Crystal Springs Resort: A Best Kept New Jersey Secret
By John Grossmann
Roughly an hour’s drive northwest of Midtown Manhattan, in the picturesque, remote corner of New Jersey that’s home to black bears and a ridge top stretch of the Appalachian Trail, there’s a resort that is surely one of the best-kept travel secrets in America. Until recently, I knew next to nothing about it–and I’ve lived in the north half of the Garden State for the last 17 years. I knew of a couple of its golf courses. And I’d heard of the Mountain Creek ski resort that it had folded into its sprawling assortment of hotels, spas, and recreation facilities. But I’d never heard of Crystal Springs Resort.
A two-night stay there in early fall introduced me to a great getaway spot with world-class golf and wine. With seven courses, Crystal Springs is second in the US to acknowledged golfing Mecca Pinehurst, which has nine courses. The Crystal Springs wine cellar, which houses and displays many of its 138,000 bottles over nearly an acre beneath its Grand Cascade Lodge, is believed to trail only Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida. In other words, a pair of very significant national second bests.
Next visit, I will time my stay to the Thursday through Sunday window for dinner at Restaurant Latour, whose elegant, five and seven course tasting meals offer a culinary foil for the rare and special cache of wine spectacularly seeded by the resort’s founder, the late Gene Mulvihill, who amassed a fortune from such varied fields as mutual funds, venture capital, robotics, MRI equipment, and real estate development.
The wine cellar is a must see, windowed room after windowed room filled with rare and special vintages. No surprise, considering the name of the fine dining restaurant floors above, but Mulvihill had a special fondness for Chateau Latour. Bottles in this specially dedicated room go back as far as 1863, and with long unbroken strings of vintages represented, there may be no better collection of this esteemed label. A 1900 double magnum can be opened for $52,000. Another room houses California cult wines, including Screaming Eagle. Through another window you can glimpse young and old bottles of Chateau d’Yquem, the latter displaying the darker color of its much-prized noble rot.
A nearby room doesn’t house bottles, but rather equipment to ensure the quality of the expensive wines brought to the table. This so-called MRI room features a patent-worthy device, developed with the help of a UC Davis chemistry professor, that tests for cork taint. There’s also the MRI machine Mulvihill developed to single out wines spoiled by oxidation or elevated levels of acetic acids. The upshot: those ordering a very special bottle of wine can do so with a high degree of confidence.
Mulvihill broke ground for what is now Crystal Springs in the mid-1970s and kept building and acquiring properties, expanding the resort’s footprint in four towns in sparsely populated Sussex County. With two hotels and townhouse accommodations, two spas, a waterpark, a ski resort, horseback riding, mountain biking, and indoor and outdoor swimming pools, there’s something for everyone. Family vacations. Guys golf getaways. Romantic escapes.
In autumn, the hardwood covered hillside that fronts the five-year-old Grand Cascade Lodge blazes with fall colors. The view is even better from the back of the lodge, past lush green fairways to the distant Kittatinny Ridge, which in the language of the region’s early inhabitants, the Lenape tribe, means “endless hill.”
I played and enjoyed three of the golf courses—two I played with golf clubs, one without. I particularly enjoyed Ballyowen, a challenging, links-style course that heads many top 10 lists of the best public golf courses in the state. The nearly treeless layout offers spectacular views and a varied, challenging test of one’s game. Wild Turkey played a bit easier. Two signature par threes stick in memory. The 7th hole requires a shot over a water-filled quarry. Three holes later the challenge is a severely elevated tee that could nearly double as a bungee jump platform. Measuring 218 yards from the blue tees, 193 from the whites, the hole plays two clubs less—that is, if the wind isn’t blowing right in your face, which it often does, up in the realm of gliding hawks.
As for golf without clubs, I did that on the Cascades course just downhill from the main lodge, trying my hand, or rather my foot, at a new hybrid sport that is starting to catch on across America. In fact, during my stay Crystal Springs was hosting an international pro-am Foot Golf championship on an 18-hole layout piggybacked just this spring on an existing 9-hole links that continues to host conventional rounds of golf. Foot golf is now played in some 30 countries worldwide and on more than 270 courses in the United States. Foot golfers kick a soccer ball from tee to cup—the cup being 21 inches in diameter, the size of two soccer balls. In the US, according to the ruling American Foot Golf League, holes are cut to the sides of fairways and golf greens, with room for two, foot golf par fours on a traditional par four golf hole. The play and scoring is similar to traditional golf. You can finish a round in about two hours, about half the time of a regular round of golf, and pay accordingly, about half the cost of hitting a little white ball around the course.
“It’s been a big hit this past summer with families and adds another activity for our leisure guests,” says resort PGA pro and resort vice president Art Walton. “We had a youth soccer team out here in August every day. It’s a good team building activity, whether for soccer teams, or any organization.”
I would agree. Having played soccer in high school and college, I found this hybrid sport a challenging test of both power kicks and deftly controlled “putting” strokes on uneven terrain. Pars and birdies remain difficult to come by. But the broader appeal of foot golf is that it’s much more forgiving and easier to play reasonably well than traditional golf. Plus, there’s no searching in the woods for lost balls.
The real searching at Crystal Springs is done by wine connoisseurs selecting from among a cellared collection that was recently valued at $33 million. Everything, except for a very few bottles, is for sale and consumption, as Mulvihill’s son Andrew and daughter Julie, who now run the resort, have continued their father’s longtime practice of sharing the wines he loved.
What’s not for sale? Nine bottles of cognac hand-painted by Erte, whose brush touched only 500 bottles a half century ago. There’s also a single bottle that will never be sold, a 1795 Madera, the oldest bottle in the Crystal Springs wine cellar. For one thing, its audition in the MRI room came up wanting. For another, the bottle once belonged to the private collection of a wine loving American president, Thomas Jefferson.
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