Sometimes it feels like my family spends half of our vacation time traveling to our destination, schlepping through airports and dragging along extended road trips all in the name of finding the perfect place to relax. Which may be why we never gave Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY, much thought – if it’s less than two hours away from this area, we reasoned, won’t we still feel like we’re home? But a recent autumn weekend of early leaf peeping and hiking showed us that vacation bliss really can be found just a short jaunt up the New York State Thruway.
We, of course, aren’t the first ones to discover the joys of mountain life: Mohonk Mountain House has been a vacation retreat since 1868 when the Smiley family (still the current owners) built the castle-like hotel that sits within 300 acres of pristine mountain greenery in the Mohonk reserve. As we snaked our way up the hairpin turns and New Paltz fell away in the background, we felt like we had already traveled far away from home, and when crystal-clear Mohonk Lake appeared over the ridge, we were hooked by the postcard-perfect views.
In addition to the gorgeous physical setting, we were also delighted to see that Mohonk retains a kind of unplugged friendliness you don’t see much of these days. Yes, there’s Wi-Fi, and a few TV tucked away in parlors––but that’s pretty much it for modern electronics – which made it even easier to feel like we had truly disconnected from our regular life. Interestingly, we also quickly found that without cutting-edge distractions, my husband, 10-yr-old son Aidan, and I almost immediately started spending more time together and reconnecting.
The resort is a turreted Victorian gem with lots of hidden corners, fireplaces, and small sitting rooms throughout the three public floors at its base. Down one hall we found the game room with ping-pong, air hockey, and foosball. A separate parlor had a billiards table, another one a fireplace and a cozy couch, another room had books and games to borrow.
Outside, the massive lake beckoned with paddleboats, canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and paddleboards (all included in the overnight fees). And as long as the water is warm enough to swim, there’s a lifeguard on duty and a diving board awaiting you to take the plunge.
Aidan chose to fish in the clear waters, spending the weekend perfecting his casting, both from the scenic rocks and carved wood benches on the shore, and from a rowboat on the lake. Things especially started looking up when an employee shared an insider secret: use breakfast sausage for bait. We caught caught five (!) fish with the morning buffet staple (don’t tell them we told you).
We also hiked and tried rock climbing (note: the craggy Labyrinth path is way harder than it looks), and wandered past the greenhouses and gardens. Then we played lawn games, including a shuffle board bout that turned into a heated battle, while the business retreat next to us hooted and hollered over…..croquet. It’s that kind of place.
We didn’t have time for horseback riding or mountain biking, two activities that have additional fees, but I’m happy to report that other than those two activities, we didn’t see very many extras added on to the all-inclusive rate which covers all meals, afternoon tea and cookies, boating, kids clubs, games, and the activities that fill the daily roster such as as group hikes and exercise classes.
Upstairs, our room was in the stone tower with a wood-burning fireplace, rounded walls, and a terrace with two rocking chairs. We didn’t have a premium lake view, but the space and character more than made up for it – and on the 4th floor, we still had lovely vistas of trees and the surrounding Shawangunk Mountains (known locally as “The Gunks”).
Although there’s no tech upgrades in the rooms (ie, no iPod docks, digital audio, TVs), bathrooms had clearly been renovated in the last decade, not century, and, living in an old house myself, I was dutifully impressed by the ample closet space as well as the extra sink and vanity in the dressing area, which made the room seem even more spacious.
At the other end of the building was the modern indoor pool attached to the 5-yr-old spa barn building. Huge atrium windows, blonde wood, and lounge seating makes it an especially pleasant spot to relax and there’s music both above ground and under water. The spa is also where you’ll find yoga and other gym classes throughout the day (also included in basic room rates).
Through another set of doors, and for an additional fee, is where actual spa services take place. If you’re looking to splurge, they’re well worth the cost, since luxurious treatments (I had a massage) entitle guests to use the steam room, sauna, and outdoor mineral hot tub for the entire day of your treatment. The lounge area is huge, and tea and snacks are available. Consider it a mini vacation within your vacation.
Evenings there’s always a recent movie shown, and on the nights we stayed there was square dancing and a blues band, as well as ‘smore making and campfire songs. I’d love to tell you we tried all of them – but since they all started at 9, and we had been hiking and fishing all day, we pretty much hit the hay after a late supper (but I did check out the square dancing and it looked like some good old school fun – including the cookies and lemonade served to the dancers).
Which brings me to food (the only additional cost for any of the below is alcohol, which is only served at meals or in one small hidden bar downstairs):
Buffet is BIG at Mohonk – served for all three meals in a bright, window-filled room large enough to double as an airplane hangar. Breakfast was our favorite, with omelet stations, pancakes, waffles, and long arrays of sausage, bacon, potatoes – oh and fruit, cereal, and yogurt, too – which made every day seem like Sunday (and the Sunday brunch buffet is like a holiday, with lunch options on top of all of that).
Dinner and lunch buffets both have salad bars, carving stations, and lots of entrée options, including vegetarian ones– all ok. There’s a separate kids buffet that was equally popular with adults and has perennial favorites along the lines of chicken fingers, French fries, and hot dogs.
More successful, for me anyway, was the a la carte menu, where appetizers ranged from lobster bisque to kale salad and entrees included strip steak and sea bass. The menu is served in the same room as the buffet OR if you’re crew is over 7 years old and dressed appropriately (jackets for guys over 12 are required), you can eat in the swank West Wing room, which I preferred for the upscale atmosphere and the attentive wait staff – but it’s really a more formal experience and honestly wasn’t my son’s favorite dining spot.
On the other hand, the whole family loved the Granary Cookout where outdoor picnic tables overlook the lake’s swimming beach and flank a long BBQ setup where ribs, burgers, chicken, and sausage are cooked to order and a dessert bar groans with old fashioned bundt cakes and pies – it’s probably just what the Smiley family had in mind when they built this convivial getaway 145 years ago. We grabbed a cone from the ice cream stand and wandered down to the lake, reluctant to leave our mountain getaway. But we consoled ourselves with the fact that Mohonk is only a short ride away – which means we can come back sooner instead of later — maybe even in time for the ice skating and snow tubing that’s offered in the winter!