Summer Biking 2003: The Balsams

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Biking 0503

Dixville Notch, N.H.

I love my young son Henry. But I also love my mountain bike. And lately the mountain bike has been feeling a little jealous of all the attention 3-year-old Henry gets. Henry's too young to ride with my wife and me, and dragging him behind us in a trailer means almost anything off-road is out. So there sits my mountain bike in the basement, neglected and forlorn, receiving attention only from spiders. That is, until I realize that there's a way for everyone to be happy: We can take ourselves, Henry and our mountain bikes to The Balsams.

The Balsams, in Dixville Notch, N.H., is one of the last of the grand old hotels where a century ago wealthy socialites arrived for the summer "season" (along with their chauffeurs, nannies and valets), wore white tie and ornate gowns, and waltzed in the ballroom. Its guests, including Warren Harding, Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and the Marx Brothers, strolled to scenic vistas, watched polo matches and dined three times a day on delicacies flown in from New York.

The Balsams still has a genteel quality about it, with its rolling lawns, formal gardens and guests dressing up to dine on carpaccio, coquilles St. Jacques and crême brà»lé. But The Balsams also offers a lot for active people, including a ropes course, a swimming pool, tennis courts and two golf courses, including an 18-hole Donald Ross beauty built in 1912 that provides 360-degree views of mountains and farmland stretching to Quebec. What I particularly love about The Balsams is that it sits on its own 15,000 acres of wilderness, creating a sense of natural seclusion that's hard to find at many high-end resorts. All that land also provides plenty of room to bike: Even during the busiest part of the "season," we see craggy outcrops, mountain springs and loon-filled ponds, but almost no people.

What sets The Balsams apart is a certain indefinable spirit that you might not notice until the second or third day. The spring water is its own. Employees frequently outnumber guests, meaning that wherever you go and whatever you do, someone with the right attitude is there to fit you with a bike, teach you tennis or clean your child's sippy cup for the next meal. The Balsams is legendarily kid-friendly, a self-contained upscale amusement park where parents and grandparents know they can safely let their kids run off to an entire day of activities while they partake in wine-tastings, cooking demonstrations or sports. So while we get reacquainted with our mountain bikes, we know Henry is with lots of other well-watched kids, running in potato-sack races or exploring trails.

The Balsams has chosen not to offer lift-served mountain biking at its alpine ski area, figuring that the number of guests who want to descend its alpine trails dressed like Mad Max isn't worth the bother (or, possibly, the insurance). But it does offer a vast cross-country trail system for everyone else. On wide, mellow Sugar Hill Run, for instance, we circle Mud Pond, pick blueberries, and spot fox and deer tracks in the untrammeled grass. My mountain bike skills have gotten so rusty that I walk much of Cliffside Trail, an expert singletrack. But a private lesson could change that, and in the meantime, we have a blast careening around rocks and trees on the more intermediate singletrack of Lake Two Towns.

Needless to say, my wife and I get in many great rides. Our bikes are now encrusted with mud and purring happily. But what about Henry? Does he have as much fun as we do? We get our answer a week later, while visiting friends at a very nice resort on Cape Cod. Out of the blue, he looks up from his sand castles and says, "Need to go Balsams." OK, Henry. Twist my arm.

Making Tracks
No bike, no skills, no problem: The bike center at The Balsams rents bikes and provides guided tours, instruction and repairs. Lodging prices, which run about $450 a night per couple, include breakfast and dinner, green fees and almost alll activities. Children who stay in their parents' rooms are charged at $10 times their age, with a minimum of $40. Camp Wind Whistle at The Balsams takes children ages 5-13. Camp Wee Whistle, for 3-4 year olds, runs the first three weeks of the summer season. Babysitters are also available. The Balsams has an extremely high return rate, so book well in advance. 800-255-0600;