A little bit of heaven, not far from New Paltz Resort: Mohonk Mountain House in New York state provides turn-of-the century elegance, fine food, activities and peace.

June 02, 1996|By Ralph Vigoda | Ralph Vigoda,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Among the dinner appetizers at the Mohonk Mountain House, near New Paltz, N.Y., was chicken mousse and andouille sausage galantine with pineapple cilantro barbecue vinaigrette. The salad was tender hearts of romaine lettuce with roasted peppers, artichokes and pine nuts and a red-onion vinaigrette.

You could pick from seven entrees, such as tournedos of beef tenderloin with herb cheese, portobello mushroom and red-wine butter sauce with vegetable ragout in a phyllo basket.

The frozen chocolate pate with creme anglaise was a heavenly dessert, as was the almond cloud cake with raspberry sauce.

And the cup of herbal tea made a perfect finishing touch.

It was a delicious meal.

And a bargain at $377.

Now don't faint. That price was for two and included wine and gratuity.

And a few other things

Like a cozy, rustic room for the night with no television, but with a private balcony overlooking the lake or the mountains. Swimming in a crystal mountain lake. Fishing and boating. Golf and tennis. Croquet. An 18-hole practice putting green. A sumptuous breakfast, a lunch buffet and hourlong afternoon tea. Eighty-five miles of hiking trails. Nightly entertainment, from comedy to opera to classical music. A full day of children's activities. Art workshops, lectures, exercise classes, rock scrambles, yoga. A library. A barn museum. Beautiful gardens. Gorgeous views. Clean air. Unspoiled nature.

And rocking chairs. Hundreds of them. On your balcony and on the two huge porches that wrap around the main parlor. And when the weather is suitable and you sit in one, gently moving back and forth, with a cool breeze cutting across the porch, the clip-clopping sound of horses below and a fresh-baked scone in your hand, you'll feel

Well, let me put it this way: Forget the Pearly Gates. My guess is that when you get to heaven you'll be passing through the stone archway leading to this paradise-like site.

It is hard to imagine a more serene place.

From the minute you hand your car keys to an attendant and step across the portal, you move back in time. Say, to the turn of the century.

That's about right, because most of the buildings forming the heart of this National Historic Landmark in the Shawangunk Mountains, near the town of New Paltz, were constructed in the late 1800s. It started with 10 bunk rooms in 1870; the last addition was put on around 1910. The centerpiece is a seven-story, 273-room mountain hideaway built in six sections. A castle in the sky, it is one of the last of the great 19th-century mountain resorts.

The majestic, turreted hotel looms at the end of a two-mile drive up the mountainside. It is a delight to wander through the hallways, searching for nooks and crannies. The craftsmanship of workers who toiled here more than 100 years ago is evident everywhere, from the large central staircase made of ash to the ** floral carvings on the 150 fireplaces.

But it is the outdoors that made Mohonk famous. And that was by design. The resort was begun when twin brothers Alfred and Albert Smiley, both graduates of Haverford College, Class of 1849, discovered the beauty of Lake Mohonk and its surroundings.

With the beauty was a vision that guided the Smileys over the years as they slowly acquired 7,500 acres, including what today is a 5,000-acre nature preserve. As strict Quakers, the Smileys did not permit alcohol, dancing or gambling. Instead, they began activities built around nature and sports. And they played host to conferences, bringing world leaders -- Presidents Rutherford Hayes, Chester Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt were guests at various times -- to Mohonk to discuss such topics as peace, the environment and the affairs of American Indians. Those dialogues continue today, kept alive by Smiley descendants who still run the resort.

The Smileys have lots of help. Nearly 500 full- and part-time staffers cater to you. After my wife and I finished a rigorous workout around the lake in a paddle boat, my legs felt like lead. As we returned to the dock, I asked the attendant, "Can you get somebody to carry me back to my room?" "Sure," she said. We were joking, of course, but I had the feeling that if I pressed it she would have found some way to accommodate me.

As it was, I was able to amble over to the restored, six-passenger surrey with a fringe on top to take an hourlong, horse-drawn tour around the grounds. We returnedin time for tea in the large parlor, one of six in the hotel.

There is, of course, fishing on the lake, but it's almost unfair. For a quarter you can buy a handful of fish food, sit on the dock and practically have the trout eat out of your hand.

Activities for young and older

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