Travel Advisory: The Mount Washington Valley
Wild, Romantic and Full of Surprises
With the exception of a drive I took along the Kancamagus Highway more than 20 years ago, I’d never spent any time in New Hampshire’s White Mountains until this past June. This might be because I don’t ski, or perhaps because I’m more of an ocean person than a mountain person. But as I was thinking about topics for this issue’s Travel Advisory, it struck me that I’d completely missed one of New England’s most picturesque and iconic places in the seven-plus years I’ve been writing this column. So I hopped into the car and headed north.
What I found was an idyllic setting for a romantic getaway that was full of pleasant surprises.
My first stop was the Conway Scenic Railroad in North Conway. Nestled amid the town’s bustling shops and restaurants sits a lovingly restored Victorian-era train station that was built in 1874. Also historic are the trains themselves, making the place a must-see for rail fans. The railroad offers three different round-trips: a quick 55-minute ride through Conway, an-hour-and-45-minute trip to Bartlett and, most popular in the fall, a half-day journey to scenic Crawford Notch.
For my trip to Bartlett, I was booked in the first-class Gertrude Emma parlor car. Built in 1898 and fully restored, from its wicker chairs to its original oak paneling, the car alone would have been worth seeing, but the scenery, which included the Saco and Ellis rivers, was lovely, too.
I stayed in Jackson at The Inn at Thorn Hill & Spa. Unlike North Conway, which is humming with activity, arriving in Jackson, with its charming downtown and rural setting, feels a bit like going back in time. Within walking distance of downtown, the inn is set on a hill and looks more like a large, well-appointed home than a hotel. I sipped morning coffee and evening cocktails outside on the wide wraparound porch while enjoying the view of the surrounding mountains.
In addition to its attractive location, The Inn at Thorn Hill is known for its restaurant, which is popular with visitors and locals alike. The first night of my stay I had dinner at the inn and was happy to discover that their first-rate wine list included wines from Austria, which are among my favorites. The atmosphere in the dining room is upscale, yet still feels accessible. Best of all, the cuisine is nearly all made from scratch from locally sourced ingredients. And if you’re not in the mood for a white tablecloth, more casual dining, featuring a lighter menu, is available in the lounge.
I ordered the salmon, which was very good, but I especially enjoyed the homemade breads and fresh local salad greens, items that say a lot about an establishment’s attention to detail but tend to be afterthoughts at many restaurants.
A guided van tour to the Mount Washington summit was one of the highlights of my stay. If you’ve never been to this peak, I highly recommend visiting. I also recommend taking a van tour instead of driving. After seeing the road (no guardrails, hairpin turns), there’s no way I’d want to be behind the wheel up there.
One of the best things about this experience was observing how the landscape changes as the altitude increases. After starting in a hardwood forest at the base of the mountain, you only need to climb 1,000 feet or so before you’re surrounded by conifers, which thrive in cooler temperatures. The top of Mount Washington is largely treeless and, according to our van driver, can experience weather conditions similar to those found in Earth’s polar regions, so be sure to bring a jacket.
At the summit, you will be treated to one of New England’s most spectacular views, especially in the fall. You can see Quebec’s Notre Dame Mountains to the north. To the east, you can see the mountains of western Maine. And on a clear day, also according to our guide, you can catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean.
Happy surprises are one of my favorite things about visiting new places. Before this excursion, I didn’t know that it’s possible to ride to the top of ski mountains during the offseason, but I fell in love with the lift at the Bretton Woods ski area almost as soon as I sat in the chair. The ride was so peaceful and quiet, the lush green of the mountains and the clear blue sky the only things demanding my attention.
Although I didn’t walk it, there’s a hiking trail at the top of the mountain, as well as a restaurant that serves lunch. Combine these with the lift ride and the right person, and you’ll have the makings of a memorable romantic afternoon.
Another highlight of my stay in the White Mountains was a visit to the Omni Mount Washington Resort. This grand hotel, built in 1902 by coal and railroad magnate Joseph Stickney, is just across the road from the Bretton Woods ski area, which is also owned by Omni Hotels & Resorts. This resort, which includes an inn and a collection of townhomes in addition to the main hotel, is the kind of place you never have to leave once you check in. There is a golf course on the property, two restaurants, a spa and fitness center, shopping and organized activities for adults and kids.
If you visit, I recommend taking some time to relax with a drink on the hotel’s porch. You can watch the Mount Washington Cog Railway chugging up and down the mountain while you enjoy the gracious service and a conversation with someone special.
Dining at the Mount Washington Resort is also a treat. I ate dinner at the hotel’s more casual restaurant, Stickney’s Steak & Chop Pub, and enjoyed delicious crabcakes and a glass of rosé on their patio, complete with a view of the mountains.
My final pleasant surprise at the Omni came when I was walking back to my car. Just as I was approaching the parking lot, a black bear mother and her cub walked past, about 50 yards in front of me. It was the first time I’d ever seen a bear in the wild, and though I should have been terrified, I was too astonished to think about the potential danger.
After dining at the Mount Washington Resort, I headed back to Jackson for dessert at The Wentworth Inn. On the way, I saw something else I hadn’t seen before: a moose. She was walking through a field some distance from the road, completely uninterested in passing traffic.
The Wentworth Inn is located in downtown Jackson. Tastefully decorated with antiques and original artwork, the property was built in 1869. And while the building has been renovated several times, it retains its historic bones. A popular place for weddings, the inn is also known for its farm-to-table dining. Chef Brian Gazda sources many of his ingredients from local farmers markets. All the meats and seafood also come from local sources.
I wrapped up my stay in the Mount Washington Valley with a bit of shopping in North Conway. One of my favorite clothing designers, April Cornell, has an outlet store there. Several other retail shops, selling everything from chocolates to fine art, can also be found along White Mountain Highway, the town’s main street.
By the time I got into my car to head home, I found myself wondering why I’d waited so long to visit. I was eager to share everything I’d done and seen with my husband. So, as soon as I got home we booked a stay for his birthday weekend in September. I’m looking forward to seeing what other surprises the Mount Washington Valley has in store.
Conway Scenic Railroad
North Conway, N.H.
The Inn at Thorn Hill & Spa
Mount Washington Auto Road Guided Tours
Bretton Woods Adventure Center
Bretton Woods, N.H.
Omni Mount Washington Resort
Bretton Woods, N.H.
The Wentworth Inn