The Same Only Better

Architecturally, the fabulous new spa at Mohonk Mountain House blends right in with the grand Victorian hotel. But its features- from an indoor pool to massages utilizing native plants- provide a tantalizing reason to head back to the mountains.

The Same Only Better


The new spa at Mohonk Mountain House offers state-of-
the-art treatments and facilities in a building that blends seamlessly with the grand Victorian hotel

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by Anitra Brown


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For the last hundred years, Mohonk Mountain House has looked much the same — a fairy-tale castle sitting on a lake at the top of the Shawangunk ridge, surrounded by miles of wilderness. The early 1890s witnessed the hostelry’s last big flurry of construction, ending in a dizzying complex of turreted buildings perched one right next to the other, some wood and some stone, but all part of a harmonious whole. 


 At last, there’s been a change at the 261-room Victorian-era resort, one that would have been difficult for the founders — a set of white-bearded, rectitudinous twins named Alfred and Albert Smiley — to imagine. On August 3, the 136-year-old National Historic Landmark in New Paltz, Ulster County, opened a lavish $13 million spa with 16 treatment rooms; an imposing pool with a sleek, invisible edge; and a state-of-the-art fitness center that looks out onto a roof garden. Better yet, from the outside the only clue that the building is new is the gleaming copper guttering and a sweep of lawn not yet grown in.


“The Spa at Mohonk Mountain House is built to look 100 years old the day it opens,” comments Nina Smiley, the diminutive marketing director and wife of  Mohonk President Albert Smiley, a fourth-generation descendent of Mohonk’s founders. Not only is the spa built with the same wood, local stone, and cedar shakes as the original Mountain House, but the designers — Saratoga Associates — picked up architectural motifs and echoed them in the new building. The most dramatic example is the curving wall of windows in the solarium and pool, a direct lift from the dining room’s extension of 1910, which offer panoramic views of the Catskills.

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Inside, designer Jim Kattman relies on a Victorian vernacular — including gas fireplaces with mantels, wicker furniture, and William Morris–style carpeting — to retain the Mountain House’s 19th-century character. (He even borrowed antiques from the Mountain House, like a 10-foot-long wooden reception desk used in the lobby in the 1920s.)


And while some may question whether a resort started by Quakers in 1869 should run a luxurious 21st-century spa, the current generation of Smileys thinks it’s just a logical extension of what they are already doing. “Our mission is to provide opportunities for recreation and renewal of body, mind, and spirit in a beautiful natural setting,” says Nina Smiley. “The spa ties in perfectly to that.”


Mohonk Mountain House stands at the heart of a magnificent 26,000-acre natural area made up of its own land holdings, private preserves (including Mohonk Preserve, which the Mountain House started by spinning off some of its own holdings), and a state park preserve. It is one of the last of the great 19th-century mountain hotels, a hikers’ paradise and family-friendly resort known for its rocking chairs, rustic gazebos, and all-meals-included “American plan” pricing. And while Mohonk doesn’t show up on travel magazine “hot lists,” it has a loyal clientele (mostly from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) who return year after year. 


Now this major investment is likely to attract a completely new crowd: those looking for a luxury spa getaway only 90 minutes from New York City — just the sort of people who read “hot lists.”


Was the goal to attract the Hamptons set?  Not intentionally.“We really built it as an amenity for our overnight guests,” says Smiley.  Those guests were asking not for a luxury spa — the massage center in 10 converted rooms was quite adequate. But they did long for an indoor pool, especially during the winter months, when conditions weren’t always right for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or a hike. “We really needed to expand our winter offerings,” says Smiley. “Mohonk wasn’t even open in the winter until 1933, and there are times when you can’t get outdoors.” Once the Smileys made the commitment to build a pool, it just made sense to expand the fitness center and build a full-service spa and beauty salon. And that’s how they wound up with a 30,000-square-foot resort spa, which promises to be a major draw for people from all over the tri-state area.


Mohonk was founded because Alfred and Albert Smiley fell in love with the splendid beauty of the Shawangunks, and with more than 200 windows, the Spa at Mohonk takes full advantage of it. “The concept of the spa is to bring the outside in with big expanses of windows,” Smiley says. You can sit by the pool and look out at the woodland surroundings. You wait to be picked up for your treatment not in a darkened “meditation room,” but on one of two 80-foot-long verandas (one for men, one for women) that look like enclosed porches, with apple-green paint that matches the exterior of the Mountain House. Smiley speculates that the spa has the only pedicure chair in the country with a view of a mountaintop lake.


