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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Hudson River Valley: A castle in the clouds

By Ann Witmer

Stepping onto the balcony of my ninth-floor room at the Mohonk Mountain House in the mountains above New Paltz was like stepping into a pen-and-ink fantasy that Howard Pyle or Arthur Rackham might have drawn to illustrate a children’s book.

Little lights outlined trails winding up mountains around a small lake, cozy groupings of chairs dotted the hills, and gentle folk music drifted up from below.

The inn’s windows open to let in cool mountain air; its lamps are good for reading; coffee begins brewing in the lobby at 5:30 a.m.

Its breezy feel is appropriate, given that this grand hotel was inspired by a picnic. In 1869, Albert and Alfred Smiley, twin brothers from a Quaker family, picnicked at Paltz Point in the Shawangunk Mountains and liked it so much that they bought a tavern and 300 acres there.

Years went by, and they and their descendants added on and on and on. People who went to Mohonk for the summer were met at the gate and driven to the hotel by horse and carriage. There were no cars, no alcohol and no card playing until well into the 1960s.

Mohonk, 141 years after its founding, is still family owned and run by the fourth generation of Smileys. The hotel is now an eighth of a mile long and surrounded by 2,200 acres and a preserve. More than half of the 267 guest rooms have balconies and wood-burning fireplaces.

A new spa with a green roof and geothermal heating and cooling uses a local witch hazel and a quartz conglomerate in some treatments. A bar and lounge opened in 2005, and welcoming game rooms have replaced the frowning on cards.

Although Mohonk was built as a summer resort, meetings have always been a part of life there. The Smileys hosted some of the first International Arbitration Conferences, precursors to the United Nations, which still holds meetings there. It is best for meetings of 35 or fewer.

Among the 14 meeting spaces is a Victorian Parlor where two corners in the back have railings around them and cushioned benches where people can have private conversations but still be seen by others in the room. These spaces are called Sultan’s Corners.

There’s also a small meeting room with views of the lake and a conference room with windows all around. Vestibules and the main porch make for pleasant receptions.

Team building is a priority. Among 40 possible activities are group bike building for charity and boat building using cardboard and duct tape.

Food is fresh and bountiful; three meals a day, served in the semicircular dining room, are included in the rate. So is most recreation, like boating, skating, fishing and hiking.

A skating pavilion was added in 2001, and there’s a beach, a heated outdoor pool, a nine-hole golf course and an art studio.

Some things, fortunately, have not changed. Staff set and light 138 well-maintained wood-burning fireplaces, and 600 rocking chairs await rockers. A soda fountain serves sundaes and milk shakes until 11 p.m.

A central stairway connects all the floors; people seem to prefer it to the elevators. It’s no wonder. Mohonk is a place for wandering and gathering, meeting and greeting.

“People say they stay focused here, even though there’s lots to do,” said Mary Lou Race, sales director.