Quaker twin brothers, a magical New York resort and why it mattered in Redlands
“Slowly & Quietly, Please,” read the oval signs on the winding approach to Mohonk Mountain House, swaddled in green on its ridge-top perch west of the Hudson River.
Mohonk now is very much an all-seasons resort, and each has its pleasures. My wife, Laurel, and I visited in June for the third time since October. We hiked the spectacular grounds, lush in June and stark and brisk in January, and were embraced by the history of this one of-a-kind hotel with close ties to Southern California.
In honor of its 150th birthday this year, guests receive a challenging brochure: “150 Things to Do at Mohonk.” We have checked off quite a few, and on our last visit, added feeding the trout from the boat dock. Many involve the outdoors and nature, something the Smiley brothers cherished.
If you’ve been to Redlands, you might know about these twins — Albert and Alfred — and how their philanthropy helped shape the town into what it is today.
The back story
On our fall visit to Mohonk, we took a late-morning tour that filled us in on the history of Mohonk and its founding family, the Smileys, who still own and operate the hotel. The talk began in the lovely Lake Lounge, the hotel’s social center, flanked on two sides by a porch lined with rocking chairs.
In September 1869, Alfred K. Smiley, a Quaker farmer from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., made a post-harvest outing across the Hudson River to Paltz Point. From an upthrust of land in the Shawangunk Mountains, Alfred looked down at Lake Mohonk and was smitten.
A rustic tavern once stood on the spot where we were listening. When Alfred learned the tavern was for sale, he telegraphed Albert, urging him to come at once. These twins had shared everything since birth — clothes, education, farm and the Quaker school in Providence, R.I., where Albert was then headmaster, and would continue to do so all their lives.
The brothers bought Stokes Tavern and the 300 or so acres surrounding it. “Through its buildings and roads, its land and its spirit, Mohonk exemplifies America’s history and culture,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation wrote on Mohonk’s 125th anniversary. The place has evolved, but it has stayed true to simple beliefs that stemmed from the twins’ Quaker faith. (Slowly and quietly, please.)
Last year, the fifth generation took the reins. Tom Smiley is the chief operating officer and Eric Gullickson, his cousin, is president.
Although the Mountain House is fascinating, the Mohonk experience has always focused on the outdoors. Even on our January stay, we walked along Lake Road until diverted by ice. We had circled the lake in the fall, covering a fraction of the 85 miles of trails that radiate from the hotel, and would wander again in June.
We climbed into some of the 120 little wooden gazebos scattered around the property, so evocative of the Victorian era and the Mountain House. These structures, when illuminated at dusk, turn the property into a fairyland and have been part of Mohonk from the beginning.
We enjoyed them even more on our June visit, when we walked through the gardens planted with peonies, rhododendron, roses, impatiens, miniature lilacs, iris, geraniums and Russian sage. We visited the Barn Museum, chock-a-block with farm equipment, ice-cutting tools and carriages once used at Mohonk.
Food and fun
With some midweek, off-season exceptions, Mohonk is a full-American-plan hotel, so three meals are included in the daily charge.
Most guests have lunch on their departure day, but on our January visit, we decided to dine the day we arrived. We were seated in the the grand main dining room at a table with mountain views, then prowled the many buffet stations: salads, soups, pasta, bruschetta bar, carvery, savory crepes, hot sandwiches and more.
After lunch, we visited the ice-skating rink and greenhouse, then headed back to the Mountain House. How a hotel with 265 guest rooms can be cozy is a paradox, but it is. Nooks and crannies, parlors and bays are scattered throughout, each with sofas and easy chairs.
In 2005, Mohonk opened an opulent spa wing with a large infinity pool surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows.
“The spa was built to look 100 years old the day it opened,” said Nina Smiley, director of mindfulness programming.
Laurel went to the pool and took the plunge, while I prowled the hallways, looking at pictures of the Smileys and their guests.
A group of California scenes puzzled me at first, but captions provided clarity.
For years, Albert Smiley closed the Mountain House in winter and decamped with Alfred for far warmer Redlands.
It was there that the Smileys acquired a 220-acre hilltop property (now known as Smiley Heights), with views of Redlands and the San Bernardino Mountains.
On it they built two winter homes and a landscaped arboretum called Canyon Crest Park, which they opened to the public free of charge. Its beauty made it a nationally known tourist destination, but the park closed in 1939, a victim of the Depression.
Among their philanthropies in Redlands was a library, given by Albert and named in his honor when the library was dedicated in 1898. It remains a vital community resource and is still generously supported by the Smiley family.
“The Smileys made their money at Mohonk and spent it in Redlands,” said Larry E. Burgess, a former longtime director of the A.K. Smiley Public Library and author of the book “Mohonk and the Smileys: A National Historic Landmark and the Family That Created It.”
The brothers are still known as the the “patron saints of Redlands,” and their birthday, March 17, has been celebrated as Patron Saints Day since 1908 and remains a festive occasion. “I don’t think any other city in the country does anything like this,” Burgess said.
The Mohonk way
On our December visit, we had dinner in the west dining room, more intimate than the main dining room but sharing the distinctive mountain-facing windows. We stopped for martinis in the Carriage Lounge, also opened in 2005. It was a final compromise with the beliefs of Quakers, who shun alcohol.
Locally sourced food is prominent throughout Mohonk meals, which have improved over the years. Our menu listed nine Hudson Valley farms contributing to our dinner. For starters, Laurel had seared ahi tuna with wasabi aioli and I, cauliflower bisque. For entrées, seared monk fish with asparagus purée and pan-seared duck.
Then back to our room, with a balcony and working fireplace but no television. Though Mohonk has evolved, some things haven’t changed.
If you go
THE BEST WAY NEW PALTZ, N.Y.
From LAX, Southwest has direct service (stop, no change of planes) to Albany, N.Y., and Delta, United, American and Southwest have connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $565, including taxes and fees. Alaska and United offer nonstop service to Newark, N.J., and American, Delta, Southwest and United offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip airfare from $412, including taxes and fees.
Mohonk Mountain House, 1000 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz, N.Y; (866) 535-8692, mohonk.com. The hotel has 32 room types. We snagged a cyber Monday deal for $510 for a night, including three meals, taxes and fees. The Mountain House is a member of Historic Hotels of America (historichotels.org,  678-8946), an affiliate of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it’s worth seeing what rate they offer.
150th anniversary celebrations
Mohonk’s sesquicentennial festivities include the nonprofit Mohonk Consultations’ conference, “Creating and Sustaining Peace” (Nov. 1-3), which hotel guests can attend.
The November anniversary celebration and peace conference will be a throwback. Beginning with the 1895 International Arbitration Conference, the Smileys have hosted sessions supporting social justice and world peace. Family members will participate and also lead hikes and tours.
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