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New Hampshire's North Country
"Remember, tight tuck," coached Chris, a plucky zip-line tour guide, as she readied my cables for one of the granddaddies of zips-an 830-foot-long swoop over Rosebrook Canyon in Bretton Woods, N.H. "Use your left hand to straighten out if you start to turn."
I was on a small wooden platform circling a spruce tree some 60 feet off the ground-my launching pad for the next zip. There were seven of us tethered to the branches with lanyards and large safety clips, and we were all holding onto the tree trunk with iron grips and eroding bravura as the bullying wind whooshed unpredictably.
I was the first to go. We'd already completed seven zips that progressively increased in length and intensity, but they were child's play compared with this one. My knees knocked together like castanets as I studied the zip cable, which looked like a giant tightrope strung over an abyss. Another huge gust bent the birch and spruce trunks as if they were elastic.
"Clear for zip," I heard our other tour guide, Nick, radio from the destination platform, which was indiscernible from our perch. I took a deep breath, sat into my harness, lifted my knees and raced 30 miles per hour into the resinous air over a forest of hemlocks and white pines. It was a smooth and exhilarating run. A woman who was trying to overcome her fear of heights went next, landing with a huge grin.
The Bretton Woods Canopy Tour is something new to northern New Hampshire's White Mountains. It was completed two years ago and is operated through the Omni Mount Washington Resort. Its dual cable system is sturdier and quieter than the single-line operations typically found in places like Costa Rica. Zip-liners travel the top line on a pulley and apply pressure to the lower cable to brake before landing. The ride, at more than three hours, is the longest zip-line canopy tour in New England and one of the longest in the continental U.S. In addition to 10 zips, there are three rappels and two sky bridges 50 feet off the ground. The tour operates year-round, even in subzero temperatures.
Zip-lining was one of several reasons my family and I decided to explore northern New Hampshire and the small towns of Bretton Woods and Dixville Notch. Solitude was another draw: Not many tourists are familiar with this part of the state. Indeed, when I told people we were heading to northern New Hampshire, their first reaction was often, "What's there?" The Granite State has more well-trammeled spots farther south, places like Portsmouth on the Atlantic and the congested Lake Winnipesaukee. In winter, crowds flock to the Waterville Valley, the site of several World Cup races.
The upper third of the state, by contrast, is the land of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," particularly the Great North Woods area near the Canadian border. Yet unlike the desolate stretches in some states where you're lucky to find a diner and a motel, the top third of New Hampshire is rich in history and accommodations. Three of the state's four surviving grand hotels are here, including the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods and the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixville Notch, both discussed below; and Mountainview Grand Resort and Spa in Whitefield, N.H., which we didn't have time to visit. All three are on the National Register of Historic Places and all have offered travelers the same thing for more than a century: opulence in the midst of wilderness.
Though Bretton Woods and Dixville Notch deliver distinctly different experiences within 70 miles of each other, they both provide enchanting escapes, with a regional airport less than 45 miles away.
Zip-lining would be a good reason to visit Bretton Woods, but the town has many other attractions. The first ski resort in the country opened in New Hampshire and the sport remains beloved here. Bretton Woods is home to the largest ski area in the state, with 375 skiable acres. Ski magazine named it one of the five best ski destinations in the East for snow. Locals say there's never a dry season.
The 464-acre mountain has 101 downhill trails for skiing and snowboarding and 10 lifts, including four high-speed quads. You'll also find 100 kilometers of cross-country terrain that wends through the White Mountains National Forest and leads to icicle-crusted waterfalls. (Ice-climbing instruction is available.) For warmer temperatures, there's an 18-hole, Donald Ross-designed golf course.
The White Mountains' peaks have inspired writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott. The range is defined by Mount Washington, which at more than 6,200 feet is the tallest peak in the Northeast and which until recently held the record for highest wind gust ever recorded on Earth-231 miles per hour.
The 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest attracted travelers in droves during the Industrial Revolution, when cash was abundant and railroads made once-remote places accessible. Dignitaries, presidents and celebrities all vacationed here in getaways called grand hotels. The posh retreats, with capacity for at least 400 guests, provided gas lights, lawn tennis, elegant dining and hiking guides. They were built entirely of wood and almost all of them succumbed to fire. The Mount Washington, the last grand hotel built, was completed in 1902.
The 335,000-square-foot Omni Mount Washington Resort is still the hub of life in this area. The stately red-roofed facility, an example of Spanish Renaissance architecture, recently completed a $50 million renovation that included a 25,000-square-foot spa. Its sprawling porch, complete with white wicker chairs, faces the imposing Mount Washington, the golf course and the snaking Ammonoosuc River. A heated outdoor pool stays open year-round. There's also a dark, stone-walled bar called The Cave-a former speakeasy-that has nightly entertainment.
If you drive from Berlin regional airport 44 miles north to Dixville Notch, you enter some of the remotest territory in New Hampshire. Cars are sparse, moose are plentiful and a quieter way of life prevails. It's a place where nature's beauty unfolds slowly, when you're rounding a bend or driving at dusk. On our drive north on Route 26, families of deer grazed along the roadside. A Canada jay made a ruckus atop a spruce.
