To get to 1928 from my house, I discover, all I have to do
is drive two and a half hours west-southwest. After turning in at the driveway of the Skytop Lodge, from a
deeply shaded road through the lonely forests of Pennsylvania’s
Pocono Mountains, nearly a century drops away
while attaining the final hundred feet of altitude on the climb to the mountaintop hotel. And there you are, in
the heady days of the Jazz Age, when vast hotels were rising all over America as precipitously
This one was conceived in 1925 by men of foresight, though
it did not extend as far as late October of 1929. The building is especially momentous, of
stone in the Dutch Colonial style, with massive wings reaching out to either
side of the entrance like welcoming arms—not a raucous welcome, to be sure,
befitting a certain age-appropriate reserve, but welcoming nonetheless. Well, so long as you are of the class that
will not blanch at the tariff: $499 a night, double occupancy. Not as much as the modern-day luxury spa, of
course. But then most spas don’t offer a
Saturday-night Elimination Dance and Grand March. (“Everyone is holding hands in a long line .
. . then we weave in and out of rooms through a secret passage, outdoors, then
back in the Pine Room. The festivities
conclude with punch, cookies, and dancing.”
So much more Nancy Drew than a sea-salt bodywrap, yes?)
That spa—though even Skytop has stuck a toe in
twenty-first-century waters by retrofitting spa-treatment rooms into the top
floor of the hotel, taking space from the diminished members-only club that was
once an integral part of staying here—also probably won’t ask guests to dress
for dinner, or to refrain from wearing anything too modernly disturbing; only
“modest” and “generally conservative” (one in fact assumes that most of the
visitors are registered Republicans) will do around these 5,500-acre grounds.
In keeping with a general theme of traditionalism, the
activities speak in cultivated tones of yesteryear’s pastimes: lawn bowling,
archery, skeet shooting, boating, skiing, tobogganing, and hiking. (No way to escape golf, no matter what year
The basement game room has acceded to recent—albeit not too
recent—taste with a small arcade that includes Galaga, which after all is
ancient history to anyone now under the age of forty, though it happens to be my ancient history. There remain the tables for billiards and
ping-pong, and a cunning miniature golf course for the wee ones. Upstairs are the de rigueur card rooms off
the grandly scaled main room, as well as a beautiful lending library whose
titles, Dewey classified, reside timelessly in glass vitrines. The books remain also timelessly undisturbed,
for no one who arrives from this century seems to know their purpose.
At dinner in the main dining room, I explained to my
twelve-year-old tablemate how all these knives and forks were to be deployed,
elaborating further on quaint dining customs of yore: “In real olden days, one
would be given a fingerbowl. But don’t
do what a friend once did when presented with one—he drank it.” A few minutes later, fingerbowls
arrived. “For your fingers,” the
waitress offered helpfully.
My son (the aforementioned twelve-year-old) brought to my
attention the detail that marked this as a veritable old hotel: actual room keys, dangling from those plastic rhombuses
so redolent of vacations past. No key
cards for the Skytop. I hadn’t even
noticed, which shows how old I am.
At night we mounted four flights of stairs to the top floor
pressed under the eaves, heading for the old observation tower. At the foot of its narrow staircase, before
ascending a dark tunnel-like space that opened onto a slightly less dark but
immeasurably expansive space—the curvature of the earth was visible on a
horizon tinged light rose under the gigantic bowl of planet-studded sky—a
plaque commemorated spotters who during World War II manned the post around the
clock watching for enemy planes.
What stay in a long-lost era would be complete without discharging
a firearm? This is where the wheat gets separated from the social chaff—or
perhaps where redneck and elite join in agreement on one thing (besides low tax
rates for the wealthy): guns are fun to shoot.
Meeting at the obligatory Orvis shop down by the obligatory
lake, excursions to the mountaintop skeet-shooting center are conducted by van;
it takes you to 2,200 feet and a supreme view of this heavenly half-acre. There, in the far distance, is the Delaware
Water Gap, and for the first time you see exactly what it is: a symmetrical
deep notch carved by a giant precision instrument. After the Civil War, this region was second
only to Saratoga
as the country’s most popular inland resort.
Now, in the near distance, orange compact sporting clays are mechanically
flung into space, and bang! They
magically explode into shards. Suddenly,
you can’t wait for the next one to do the same.
Then the next, and the next. It’s
addictive, this focused destruction.
And, you realize, necessary: in fact, when mealtime arrives
with its caloric load you see you needed to engage in every sport on offer;
there are three of these abundant occasions per day (on the American plan,
correctly named) plus tea and cookies in the Pine Room at four. Though sometimes it is advisable to join the
two, intake and expenditure: that is when you order a box lunch (I just love
saying that: box lunch box lunch box
lunch). It will accompany you on any
one of multitudinous trails, amounting to more than thirty miles, meant to
guide guests to “places of quiet beauty and restful charm”; when you reach the
end in addition to peanut butter there may well be Indian Ladder
At dinner you are attended with the miracle of two types of
service at once: nearly invisible, and ever-present. The menu offers delectable-sounding
opportunities in the appetizer, soup or salad, and entrée categories; and if
what is delivered with care to your place is just a sliver under
delectable—falling rather into tasty ’n’ ample, a variety of Institutional
Haute—what cynic could truly complain?
You’ll revisit your hopes at the breakfast buffet, complemented with
table service of eggs aplenty as well as Belgian waffles.
The visit to another age, a black-and-white one where cherry-lipped,
wool-clad, bobbed-hair women lean ever smiling against their ski poles and
sleighfulls of laughing young people are pulled by strong horses through the
cold air, is a reminder of what we used to be.
And trusted we would eternally remain.
Healthy, joyful, always festive.
Always beautiful. Always
well-heeled. There was no end to the
bigness: America ascendant. The grand
hotel provided the frame for the picture we wished to make of ourselves. It was carefully posed; it seemed possible,
within its bounds, that life itself could be an endless holiday with impeccable
service. This was the period Booth
Tarkington compassed in The Magnificent
Ambersons: “’There seem to be so many ways of making money nowadays,’ Fanny
said thoughtfully. ‘Every day I hear of a new fortune some person has got hold
of, one way or another—nearly always it’s somebody you never heard of.’”
In some places today you can catch the scent of the belief
that the future holds the promise of permanently expanding luxury, no longer
thrillingly sharp, but soft and vague, the perfume that rises from a vintage
fur. At these historic hotels that
preserve the happy traditions of privilege, the past comes back as a memory you
are not certain you ever had. It is just
possible you read about it in a book, or saw it from afar, in a dream from
which you wished to never wake. The
times will never roar like that again.