By Margo Pfeiff, Special to the San Francisco Cronicle – published January 26th, 2012
From atop Wildcat in glittering sunshine, I have to remind myself to pay attention to the run. While we’re not in the aggressively tall Sierra, the spectacular views of Mount Washington right in front of my face still seem dangerously distracting.
And you definitely want to survive the run, especially when you know what’s waiting at the bottom. Not that there aren’t plenty of choices for good Eastern skiing in Quebec where I live, but sometimes you need a dose of big-hill, small-village New England character.
“Let’s do the Whites,” my Boston ski buddy, Moira Brown, will say at least once every winter. So we pack up our skis and I drive three hours south from Montréal and “Moe” drives three hours north from Beantown and we meet up in the heart of the snowy White Mountains, in the hamlet of Jackson, N.H.
An icy river burbles through it, and you have to drive through an 1876 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.
Elegant home base
Our base is the elegant 1869 Wentworth Inn. Smack in the center of Jackson, the first-class lodgings with four-poster and sleigh-bed suites make it a romantic getaway and ski destination.
Moe and I have freshly waxed skis screaming for a workout, so in early morning after eggs Benedict fireside in the formal dining room, we stare 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.
OK. We’re not talking the Sierra here. Though the peaks are big by eastern standards – Wildcat has 2,100 feet of vertical on a 4,000-foot summit – no one would compare them to hefty Western slopes.
But New Hampshire offers experiences you don’t get out west. You come for the mellow New England charm, the Yankee character – and drawl. Kick around Boston for a few days, then rent a car and amble through rolling countryside up into the White Mountains for seasoned Old World hospitality and fine European cuisine in classical white-linen restaurants.
Sip your way through the Northeast’s microbrew scene after a day on the slopes in a post-and-beam tavern that once served horse-and-buggy travelers. There are history-steeped inns and genteel grand hotels to prowl, all of them heading, with grace, well into their second century.
Attitash and Bear
After a short debate we always start our Whites ski break at the same place: Our favorite peak is actually two – Attitash and Bear. Together they offer 300 acres ribboned with 73 trails – which is where I ski – including seven birch- and spruce-dotted glades (Moe’s terrain) winding through Bear’s woods. That means lots of choices for a long day on slopes that see about 15 feet of annual natural snow.
Unlike in the West, big powder dumps are not common, but they do happen. More often, Eastern skiing at its best is hard-packed and fast: At its worst it’s a near-vertical ice rink. That’s when you launch into Plan B. But more about that later.
Like most White Mountain resorts, runs are sparsely populated at Attitash and lineups are rare. Something new to try is the Nor’Easter Mountain Coaster, a wilderness roller coaster for adrenaline junkies to plummet on rails down through the trees.
The best après-ski scene is back in Jackson, and on our first night we make a beeline back to the Wentworth where Fritz melts hearts as he melts cheese for his afternoon Swiss fondue served in the bar alongside the chic, columned lobby. Later we mosey into the dining room for venison osso bucco and buttered spaetzle that would make even my Austrian mama weep.
Day Two blows in nippy. After doing the wind-chill math we opt for an aerobic day in the forest. Across the street from the Wentworth, the community-based nonprofit Jackson Ski Touring Center maintains an exquisite 100 miles of trails through mountains and woods that is considered the best in the East.
After taking part in Thom’s Amazing Waxing Demonstration in front of the fireplace at the chalet, Thom Perkins, executive director since 1975, tells us about the Jackson Groomed Trail Challenge in which participants try to ski all 60 miles of groomed trails in a single day.
“Only one person has succeeded so far,” he says.
We opt instead for the more modest 5-mile Ellis River Trail, which kicks off through another red covered bridge and follows a rolling scenic route beside the Ellis River, dotted with rocks topped in fluffy snow pillows. We spot a group of deer and a blood-red cardinal at a warm-up cabin where the sign nailed to the outhouse door says “Jackson’s Hole.”
At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is 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. From here you can also pick out the Eastern legend, Tuckerman’s Ridge. First skied in 1926, it’s a steep, snow-filled ravine on Washington’s flank.
Every spring since the 1930s, it has become a tradition for a thousand or more skiers to hike up the precipitous bowl, then barrel down the hair-raising, near-vertical headwall, a ritual I have easily managed to avoid, despite Moe’s nagging.
As we glide down Wildcat’s long, winding runs there are no condos or developments to scar the view: It’s wild all around. Then New England’s most powerful quad chair whisks us back up 4,000 feet in six minutes and we do it all over again. That evening we collapse, exhausted, in front of the blazing fire at the Wildcat Inn and Tavern, just in time for Friday night’s Fish Fry and a round of hobnobbing with locals and Bostonians.
