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Sit back, relax and enjoy the nostalgia

About 90 miles north of Manhattan, a Victorian-era resort preserves the style and pace of an earlier era.

July 31, 2005|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

New Paltz, N.Y. — On a clear day you can see six states -- Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont -- from Sky Top Tower at Mohonk Mountain House, on a ridge near the Hudson River. You can see woods and fields, the Catskill Mountains and Mohonk Lake with its fanciful gazebos and rambling old resort.

It is a vintage postage stamp commemorating the great American family vacation.

"I have treated this property ... as a landscape artist does his canvas, only my canvas covers seven square miles," Albert Smiley said in 1907. Smiley founded Mohonk Mountain House with his twin brother, Alfred, in 1869, then devoted his life to getting the picture just right, planting gardens, removing dead wood, cutting roads and trails around the lake.

The Smileys were Quaker school masters from Maine who discovered Mohonk Lake, 90 miles north of Manhattan, on a picnic outing, then bought it, thereby launching themselves into second careers as hoteliers. The bushy-bearded brothers agreed about almost everything, whether it was the importance of teaching Latin in schools or the perfection of the Mohonk site.

Later, they concurred about the virtues of Southern California and, around 1890, helped found the town of Redlands, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles. There they built a public library, winter homes on a hill known as Smiley Heights and a botanic garden.

Canon Crest Park, their Redlands garden, is long gone. But back east, Mohonk Mountain House survives in fine style, a national historic site that looks partly like a Victorian castle, partly like an apparition, presiding over its half-mile-long lake and 26,000 acres of state parks and private preserves that surround it.

Still owned and operated by Smileys, the 251-room hotel (increasing to 261 in early August) has an old-fashioned golf course, a celebrated garden, tennis courts, stables, ice-skating rink, new spa scheduled to open Wednesday and 85 miles of hiking trails, designed to give guests scenic views at every turn.

Mohonk continues to adhere to the Full American Plan, the all-inclusive arrangement that has gone the way of lawn bowling at other U.S. resorts. As on a cruise ship, the price includes accommodations, most activities, three meals a day and afternoon tea.

I had my first cup of Mohonk's special brew, dispensed from a silver urn and so strong it looked like coffee, as I sat in a rocker on the porch. My friend Sandy Boynton, who lives in the area, met me for a two-night stay at the resort in June. She and her family spend New Year's Eve here and, before that, her father went to Mohonk. It's that kind of place, cherished by families and friends made before pictures in the family album went yellow.

Mohonk, a conglomeration of wings built between 1879 and 1910, is decorated in a style I can only call Craftsman Eclectic. On the lake side, it has a massive stone entry where horse-drawn carriages used to pull up. From there, steps lead to the roomy parlor wing porch, a perfect glory, decked with hanging flower baskets, rockers in a long line, front-row seating for a show staged by nature and the Smileys.

Sandy pointed out other details, such as the pine railings of the central staircase, spaced close together so children can't fall through, and noted that the evening video was "National Velvet," starring a young Elizabeth Taylor. The day's activities also included a brisk morning hike, adult tennis clinic, garden center open house and campfire sing-along with s'mores.

In winter, ice skating and skiing are on the menu, which made Sandy recall the time she won a blue ribbon in the cross-country event on the golf course. "Of course, I fell twice and was the only contestant," she said, laughing.

No idle distractions

Sandy then showed me the Mohonk library, where an older woman was snoozing in an armchair, the open volume on her lap testifying that she had come with intellectual intentions.

When the resort opened, idle, empty-headed distractions weren't allowed. "In place of cards, dancing and tippling," Albert Smiley said at the 1899 opening of the parlor wing, "We have put before our guests something more desirable ... a library of good standard books."

Down the hall, I found a list of "songbirds heard on the morning walk" and a display about the geology of Mohonk's Shawangunk Mountains, affectionately known as the Gunks, which are really more a ridge than a range. They crest at about 2,000 feet but are lined by sheer cliffs, attractive to rock climbers whose progress Mountain House guests monitor with binoculars.

Before visiting the resort, I spoke with Larry E. Burgess, author of "Mohonk: Its People and Spirit" and director of the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, which celebrates its patrons on March 17, the twins' birthday. Redlanders still make pilgrimages to Mohonk, Burgess said, then suggested that while at the resort I look for a hand-tinted panoramic photo of the Redlands area, taken from Smiley Heights around 1900.

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