 The Smileys’ sensitivity to the environment went into the very design and construction of the spa. To clear the building site they had to blast away 26,500 tons of quartz conglomerate, the extremely hard granite that makes up the Shawangunk Mountains. But instead of hauling it all away, they incorporated 600 tons of it back into the building, using it for fill, retaining walls, even the magnificent fireplace in the solarium, a coed relaxation room with breathtaking views. “This is the ultimate recycling job,” says Smiley. 


To heat and cool the building, they dug 48 wells, each 480 feet deep, for a geo-thermal heat pump system that uses the constant temperature of the earth to cool the building in summer and heat it in winter. This energy-efficient, emission-free system is virtually soundless, preserving the peace and serenity of the surroundings.


Another eco-friendly feature is the 2,000-square-foot green roof garden that has eight inches of soil planted with native grasses, herbs, mosses, and ground cover. “Instead of looking at white gravel, people who are exercising can look at a garden,” says Smiley. 

“It helps to insulate the building and fields the run-off from the roof above.” It’s also habitat for birds and butterflies as well as people, who have a place to sit outside, meditate, or try a qi-gong class.


Most spas try to use “indigenous ingredients” in designing their spa menus, but few can match Mohonk. It has a form of witch hazel growing wild on the property that’s found nowhere else in the world. Not surprisingly, its botanical name is “Mohonk Red.” Witch hazel is one of the world’s oldest beauty secrets, prized for its soothing and softening properties, so Spa Director Hollis Beckwith designed several “signature treatments,” including a massage, facial, manicure, and pedicure, around Mohonk Red.


For example, during the Mohonk Red Massage ($145 for 80 minutes), the therapist takes hot, moist towels that have been infused with Mohonk Red, layers them over your back, and wraps them around your feet. This is deeply relaxing, and helps prepare you for a variety of massage techniques, including Swedish, acupressure, Hawaiian lomi lomi, and Thai stretches. The treatment ends with the guided relaxation or “Power Nap,” wherein the therapist helps you relax, float away, then return to your body. “It’s a much gentler way to bring someone back from a treatment than to say, ‘Your time is up, I’ll meet you outside,’ ” says Beckwith. All Mohonk Red signature treatments end with a drink of herbal “elixir” and a gift of a small flacon of signature oil (made with Mohonk Red) to take home.


Beckwith found one other indigenous material to use in her treatments — the very stuff of which the mountain is made.  Shawangunk conglomerate is so resistant to erosion that after all these millennia the dramatic white cliffs still stand, providing the best rock climbing in the Northeast. Beckwith sent it off to be analyzed and pulverized; she discovered it made a fine quartz crystal pumice that was perfect for exfoliation (or removing the body’s outermost layer of dull, dead skin cells). Thus was born the “Shawangunk Grit” Body Treatment ($145 for 80 minutes). It begins with an underwater massage in a hydrotherapy tub, moves on to the “Shawangunk Grit” body scrub to exfoliate, then rehydrates your skin with a signature oil application and body wrap.

Classes in aerobics, yoga, qi gong, Pilates, and meditation will take place in the Motion Room at no extra charge — unusual for a resort spa, which often charges $10 to $15 per class. “We believe in an all-inclusive rate,” says Smiley (who has written a book called Three Minute Meditator and plans to teach some of the meditation classes). There will also be Aqua Aerobic and Ai Chi (water Tai Chi) classes in the 30-by-60 foot pool. It has an unusual design, with the shallow end running the length of the pool, so everyone in the class can be in waist-high water while people swim laps alongside them.


    Other nice design features include the fact that men can go directly from the changing room to the males-only veranda via a private stairway rather than wandering down a hallway in their robes and slippers. If a man prefers to wait with his wife or girlfriend, there’s the coed solarium. They can even get a massage or facial at the same time in the Couple Suite, which has a charming gas fireplace.


    That sounds very well for people who are staying at the Mountain House. But what about those of us who live here? The spa has a special “massage and meal” package that runs Monday through Friday. For $139 you can enjoy breakfast or lunch and a 50-minute Swedish massage, or a 10 Grains and Spices Radiance Facial using products from Éminence, an organic Hungarian skin-care line. The dinner package is $159 (both prices include tax and gratuity).  You get access to the showers, steam room, and sauna in the changing room; the solarium; and the hot mineral pool on a patio with comfy lounge chairs. (Alas, the pool, fitness room, and classes are off-limits.) Both packages include all-day access to the grounds and hiking trails. “You can make a great day of it,” Smiley says. “We have 85 miles of trails from our doorstep, and it’s wonderful to get a massage after a hike.”


The “massage and meal” package has actually been around for a long time. People are just going to be able to get their massage in one of the best new spas in the country. “At Mohonk we try to be ‘the same, only better,’ ” says Smiley. “People come back after 15 years and say, ‘Thank God, you haven’t changed!’ Well, we have changed. But we’ve only changed the details. We’ve kept the essence of Mohonk the same.” 

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