The Balsams and Mount Washington Hotel: Where Classic Meets Contemporary
In 1524, when explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sailed the New England coast, he jotted down in his journal “high mountains within the land.”
He was referring to the White Mountains, whose sudden rise from sea level reminded European travelers of the Alps. To this day, it remains a tourist hotspot across all four seasons.
I will let you in on a secret here, if you want to enjoy a vacation in style without being overwhelmed by crowds, drive the few extra miles to the hamlet of Dixville Notch, a secluded passage in the White Mountains, far in the Great North Woods.
Soon, the distinctive towers of a resort set against the backdrop of a towering mountain range will come into view. Turning a bend, you will find yourself at the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, one of America’s oldest and grandest resort hotels, and a New England tradition.
Closed for several years, the Balsams been re-opened, much to the delight of locals and guests who come from the south and the north to stay here.
Sprawling over 8,000 acres, it features award-winning dining, activities for every season and a golf course designed by the famous Donald Ross. Recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s treasured historic hotels, the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel comes under media spotlight every four years.
Since 1960, it has had the honor of casting the first-in-the-nation presidential primary ballots. The event takes place at the stroke of midnight in the hotel’s Ballot Room, the walls of which are adorned with photographs of all the dignitaries and candidates who have visited the resort.
Proximity to an unsurpassable reserve of natural beauty has proved to be an advantage for the Balsams, as the craggy peaks and pristine lakes of New Hampshire’s North Country has made the resort a playground for every season.
There’s canoeing, kayaking, fly-fishing, swimming, mountain biking, golf, tennis, hiking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, scenic flights and dog sledding in summer. Yes, you read it right. For those who like to stay indoors with a cup of hot chocolate during the winter, the resort offers the adrenalin rush of dog sledding in summer.
The sleds are on wheels and roll along merrily on the grass instead of sliding on the slippery snow.
We were at the resort on a winter weekend so we didn’t get to try the rolling dog sled, instead my husband opted for snowshoeing while I headed for the heated pool. “There’s more than 30 kilometers of marked trails for snowshoers and if you go all the way up to Table Rock, the view from up there is amazing,” informed Taylor Santangelo, his guide for the day. In the olden days, snowshoeing was a useful mode of transportation but nowadays it’s a good workout and of course, fun.
For lunch, we hopped over to the Tavern for a bite and ended up chatting with some of the snowmobilers who had gathered there. “The steep slopes of the surrounding land and the unexpected twists and turns give it that extra edge” seemed to be the general verdict. Other winter activities on offer include snowboarding, sleigh rides, skiing (both alpine and Nordic) and ice-skating.
For me, cross-country skiing, which falls under the Nordic category, seemed to be a good way to start as the Balsams is considered to be “one of the top cross-country ski resorts in North America” by Snow Country Magazine. Luckily for me, the 95 kilometers of trails seemed to have been tailor-made to accommodate both the adventurous and the cautious. For the alpine/downhill skier, the Balsams Wilderness Ski Area has sixteen well-groomed tree-lined trails of varying grades and PSIA certified instructors.
By way of entertainment, there’s the hotel’s in-house band “Fast Forward”, which plays every evening in the Tavern. Also available are culinary demonstrations, history tours, art workshops and magic shows. Amusements are plenty and if required, customized to your needs.
Now that you have an idea of the activities on offer, if I tell you that the rooms don’t have television sets, you know why. Instead, the charming old-fashioned rooms have a bookshelf lined with enticing titles and popular fiction. Fitted with tall windows framed by white lace curtains, our room had a great view of the surrounding landscape.
In course of our stay, we met an elderly couple for whom the Balsams is more of a family tradition than a destination. They have been coming to the resort for years, and now they are spending a week with their entire family. “The grandkids love it here”, smiled the woman. At the Balsams, this is a trend rather than an exception.
When it comes to dining, the lavish buffets can very well suffice as reason enough to visit the resort. The food extravaganza starts right from the breakfast buffet which features everything from a French toast soufflé to corn-crusted haddock, not to mention the usual suspects like a variety of cold-cuts, sausages, cereals, fruits and an omelet-station. Here’s a tip, when ordering juice, ask for freshly-squeezed and prepare to be blown away.
From 4 pm onwards, guests have the option of nibbling on hors d’oeuvres and sipping wine and cocktails in the Tavern and the La Cave.
Recipient of the Wine Spectators Award of excellence since 1996, the hotel’s wine cellar has over 300 kinds of wines from around the world. Dining is a formal five-course affair, accompanied by live music. Men are required to wear suits and women dress accordingly.
Call me old-fashioned, but I adored this practice. The best part was seeing the two-to-three year-olds in fine evening wear. Right after dinner, we met one such immaculately dressed young gentleman perched on his father’s shoulder. On my complimenting his smart attire, he replied with a polite thank you while his father explained, “He insisted on wearing a tie too.”
As for the food, well, now I know why some people around there refer to the executive chef as a rock star. A graduate of the hotel’s famous Culinary Apprenticeship Program, Josh Berry is truly one and he has an equally qualified band of chefs and sous chefs who make dining a one-of-a-kind experience.
This grand hotel is the kind of place that grows on you, free of pretension but full of surprises. It is a resort where intimacy and luxury go hand-in-hand and on the last day of your stay, everyone from the bellhop to the valet asks “So when will we see you again?”
Fleeting Glimpse of another Grand Hotel
On our way back from the Balsams, we stopped for a night at the Omni Mount Washington Resort near Bretton Woods, New Hampshire’s largest ski area. The palatial hotel owes its grandeur to the stunning backdrop of Mount Washington (which at 6,288 feet is the highest peak of the northeast) as much as to its Spanish Renaissance Revival exterior, done up in brilliant shades of red and white.
If you ever find yourself wandering off the lobby into the Gold Room, it might bring forth some long forgotten chapters in history or economics. This hotel hosted the 1944 Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference which established the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Of the many decisions and policies, the one that stands out is the agreement to make the US dollar the worldwide standard, against which other currencies would be measured.
Obviously, the Mount Washington Hotel offers all the perks associated with grand resort hotels. The concierge desk is actually more of an activity reservation center, which means it’s always teeming with people. In our short time there, we witnessed groups of people signing up for everything from a spa treatment to zip-lining.
A Grand Journey
In the late 19th century, the White Mountains saw a spurt in the growth of resort hotels, built to entertain well-heeled guests from Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Few of these hotels remain today. As for the two Grand Hotels I visited during this trip, both have maintained an aura of splendor and style reminiscent of the Gilded Age, without compromising on modern-day comforts and amenities. Equipped with the right amount of creativity and confidence, it seems they have found a way to incorporate both the old and the new.
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