of evergreen trees.

one of the colorful, award-winning gardens at Mohonk Mountain House
Photo Courtesy of Mohonk Mountain House

Rates start at $540 per room, double occupancy. Three meals daily plus afternoon tea and cookies are also included in the room rates, as is a Kids' Club providing as many hour-by-hour activities for children ages 2-12 as for adults. Although there's an additional charge for some of the usual suspects (horseback riding, carriage rides, spa treatments), all those other activities are complimentary.

Mohonk is also well-known for its more than 40 theme weekends throughout the year from Mystery Weekends to Rock 'n Roll to Culinary to Hiking to Yoga and so much more. If you have an interest, they probably have a weekend.

For more information, call 1/800-772-6646 or visit

(Posted 5-5-2011)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

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