Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One good turn

They were not the greatest of friends, the people who hosted our family in these rooms the first time when I was very young. In fact, they turned out to be puppy-torturing, commercial-zoning nightmares who sold the house below my parents on the hill to a business that drove the neighborhood out. But that family made one important invite which brought our family many happy memories. We would have had them anyway, anywhere, but certainly a new, majestic castle was both impossible to refuse and singularly remarkable to myself and my Brother who would then have boundless new adventures in our own Hudson Hogwarts.

They invited us here, to Mohonk Mountain House, in New Paltz, New York, a once-private family getaway, and by my arrival a very-hardly-known Victorian castle of a vacation resort lovingly referred to as "Lake in the Sky," nestled into the shoulder of the Shawangunk Mountains several miles outside town.

The gates to enter the mountain house are two miles below the main house, the drive up winds along the edge of the mountain, past a dozen of the hundreds of gazebos which dot the property to allow for viewing scenic vistas leisurely.

The rustic-appearing hunting lodge inn came first to the property in the late 19th century. Then the links golf course, now 115 years old, and the original gardens. But for those mountains you see, this is all man-made, the dream of a man called Albert Smiley who purchased the property in 1869 and began creating Mohonk. A tee-totalling hunting Quaker who, in my estimation, dreamed huge and impossible dreams beyond the conceptual grasp of many, he built the lake in the sky. Until you stand at the waterline and witness how very vast a body of water it is, you cannot truly understand that Mr. Smiley must have been the most magical sort of mad but capable dreamer. We were lucky that his decedents were still there in our first years visiting, still active stewards. The Smiley family perspective was an unusual, careful, restrained dream-weave, just the oddest mix of do-it-up-huge and don't-touch-a-drop that I have ever encountered. Though, surely, seriousness and sobriety certainly contributed to the never-ending pursuit of their jigsaw palace in the sky.

Postcard, ca. 1900. Not much had changed from the Victorian era when I arrived more than eighty years later, including the mattresses and bedspreads.

The gardens, 2008.

This place was magical, not unlike my childhood. Unrealistic. Old-school dusty and painfully traditional. Insular. Also, a jigsaw puzzle of literally one thousand rooms, many of them always open for the families who returned time and time again, all of their names then listed on the guest list at the bottom of the main stairs. In this way, you would know who else had also returned. It was not long ago but it was an entirely different era and state of mind for a hotel: Who would dream now of leaving all the names of the families in attendance at a resort right there where anyone could see them?

You came and you stayed. You ate all your meals there, the car was taken by the valet to a place we always suspected was halfway down the mountain and no one used again until it was time to leave the lake house. If, like us, you came with several generations, you dined together at every meal. In smaller parties, you could sit alone at breakfast and lunch, but at dinner you sat with others, and you dressed. No exceptions: There was no dinner in your room. And no booze then, the founders did not believe in that kind of thing unless you brought it with you and kept it to yourself. As I came of age and returned to Mohonk as a teenager there were times when I thought the world had stopped long ago up there and the lake house was my tea party in the rabbit's hole. The antiquities and oddities included many of the guests for a while there, not just the exhibits in the common areas.

There is tea and coffee to be had at all hours in the library and a soda fountain in the lobby. At four every afternoon in the lodge (below), there is a casual tea. In the old days, you know, back when I was eight, this was how the arriving families greeted those already there just returned from riding, swimming, or hiking. In the winter, I was more likely to be found there with a book always better loving indoor pursuits at 10 degrees while other cross country skied or God knows or cares what, frankly.

Was it this place that marked me for the Hudson Valley? I mean, look at the valley that river carved. For me, any love of other majestic canyons introduced later have been brief, meaningless affairs. When I get back to our valley, I know I was just a fool for thinking another would ever stir the awe in me this one does.

This was a lovely place to come of age. Not in the sense of being young and meeting others, not at all in that way: The thing about outdoor pursuits is that it keeps you moving there was not a lot of time in the warm seasons to socialize. By the time tea was over you had just enough time to pass out for an hour before getting ready for dinner. And I had worked to be ready for those dinners, Pals. I labored over those young-girl dinner outfits for weeks before we left for Mohonk. On my eleventh birthday weekend, I arrived with two huge suitcases for two days, because, you never know.

It was happy, some of the brightest days of my life spent right here. As I write this, I am a little misty for all the faces gone since those first moments on the porch feeding the huge fish below, and that first hike to Skytop. Hard to believe everything that comes and goes on the way back to place, even if only in my mind's eye for the moment.

These days, it is not the sit-up-straight Victorian relic (just a more polished old-world version of the Dirty Dancing resort without the dancing, cute boys, music, or big hair), it was when I first came to know it. A legitimate skating rink has been added (rather better than that hit-or-miss thing we guessed at on the lake each winter), and a spa to which I sighed, finally, something to do while everyone snowshoes and now you can drink (another anti-snowshoe activity which cancelled the previous activity of sitting in the lodge complaining that you could not have a drink).

The gardens, already magnificent, have been expanded. The golf course is still there and the hundreds of gazebo vistas. Hike, if the season is willing, to Sky Top where you can see three states. But be cautioned, at the first hint of ice the passage is closed until spring thaw. Be merry, as I was, in those days when I wore pretty dresses with waists and chatted with my family on the porch above the lake after dinner. Unreal, fleeting days but the perfect gift from those first hosts who introduced us.

I thought back on that gesture today and said to myself, my Mother-in-Law would love it there, when she gets back to New York, we should take her. And could be you will head there too. In this way, the Costa's gesture continues on.

What good-memory spots are you passing on to others?


Gwennie said...

What a beautiful spot. We are passing down the love of Door County, Wisconsin to our two boys. My husbands family has had property there for about 100 years, and we go there many times in the summer. It is the Midwest's version of Cape Cod. They are fishing, hiking, taking boat rides and adventures in the woods, just like my husband and his Mother did in their childhoods. We are so blessed to share that with them.

Tracy @ comfortandluxury said...

How beautiful... the place and your writing. My childhood family didn't really have any one special place that we returned to over and over. We did, however, visit many different places up and down the coast of California and I have done the same with my own grown-up family.

Anonymous said...

This is surreal. I am always amazed at how much is really in our own country. Thanks for sharing this magical place.

Cal said...

I so enjoyed this trip. What beautiful writing. It carried me along.
Cal x

anizmail said...

Thank you so much for this article. I grew up nearby New Paltz, as well, in a very small something - not quite a city nor a town - Kerhonkson. I remember the Mohonk Mountain House fondly, too.