I stared into the beak of a red-tailed hawk and wondered how I, a New York City girl, could be so fascinated by this bird of prey as she dug her claws into the padded gloves of naturalist/author Rusty Johnson. Johnson, who lives nearby with his wife and a large collection of unusual animals, balanced the hawk with tales of the amorous bird. “Maybe I’ve just spent too much time with the hawk,” Johnson says, “because the only time I hear a mating call from her is when I’m around.”
Should I stay till the end of the Q&A that followed this “Wonder of Wildlife” presentation or retreat to my large Victorian bedroom with handsome carved beds, fireplace, balcony, and five striking views of the surrounding Catskills? (P.S. No TV here—and no regrets.) If I chose the latter option, I might be raring to go on an early morning hike, or a not-so-early indoor cycling class including hills, jumps and sprints.
The options are boundless at Mohonk Mountain House, a national historic landmark on 40,000 acres in New Paltz, NY, a 90-minute drive from midtown Manhattan. Although Mohonk is a resort, this Victorian castle is aptly called a house. Owned and operated by the Smiley family for 144 years, Mohonk is also a second home for the many repeat guests who return to lap up the property’s laid-back attention to detail and gracious hospitality. Guests include former presidents, academy award-winning actors and famous mystery writers who find special inspiration in the grandeur of its setting and the hidden nooks and crannies waiting to be uncovered.
Activities range from rock climbing, archery, fly fishing, canoeing/kayaking and hiking for the more adventurist types, while yoga, meditation or just simply relaxing amidst nature are available in spades for those seeking more tranquility. I was seeking the latter. Though I’m certainly not the first writer to discover Mohonk’s vine-covered treehouses (there are 125 of them), I nonetheless felt the thrill of discovery when I happened upon a two-tier gazebo overlooking an opulent rose garden. Should I write in my journal here or read a Victorian mystery, or simply luxuriate in my too-good-to-be-real surroundings? I decided to luxuriate— and feeling refreshed by that decision, I then wandered off to explore yet another recreational option: Mohonk’s award-winning spa, just 9 years old and the “the baby of the family,” according to spa director Barbara Stirewalt. Voted the Number One Resort Spa in the United States in Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards, the Spa has also been recognized as one of the top three hotel and resort spas in the United States and Canada by readers of Travel + Leisure as well one of the best “Eco/Green Spas” by Spa magazine.
Gardens and Gazebo
Canoes on Dock
Leaving my 100-plus year-old gazebo to hear Stirewalt explain the spa’s “Solutions to Modern Living” I realized I could easily travel between centuries, relishing Mohonk’s combination of Old World appeal and cutting-edge offerings. The spa, Stirewalt says, tries to tackle new problems with, for instance, an innovative massage for multitaskers, the Texting Tension Tamer. While I for one now spend more hours online, I especially appreciated the emphasis on neck and shoulders, with an organic vanilla cream to treat my hands and forearms. Women, especially runners, might like to try High Heeler: Real Relief for Calves and Feet, using massage and stretch techniques specific to the lower leg; a similar treatment, Man on the Go, tackles lower leg fatigue that resonates throughout the male body. And just for fun I learned about the “Mohonk Red” Facial, which starts with an herbal neck wrap and warm towels infused with witch hazel, reportedly “honoring the ‘Mohonk Red’ Witch Hazel plants grown on the grounds.” A deep cleansing exfoliation and a message with warm and cool quartz stones, praised for their healing and regenerative properties, lead to a guided Power Nap. I vowed to return just for this! From there I tried out the pool, with its superb system of speakers that work underwater to provide enhanced-quality music, and a state-of-the-art fitness center with AMTs, adaptive motion trainers.
Mohonk operates on the American Plan, which means that all meals—-and afternoon tea and homemade cookies—are included. And because all my meals were delicious, I knew I must speak with Executive Chef Jim Palmeri. How could he turn out a dizzying array of dishes, from gourmet comfort food to authentic ethnic cuisine three times a day for many hundreds of guests? Palmeri explained that he’s guided by his classical French training, but “consistently good volume is the challenge,” he says. In addition to Palmeri, Mohonk employs five sous chefs and 50 cooks. Not too many for a typical Saturday night: 705 people for dinner, ordering from a full menu of 8 appetizers, 8 entrees, and 6 desserts (the resort’s own pastry shop makes everything from hamburger buns to intricate tarts, cakes and ice cream) as well as separate gluten-free and vegetarian menus. What’s more, everything is cooked to order.
A staunch supporter of the farm-to-table movement, Palmeri explains that Mohonk has its own Brook Farm on the property, where fresh asparagus, spinach, red oak lettuce and arugula, snap peas, zucchini and heirloom tomatoes are picked and delivered each week. The tomatoes, just picked from the vine, are so ripe and warm from the sun that they can’t be placed in boxes. Artisan cheese producers from the Hudson Valley are prized as well. However, “What I can’t source locally, I get the best I can buy,” Palmeri says, “Price is not the issue, it’s quality.” Fresh sea bass for $25 per pound? No problem.