Call me a wimp, but I’m a proud and unapologetic adherent of the “play hard, rest easy” construct. That’s especially true for strenuous activities such as mountain biking or, during the early spring months, backcountry skiing. Hours in the saddle or carving turns on ungroomed hillsides can leave me weary and testy. And sore. A tent or bunk room, for me, is no way to properly recovery. What I really need is a warm, inviting room, a comfortable bed, and a hearty breakfast. Add a soothing hot tub and a cozy, wood-paneled bar, and you’ve really got my attention. And I can find all of that, and more, at the Inn at Ellis River in Jackson, N.H.
The location of this homey bed and breakfast is particularly serendipitous for the springtime skier. It offers great access to Wildcat Mountain, Black Mountain, Cranmore and Attitash. Prefer skinny skis? The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, or Jackson XC, with more than 50 trails covering 150 kilometers of terrain, is right next door. Best of all, the Inn at Ellis River, and Jackson itself, are a gateway to some of the best backcountry skiing in the Northeast, highlighted by the incomparable Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington’s southeastern flank.
The winding stretch of New Hampshire’s Route 16 from Glen to Gorham, as it passes through Jackson and some of the White Mountains’ most spectacular scenery, long has been a draw for nature lovers. The attraction of the area, in fact, dates back to one of our nation’s original tree-huggers, Henry David Thoreau. So it was little surprise that when Mary and John Kendzierski decided to escape their hyperactive lives on Boston’s South Shore, Jackson was high on their wish list.
“We’d been coming up here for years,” said John. “Mary took me up here for my 30th birthday, 23 years ago. We stayed at one of the local inns, and we fell in love with Jackson. We came back every year, sometimes twice a year.”
After the Kendzierski’s daughter, Stephanie, was born, Mary was still commuting four hours a day to and from Boston, “and just missing out on a lot of stuff,” said John. “So we started talking about doing something together.”
Those wishes came true in 2014, while John was attending a weekend seminar on innkeeping.
“Every time we left Jackson, we would joke, ‘Wouldn’t be a neat thing to be an innkeeper?’ ” he said. “We stayed at almost all the inns here in Jackson, including this one. We stayed at the Inn at Ellis River three times back in the early 2000s.
“So I went to a seminar on inn ownership, and you have to present a model of the type of inn you were looking for,” said John. “And they told us, the more specific the better. So I basically said Jackson would be the place we would want to be.”
At the tail end of the seminar, fate intervened. An instructor told the Kendzierskis that he knew of a property — one that closely matched their proposed model — that was coming on the market. That property was the Inn at Ellis River.
“We were here in September, so it moved very quickly,” said John.
The inn the Kendzierskis purchased has a long and rich history, which is part of the charm that permeates the entire property. Alice and Andrew Harriman bought the farmhouse, red barn and ice house along the banks of the Ellis River in 1893 (the road leading to the inn still bears the family’s name). Andrew Harriman, a talented carpenter, built Jackson’s three-room schoolhouse and many of the village’s prestigious second homes.
The property would remain in the family of the Harrimans and their descendants until 1985, when Barry and Barbara Lubao acquired the farmhouse and began the transformation of the structure into a six-room bed and breakfast, named the Ellis River House. The ice house located next to the barn was transformed into a rustic cottage for two, and an atrium overlooking the river, which houses the inn’s hot tub, was erected. The original 1893 farmhouse was expanded with the addition of a north wing, boasting 13 guest rooms (many with jetted hot tubs and fireplaces), a game room and pub, a breakfast room, and lobby.
At the turn of the century, Monica and Jim Lee bought the inn and created the Silver Cascade room with its private balcony and views of the Ellis River. A year later, they replaced the original carriage house with a home for the innkeepers and two new guest rooms, Pearl and Sparkling Cascades, which have gas fireplaces, jetted tubs with windows overlooking the river, and private balconies.
In 2004, Frank Baker and Lyn Norris-Baker purchased the inn, and for the next decade maintained the property’s well-deserved reputation for northern New England hospitality. Six years ago, in the fall of 2014, the present owners took the reins, only months after learning about the property’s availability.
“We both said that if we’re serious about (owning an inn), this is the place, and this is the spot,” said John. “It’s not going to come up again.”
Today, Jackson is still “a little small village that doesn’t ever seems to change,” allowing visitors to go strolling back in time, said Mary. “There’s a lot of residential homes here, beautiful homes, but it’s also a bunch of bed and breakfasts and restaurants for a very small area, all kind of tucked away.” John called Jackson “a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s just a quintessential New England town.”
For visitors, and particularly those looking to grab a few backcountry runs on the inviting terrain to the north, on either side of Route 16, Jackson offers plenty of superb lodging options, at plenty of price points. Locations include The Wentworth, the Lodge at Jackson Village, the Christmas Farm Inn & Spa, Riverwood Inn, Whitney’s Inn by Black Mountain, the Inn at Jackson, Wildcat Inn & Tavern, the Eagle House, Nordic Village Resort, and the sumptuous Inn at Thorn Hill. The Appalachian Mountain Club’s rustic Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch is a great choice for those on a budget who want to wake up by the trailheads.
Having hunger pangs? There also are numerous dining options in town, such as the aforementioned Wildcat Inn & Tavern (with distinctly different pub and fine-dining menus), the Wentworth, the Christmas Farm Inn, and the Inn at Thorn Hill, as well as the rollicking Shannon Door Pub, the cavernous Red Fox Bar & Grill, the Thompson House Eatery, the après-ski favorite Shovel Handle Pub at Black Mountain, and the legendary Red Parka Steakhouse and Pub just to the south in Glen, at the junction of Route 302. The J-Town Deli & Country Store is a super spot for a quick lunch or snack.
Weighing each of these fabulous lodging selections, the Inn at Ellis River is the area’s version of Goldilocks for me and my family, offering a combination of amenities and location that’s “just right.” And we’re not alone in that opinion. The inn has been voted “Best Bed & Breakfast” in the Conway Daily Sun’s “100 Best of Mount Washington Valley” for three years running. But that sentiment, frankly, dates back well before the Kendzierskis became owners.
The couple settled in quickly after purchasing the property, wisely taking the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to their new vocation. The neatly appointed property is still filled with antiques and period furnishings. The 22 rooms and cottage offer a wide variety of amenities including private baths, satellite TVs, DVDs, clock radios, telephones (yes, they’re still a thing, apparently, but convenient if your cell signal is weak), featherbeds, and air conditioning. Many rooms have two-person jetted tubs and/or balconies or patios. Most have fireplaces — some are gas or electric and some are traditional (wood is provided). Complimentary WiFi is available throughout the property.
Somewhat coincidentally, the inn underwent an unplanned renovation during the past year. In early 2020, the Kendzierskis were enjoying a banner winter season when the COVID-19 pandemic turned the family’s world upside down.
“January and February were some of the better months we had had,” said John. “Then on March 15 the wheels fell off. We were at Black Mountain skiing. We were talking about the pandemic, but everything was still normal.
“Then we went to lunch on Monday with friends, and on the way home we could literally see the ‘Closed’ signs going up,” he said. “We got back here and the phone was full of cancellations. We were like, ‘What happened?’ ”
Once their remaining guests left, the Kendzierskis shuttered the inn, laying off their entire staff (and themselves) for a 3½-month hiatus. The couple went to work giving the inn a facelift, painting the exterior and interior trim. They kept guests apprised of the changes through social media. Loyal guests, they said, provided an important buffer against financial hardship.
“Our guests really worked with us back in April and March by moving their reservations, and not canceling,” said John.
One couple, said Mary, forwarded a deposit for a spring stay they knew would be canceled. “They just wanted to help us out,” she said. “They told us to buy some flowers and plants for the inn. We had some people do some pretty amazing things for us.”
The inn re-opened for business on July 2, offering half of its 22 rooms, before bringing back staff in August. The couple kept busy through the summer and fall (“Even October was very good for us, considering we lost 100 percent of our international travel,” said John), before the pandemic’s second wave hit in early winter.
As a hedge against the virus, the couple implemented a number of state- and federal-recommended precautions, including contactless credit card payments, strategically placed hand-sanitizer stations, mask requirements in common areas, and social distancing in the dining areas. Buffet-style breakfast items like fresh fruit and granola scones are now served individually to avoid contact risks, and guests have the option of ordering breakfast via room service (coffee and tea are available around the clock). The inn previously had featured an intimate “Tête à Tête Casual Cuisine for Two,” with a seasonal prix fixe menu for $59 per person, though that offering has been put on hold during the pandemic.
The Kendzierskis also have doubled down on their reputation for providing a spotless environment for guests. “We’ve always been a very clean inn, and cleaning has always been a top priority,” said Mary. “So this wasn’t much of a stretch for us.”
“We always let our guests know it’s about their comfort level,” she said.
The couple’s hard work has not gone unnoticed. “We’ve gotten very positive feedback from our guests,” said John. “They appreciate all the precautions that we’ve taken, and that they still feel comfortable here.”
Likewise, Mary said it was important that the inn provided guests with some sense of normalcy, even during trying times, for the very same reasons that this area is such a draw year round. The Inn at Ellis River, she said, should be an escape.
“We don’t want it to look like a hospital setting when you walk in, with everyone wearing a haz-mat suit,” she said. “People can still feel casual.
“We’ve even kept our pub and game room open, because as far as we’re concerned, there’s a thing called personal responsibility,” said Mary. “If you’re not comfortable, don’t go in the bar. If you’re not comfortable, don’t book a room. We’re doing the best we can based on the guidelines and what we’re allowed to do.”
Her husband agreed, adding that the inn’s relatively small size allows the couple to be cautious without being overbearing. “Our bar is never very busy anyway, so we’ve never had an overcrowding problem there,” said John. “It has a pool table, and people like to gather in there, but it’s never a lot of people. We keep it to six people or eight people at the most, and that’s how it’s always been.”
Though the future remains somewhat uncertain, given the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, the couple is comfortable that they’ll be able to take care of their guests, in a safe and healthy setting.
“We’re hoping that we don’t have to wear masks again all the time, but you never know what’s going to happen,” said John. “Are we ever going to get back to a sense of normalcy, to the point where we can go to the Shannon Door on St. Patrick’s Day and be able to elbow with people? I don’t know if that will happen again.”
In the meantime, the Kendzierskis say they’ll continue to work on their newfound pastime — skiing! — with their teenage daughter Stephanie at Black Mountain (“We’re basically just a car ride for her, because once we get there, we don’t see her,” said Mary, laughing). And they’ll continue maintaining a pristine, relaxing inn, providing visitors a chance to “rest easy,” no matter how hard they played during the day.