Imagine being Alfred Smiley, the retired Quaker school principal who came upon Stokes Tavern in 1869 and fell in love with the dazzling sky lake and deep forest and views. Learning that the inn and 300 acres could be bought, he wrote to his brother and said they had to have it. Initially skeptical, brother Albert gave in after his first quick visit, and by 1870 the place now known as the Mohonk Mountain House had 40 guest rooms to accommodate visitors in need of fresh air and woodsy vibes.
That in itself was a remarkable achievement, but the Smileys were nowhere near done, and the sight that greets visitors today at the end of the smooth, paved driveway that curves gracefully up the mountainside is astonishing every time—even for someone like me who lives a few minutes away and has been up here dozens of times, hiking on a day pass, enjoying teatime and dinner, spending a special night with woman-friends. It never gets old, seeing our very own local Victorian castle come into view and marveling at what the Mountain House folks casually call the “grand but gradual” conversion into a sprawling, imposing structure that’s hosted five US presidents. The drive from the main road takes us ten minutes; how much longer would it have been by horse-drawn carriage? It was especially exciting arriving there late last summer for a first-ever family “staycation” at Mohonk Mountain House. We love our family getaways; Milo’s 11 and a great traveling companion at a well-chosen destination, and we knew he’d find plenty to do at Mohonk—and that our expert hosts could provide the perfect balance of excitement, relaxation, and refreshment.
Mohonk’s a wonderful experience with thoughtful kids in tow. Something about the vibe, unpretentious and deeply charming, inspires good behavior and kindness. And with so many family activities—horseback riding on the trails, archery, hiking the Labyrinth, and nighttime s’mores were highlights for us—it’s easy to keep them engaged.
TMohonk’s a wonderful experience with thoughtful kids in tow. Something about the vibe, unpretentious and deeply charming, inspires good behavior and kindness.
Our room featured a clawfoot tub, working fireplace, and private balcony with rockers; once we got settled, it was time to hit the lake, for what would not be the last time. Choices include beautiful wooden rowboats, kayaks, pedal boats, and paddle boards, and we tried them all in the course of the weekend; by the end of it, we were on a firstname basis with the entire dock staff. Being out on Lake Mohonk, imagining properly dressed ladies and gentlemen rowing about on a break from the deep philosophical conversations Alfred so loved to host, is a lovely mix of refreshment and sheer delight. Meals and most activities are included in the price of your stay, and each meal was a revelation. Mohonk has upped its kitchen game in recent years, with a focus on fresh, local, and beautifully prepared, and each and every dish we tried was delicious.
Exploring the labyrinthine hallways on an after-dinner walk, we marveled at the history everywhere around us, represented in unique works of art and historic photos. It feels like exploring a museum, albeit an exceptionally cozy museum that’s also been a family home through five generations of creative stewardship. The eclectic mix of styles blend without a hiccup, as the family grew through the 20th century making room for its members’ passions: Rachel’s charming musical salons, Daniel’s gift for natural sciences and Ruth’s knack for interpreting them, Keith’s passion for hosting conferences, the entrepreneurial and organizational gifts of Bert and Francis and Mabel. The house whispers, all at once and somehow harmoniously, of great diversity brought together in one place in sensible ways. It is, at once, an incredibly relaxed and exquisitely elegant establishment.
We slept like babies with the lake breeze coming in. There are ghost stories, mind you, but any spirits emitting diffuse vibes feel like kindred spirits. Who wouldn’t want to spend eternity here?
Morning started with hot breakfast in the salon, then a trail ride through stunning lake and mountain views. You have to reserve a trail ride spot in advance, well worth the effort—both horses and staff are so good at what they do that even a raw novice will have a relaxing ride. Back on the ground, we were drawn to the nearby archery range. You can also play some tennis or some for-real Catskills shuffleboard, or take part in guided canoe tours, nature hikes, rock scrambles, and a wide variety of themed walks and workshops; offerings change to suit the season.
Lunch is a gourmet buffet in the dining room or a BBQ picnic at The Granary, which features woodfired grills searing piles of chicken thighs, pork loin, ribs, burgers, and hot dogs accompanied by every imaginable side and salad and finished off with an all-you-can-eat ice cream bar, all of it overlooking that luscious lake.
We strolled the gorgeous gardens and then connected with my brother and his kids for a go at the Labyrinth and the Lemon Squeeze; those hikes have been legendary for decades, winding through tiny gaps and scaling boulders to take you 150 vertical feet to intense, spectacular views of the Gunks and the valley below. Nearby is Sky Top, the Smileys’ first stone tower; one climb, one look and one taste of the breeze, and you’ll know why there had to be a tower here.
Mohonk has upped its kitchen game in recent years, with a focus on fresh, local, and beautifully prepared.
Cocktails at the Spirits on the Sunset Porch bar were the perfect follow-up, with kids tired and contented enough to relax nearby. Dinner in the dining room was stunning. Mohonk’s world-class culinary and service staff take great pride in their work, and from appetizer to dessert the food was impeccable.
(In our video, you’ll see our foodie son closing his eyes in sheer bliss.) We kept the bliss going with an after-dinner walk around the lake, stopping at the hand-crafted gazebos, each with a history of its own. As the sun set, we found the perfect pavilion for the symphonic sky, then marveled at the magical sight of the gazebos, now illuminated, ringing the lakeshore.
We opted for the s’mores and campfire sing-along (alright, I’m the only one who sings along, but Jesse and Milo indulge me) but could have chosen live music in the lounge—offerings range from chamber to world music and beyond.
On our last morning we took an early dip in the heated pool and breakfasted in the Lake Lounge, with expansive Catskills views on one side and the lake on the other. There’s every imaginable breakfast dish—we favored the eggs Benedict (poached in front of you with sauce to taste), the smoothies (offerings changed daily), the fresh granolas and pots of tea.
We didn’t want to hurry away, and we didn’t have to—Mohonk valet service will hold your luggage so you can enjoy the rest of the day on the property. We spent our last hours there floating and paddling on the lake, which inspired silence even in our son. It’s been a while now, but I can still feel the grace and peace of our Mountain House visit in my bones, and I have a feeling Milo will ask to go back one day soon— and won’t have too much trouble convincing his parents.
We knew Mohonk was a special place; we knew families come here from all over the world, and it’s fair to say we’ve got a better-than-average knowledge of Hudson Valley tourist destinations and hospitality, but nothing could have fully prepared us for the magnificently warm welcome and magic of Mohonk Mountain House. Long live the Smiley spirit!
Mohonk Mountain House
1000 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz