© Margo Pfeiff
White Mountain charm
New Hampshire’s quaint towns and steep peaks make for a memorable ski getaway
“Let’s do The Whites,” my Boston ski-buddy, Moira Brown, will say at least once every winter. Not that there aren’t plenty of choices for good Eastern skiing in Quebec where I live, but there’s nothing like a dose of big-hill, small-village New England character. So we both pack up our skis and I drive three hours south from Montreal and Moira (or Moe as I call her) drives three hours north from Beantown and we meet up in the heart of the snowy White Mountains, in the hamlet of Jackson, New Hampshire.
An icy river burbles through it and you have to drive through a red covered bridge to reach Jackson. Historic inns with candles in the windows, century-old taverns with blazing wood fireplaces and slim-steepled churches all lie muffled under a glittering, snowy duvet. The occasional cross-country skier skims out of the woods on a network of trails starting right in town. No matter how many times I visit this quintessential New England town, I always feel I’ve arrived inside one of those perfect little snow-globe villages, wreathed in serenity until someone shakes it up and makes it snow. Which it does. A lot.
On this trip, our base was the elegant 1869 Wentworth Inn (tel: 800-637-0013; thewentworth.com; doubles from $139 including breakfast). The Swiss owner, Fritz Koeppel, left the high-stress life of an international Four Seasons/Ritz Carlton hotelier to make the Wentworth his own. Smack in the centre of Jackson, the first-class lodgings with four-poster and sleigh-bed suites make it a perfect romantic getaway and ski destination. Moe and I had freshly waxed skis screaming for a workout, so in the early morning, we stared at a map deciding which mountain to tackle first. Black, Cranmore, Attitash and Wildcat are all within 20 minutes’ drive; Bretton Woods is 40 minutes away.
Okay, so we’re not talking the Sierras here. Though the peaks are big by Eastern standards — Wildcat has 640 metres of vertical on a 1220-metre summit — no one would compare them to hefty Western slopes. But New Hampshire (tel: 603-745-9396; skinh.com; watch for mid-week special rates) offers experiences you don’t get out West. You come for the mellow New England charm, the Yankee character — and drawl. You can sip your way through the Northeast’s micro brews in a post-and-beam tavern after a day on the slopes. There are history-steeped inns and genteel grand hotels to prowl, all of them heading, with grace, well into their second century.
Moe’s day job is a whale researcher at Boston’s New England Aquarium, but on weekends she teaches telemark skiing, and we are here to take on the hills. After a short debate we started our Whites ski break at our favorite peak, which is actually two — Attitash and Bear (Route 302, Bartlett; tel: 800-223-7669; attitash.com; weekend day pass $70 adults, $55 kids). Together they offer up 120 hectares ribboned with 73 trails including seven birch and spruce-dotted glades winding through Bear’s woods. That means lots of choices for a long day on slopes that see about three metres of annual natural snow. Big powder dumps are not common, but they do happen. More often though, Eastern skiing at its best is hard-packed and fast; at its worst it’s a vertical ice rink.
Like most White Mountain resorts, runs are sparsely populated at Attitash and line-ups are rare. Something new to try is the Nor’Easter Mountain Coaster, a wilderness roller coaster for adrenalin junkies to plummet on rails down through the trees.
The best après-ski scene is back in Jackson. On our first night, we made a bee-line back to the Wentworth where Fritz prepared an afternoon Swiss fondue in the bar alongside the chic, columned lobby. Later we moseyed into the dining room for venison osso bucco and buttered spaetlze that would even make my Austrian mama weep.
Day Two blew in nippy. After doing the wind-chill math we opted for an aerobic day in the forest. Across the street from the Wentworth, the community-based nonprofit Jackson Ski Touring Foundation (153 Main Street, Jackson; tel: 603-383-9355; jacksonxc.org); day rates $21 adults, $10 kids)* maintains an exquisite 160 kilometres of trails through mountains and woods that is considered the best in the East.
We took part in Thom's Amazing Waxing Demonstration in front of the fireplace at the chalet, with Thom Perkins, executive director since 1975, then took a spin on the eight-kilometre Ellis River Trail which follows a rolling scenic route along the waterway of the same name. At a warm-up cabin, we spotted a group of deer and a blood-red cardinal.
