NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — The path is broad and smooth, the ascent gentle, and every 100 yards or so a rustic wooden gazebo looks out over the countryside. It is a civilized way to enjoy nature, better suited perhaps to the end of the preceding century when the walks were laid out.
Resting at one of the lookouts, the view takes in a distant cliff, a flat, vertical rock face jutting out of the lush valley. Suddenly something moves. Pressed against the cliff, a tiny figure is clawing its way upward.
It is this contrast between old-time gentility and youthful ruggedness that is so startling at Mohonk Mountain House. A country retreat firmly rooted in the past, it attracts a wide range of visitors.
On a fine day, no matter what season, the hotel is host to handsomely dressed elderly couples, to young people in jeans, to families with children, to people of all sorts who share a love and respect for the outdoors and an appreciation for an understated elegance that is rare these days.
It begins for the visitor at the gate house where a guard checks names against reservations. Then the road climbs for a couple of miles through thick woods until it breaks into acres of open lawn, at the end of which sits a massive structure. The building stretches nearly an eighth of a mile, an amalgam of stone and wood, balconies and towers, gables and turrets, a great, looming, fantastic, living relic.
Inside, past the reception desk, the lobby is dominated by a huge central stairway, ornate and grand. Beyond, an austere lounge where afternoon tea is served, opens on a wraparound porch lined with dozens of high-backed rocking chairs facing a crystal-clear mountain lake, bordered on one side by immense boulders and on the other by the hotel.
The more than 300 rooms are simple and comfortable, with country antiques and perhaps a wood-burning fireplace. Wooden balconies run the length of each vast wing, looking over the lake on one side and to the distant mountains on the other. There is no TV in the room and only three in the hotel, but telephones were installed in 1979.
This reticence to rush headlong into the present reflects the sensibilities of the original owners and of succeeding generations of the family.
In 1869 twin school teachers from Maine, Albert and Alfred Smiley, bought 280 acres of land, a lake and a disreputable tavern 90 miles north of New York City. Roads for horse-drawn carriages were cut through the woods and trails for exploring on foot, including the one that is most popular today. It leads to the summit of a peak overlooking the lake from which, on a clear day, one can see the Catskills of New York, the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the Green Mountains of Vermont.
A passionate gardener, Albert Smiley planted azaleas and rhododendrons suited to the acid soil, landscaped the grounds near the hotel and laid out beds of flowers.
Four generations later the Smiley family still gives nature its due, but assists it with an inventive series of theme vacations announced in periodic mailings. Some of the more exotic include:
"The Chocolate Binge," three days devoted to the demonstration, construction and especially the eating of things chocolate.
"The Hood Heist," at which 300 or so mystery fans vie to solve a fictitious murder, aided and abetted by writers in the genre and distracted by appropriate movies and a '30s-style jazz band.
"The Tower of Babel," a weekend of immersion in one of eight languages, conducted by a staff of college professors.
There is also a full hiking week, an October Fest of chamber music, a nature week, a garden holiday, an antiques and folk art weekend and a birding and spring nature program.
For all the imaginative programs that are so expertly presented, it is still the woodland setting that is Mohonk's prime attraction. The original 280 acres has grown to 7,500, most under the protection of the Mohonk Trust. Through these acres weave 110 miles of carriage roads, paths and trails, ranging from easy strolls to rough scrambles through fields of boulders.
Each affords surprises and delights: hidden country ponds, serene pastures, detours through narrow crevasses, views of distant mountain crags.
Change in Foliage
Fall brings the change in foliage, beautiful throughout the East but especially so here, and winter snow turns the carriage roads into cross-country ski trails that run past the frozen lake into the hushed woods.
Depending on the season, there is swimming, boating, fishing or skating on the lake, croquet and shuffleboard on the lawn, tennis and horseback riding, putting on the green next to the hotel or golf on the nine-hole course.
What's remarkable, especially for a city dweller, is that these activities, which sound so quaint and old-fashioned, are great fun. They're usually attended by small groups and, before long, a sense of camaraderie develops.
Inside Mountain House are nooks and crannies, alcoves with overstuffed settees or a couple of bentwood chairs, banquettes looking out to the hills, places where one person or a few can be quietly alone.
Its popularity for more than 100 years attests to the rightness of its vision. At Mohonk, what is important is not what has changed over the years but what has remained the same.
Single-occupancy weekend rates range from $72 to $148 a night, including three meals. Double-occupancy weekend rates range from $139 to $223 per room a night. (The least expensive rooms have washbasins but no toilets or showers; restrooms are down the hall.) Midweek rates are lower.
Mohonk is six miles west of New Paltz. For information contact Mohonk Mountain House, Mohonk Lake, New Paltz, N.Y. 12561, phone (914) 255-1000.