The next morning, our pummeled bodies tell us we have overdone it, so we engage Plan B, perfect for those not-so-great weather or just-plain-tired days (or in-need-of-shopping-therapy days). Plan B is the factory outlet Mecca of North Conway 9 miles away, which offers state-tax-free shopping entertainment at L.L. Bean, Carhartt, J. Crew and all the other usual suspects. We generally start by combing through the hive of great outdoor shops like Ragged Mountain, Eastern Mountain Sport and the technical-gear-oriented International Mountain Equipment.
Then we park ourselves at the bar of the casual Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewing Company to share plates of their renowned ribs and pulled pork sandwiches and order from a lineup of microbrews including a killer Czech Pilsner. New Hampshire has a thriving microbrew scene with more than a dozen breweries statewide including Tuckerman in nearby Conway.
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, lace-up boots, bamboo poles and baggy wool ski pants to schuss the slopes, then ride back uphill on rope tows powered by Model T engines. At Black Mountain, shovel handles were suspended from an overhead rope to create an early version of the T-bar; you can still see them in Jackson’s Whitney’s Pub.
But in the days before cars, Bostonians traveled 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. The Balsams is an hour-and-40-minute drive north of Jackson, classic old lodgings in a castle-like building tucked dramatically into Dixville Notch (a “notch” is a mountain pass). It opened shortly after the Civil War and has a lovely, small ski hill and cross-country ski area. But it’s probably best known nationally for its Ballot Room inside the hotel where Dixville Notch’s presidential primary votes are cast just after midnight on the day of the New Hampshire primaries – the first votes to be cast, counted and reported nationally.
On our last day we head 40 minutes northwest from Jackson to hit the slopes of Bretton Woods, 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 more geared toward 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, a 1902 grand hotel with a Mediterranean profile complete with red tiled roof. Both Bretton Woods’ mountain and its chic wood-and-glass base lodge are part of that resort. 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-World War II splendor as well as adding a new 25,000-square-foot spa.
This grand resort too has its place in history: In 1944 the Bretton Woods Conference took place here, when 730 delegates from all 44 Allied nations gathered to sign into existence the International Monetary Fund and what would become the World Bank.
Moe and I arrive in time for the free tour that leaves twice daily from under the grandfather clock. Our guide takes us through ballrooms, around broad verandas and under the parabolic cupola – the Hemicycle – where chamber quartets once entertained the wealthy. We listen 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 winds up, we take seats in the window of the Rosebrook bar, order flutes of Champagne (to match the regal setting) and admire late-afternoon views of Mount Washington, dusted with fresh snow.
Yup, dangerously distracting.
If you go
The best time to ski the Northeast is January through March.
Boston is the nearest gateway city to the White Mountains. It’s roughly a 145-mile, three-hour drive, most of it on interstates.
Where to Stay
The Wentworth: (800) 637-0013, www.thewentworth.com. Suites feature four-poster or sleigh beds, fireplaces, Jacuzzis and steam showers. Double rooms in the main house from $139 per night including a full breakfast.
Carter Notch Inn: (800) 794-9434; www.carternotchinn.com. Friendly Jackson country inn run by a British couple. Double rooms including a fabulous breakfast from $139.
Omni Mount Washington Resort: (888) 444-6664; www.omnihotels.com. Rates start at $179 for a double room.
Where to Ski:
Jackson Cross Country Ski Center: (603) 383-9355; www.jacksonxc.org. Best in the Northeast with almost 100 miles of groomed trails throughout town and into the hills and woods. Day rate for adults $21, kids $10.
Wildcat Mountain: (603) 466-3326; www.skiwildcat.com. More than 2,000 feet of vertical, 30 percent expert, 25 percent beginner; 49 trails. Weekend adult day pass $70, kids $50.
Attitash Mountain Resort: (800) 223-7669; www.attitash.com. 1,750 feet of vertical, 47 percent intermediate. Weekend adult day pass $70, kids $50.
Bretton Woods: (800) 314-1752; brettonwoods.com. Vertical drop: 1,500 feet; 102 trails; five high-speed quad chairs; four terrain parks. Weekend adult day pass $78 ($66 for hotel guests), kids $49 ($37).
Wentworth dining room: www.thewentworth.com. Dinner for two $80; prix fixe menu, $35 per person including dessert.
Wildcat Inn and Tavern: www.wildcattavern.com. Pub food to fine dining in a historical inn with a fireplace and old cross-country skis on the walls, a popular local hangout. Dinner for two from $40.
Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewing Company: moatmountain.com. Dinner for two from $45.
Watch for midweek special rates at Ski New Hampshire, www.skinh.com.
Margo Pfeiff last wrote for Travel on Newfoundland. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page N – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle