For years, whenever I visited New Hampshire’s north country, I would blissfully drive or pedal along West Side Drive — connecting Conway and North Conway — to escape the mayhem on Route 16, never knowing about the high-end homes, manicured 9-hole golf course, and sprawling hotel nestled into the woodlands at the foot of White Horse Ledge. And that’s precisely the point.
The Hale’s Location Owners Association, its fabulous Hale’s Location golf course, and the wonderful White Mountain Hotel & Resort are tucked into a spectacular pocket of green and granite just to the west of West Side Drive, near Echo Lake State Park and the Lobster Trap restaurant. Pass the access road, and you’ll miss all three. But once you’ve visited, you won’t forget any of them. And you’ll want to come back, again and again.
The White Mountain Hotel & Resort, part of the homeowners association, is owned by the Sullivan family of Massachusetts and was the first structure erected on the site, opening in the summer of 1990. Next came the Albert Zikorus-designed golf course, which quickly gained a reputation as a short-but-challenging nine. By 1998, every home lot had been sold, said Gary Sullivan, owner and general manager of the hotel and resort.
“The hotel was always part of what was envisioned here,” Sullivan said. “It was supposed to be much smaller than the one I built.”
Currently, the hotel boasts 80 rooms (including 13 suites), plus function rooms, a tavern and an enticing, panoramic dining room, an outdoor pool, sauna, and spa. The hotel, said Sullivan, was originally designed “to look like a quintessential New England White Mountain hotel on the outside, but a Colonial Williamsburg hotel on the inside.”
It’s proven to be a successful formula. As a result, in recent years, the Sullivan family began entertaining ideas of expanding the hotel and renovating the existing structure.
“We were going to increase the hotel size by 40 rooms, and add a large ballroom, to better accommodate big weddings and events like that,” Sullivan said. “We were supposed to start that project on April 1, 2020. Of course we were shut down March 16, 2020. The hospitality market went up in smoke, and the addition was put on hold.”
Instead, the Sullivans pivoted. Finding a silver lining in the low numbers attributed to the ongoing pandemic, Gary Sullivan made an executive decision in late 2020 to put the plans for the addition on hold and accelerate the renovation project.
“Once the hospitality markets come back, we’ll build the addition, whenever that is,” Sullivan said. “It could be next year, it could be three years down the road. Nobody knows at this point.”
Of course, you don’t need to wait. More than 30 years after first opening the hotel, the Sullivans were wrapping up that extensive, $3.5 million renovation of the facility. And it’s impressive.
Guests this summer found a White Mountain Hotel that was thoroughly updated, with new carpeting in the corridors and rooms, new furnishings, new light fixtures, new beds, and completely overhauled bathrooms. The work far exceeded a mere facelift.
“This is a down-to-the-studs renovation,” Sullivan said. “The bathrooms are completely new. We ripped out everything, including the walls.”
To be fair, the finishing touches — such as carpeting by the golf shop — were still being applied when my wife, Lauri, and I visited in July. But the majority of the work had been completed and was a testament to the interior design talents of Kim Deetjen, an architect and principal with TruexCullins, and architecture and interior design firm located in Burlington, Vt. In many ways, said Deetjen, the White Mountain Hotel project was a labor of love.
“Our family has a long history here in the valley. We’ve been coming here skiing my whole life,” she said. “I learned to ski at Cranmore, and I can honestly say that I was one of those people on the Skimobile back in 1970. Every weekend we made the trek to North Conway, and every summer I spent here at camp in North Conway.
“I’ve had this connection with this place my whole life, and, of course, so did Gary and his family,” Deetjen said. “And so, we knew that no matter what we did, we had to be true to place. We wanted to honor this location and this view and all the natural beauty that surrounds us.”
Deetjen and her team, along with Sullivan’s wife, Carol, who selected the hotel’s new artwork, achieved their lofty goals. Much of the material, such as the granite countertops, was locally sourced, and local artisans were hired to do the work. The artwork, said Carol Sullivan, includes the dramatic photography of Tim Shellmer (Jackson, N.H.), Chris Lewey (Chatham, N.H.), and Cole Scott (North Conway, N.H.) in the hallways, and the watercolors of Nikolas Kotovich (Hinesburg, Vt.) and oil paintings of Grant Hacking (North Conway, N.H.) in the guest rooms.
“Again, it all comes back to place,” Carol said. “It’s so meaningful to me to have local artwork in this building to represent where we are and who we are.”
Deetjen said that same commitment to authenticity and to location dominated every design decision, ensuring that the hotel always celebrated the outstanding views of the surrounding landscape, which includes White Horse and Cathedral ledges, and the Green Hills of Cranmore, Black Cap, and North Kearsarge. The best views, not surprisingly, are reserved for the beautifully-appointed and spacious Bridal and Presidential suites.
“We were also influenced by the flora and fauna of the region while we chose fabric and upholstery colors,” Deetjen said. “Our goal was to offer guests place of quiet relaxation, and we want guests to feel like this was their tranquil retreat. It’s quite a counterpoint to the strip (of Route 16).
“Whether you’re coming from Boston, or you’re coming from shopping on the strip, when you get here, you exhale,” she said. “It’s just time to relax, enjoy, and take in the view. So we wanted to be true to place, but we also went further than that. We also wanted to maintain an elegance and the sophistication and a warmth this property had always exuded.”
My wife readily agreed. To be perfectly honest, I’m really not all that fussy. As long as I’ve got a comfortable mattress at the end of the day — and the hotel’s new Serta pillow-top beds with lavish pillows are tremendous — and some peace and quiet, I’m a happy camper. Lauri is a little more particular, which makes her a far better judge of a hotel’s finer points. And she was not disappointed.
“I enjoyed the newly-renovated rooms,” she said. “The color scheme in popular gray, black, and white tones was contemporary without feeling cold. But my favorite aspect of the room was the carpet, which was so incredibly soft I’d remove my shoes the moment I stepped into the room.”
Each guest room is fully-equipped with the necessary amenities, including comfortable white oak furnishings by Saint-Damase, charging stations with complimentary Wi-Fi, and nice flat-screen TVs. The bathrooms were fabulous, with new toilets, tile flooring, quartz countertops with custom oak vanities, and Mincey Marble walk-in showers with glass barn doors and hand-held showerheads. Pretty luxurious, by my standards.
The public areas are all clean and neat, including the main lobby and the well-stocked pantries on each floor (where Keurig coffeemakers offer a fresh cup of java any time, day or night). Off the main lobby are the cozy, pub-style Tullamore Tavern and the main dining room of Ledges Restaurant (combined, the tavern and restaurant seat 120). Around the corner from the registration desk is the pro shop for the golf course, which offers one-stop shopping for gear, lessons and tee times (more on that later).
Lauri also had a chance to take in a few of the hotel’s other amenities, while my brother Sean and I went off for a round of golf. The property’s pool deck, where guests can enjoy an outdoor, year-round heated pool and hot tub, was also replaced during the renovation, and my bride made herself right at home, noting she’s looking forward to returning in the cooler months to sample the hot tub and sauna.
Knowing the challenges that all hotels and restaurants are dealing with during the pandemic, I’m hesitant to be too judgmental. Overall, I’d rate our dining experiences at the hotel as good to very good, with occasional lapses. Suffice to say, our meals during our stay were uneven.
The first night, our group ordered light, opting for salads and sandwiches. Our roasted tomato and arugula salad and my BBQ pulled pork sandwich were filling, but not memorable. Lauri’s Pineland Farms burger was a step up, and everyone at the table raved about sea-salted house-cut fries. Likewise, our cocktails were good, not great. Granted, we had a large party (at least 10), but that’s where places like the White Mountain Hotel are expected to excel.
The next night was much better, with a superb salad (Caesar) and vastly improved cocktails (my Manhattan was spot-on). My Togarashi Ahi Tuna entrée was prepared perfectly, as was Lauri’s almond crusted haddock. A neighbor’s eggplant parmigiana, however, was surprisingly average. The wine list, it should be noted, is extensive.
Likewise, breakfast on both mornings was solid (a mix of omelets, pancakes, and fruit cups), but not exceptional. Our meals showed the kitchen’s potential, but it needs to strive for another level. Guests are paying a premium to dine here (entrées range from $26 to $39), and my hope is that well-regarded executive chef Kevin Bush will remedy the hiccups we encountered, if he hasn’t already.
I have to add, though, that the service was excellent, every time we were seated. Which was especially lovely when we saw the same faces the next day. Whenever I stay at a larger resort, I always enjoy developing relationships, however fleeting, with its employees. It provides a human touch that is missing from far too many experiences these days. And the hotel’s staff was top notch.
One of the hotel’s biggest attractions is access to a golf course that isn’t resting on its well-earned laurels. The course and its surrounding homeowner’s community were described by Golf Magazine as “One of the most unique and singularly beautiful golf developments in the country.” I’m not going to argue.
This year, the resort welcomed new PGA pro Kim R. O’Neil. The recipient of two PGA awards — the 2012 PGA National Presidential Award and the 2017 NEPGA 2017 Patriot Award — O’Neil brings a wealth of experience, with former stops at Manchester Country Club and the Newport Country Club, both in Vermont, and Highlands Reserve Golf Club in Davenport, Fla.
“The golf course is absolutely magnificent,” said O’Neill, while reserving special praise for course superintendent Evan Connors. “The conditions of the golf course are the best shape of any golf course in this area.”
That’s not hyperbole, based on my mid-summer round. O’Neil is justifiably proud. The course accomplishes that rare feat of challenging serious golfers while offering a relaxed atmosphere that allows players of all skill levels to have fun.
Measuring out at just over 3,000 yards from the blue tees, the par-36 track can be deceptive. While most of the nine holes appear fairly straightforward, with meticulously-maintained, tree-lined fairways that are on the wide side, a bevy of strategically-placed sand traps put a premium on shot accuracy (one member of our foursome developed such a knack for finding those hazards that he earned the nickname, “Sandman.”) Plus, it’s easy to get distracted by some of the most stunning mountain scenery to be found anywhere in northern New England.
“The course is famous for its views,” said O’Neil. “The golf course is shorter than a lot of golf courses, but it’s very demanding. You have to make sure you hit the greens.”
The hotel’s Tullamore Tavern doubles nicely as a 19th hole for the Hale’s Location course.
North Conway has a long history as an outdoor destination and was listed among the Top Ten Small Towns for Adventure by USA Today, one of New England’s Top Ski Towns by Ski magazine, and a Best Mountain Town by Men’s Journal. Situated next to the White Mountain National Forest, the resort is an ideal “mission central” for four-season adventure enthusiasts, whether they prefer mountains, lakes, or trails, offering the perfect “play hard, rest easy” getaway. Come winter, the region is home to 13 downhill and cross-country ski areas, all within a 45-minute drive from the hotel.
The greater Mount Washington Valley area has been a fat-tire playground for my cycling buddies and me for decades. Thanks to the yeoman’s work by the White Mountains chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, and more recently the Ride NoCo group, the woodlands in and around the hotel and throughout North Conway offer, literally, hundreds of miles of mountain biking trails. For downhill thrills, check out the lift-serviced routes at nearby Cranmore Mountain.
Similarly, the selection of hiking trails is almost endless. The hotel offers a nice map of several local routes, from gentle to strenuous, including the Echo Lake Walk, the Cathedral Ledge Hike, the White Horse Ledge loop, Diana’s Bath out-and-back hike, and the North Moat Mountain Hike. For even more options, be sure to invest in a copy of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountain Guide, with detailed descriptions of more than 500 trails (it’s the best $25 you’ll ever spend).
White Horse and Cathedral Ledges also offer tremendous rock climbing options. In fact, Lauri and I were enjoying breakfast one morning when we spied a pair of rockhounds — identifiable by their coils of climbing ropes — sauntering along the hotel’s access road toward the ledges.
The resort itself also has plenty of activities if you’ve got family in tow, or if you have different interests yourself. The recreation courts offer pickleball, shuffle board, cornhole, and basketball. Hale’s Location also puts all the shopping, dining, and other attractions of North Conway within a very short drive.
One of the reasons the White Mountain Hotel has been so popular over the past three decades is that the owners recognize that an empty bed is an opportunity lost. So they’ve devised a number of attractive packages with discounts for those slow days — typically midweek — when buyers are looking for a better deal.
The hotel’s “Stay & Play” Golf Package offers two nights accommodations, one 18-hole round of golf with a shared cart, full country breakfast daily, and one dinner at Ledges Restaurant.
The Romance Package highlights the hotel’s panoramic mountain views, heated outdoor pool, hot tub, and fire pit. This midweek package includes two-night accommodations, breakfast each morning, candlelit dinner for two at Ledges Restaurant, and champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries waiting for guests in their room upon arrival. Guests also can enjoy the resort’s outdoor activities, relax at The Soaking Pot at Settlers Green, or simply watch their favorite romantic movie in their room.
Seniors aged 60-plus can take advantage of the Golden Age Package, featuring a Golden Age discount of 20 percent off regular room rates starting Oct. 23. The package is available midweek, Sunday through Thursday night, during non-holiday periods. AAA and AARP discounts also available on select dates, though offers cannot be combined.
The Escape Package offers a discount on two-night midweek stays, with a dinner at Ledges Restaurant, country breakfasts daily, and full use of resort amenities.
The perfect pre-holiday getaway, the Girls Just Want to Have Fun Weekend returns Nov. 19-21. The weekend allows plenty of flexibility for ladies to customize their own agenda, with plenty of options for shopping, music, food, and wine. Find room in the schedule to spend a few hours in the new spa room. Musical guest Bruce Marshall will be rocking out by the outdoor fire pit.
The White Mountain Hotel also is a pet-friendly facility, after adopting a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Tullamore “Tully” O’Sullivan in August 2013. For those who can’t bear to leave the family hound at home, the Dog-Friendly Package highlights the hotel’s “Bed and a Bone Club,” which provides food and water bowls, a dog toy, an organic dog treat, waste bags, and a limited 15 percent discount to the “Four Your Paws Only” pet store.
And if that’s not enough, just wait. The hotel’s promised addition, in all likelihood, isn’t that far off.
“We’re moving forward. I think it’s going to be a great addition to the Hale’s Location community, to the Mount Washington Valley, to North Conway,” Sullivan said. “They needed something like this in this town. They needed a real strong, deluxe hotel in the valley, one that can handle larger functions. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here.”