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Ski Resort Life

A Weekend at Bretton Woods

The Mount Washington Hotel and Resort—a belle dame of the gilded age—awakens for winter, just in time to christen new terrain at the Bretton Woods ski area. Want to impress your 6-year-olds? Take them to a castle for the weekend.

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Published: 2002

“We’re staying there?” my twins piped from the back seat as we pulled into the long drive leading up to the Mount Washington Hotel. Forgetting one of our strictest car-ride rules, they scrambled to their knees in their seatbelts, craning for a better look at the colossal white structure topping the rise ahead of us, so big it almost eclipsed New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, behind it. “Daddy! That’s a castle!”

Actually, girls, it’s a rare artifact of the Belle Epoque, a grand hotel, conceived and built in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style by an army of turn-of-the-century craftsmen imported all the way from Italy (even in that era, American builders weren’t up to the job). But OK, with its towering, red-roofed twin turrets, each topped by a pennant flapping in the breeze, and in its sheer 200-room, five-story enormity, “castle” isn’t far off the mark. Either way, I’m a hero, not only with the hard-to-impress “Pokemon” set squirming excitedly in the back seat, but with my wife, whose mouth is also agape.

I should note here that in one particular way especially, my wife, Molly, and I are soulmates. We are admirers of antiquity, appreciators of things past, who wonder why the architecture of today must aim so low compared to what was achieved in the age of horses and hand tools. The Mount Washington is our kind of place.

Built in 1901 by local boy Joseph Stickney, a wealthy industrialist who returned to New Hampshire after making his fortune in coal and railroads (and died just months after his dream became reality), the hotel has long been not only a Mount Washington Valley landmark but a National Historic Landmark. Skiers have admired it from across the road ever since Bretton Woods ski area opened in 1973, but there was one problem. It was closed in winter.

Happily, beginning this season, that changes. On Nov. 24, the grandfather clock in the lobby will be wound, its pendulum set swinging, and guests will arrive at the porte cochere driving 4X4s, not carriage-and-fours, and bearing skis and sweaters instead of golf clubs and swimsuits.

It’s no small feat getting a century-old structure ready for winter use. Since buying the property at an FDIC auction in 1991, its owners, a group of intrepid local investors, have poured in millions of dollars to refurbish it. Even now, it shows lingering signs of wear, neglected as it was all those years. To winterize it, 800 windows had to be replaced, 200 thermostats and a backup boiler installed, and tons of insulation rolled or blown in. And even after all that, there was no guarantee that calamity would not ensue when a massive hotel accustomed to summer duty was suddenly put to winter use. Molly and I were among the lucky first winter guests of the hotel—this time without the girls—as the somewhat anxious proprietors put it through an important shakedown cruise on a weekend in March. There may have been glitches, but none we could discern.

Friday Night
If you’re an old-buildings buff, you’ll be like us when you arrive—so mesmerized by the opulent surroundings that concentrating on the details of checking in and getting settled is difficult. Valets and bellhops whisked away our car and bags, a uniformed elevator attendant piloted us to the second floor, and we were shown to one of the northeast-facing rooms.

While extraordinary in their own way, the guest chambers at the Mount Washington are not especially lavish. In the days of grand hotels, they were intended for sleeping and changing; the rest of the time, guests mingled downstairs, recreating and socializing. Still, the ceilings soar to 12 feet, and a decommissioned fireplace adds charm if not warmth. And what you’re really paying for are those windows: 3-by-5 feet, framing one of the most priceless views in all of ski country. Some 6 miles distant, white-capped Mount Washington and its Presidential Range sisters, bruptly wall off the northeast side of the valley. As best we could, we wrenched aside the too-obtrusive drapes and sat for a moment, enchanted by the view. Then, with much to explore, we dressed for dinner and found our way to the grand main staircase.

Downstairs, guests wandered about as we did, taking in the splendor of the vast lobby, the circular Conservatory, the Ballroom (then under renovation) and the many ancillary chambers: meeting rooms, game rooms, lounges, etc. In its day, Mr. Stickney’s hotel was a modern marvel, framed in steel and wired for electricity on a system designed by Thomas Edison himself. But in its attention to detail, it is strictly Old World, conceived on the notion that wherever the eye might come to rest there should be beauty: a Tiffany glass transom, a cast-plaster molding, a solid brass fixture, an ornate corinthian capital. Doorways lead to the deep, many-columned veranda, which wraps three-quarters of the building, yielding views of the Presidentials on one side, the lighted ski area on the other.

We learned that there were once four of these enormous beauties in the Valley. Their elegant guests would arrive by train and ensconce their families for the summer, to take the air and admire the views. Two of the massive wood structures were lost to fire; one, the Mount Pleasant, fell into neglect and was deemed a nuisance when it was torn down during the Depression.

On your first night, you’ll certainly want to experience dinner in the grand, octagonal dining room, which is the most extraordinary chamber in the hotel. Try to procure a table near the huge windows (again, that view). To do so, call in your dinner reservation as early as possible on the day you are to check in—even before leaving home—as open tables are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Once you get one, it’s yours for the duration of your stay—as is your waiter. And, gentlemen, don’t forget your jackets—a strict house rule, and one worth putting up with.

Children are welcome even here, of course. Dressed in their finest, and sensing that this is a place to exhibit their best manners, they drag their equally well-turned-out parents about the dance floor to the accompaniment of the seven-piece Mount Washington Orchestra, which plays all the swing standards. The experience is entirely unique, and the food, a four-course meal included in the MAP plan, is excellent. (We later were assured that it’s even better at the Bretton Arms Inn, also part of the resort, where the chef isn’t cooking for 500 on any given night.)