The next morning we were atop Wildcat Mountain (Route 16, Pinkham Notch; tel: 888-754-9453; skiwildcat.com; weekend day pass $70 adults, $48 kids) in glittering sunshine and I had to remind myself to pay attention to the run since the spectacular views of Mount Washington can be dangerously distracting. At 1915 metres, it’s the Northeast’s highest peak and from the summit it’s an impressive panorama: Ski magazine consistently rates Wildcat tops for scenery in North America.
As we glided down Wildcat’s long winding runs there were no condos or developments to scar the view: it was wild all around. Then New England's most powerful quad chair whisked us back up to 1220 metres in six minutes and we did it all over again. That evening we collapsed, exhausted, in front of the blazing fire at the Wildcat Inn and Tavern (Route 16-A, Jackson Village; tel: 603-383-4245; wildcattavern.com) which serves everything from pub food to fine meals in an historic inn. We were just in time for Friday night’s Fish Fry and a round of hobnobbing with locals and Bostonians.
The following day, our pummelled bodies told us that we had overdone it, so we engaged in “Plan B,” perfect for those not-so-great weather or just-plain-tired days. Plan B involves a trip to the factory outlet mecca of North Conway, 15 kilometres away, which offers state-tax-free shopping at LL Bean, J. Crew, Sharper Image and all the other usual suspects. We started by combing through the hive of great outdoor shops like Ragged Mountain, Eastern Mountain Sport (EMS) and the technical gear-oriented International Mountain Equipment (IME).
Then we parked ourselves at the bar of the casual Moat Mountain Smoke House (3378 White Mountain Highway, North Conway; moatmountain.com) to share plates of their renowned tender ribs and pulled-pork sandwiches and ordered from a line-up of local microbrews.
A grand old time
Jackson has been a tourist magnet since the late 1800s. In the 1940s, folks began driving to the Whites with their wooden skis, bear-trap bindings, bamboo poles and baggy wool ski pants to schuss the slopes, then ride back uphill on rope tows powered by Model T engines.
But in the days before cars, Bostonians travelled north by rail. In the heyday of the 1920s, 40 Snow Trains a day delivered passengers to Jackson. They spread out to stay at dozens of the region’s grand hotels, big posh estates in the wilderness. These days only two remain, among them The Balsams (100 Cold Spring Road, Dixville Notch; tel: 877-225-7267; thebalsams.com), classic old lodgings in a castle-like building tucked dramatically into a mountain pass, an hour and 40 minutes north of Jackson. It opened shortly after the Civil War and has a lovely, small ski hill and cross-country ski area; it’s currently closed for renovations.
On our last day, we headed 40 minutes northwest from Jackson to hit the slopes of Bretton Woods (Route 302, Bretton Woods; tel: 800-314-1752; brettonwoods.com; weekend day pass $79 adults, $49 kids; discounts for hotel guests), New Hampshire’s biggest ski area. After a week of hard skiing there’s no guilt in enjoying a leisurely ski day on a hill geared towards families.
The view across the valley is stunning, with Mount Washington in the distance and, perched on a low hill, the white Omni Mount Washington Resort (310 Mount Washington Hotel Road, Bretton Woods; tel: 888-444-6664; omnihotels.com; doubles from $209), a 1902 grand hotel with a Mediterranean profile complete with red-tiled roof, that is part of the same resort as the ski hill.
Omni Resorts took over management of this National Historic Landmark in 2009 and spent $60 million returning this palace of rosewood, gold leaf and Tiffany glass luxury to its pre-Second World War splendor as well as adding a new 2300-square-metre spa.
Moe and I arrived in time for one of the free daily tours. Our guide Sue McQueeney took us through ballrooms, around broad verandas and under the parabolic cupola where chamber quartets once entertained the wealthy. We listened to stories about the ghost of the builder’s wife and tales about the “Cave” — a Prohibition-era speakeasy in the basement — now renovated.
When the tour wound up, we took seats by the window of the Rosebrook Bar with late afternoon views of Mount Washington, dusted with fresh snow. Then, when the waiter approached, Moe ordered the only après-ski drink that seemed a propos in such a regal setting: flutes of champagne.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.