Yet despite its remote location less than 20 miles equidistantly from Canada, Vermont and Maine, Dixville Notch isn't off the radar. The town's only prominent hotel, the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, displays signed photographs of everyone from McDonald's magnate Ray Kroc to singer Michelle Phillips of the pop group the Mamas and the Papas-all of whom have visited or stayed here. Dixville Notch also gets national media attention every time our country elects a president: The "ballot room" in the Balsams is where some of the nation's first votes are cast at midnight.
Yet there's an unmistakable feeling when you spend time in Dixville Notch, which has a scant 75 year-round residents, that you're not just "getting away"-you're really away. One morning I heard a coyote howling from the North Woods, its captivating call drifting through my screened hotel window as if dovetailed on the gentle breeze. Along the hiking trails, there were wild turkeys and red-tailed foxes.
It's routine to see moose on the roadside at dawn and dusk. Signs warn to "brake for moose" and locals have plenty of stories of near-collisions and fatalities. Our waiter told us his father hit a moose one night and they ate the meat over the course of two and a half months, moose macaroni and cheese being among the concoctions.
In fact, Dixville Notch suffers from a touch of moose mania. Local businesses from eye-care specialists to ice cream shops have moose pictures in their ads or the word "moose" in their names or tag lines. There are moose festivals, "moosely" information guides and antlers everywhere. First Colebrook Bank advertises "Finance With the Moose." Even the Balsams' daily activity flier said, "Think Moose."
The Great North Woods has a network of well-defined trails, including a downhill mountain with 16 trails that has been attracting skiers for 45 years. Winter brings below-zero temperatures, but also guaranteed snow. Locals claim the challenging and well mapped cross-country trails surrounding the Balsams are among the best in the Northeast.
The Balsams is the mother lode of civilization in this otherwise untamed, 8,000-acre wilderness. When we arrived here, we were struck by the sheer cliffs insulating the hotel, as well as by the heady smell of pine. My seven-year-old daughter commented that the hotels in Bretton Woods and Dixville Notch were very different. "The Omni is very grand," she said. "This is more heartwarming."
Indeed, the Balsams, like Dixville Notch, is a place that charms surreptitiously, with profound dividends. While there is plenty of activity on and off the property, from skiing and snowshoeing in winter to kayaking and tennis in summer, it's so peaceful that you'll find yourself captivated by hummingbirds buzzing around red feeders (in warmer months) and not realize 20 minutes have passed.
The hotel is really two halves. The older wing is a pre-Civil War stucco palace while the "new" wing was constructed almost a century ago. Both are a throwback to the days of simple elegance and sophistication. Rooms don't have TVs, windows have screens and billowy white curtains and walls are papered with ivy vines or roses. The spa looks like a simple beauty salon with a massage room off to the side.
Dinner, on the other hand, is serious business: you are assigned a table for the duration of your stay and men are required to wear jackets. Service is flawless but not indulgent, delivered by a staff that has been employed here for years, if not decades. As for the food, it's arguably the high point of staying at the resort. Meals are impeccably prepared and everything down to the stocks and relishes is made in-house.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS: Two northern New Hampshire towns-Bretton Woods and Dixville Notch-that are known for their breathtaking beauty, untamed wilderness, guaranteed snow, great skiing and historic grand hotels.
CLIMATE: This isn't Phoenix. In January and February, average highs are below freezing while average lows are in the single digits. The warmest months are June and July, when average highs reach the 70s and nights are in the low to mid 50s.
GETTING THERE: Airline passengers arrive at Portsmouth International Airport, 114 miles south of Bretton Woods, but you can land closer to your destination. Berlin [N.H.] Regional Airport is 35 miles northeast of Bretton Woods and 44 miles south of Dixville Notch. It has a 5,200-foot paved runway. Errol [N.H.] Airport, which has a 3,680-foot gravel runway, is 11 miles southeast of Dixville Notch.
Traveler Report Card
ACCOMMODATIONS (A-): ForbesTraveler.com named the Omni Mount Washington Hotel & Resort in Bretton Woods one of the world's 10 best mountain hotels. The facility (www.mtwashington.com), with 200 guest rooms, features a 25,000-square-foot spa and an octagonal formal dining room with commanding views of Mount Washington and live music nightly. Winter room rates start at $189.
The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel (www.thebalsams.com) in Dixville Notch has 219 guest rooms. A deluxe room starts at $200 per person per night (non-holiday) and includes breakfast and dinner. Suites and pet-friendly accommodations are available. Amenities include a game room, billiards room and movie theater.
FOOD (A): Both hotels offer exceptional food. Dinner at the Balsams is a highlight and can be a five- or six-course affair.
QUIETUDE (A+): Northern New Hampshire has thousands of miles of untamed wilderness, which can be accessed easily from both Bretton Woods and Dixville Notch.
ACTIVITIES (A): Both Bretton Woods and Dixville Notch offer miles of downhill and cross-country trails, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, sleigh rides and dog sledding. Bretton Woods has a year-round zip-line canopy tour, which can be reserved through the hotel. For summer visitors, both resorts have 18-hole golf courses, swimming, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, fly-fishing, kayaking and clay tennis courts.