We lingered over coffee, soaking it all in, then toured the Gold Room, where financiers from around the world met in 1944, as World War II wound down, for the historic Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference. The room remains as it was then, when conferees chose the U.S. dollar as the standard for international exchange, set the price of gold at $35 an ounce and laid the groundwork for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Saturday Morning
We were blessed with good weather, and awoke with the sun as it crested Mount Washington and flooded our room. We dressed in our ski clothes and descended for breakfast. In the morning, the dining room was transformed—both by the eastern light and by the string trio performing classical pieces. Breakfast is buffet-style, making it easy to get in and out quickly if you’re anxious to get out on the mountain.For logistical reasons, we drove the half-mile to the ski hill, though shuttles run continuously. Minutes later we were handing the keys to the valet and heading for the lifts.

Though we hadn’t skied here before, we’d heard that the slopes of Bretton Woods are gentle. This proved to be correct. Starting out on the east side and working west, we encountered abundant green-circle terrain, only occasionally bordering on blue (though the trail map says otherwise). Molly, a cautious intermediate, was never outside her comfort zone. Meanwhile, I was having a hard time getting up enough speed to decamber my skis. This, of course, makes Bretton Woods an intermediate’s paradise and a wonderful playground for children, though it might leave experts cold. The West Mountain expansion, which opens this year, offers more challenge. And if that’s still not enough, the resort has a solution that will appease even the most aggressive daredevil. Through an exchange with neighboring, state-owned Cannon Mountain ski area, hotel guests can avail themselves of what is often described as New Hampshire’s most intimidating terrain. Lift tickets are interchangeable between the two, and the hotel runs a shuttle twice daily.

What the existing Bretton Woods area did have was views of Mount Washington—essentially the same ones we had from our room, but from higher up, and with one happy addition: the hotel itself. It’s a rare wilderness vista that is actually improved by the presence of a huge hotel, but such is the case here.

By noon, we had a good feel for the hill, and we broke for lunch. If you’re planning to eat at the Top O’ Quad Restaurant, get there early—or late—because everyone else has the same plan. Defeated by a line that snaked down the stairs, we retreated to the base lodge for a pleasant break in the less-crowded Slopeside Restaurant, then decided to spend our afternoon exploring the Nordic trails back at the hotel.

Saturday Afternoon
It was an excellent decision. The resort has always been a Nordic mecca—home to the state’s only biathlon range—and with Nordic director Brendan Sullivan as our guide, we found out why.

Opting for classical gear over skate-skis and heading out across the snow-covered Donald Ross–designed golf course, we passed an oncoming sleigh loaded with hotel guests, then struck out along the Ammonoosuc River, which runs through the hotel property. The first rush of spring run-off had already begun sculpting a winter’s worth of river ice into fantastic shapes. Brendan showed us the sights and told us stories. Ask him about Dead Horse Corner, where a poor, old draft horse lies buried beneath the spot on which he unexpectedly expired one day. The peace of the forest was only broken by the periodic, unearthly howl of snowmobile packs passing nearby.

Two hours later we were back at the hotel—too late for a lecture on the history of ski equipment. Such lectures—on nature, history, music, etc.—are a tradition, as are afternoon recitals in the Conservatory. It’s a constant frustration that there are too many things to do but not enough time. We consoled ourselves with a local microbrew—Old Cogsman’s Ale—back in the room and watched the dying sunlight pinken the slopes, wondering how they were getting on at Tuckerman Ravine, just over the ridgeline.

Saturday Evening
We ate that night like people who feel as though they’ve burned more than enough calories. I demolished the filet with hollandaise without remorse. Because there’s no nearby village to explore (Bethlehem is charming but tiny), nightlife at the hotel is self-contained. We headed down for a cocktail in “The Cave,” the subterranean vault where guests enjoyed their martinis and Manhattans even during the dark days of Prohibition. There, surrounded by the stone walls of the foundation, listening to live jazz, you still feel as though you’re getting away with something, which adds to the fun. Worn out as we were—not even the brilliant stars and cold evening air of the veranda could keep us awake—we decided to turn in.

Sunday Morning

Molly elected to explore more of the Nordic trails, and after breakfast I headed back to the ski area to rendezvous with General Manager Chris Ellms, who had offered to show us the new West Mountain terrain.With a pack of the hardier guests, we struck out across the mountain, bushwhacking at first, then hiking to the summit on freshly cut—and still unstumped—trails. The view from the top, just above where the new quad now terminates, is 360 degrees and a perfect 10. Those are the trails of Stowe way off in the west. And in a pure Bretton Woods touch, an old Cog Railway car has been choppered in to serve as a warming hut—put to new use after years of climbing up Mount Washington.

I envy Ellms: He gets to install lifts and lay out ski trails for a living, all the while surrounded by such beauty. The new terrain is a huge addition for Bretton Woods, increasing its skiable acreage from 200 to 330. It’s now the largest area in New Hampshire, and trailwork has already begun on its East Mountain expansion, which will open up roughly another 100 acres next year.

West Mountain offers nothing that will exacerbate one’s heart condition (unless you hike it as we did), but Ellms has milked every bit of interest out of his terrain, and experts will be pleased to find steeper pitches and abundant glades. We skied down on 5 inches of untracked (Chris said he’d saved it for us), minding the stumps and finding ourselves back at the base area in time for lunch.

Back at the hotel, I found Molly glowing from her own morning trek, and we reluctantly said goodbyes and pointed the Volvo homeward. Stealing one last glance in the rearview mirror, I worried that I might have been spoiled by my visit. Once you’ve stayed in a castle, it’s hard to settle for less. The upside, I knew, was that with the Mount Washington open, Eastern skiing now had an experience that, for elegance and class, competes with anything in the world.